In Pursuit of Teaching Outcroppings:
Engaging Students with Emotionally Involving Current Events
Ozarks Technical Community College
Most of us can likely remember the one experience that caused us to first fall in love with psychology and made us think, “This is the stuff I want to do forever.” For me, that experience happened 21 years ago this spring, when I took Ralph McKenna’s Advanced Social Psychology class at Hendrix College. The thing about that class that really hooked me on the discipline was how enjoyable the research process became for me. Dr. McKenna encouraged original, creative research designs (he would have nothing to do with canned research projects) and our class meetings were these ridiculously fun and engaging brainstorming sessions.
Dr. McKenna taught us to look to the world around us for unique opportunities to examine human social behavior, encouraging us to be on the constant lookout for “research outcroppings.” This term, originally coined by Webb, Campbell, Schwartz, Sechrest, and Grove (1981), is a really nice metaphor. Just as geologic outcroppings, like highways cut through hillsides, allow us to observe aspects of Earth’s strata that would normally remain hidden from view, a research outcropping results when an atypical event in the world exposes normally hidden aspects of human behavior. For example, the semester I was enrolled in Advanced Social Psychology happened to coincide with the LA riots (sparked by the acquittal of three police officers in the Rodney King case). I remember my classmates and I excitedly considering the possible new vantage points into aspects of social thought and behavior this atypical event may have opened up.
I’ve always been a fan of this outcropping metaphor, and now, as a teacher of psychology, I like to use what I refer to as “teaching outcroppings.” These are unexpected, or infrequent events that are inherently involving for students, and that give us an opportunity to truly engage students by helping them see the immediate application of course concepts to the world around them. Sometimes these teaching outcroppings are difficult to spot, but other times, they appear without effort.
Early last September an unexpected (but in hindsight, obvious), outcropping revealed itself. I had my Social Psychology class planned out for the entire fall semester and had no intention of making changes. However, one morning, I happened to overhear a campaign ad for a local election playing in the next room, and it really ticked me off. The ad’s message was in direct opposition to my own values, and it so enraged me that I wondered how I would survive eight more weeks of listening to that garbage. I then had one of those “when life give you lemons…” realizations, and it occurred to me what a potentially rich teaching outcropping the 2012 election season might be. I knew then that I needed to quickly plan a new project for my Social Psychology class to take advantage of this fleeting opportunity.
The election season provided the perfect teaching outcropping for four distinct reasons. First, as we all know, the 2012 elections were particularly contentious and emotionally laden. I knew that if I could find a good way to get students to relate course concepts to the elections, their existing emotional investment in the elections might translate into heightened engagement in the course. Second, the sheer relentless and omnipresent nature of the persuasive attempts in the media in those final months of the election meant that students couldn’t escape them and would be forced to think about social psychological concepts between class sessions. Third, my class was composed of students with diverse political attitudes, and I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to have them work together in small groups to experience diversity and to practice civility. Fourth, it would give them a chance to develop an important research skill: the ability to examine emotionally laden social topics in as unbiased a manner as possible.
Two weeks later, just as we began our coverage of persuasion in my Social Psychology class, I told my students that they would be working in groups to analyze persuasive tactics used in currently running political television advertisements. Then, in my most obnoxious infomercial voice, I added, “But wait…there’s more!” and announced that they would also be writing and producing political ads of their own, and that on Election Day they would present and discuss their ads for the class. I knew I was onto something good when a 64-year-old student in the front row immediately exclaimed, “Oh! This is going to be fun!”
Over the next five weeks, the five groups of four students each met frequently outside of class. First, they selected two ads from opponents in the same local, state, or national election and then pinpointed the specific persuasive tactics they believed the campaign teams were using in those ads. While working on their analyses of existing ads, the groups also worked together to conceive of a fictitious political candidate, and to invent details about that candidate’s life and campaign. I gave students the option of inventing either a third candidate for the same campaign they’d selected for the first part of the assignment or a candidate in an entirely different campaign. Students then chose specific persuasive tactics we had covered in class and used those to produce their own 30-second ad. I realized that not all students would have video production skills, so I gave them the option of creating either a television or radio ad and told them they even could act out their ad if they really feared technology. Alas, I underestimated students’ technological adeptness, as no groups went with the “Shakespearean option.”
On Election Day, I came to class armed with patriotic-themed cupcakes to help calm students’ public speaking jitters, and we began the 15-minute presentations. Each group first showed videos of the two current ads they’d selected and presented their analyses of the intended persuasive goal and the effectiveness of each. They then provided details about their fictitious candidate (e.g., age, gender, political affiliation), and about their candidate’s campaign (e.g., Was it early or late in the campaign? Was the candidate ahead or behind according to polls?), and played their original ad for the class. Finally, the group gave an in-depth analysis of their original ad, including a discussion of the intended audience, the ad’s overall goal, and at least one persuasive tactic employed in the ad.
Although I was initially nervous about trying out a new, potentially risky project that involved students working closely in groups for an extended period of time, I believe this project was the most successful (and certainly the most fun) I’ve ever used. The level of work all groups put into the project far exceeded my expectations. Their analysis of existing ads was sophisticated and thoughtful, and their original ads were creative and, in some cases, enormously entertaining and humorous. What’s more, the class really loved the project, and despite the fact that several groups were comprised of members on opposite polar ends of the political spectrum, I am happy to report that not only were there no thrown punches, but that I witnessed true teamwork, high levels of civility, and the formation of strong bonds within groups of very diverse students. Finally, the class as a whole was the most engaged and excited about learning I’ve experienced in my 15 years of teaching Social Psychology. Of course, I can’t be certain that this was a result of the election project and its usefulness as a teaching outcropping, but I strongly suspect that it was.
This project reinforced my belief in the value of seeking out and exploiting teaching outcroppings. I fully intend to make use of the 2016 election outcropping, but in the meantime, I have amped up my intentional search for others. This semester, for example, I simply asked students which current events most grab their attention. The resounding answer was the debate surrounding gun control in the U.S., so I’m building an assignment that takes advantage of students’ high emotional involvement in that issue. Regardless of the courses we teach, I believe we can all make use of teaching outcroppings; we must only be insightful enough to recognize them when they occur and flexible enough to change our plans in order to take advantage of them. By recognizing these fleeting events in the world, we can develop creative coursework that grabs and holds students’ attention, and emotionally involves them in their studies. By doing this, we can not only better engage our students, but, in some cases, we can truly transform a class.
References and Suggested Readings
McKenna, R. J. (1995). The Undergraduate researcher’s handbook: Creative experimentation in social psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Webb, E. J., Campbell, D.T., Schwartz, R. D., Sechrest, L. & Grove, J. B. (1981). Nonreactive measures in the social sciences (2nd ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Christie Cathey received her B.A from Hendrix College and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the University of Connecticut. After teaching for nine years at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, where she was an Associate Professor, she is now Lead Instructor for Introduction to Psychology at Ozarks Technical Community College in Springfield, Missouri. She was a visiting professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China in 2009, and her research interests focus on an application of the Confucian ethical ideal, ren, to pedagogical practices. She’s passionate about mentoring undergraduate researchers and was an Associate Editor for the Journal of Psychological Inquiry, a student research journal, for six years.