Great moments in teaching: leveraging student participation

With just a month’s notice, I’d been assigned to a brand-new course, JRN 301: Journalism 24/7, in the second semester of the very existence of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. The course topic: the changing news industry. My idea for that day’s class: Discuss net neutrality.

Sometimes – less now than in years past, thankfully – but sometimes, like all teachers, I think, I fail to allot sufficient time to class preparation and suddenly it’s class time and I’m forced to wing it. This was one of those days. The term “net neutrality” had been showing up frequently in my online reading (read: cramming) as I struggled to get a handle on the turbulence of the news industry in the late 2000s.

I got to class and began talking, using the skimpy notes I’d thrown together. It wasn’t more than two minutes into my “lecture” that I realized I was hopelessly lost. Could not talk about net neutrality. Had no backup. An hour left of class! What to do?

“Well, class,” I said, “I guess I don’t really understand net neutrality legislation. So here’s what we’re going to do. Next week, we’ll have a debate. Some of you will argue for net neutrality, some against, and some of you will form a Senate panel that will vote on the issue based on the persuasiveness of the arguments you hear.”

We spent the next half hour organizing the teams and discussing the parameters of the debate. And the next week, after I’d had time to sort out net neutrality (more on what it is here), we held our forum.

When the students evaluated the course at the end of the semester, a sizable number wrote that learning about net neutrality was their favorite part of the class.

What I learned: Participatory learning is a great teaching tool, not a copout.

Now in my ninth semester of teaching Journalism 24/7, I have come to leverage student participation into a major component of the course. Unless we have a guest speaker, each class begins with a student briefing on the latest industry news, whether it’s how magazine publishers responded to Apple’s iPad subscription scheme or Congressional efforts to cut funding for public broadcasting. I’ve had students present on spot.us and globalpost.com, on U.S. versus international rates of broadband speed and penetration, on the structure of Zell’s deal for Tribune Co. I particularly like to leverage a student’s expertise in a particular area — like the student this semester who will be presenting his views on how using digital SLR cameras to shoot video is the future of video newsgathering. This is something he’s expert on through his video production business.

Not every presentation is a blazing success, and I’ve learned to limit (to six stories in 10 minutes) the length of the news briefings as well as the number of presentations per class (usually just the briefing, with the occasional supplemental topic). But given the industry’s constant churn and students’ wide-ranging interests, the briefings often turn up stories I missed. They prompt lively comment from the rest of the class and stimulate important discussion. They give students a chance to practice their presentation skills; for the highest grade, a student must deliver “a thorough, well-planned, smoothly delivered presentation” with “audience questions answered effectively. … Student speaks extemporaneously rather than reading off slides,” to quote from the syllabus.

I keep learning from the students, week in and week out, not only from what they say in their presentations but also from how they present and from how the class reacts. I include their material on exams to show how much I value their work. I like feeling that the students have some ownership of the course material and the class time. And yes, I’ll be honest: It helps to share the burden for those occasional days when my prep time falls short.

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    • Susan Hartman
    • February 23rd, 2011

    I love the idea of opening a class by having students report on industry changes–I’m going to use it in my Feature Writing class at N.Y.U. Also, it’s lovely to hear about a teacher being so quick-footed–improvising is often what teaching is about.

    • Rachel
    • February 23rd, 2011

    I remember learning about net neutrality in your class and being thoroughly confused at first. While I was eventually able to grasp the concept, even now I find that when net neutrality comes up in discussion I have to brush up on its elusive definition. Journalism 24/7 was a cool class.

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