Current Events in a College Course
May 9, 2012 11:35 AM   Subscribe

What's the best way to incorporate current events into an intro-level college course?

I'll be teaching an intro-level political science course over the summer, and especially with all that will be happening with the elections in the fall, I want to make sure students are reading the news daily and incorporate it into the course in various ways. I'm wondering if you've taken classes that did this in a particularly useful or creative way. One thought I had was to have small groups present on the news of the previous day for 5 minutes at the start of each lecture, although I've had spotty luck with both group work and class presentations in the past. For what it's worth, this is a large lecture class.
posted by cupcakemuffin to Education (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
At that level, I think group presentations will be far more trouble than they're worth, unless you specifically tell people "Okay, there are five of you. Bob, you give us an update on the Presidential race. Mary, you give us an update on a local issue from our community. Steve, you get an international issue. Paula, you get a state-level political issue from our state. Barbara, you get a local issue from some other community or state."
posted by Etrigan at 11:49 AM on May 9, 2012

How large is this "large lecture course?" Like 50-ish, or over 100? I think group work is iffy in larger classes, especially if you are teaching an intro course that is going to be mainly populated by freshmen. I have some ideas, but it depends a bit on the size of the class.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 11:49 AM on May 9, 2012

I think that doing presentations is not going to get people interested, but with a large lecture class, you can try a gentle variant on the famous Socratic method from law school.

You let students know that you are going to spend the first 5 or 10 minutes discussing one story that appeared on the front page of that morning's New York Times politics section [or the previous morning's or whatever]. This forces them to read scan the politics section every day.

Then, at the start of each lecture, you call on a student to give you a few facts from the story that you've chosen without telling them. ("We're going to talk about the Walker recall in Wisconsin. Tom, what's going on there?") If Tom can give you a coherent sentence about it, you thank him and ask someone else a question that goes a little deeper into the issue ("Now, Kate, what does a recall like this say about representative democracy in Wisconsin? Should it be harder or easier for a politician to be recalled? What effects does that have on our desire for stable, continuous government as an institution?") Put this participation into the grade if you can.

Ask open-ended questions to which there aren't wrong answers as such so much as there are answers that show whether the student is thinking about these issues and maybe even applying class material to the news. If you can, encourage them to understand that in your class not thinking about these issues at all is worse than thinking about them the "wrong" way, that not having an answer is way worse than having an incorrect answer.
posted by gauche at 12:01 PM on May 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

You can have them keep a political journal for which they have to note and comment on a few political stories each week. Depending on your students' abilities, you might have to provide them with a news article and some prompts.

However, given that most people already follow presidential elections to a certain degree, it might be better to expose them to aspects of political science that aren't dominating the news, such as legislative/judicial stuff.
posted by acidic at 12:04 PM on May 9, 2012

Depending on students in large lecture classes to spontaneously discuss articles may or may not work - in my experience, it's been "does not work" without some guidance. I've had the greatest success when I give people an article and some structure - questions, a theme, evaluating an argument, etc - for them to work on and turn in. So every week or every class, give them an article and ask them to evaluate it for bias (or whatever) to discuss in class, and then have them turn in their notes. That way, they're prepared to at least start a discussion, you see that they've put some thought into it, and theoretically you can call on anyone in the class to start things off, because they've all prepared the same material.

I've also had very good luck structuring in-class discussions around online discussion boards (our university's version of blackboard incorporates message boards). As a requirement, they must post a gramatically correct 2-3 paragraph response and additionally respond to two other people's posts. That gets them interacting with eachother and evaluating eachother's ideas, gets input from quiet students, and allows you to peg your in-class discussion to particular topics they addressed (or missed), addressing misconceptions, and taking it a few steps further because everyone's coming in with some amount of thought already.
posted by ChuraChura at 12:10 PM on May 9, 2012

As a current college student, please don't do the group presentations. They are pretty ineffective in this kind of setting.

