Classroom Successes

September 7, 2005

"How do we know if our students are learning?"

The question was the title of a session at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association over the weekend -- one of a number of sessions at which faculty members shared their experiences with curricular innovations.

Professors noted successes not just in academic instruction, but in programs that encouraged students to have a sense of the role of politics in the world.

Juan Carlos Huerta and Joseph Jozwiak -- political scientists at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi -- said that requiring students to read The New York Times and linking the T imes to class discussions can have a major impact. Students at their campus are generally not very politically aware or engaged in civic activities, Jozwiak said, and he hoped that the Times would help students "see social problems as their own" and make them "want to take action."

Huerta said that the Times did have a significant impact. Using surveys of students in classes using the newspaper (and control groups of classes that did not), the professors found that using the Times in class made students much more likely to embrace some form of civic engagement (local volunteer activity, giving to charitable groups in the community and various other measures).

Those who participated in classes with the Times also reported (by a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent) that the newspaper discussions made the class as a whole more interesting.

In some areas, however, ignorance of national news may be bliss. The professors found that exposure to The New York Times did not lead students to have a more favorable view of politics.

Online participation was the focus of a paper by Kerstin Hamann of the University of Central Florida. She studied the link between student activity in Web discussion forums with their academic performance in a class on Latin American politics.

Not surprisingly, she said, students who are active participants in online discussions tend to be those who are good students generally, and who received good grades. But Hamann said that she was struck by a positive correlation between students simply reading postings from fellow students and doing better in class. "It's the power of reading," she said.

Hamann said that the finding suggests that more emphasis be placed "on the importance of peer learning, especially for poor students" who may not follow every point in class, but may be able to digest the information online, at their own pace.

Some successes for political science may come from teaching with scholars in other fields, said David E. Leaman, an associate professor of political science at Northeastern Illinois University. Leaman spoke about his experiences with "learning communities" in which groups of students, typically freshmen, live together and take several coordinated courses together.

To knowing laughter from the audience, Leaman joked that many political scientists would only agree to participate in learning communities based on their belief that they would dominate the instructors from other departments. "We're hegemonic," he said.

More seriously, he said that the fears that learning communities would require a watering down of the curriculum were "warranted," but he also said that he had found he needed to make only minimal changes in the material he covered. Learning communities strive "for more intellectual synthesis," so a political science instructor may need to skip a little material to add material appropriate for their other subjects being covered.

But Leaman said that this relatively small sacrifice was worth it. Retention rates go up for freshmen in learning communities, especially those who are the first in their families to go to college. And he also said that political science instruction benefits from "a broader conception of politics" that comes from cooperation and integration with other fields. For example, he said working with composition instructors has focused his attention on "the politics of literacy."

Another panel focused on the politics of race in the classroom and how "minority politics" can be taught effectively to different groups of students.

Several speakers focused on the politically charged issues of racial identification and how those terms shape the way students respond. Joseph P. McCormick, director of academic affairs at Pennsylvania State University's York campus, said that he objected to the phrase "minority politics."

Noting that the meeting was held in majority-black Washington, D.C., and that many states are or will soon be "majority minority" in their populations (not to mention the non-white majority in the world), he said professors shouldn't teach their students the idea that non-white groups are a minority. He said that what most colleges mean when they teach "minority politics" is that they are looking "at why some groups have more power than others."

Tony Affigne, a professor of political science at Providence College, said that he finds students are interested in racial issues, but that they initially "cringe" at many topics because they have relatively little knowledge of non-white groups or their histories. Many students at his campus, which is largely white, also seem to fear that discussion about racism is an attack on them or their families.

"One of the things I tell students at the beginning is that I'm not talking about them or their mothers," Affigne said.

At the same time, he said, it's important to do things that show white students how much they ignore about non-white people. On the second day of his class "Race and Politics in the Americas," Affigne said that he likes to ask his black students to wait outside at  the beginning of class. He then asks the white students how many black students were in class the day before. They always say 7 or 8 when the real number is 2 or 3, Affigne said, suggesting that minority students don't really register with their white counterparts.

"I'm trying to show the white students that they really didn't look or notice," he said.

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