The Mass Comm Intro Class: What Worked, What We Learned

The Mass Comm Intro Class: What Worked, What We Learned

It’s the end of my first attempt to dramatically change the way I teach the introductory mass communication class at Fresno State and, as I did mid-semester, I thought I’d blog a bit about how well this new approach played out.

Students’ responses at the end of the semester to our use of popular nonfiction in lieu of a traditional textbook were generally positive. Though I’m rotating out a couple of the books we used in favor of more reader-friendly and updated titles for the spring semester, the selections I used this fall were well-received. Some commented that they enjoyed the variety of perspectives and examples in the books, which was gratifying. Personally, I also found the books much more stimulating to read and teach, and I’m looking forward to reading my three new selections over the holidays so I’m ready for the spring semester.

My holiday reading pile.

I also tried out some new strategies for managing and engaging this large class of 116 students. There are no discussion sections for the course, so it was important to me both to provide many opportunities for small-group and whole-class discussion and to help students connect with others and build support systems within the class. I set up two grouping systems: “blocks” of ~20 students, named by colors; and “teams” of 4-6 students, which were numbered. (The whole syllabus is here.) Though it took a while to get everyone used to the nomenclature, I think it was really helpful to have the students immediately grouped into networks with others. After 4-5 quick iClicker reading review questions, every class session also began with a 10-minute team discussion period, during which students completed a response form that I collected and immediately used in an initial question-and-answer period to launch the day’s discussion.

Interestingly, in studying my grade breakdown for the semester, it looks like two trends occurred. (I didn’t get too quantitative on this, so these are just impressions.) First, the teams that bonded – who I could see really interacting well in class – seem to have obtained higher grades individually. Of course, this has to partly be due to their better cooperation for the few group assignments, but I would like to think it’s at least partly because they could rely upon each other for help and clarification of course material and requirements.

Second, I also think that I probably had a much lower rate of attrition this semester than I did last semester, notable especially in a fall semester when many first-semester new students in this general education course may vanish. I appear to have fewer Fs due to student disappearances (and fewer Fs overall) this semester. Again, I’d like to think that’s because the teams held each other accountable to some degree – and simply were just there every day as familiar faces for students who might otherwise become lost and disconnected in a big class. I’m sure there were other factors – maybe they liked nonfiction better? maybe some of the new assignments were also easier? – but perhaps there’s something more behind that difference in failures.

Finally, I’d like to share the students’ responses to the final exam’s extra credit question, which asked them to identify a concept or topic from the class that they thought they’d remember five years from now and explain why. Here’s a breakdown of the 84 responses (why 32 students didn’t do the extra credit, I’ll never understand!):

  • Selective media exposure/biased assimilation/filtering: 12 (True Enough brought this home)
  • Media literacy and its overall importance: 11
  • The realities of celebrity/rethinking our connections to celebrity: 11 (the students loved Fame Junkies!)
  • Analyzing ads/awareness of advertising and marketing strategies: 9
  • The role of PR and video news releases in journalism: 5 (we watched some of Toxic Sludge is Good for You)
  • Media fragmentation/niche audiences: 4
  • Power of media to define/shape reality: 4
  • Mean world syndrome and cultivation theory: 3
  • Growth of technology and communication methods/devices: 3
  • Decline of print media: 3
  • Narcissism of youth and possible media role in encouraging: 2 (from Fame Junkies again, and we did this in class)
  • How Wikipedia works: 2
  • Growth and power of social media: 2
  • Social media and “slacktivism“: 2
  • Third person effect: 2
  • Lack of world news coverage in the U.S./closure of foreign news bureaus: 2 (this made an impact)
  • Photo manipulation and ethics: 2 (both were female students)
  • Media consolidation/role of conglomerates: 1
  • Importance of failure in media industries and in life: 1 (Clay Shirky’s discussion of “failure is free” in Here Comes Everybody)
  • How we make choices: 1 (we watched Sheena Iyengar’s TED talk on this)
  • TED talks are cool: 1 (we did use a few others in class too!)
  • Role of media regulation: 1
  • Young people don’t know about the world, news, etc.: 1
  • Comedians can be informative: 1 (we used a lot of Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert clips too)

Looking at this list now, I’m pretty pleased with it. Unfortunately, some of the structural media issues didn’t quite stick with the students (or weren’t as appealing to use for the question). Still, I am surprised by how many remained interested in and concerned about their own selective tendencies with regard to their media exposure, and about how those preferences would shape their lives, politics, and so on. If I’ve managed to make them more aware of their choices and their effects, then I’m content. And, just as I see my students begin to question and analyze their own choices, so too should I continue to do the same – and that’s how we all learn from each other.

I may write more about this class and my plans for next time around when I have time and a bit more distance from the semester. In the meantime, thanks, MCJ 1, for a great semester!

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