I had a history teacher last year who would spend some time in the beginning of class discussing with us the biggest issues. This discussion is what I recommend. It was far more effective in getting me genuinely interested in what was going on than a graded assignment would ever have been. If you let the students know that discussing current events will be a large portion of their class participation grade, this encourages their interest without confining them. Abd I'm not a news reader or politically minded person, but that history teacher informally discussing the big international goings on had the biggest effect in terms of engaging us with the news compared to anything else in my studies or life.
posted by DoubleLune at 12:10 PM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Generally if you wanted to do this, I'd say to make the reading requirement formal and then give VERY SIMPLE 1- or 2-question quizzes on random days; ones that don't go into much greater depth than the content of headlines. If you wanted to do this, I'd suggest requiring them to look at The Monkey Cage and 538 every day rather than the Times. If it costs money, a lot of them won't do it.

In a summer class, I'm not sure that even doing that is more than a recipe for your frustration and their resentment. Unless you're at a very elite institution, I'd usually say that for a summer class you should take what you think your students' normal level of self-startingness and interest and cut it in half.

As far as working the news in, that's just a matter of you working the current events into your lectures where that's appropriate. You don't need student help with that.

Assuming a large lecture is 100+, I would not recommend anything remotely socratic. One problem is that the accelerated schedule means that you might have only 15 or 20 meetings of the course, and even Simple McSimpleton can figure out that that means they're pretty safe from being asked. The other reason is that students can be remarkably immune from feeling pressured by questions and might be entirely willing to just tell you they don't know and didn't read it... and we're back to frustration and resentment.

I'll also suggest you don't have the time to grade journals in any meaningful way.

(I have taught introductory political science courses in summer before. I might incorporate current events if it were 10 students at an elite institution again. I would not do so for 100-300 students at Big State U.)
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:11 PM on May 9, 2012

@ DiscourseMarker - enrollment isn't set yet, unfortunately. Could be 60 or they may add another teaching assistant and expand enrollment to 120.

@ gauche - I like this idea, although I would definitely want to ease people into it (I know from experience that it can be super intimidating to be asked to speak up in a large class if you aren't used to it/comfortable with it). Maybe something like DoubleLune mentions...

FWIW - this will be freshmen, and it is a large class, but also at a fairly elite university (not Harvard, but definitely a step up from random state U) - my experience in teaching previous courses is that it's possible to get students to do great work if they're properly prepared/motivated to do so, and so I do think there's a way to make this work if structured properly.
posted by cupcakemuffin at 12:16 PM on May 9, 2012

Do a class blog or discussion board? Eg, everyone needs to post one article and respond to it somehow and everyone needs to respond to two posts by other people as well.
posted by MadamM at 12:30 PM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was going to suggest something similar to MadamM, but with that many students, you may want to specify certain people every week to post - because seriously, are you going to want to read 120+ posts each week in the summer? And the students are not going to bother reading through all of them to find ones to comment on, either, even if they are super motivated. I have had success getting students to comment on each others' posts in smaller classes, but I'm not sure it would work with 60, much less twice that.

One thing you could do would be to assign, say 10-15 people each week (or per class session, depending on how frequently you meet in the summer) to post a link to an online news story or video that relates to one of the concepts you are covering in that class session. Then you could use those in your lecture as a jumping off point for further discussion.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 12:36 PM on May 9, 2012

I taught 3 sections of an intro to world geography course (20-30 students each) and I brought a national paper to class each day or asked students what was going on in current events, then asked them how geography factored into it.
It worked well and students were able to relate topics from previous class sessions like "X is downstream from a hydroelectric dam so that's another stress on their resources that Z doesn't account for" or "Y has a history of colonization so A, B, and C."
posted by thewestinggame at 2:17 PM on May 9, 2012

I suspect a lot of your kids will have the attitude that they just aren't the sort of people who follow the news, that that isn't a normal thing to do — and the most important thing you can do is to show them that it doesn't have to be like that, by letting the kids who do read the news sort of "model" that behavior.

