Stefanie Mollborn

Sociology/IBS

Course context
In Spring 2010 I taught SOCY/WMST 1016, Sex, Gender, & Society. This 100-student course fulfills a college breadth requirement and primarily serves sophomore-level nonmajors.

Targets of improvement/evidence
1. To better understand students’ preconceptions coming in, and their acquisition of a sociological lens during the course.
2. To improve the teaching of threshold concepts and critical thinking.
3. To increase student interaction and engagement.

What did you do?
1. BASELINE DATA COLLECTION: Administered surveys/open-ended questionnaires at the start of the class to assess students’ preconceptions, content knowledge, and possession of a sociological lens coming into the course. The idea was that once I knew students’ preconceptions about gender and sociology, I could adapt the material to focus on areas where knowledge coming in was especially weak and address erroneous preconceptions head-on. See below for a copy of the survey questions and open-ended questionnaire prompts.


2. CASE STUDIES FOR THRESHOLD CONCEPTS: Introduced case studies when teaching threshold concepts in the first few weeks of the course (limitations of biological explanations, socialization, social structural perspective, doing gender, social construction, gender system). I used to spend the first five weeks teaching the threshold concepts for the course at a fairly abstract level. These needed to be more grounded in empirical examples, to keep them interesting and make them more concrete to understand. Most case studies came from part of one of the later substantive units, and I referred back to them once we got to that unit. I integrated video clips, images, and documentaries into the case studies as time allowed.


3. MINUTE PAPERS: Administered about 8 “minute papers” summarizing the main points of lecture and identifying what was unclear. I clarified muddy points in the following class as needed. See below for a sample minute paper from the first part of the course. Later in the semester based on students’ elicited feedback, I made the minute papers more challenging and more like a short-answer exam question, asking them to apply the material they had just learned in a new way. For example, after learning about barriers to gender inequality in the workplace, I asked them to extend this knowledge by writing about what managers could do to reduce gender inequality in their work groups.


4. EXAM PREPARATION: In the recitation-based review session for the midterm exam, students wrote a sample short-essay response, saw an exemplary response, and discussed the qualities of a high-quality response to the question. In the recitation-based review session for the final exam, we distributed a sheet of paper with 3 real but slightly altered responses to one of the short-essay midterm questions. One received an A grade, one a B, and one a C (the grades they received were not included). Students worked in small groups to assign a grade to each response and discuss what their criteria were for distinguishing between the quality of the answers.


5. ONLINE DISCUSSION FORUM: For 12 weeks of the class (students had the midterm and last weeks off and could choose to skip any other two weeks of their choice), students were required to post one discussion question and one response to another student’s question at the CULearn online discussion forum. These responses needed to demonstrate that the student had completed and thought about the readings for that week, and they were due the evening before their recitation. The teaching assistant looked through the posts weekly to see what muddy points or points of interest were arising from the discussions, and she regularly assigned grades (check-plus, check, check-minus, or zero) for the discussion posts. 

What difference did it make?
1. BASELINE DATA COLLECTION: Four findings from the baseline assessment struck me as important and changed the way I taught. (1) I was surprised by students’ typical lack of interest in the course’s subject matter at the start of the class. I had assumed a moderate level of initial interest in previous semesters. (2) Most students could not coherently answer questions about what sociology is and what sociologists do. I had assumed that they had this knowledge coming into the class. (3) Most students did not think that men face any type of discrimination on the basis of their gender, which was a surprise to me. (4) Most students said that when reading for a class like this one, they focus most on understanding the main point and basic concepts. I thought they knew to spend more time on analyzing the argument and data, connecting it to other readings and concepts, and drawing implications for real-world phenomena.


2. CASE STUDIES FOR THRESHOLD CONCEPTS:
Students did not make complaints in the informal midterm evaluation (as they sometimes had in the past) about the abstract nature of the first few weeks of the class, which is a benefit. However, I felt that the “threshold concept” weeks were still too abstract and divorced from the substantive material taught in the rest of the course. So in the future I plan to keep the case studies and threshold concepts, but intersperse them into substantive units.


3. MINUTE PAPERS: Students told me (in writing/verbally) that the minute papers were useful for helping them solidify their understanding of the lectures while they were still fresh. Some students wanted more challenging prompts, and these were useful because they gave students practice for the (short- and long-essay) exams. They were not onerous to read and provided clear benefits, so I will definitely use this technique in the future.


4. EXAM PREPARATION: I am still waiting on some feedback about the final exam review, but my sense is that students found both reviews useful. In the future, I will do both the answering of a sample question and the grading of an A/B/C-quality answer for the midterm review, rather than waiting until the final exam for the latter. This may cut back on the most common student complaint, which is the inherent subjectivity involved in grading essay exams.


5. ONLINE DISCUSSION FORUM: Students’ written feedback on the online discussions split fairly evenly between feeling neutral (no severe dislike, but not finding them useful) and finding them to be quite useful. The teaching assistant found them very useful for identifying muddy points and areas of particular interest, which helped her prepare for recitations. However, she thought some students were “getting away” with not doing the reading before posting to the forum. I was impressed by the insight many students showed and the wide-ranging application of the readings to real-life experiences and concerns. I also think it created greater cohesion in the class. Several students suggested that they be broken into smaller groups and read only that group’s post. I will try this in the future.

