Make Them Choose and Make them Think

By:  Rick Clifton Moore (Boise State University)

Having watched Lionel Messi and Thomas Müller in this summer’s World Cup soccer matches, I walked onto the pitch for my fall rec league thinking that my game would be greatly improved. But, alas, it really hadn’t. My dribbling was not visibly better. I hadn’t become a better tackler. I couldn’t even bite my opponents in the professional fashion of famed Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez.

What I learned from this letdown was that watching an accomplished person do something does not necessarily equal learning to do it at that capacity yourself.

As noted, my role as a footballer is limited to rec league. I don’t get paid to play. Yet, when I look at my own profession, I see symptoms of the thought pattern I just described. Many college professors, yours truly included, think that students can learn something by simply watching teachers do it.

Perhaps the worst manifestation of this is our teaching of “critical thinking.” Assuming that we are all masters in this realm, we exhibit our skills “on the field” in an activity called the lecture. And, in doing so, we expect our students to mimic our moves and become great critical thinkers through such mimicry.

Some might object to the way I’ve described this, and claim that they engage in “discussion,” not lecture. But, the principle still largely applies. The prof is in control of the thinking. Students have only a moment to cogitate and make their own decisions. Some never orally engage the topic at all, unless forced.

Given all of this, I felt greatly enlightened when Bill Roberson, of the University at Albany (SUNY), presented a workshop at my campus not long ago. He suggested that one of the best ways to help students improve their critical thinking skills is to require them to make a difficult decision, then to have them go back and analyze their own decision-making process.

One great way of accomplishing this is to break a class into small groups, four or five students in each. At that point, the instructor can pose them a challenging multiple-choice question, requiring them to select an answer. Indeed, I’ve found that questions with a counter-intuitive answers are often best.

To make this visual, the teacher can give the teams sets of five cards, each with a different color and letter, one color for A, another for B, etc. After posing the question, and allowing the students to discuss it in their group, time is called and a spokesperson (actually, “show-person”) from each group must raise the card that they thought was correct.

The important part, however, is what follows. If the question is challenging enough, the students see a variety of responses revealed by their competing teams. And, the instructor then asks students to return to discussion and talk about whether they might want to change their answer. And, returning the students to their groups, the prof asks them to discuss why they chose their answer. In doing so, the students must consider what they were assuming, what ideas they might have excluded, and how they came to select what might not be a slam dunk response (or, an open net shot, to stick to a single metaphor).

Allow me to give a more concrete example. Recently, I had a class in which we were discussing media coverage of Islam. I created a multiple choice question related to how American commercial television drama portrayed Muslims immediately after 9/11. I followed the steps above, and after two rounds of vote casting, we had a very fruitful discussion of how groups selected their answers. Then, I asked the students read portions of an article by Evelyn Alsultany from which I had determined the “correct” answer—the correct answer being that positive portrayal actually increased. (The study is available from Project Muse here: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/american_quarterly/v065/65.1.alsultany.html.)

In reading parts of Alsultany’s article, some students became interested in an ensuing issue, namely, how the author made sense of what most people would not expect. She claims that the positive images that existed actually justify discrimination. That claim allowed further discussion to develop.

Though there certainly is no foolproof mechanism for engaging students, and most classroom activities wear thin with repeated use, I have found Roberson’s tip to be useful in a number of settings. Most importantly, I’ve found that it really does get more students actively engaging with a difficult question, and then engaging in reflection as to the basis for, and strength of their own answer. In soccer terms, each player should get more “touches” using the method described above, than in the typical lecture or class discussion. More players are in the game; fewer are watching. I perceive that to be a good thing, assuming a referee is available, in case there are any biters in the class.

 The author is the Teaching Chair of AEJMC’s Religion and Media Interest Group.

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