I agree with ROU Xenophobe that "Socratic" won't work in this sort of setting. Think of it instead like show-and-tell. Create opportunities for someone to stand up and say "Well I was reading the newspaper yesterday, and it said...." — and let them feel like they're making a valuable and useful contribution to the class by doing that.

Spend time talking to the class about what they're seeing in the news. Start class by asking "What are the big news stories this week?" and take suggestions. Get five or ten stories up on the board and poll them about which they think are the most important. Take the poll results into account — focus your lectures, when possible, on the issues they think matter the most. When you present a new concept in lecture, ask "Can anyone give me an example of this from the past year or two?" If someone gets a particularly tricky current events question right, ask them "Do you remember where you read about that?" If you have a lot of students who are total non-news-readers, ask them how they do find out about current events. (Expect "Facebook" and "TV comedy" to be high on the list of answers. Don't give them grief about it! There's an interesting conversation to be had there about what "public opinion" is and how it's formed.)

Don't make them read the news. Don't badger them about how terrible it is if they don't read the news. For God's sake don't make their grade depend on it — how many people do you know who refuse to read classic literature now because they were forced to in high school and they're still resentful? You don't want to make them feel that way about the newspaper too.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:45 PM on May 9, 2012

@ nebulawindphone - Could you say a bit more about why you think basing part of the grade on some aspect of following the news is a bad idea? By this same logic, asking them to do any readings or write papers or do anything for a grade is a bad idea because it will make them feel that reading and writing are things they're forced to do. Of course I won't tell them they're terrible people if they don't read the news (or if they don't do any of the other work in the class) - they're adults, and if they choose not to do the work, that's on them (as is getting a poor grade), but I'm not sure I see the connection between something being graded and students suddenly losing interest in it. To the contrary, it's often been my experience that students sometimes need the extra incentive of "this matters for the grade" to get over the hump of prioritizing it among many competing academic demands.

However, I do think that could be done by lumping it in with the general participation grade, through some combination of socratic/show-and-tell classroom conversations.
posted by cupcakemuffin at 3:51 PM on May 9, 2012

Hmm. I got on a roll and came on way stronger than I really wanted to there. (Some of that rant was directed at myself, FWIW — it's the end of the semester here, and I've been reflecting on what worked and what didn't in my own classes.)

Here's what I should have said. There's sort of a stick-and-carrot thing going on here, where the grade (or the implicit threat of a bad grade) is the stick, and whatever you can do to get them genuinely interested and engaged with a subject is the carrot. And honestly you can use as much or as little stick as you need, that's not really a huge deal. But if you want them to stay invested in something after the class ends, there had better be a whole lot of carrot along with it.

I shouldn't have said "Don't grade them!" What I should have said is "Find ways to motivate them that don't involve a grade (and if you want to grade them in addition to that, go ahead)."
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:03 PM on May 9, 2012

It depends if you want them to follow all news stories all the time or if you are comfortable picking out specific issues. I also wouldn't recommend the group presentations.

Here's what I do- I have two lecture sessions during the semester designated for "news assignments." I designate the specific news story one or two classes before the assignment is due. The students have a worksheet (which I give them) which they need to fill out, I just use a generic one that asks "who are the key actors" "what are the main issues" "what are the obstacles to resolution" "who are the other stakeholders" etc. You could make one more tailored to the story if you want. Students have to fill out the worksheet before class and bring it with them. We then have a discussion, getting the facts and sides of the news issue out, and then discussing its relevance to course concepts. I then collect the worksheets. This works really well.

Another option I know people use successfully: News story assignments. Some number of times during the semester (once a week, every two weeks, etc) students print out a news story relevant to the class and write a 1-2 paragraph reflection on it.
posted by cushie at 9:26 PM on May 9, 2012

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