How did assessment and feedback gathering help you make adjustments mid-semester?
I made four main changes based on assessment information and other feedback: (1) I taught the students more about what sociology is and what sociologists do. (2) I focused more than usual on men and the kinds of advantages and disadvantages they face. (3) I taught the students about how to read effectively for the class, including analyzing the argument and data, connecting it to other readings and concepts, and drawing implications for real-world phenomena. (4) Mid-semester, I altered the minute papers to make them more challenging (see above).

What did you learn? What’s next?
(1) I learned more about what my students were like and how they thought and approached learning coming into the class. This was immensely valuable. Although I do not need to do as thorough a preliminary assessment in the future since I know from past data collection that my gender classes tend to have similar composition from semester to semester, I will repeat some questions that help the students learn something important, such as the questions about their strengths and weaknesses as a student. Students have repeatedly given me feedback that thinking about this has been beneficial to them.


(2) I decided that I need to better integrate my threshold concepts into the main substantive material of the course. This will be work-intensive and has some clear disadvantages, but I am now convinced that it needs to be done.


(3) I learned that minute papers are very useful and will continue assigning them in all my undergraduate classes.


(4) I appreciated the exam preparation techniques and will continue with them as well.


(5) I will continue the online discussion forum, but will try splitting students into groups of 8-10 to build community and keep them from being overwhelmed by the number of posts to read.

Sharing with colleagues
The sociology cohort plans an informal brown-bag discussion open to sociology faculty, instructors, and graduate students. There, we will share the changes we tried and our experiences with them, as well as brainstorming with other participants about innovations that people can try.

Resources
Syllabus link: http://sobek.colorado.edu/SOC/Undergrad/syllabi.html

Open-ended questionnaire prompt at start of course:

  • Why are you taking this course?
  • Do you have any particular interests within the broader topic of gender and society?
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses as a student?
  • What has shaped your perspective on the world?
  • What do you think sociologists do?
  • How is sociology different from common sense?
  • Do you think it is important to study gender, and why or why not?

Clicker-based survey at start of course:
Demographic questions

I have been in college:
A. 1 year
B. 2 years
C. 3 years
D. 4 years
E. 5 or more years


Have you completed a Sociology course in college besides this one?
A. Yes
B. No


Are you a Sociology major?
A. Yes
B. No, but I may become one
C. No, and no plans to become one


I am:
A. Male
B. Female
C. Other/prefer not to answer


I identify as:
A. African American or Black
B. Hispanic or Latino
C. Non-Hispanic White
D. Another racial category or multiracial
E. Don’t know/prefer not to answer


What kind of job does your father have?
A. Blue-collar/agricultural
B. Non-manager office or service industry
C. Mid-level manager or lower-level professional
D. Top-level manager, owner, top-level professional
E. No paid job/not applicable/don’t know


What kind of job does your mother have?
A. Blue-collar/agricultural
B. Non-manager office or service industry
C. Mid-level manager or lower-level professional
D. Top-level manager, owner, top-level professional
E. No paid job/not applicable/don’t know


Interest/preconceptions
How interested are you in the topic of gender in U.S. society?
A. Very interested
B. Somewhat interested
C. Only a little interested
D. Not interested
E. I don't know


What has played the biggest role in determining the outcomes of your life so far?
A. Myself
B. My family and community
C. My race/class/gender
D. U.S. culture and society
E. I don't know


What do you think is the level of gender inequality in contemporary American society?
A. Basically no inequality
B. Only a little inequality
C. Some inequality
D. Quite a bit of inequality
E. I don't know


How often do you think a typical American woman experiences gender discrimination?
A. On a daily basis
B. On a somewhat regular basis
C. Very occasionally
D. Never
E. I don't know


How often do you think a typical American man experiences gender discrimination?
A. On a daily basis
B. On a somewhat regular basis
C. Very occasionally
D. Never
E. I don't know


Basic knowledge
In the U.S. today, about how many cents does the average working woman earn for every dollar a working man earns?
A. 50 cents
B. 75 cents
C. 90 cents
D. 99 cents
E. I don't know


Which of the following is true about the consequences in the workplace of becoming a parent?
A. Negative consequences for men and women
B. Negative consequences for women only
C. Positive consequences for men only
D. Both B and C
E. I don't know


About what percent of U.S. women have experienced completed or attempted rape?
A. 2%
B. 5%
C. 9%
D. 18%
E. I don't know


Which of the following is true about gender differences in health?
A. Women live longer
B. Men are more likely to get sick
C. Women are more likely to get sick
D. Both A and C
E. I don't know


Study strategies
When I do a reading assignment for a class like this one, I focus the most on:
A. Learning the numbers and statistics presented
B. Understanding the main ideas and conclusions
C. Analyzing the strength of the argument and study design
D. Connecting the ideas and findings to other readings
E. Considering the broader implications of the ideas and findings


When I do a reading assignment for a class like this one, I focus the least on:
A. Learning the numbers and statistics presented
B. Understanding the main ideas and conclusions
C. Analyzing the strength of the argument and study design
D. Connecting the ideas and findings to other readings
E. Considering the broader implications of the ideas and findings


In a class like this, how important do you think it is to agree with the professor's opinions if you want a good grade?
A. It's essential
B. Somewhat important
C. Not very important
D. Not at all important
E. I don't know

Minute paper prompt from first half of class:
• In a sentence or two, summarize the main points of our unit on gender and biology for a student who is new to the class.
• Let us know if anything is confusing to you from this unit.

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