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The Teaching Sociology Playbook

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The Teaching Sociology Playbook, edited by Stephanie Medley-Rath and Gregory T. Kordsmeier, is a practical guide of eight modules crafted to create and share teaching resources.

This collection of great teaching practices, contributed by master teachers, is designed for novice as well as more experienced sociology instructors. It explains how to take the germ of an innovative idea and transform it into a fully realized teaching assignment or activity with learning objectives, assessments, step-by-step instructions, and alignment with a syllabus or departmental learning outcomes. In addition to encouraging better classroom instruction, it will help faculty burnish the teaching skills portion of their resumes for purposes of getting hired, promoted, and credentialed.

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Module 1, Part 1: Where Do Good Teaching Ideas Come From?

By Gregory T. Kordsmeier, Indiana University Southeast and Stephanie Medley-Rath, Indiana University Kokomo

Need to skip to other parts of Module 1? 


Welcome to The Teaching Sociology Playbook, a practical guide to creating and sharing teaching resources. We developed this project in the hope of creating a robust teaching community by taking sociology instructors from the kernel of a great teaching idea, through the development and ultimate sharing of that idea. In our experience, most college instructors have many good ideas for improving student learning in a class they teach. Yet transforming that good idea into a full-fledged activity or assignment can prove challenging. For instance, how can you be sure there are sufficient instructions? Or that your students are learning what you want them to learn? This guide is here to help. 

We also believe that instructors do not need to create all their teaching materials—many other gifted teachers have developed resources that you can use and adapt to your classrooms. Knowing where to find these resources can serve two purposes. First, it gives you access to a wealth of knowledge that other instructors have developed. Second, it provides a list of places to share your work with a larger audience. We hope that you will contribute to and use these shared repositories so that we can work to further develop a canon of sociological teaching resources and community around outstanding teaching.

In this module, we explain the origins of and inspiration for our good ideas for teaching. Our intent is that if you are having trouble thinking of innovative ideas or need inspiration to improve your existing ideas, our experience will be helpful to you. Good ideas can come from many different places. Sometimes they come with field-tested, evidence-based approaches published in peer-reviewed journals, like Teaching Sociology. Other times they are reactions to things in your classroom or institution. And sometimes inspiration comes from life outside of academia. In any case, we thought it would be helpful to catalog just a few places that can inspire you. The first three listed are practical matters whose consideration might lead to your next excellent teaching innovation, while the following four highlight potential sources of inspiration.

Potential Sources of Inspiration

1. Meeting the Course Learning Objectives

The first place that good ideas for teaching often come from is by looking at the learning objectives you have set for the course. While future modules of The Teaching Sociology Playbook will go into the specifics of writing good learning objectives and developing strong syllabi, it is logical to ensure that your activities and assessments reflect the goals you have set for the course.

One time to do this is when you set up the course itself. You may see a hole in your syllabus where you have not introduced, planned practice, or established an assessment of a learning objective. You may also find that when you assess your students, they are not achieving the course learning objectives. Greg found that while students could describe individual theorists and their theories well in his Social Theory course, they had difficulty distinguishing larger schools of theoretical thought. As a result, he restructured his class time to add more opportunities for students to review these concepts. For example, at the end of each unit, he spent twenty minutes reviewing the significant tenets of each theoretical school and had students reflect on how well the individual theories they studied fit those tenets.

2. The Cultural or Institutional Context

We develop good ideas for teaching by considering our strengths and limitations in whatever cultural or institutional context we find ourselves in. There are several details about the setting that matter, as outlined in Table 1.

Access an interactive version of this table that you can customize for use in your course. Table 1, featuring questions to consider for the instructional context

Sometimes, changes in the cultural context can force a change in teaching. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Greg transformed his face-to-face Social Theory course into an online course. As a part of that transformation, he took the exams he had been using as assessments and converted them into open-book exams and gave students a week to complete them. The positive response from students, who reported much lower anxiety, convinced Greg to keep exams in that format, even when taking the course back to a face-to-face modality.

3. Talking Over a Teaching Challenge With Colleagues

Sometimes the idea of how to teach something comes from trying to solve a teaching problem collaboratively. One technique that Greg developed in graduate school came out of just such a situation: the shirt weenie. As they describe in their note in Teaching Sociology, Greg and his coauthor (Shane) found themselves in a situation where they shared a teaching assistant office when Shane was teaching an introductory social psychology class: 

During the week when discussion centered on Goffmanian social psychology, both of us collaborated on how to teach the power of face-work and tact in everyday social interaction. We felt it best to develop some sort of demonstration that would cause students to experience the effects of tact on their own behavior, since others have shown the value of experiential learning in teaching . . . Thus, we tried to think of a social faux pas that did not align with the “face” of a college instructor (or most social actors, for that matter). We also needed a faux pas noticeable to all of the students in the class. (Sharp & Kordsmeier, 2008, p. 360) 

In other words, Greg and Shane were going back and forth about the best ways to help students understand Goffman when one of them hit on the idea: that it would be funny if they could embarrass themselves in a way that demonstrated the theory to their students. They volleyed ideas back and forth until they produced the idea of purposely embarrassing themselves by sticking their shirt tail out of the zipper of their pants to see if anyone would call them out. Then, they would start a discussion of embarrassment, face, and tact. Greg still uses this demonstration in his social psychology and theory courses.

4. TRAILS! Teaching Sociology! Social Media!

Sociology has a long history of supporting the sharing of good teaching ideas. Teaching Sociology and TRAILS are two great resources. Unfortunately, both are behind a paywall, which means you must be a member of the American Sociological Association or pay for access to these resources. However, Sage has opened up access for a limited time to key articles—find the free-access content here. Additionally, your institution’s library should have access to Teaching Sociology. You can also contact the author of a resource for a copy. Most authors are happy to share their resources if you do not otherwise have access. Further, social media can be a place to find new ideas from leaders in teaching. For instance, Greg adopted an idea shared by Alanna Gillis (@alannagillis3 on Twitter) about a way to automate extensions for late work to make them more equitable (see Figure 1). Keep in mind, however, that contextual factors that matter rarely make it into social media posts. In the Making Your Teaching Public module, Stephanie discusses these and other venues for sharing and publishing your ideas. 

Figure 1. Example of a tweet thread that Greg used as a model for managing extensions. 

Source: Gillis, A. [@alannagillis3]. (2022, March 24). Problem summary: students could benefit from extensions, need flexibility, need structure, profs are burned out, and we have to worry [Tweet]. Twitter. 

5. K–12 Instruction

Stephanie gets ideas from her K–12 daughter’s schooling. Her daughter is in high school, but her daughter’s school has used iPads and Google products since she was in first grade. This broad access to technology in K–12 means that college faculty are close to having students who have used iPads or laptops for most or all of their education. Therefore, we should learn how K–12 settings use iPads, Google products, or whatever technology schools that feed into your college rely on. For example, Stephanie’s daughter has done several group projects using Google products, and now Stephanie has students work collaboratively using Google products. 

The experience of being a parent of a school-aged child has also helped Stephanie understand what not to do. For example, she better realizes how important it is for students to have clear written instructions, organized materials, and rubrics that reflect written instruction. She now uses Google Docs for assignment instructions, which allows her to add comments in response to student questions about the instructions as they occur. Instead of only providing that clarification orally or in a single email conversation with one student, she records it in the instructions. This practice of social annotation also makes it easy to edit the instructions the next time you use an assignment. 

Stephanie also created an activity based on her work as a Girl Scout troop leader. She created an out-of-class assignment for Introduction to Sociology following the format used for Girl Scout badges (i.e., five steps that become progressively more advanced about a topic or issue). The assignment tasked students with creating a badge program about something covered in the course. Many students picked topics related to health inequality, such as physical fitness or nutrition. Unfortunately, many students then created a badge focused on individual solutions without considering the role of inequality. These topic choices were also partially a result of student backgrounds in her courses (i.e., many nursing and health care students). Stephanie wanted students to focus more on the significant concerns of sociology, such as inequality. Due to COVID-19, Stephanie dropped the assignment altogether because it needed improvement and she wanted to lessen the load on students during the pandemic. The Girl Scout badge assignment has potential but just needs more work. 

6. Inspiring Media

An idea may come as a result of consuming a piece of media that sparks a connection to something you teach, and you want to expose your students to that media. Greg enjoyed the podcast Sawbones for its informative and irreverent take on medical history. He was often struck by the sociological content of the show, even when the authors did not identify it explicitly as sociological. Still, the show’s host did an excellent job of helping to draw out how class shaped the use of lobotomy or how gender norms shaped the disease of hysteria. Greg incorporated the podcast into a short application paper for his Sociology of Health and Medicine class. Students had to use the episode to explain the social construction of health and illness. Other media, from television show clips to documentaries, from newspaper op-eds to webcomics, can spark a connection and be used to illustrate points, spur discussions, or build assignments. There is a wealth of resources inspired by media in both TRAILS and Teaching Sociology. For instance, there are activities based on The Hunger Games (Oslawski-Lopez, 2022), Reservation Dogs (Scaptura, 2022), and the game Werewolf (Baxter & Connor, 2021).

7. Discouraging Academic Dishonesty

You might develop an activity or assignment to discourage plagiarism. Students often report that the pressure from high-stakes assessments drives them to plagiarize materials or otherwise engage in academic dishonesty (Golman et al., 2022). One reason to develop new ways of assessing students may be to decrease the impact of a single form of assessment, which can reduce the pressure to cheat. Greg has made changes to a couple of his courses and has felt it successfully discouraged academic dishonesty as a result.

For instance, when designing his Medical Sociology course, Greg created a series of shorter papers that had students apply concepts from the course to a new context rather than having them complete a single term paper for the course. Shorter papers got students writing while lessening the chance that any single writing assignment would make or break a student’s grade. Greg’s final paper for Social Theory has students apply two theorists’ perspectives to a contemporary social issue and then compare those explanations of the case in question (see Kordsmeier & Macdonald, 2015). By changing the social issue every time he teaches the course, students have neither a library of previous papers they can share, nor a set of publicly available examples of essays that they can buy or otherwise appropriate. This assignment was inspired by Macdonald’s description of her final paper and was initially adapted because Greg wanted a cumulative project. It was only later that he discovered that it promoted academic honesty as well. 

Next >> Part 2 - Reflective Cases: Out-of-Class Assignment

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