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Developing a National Model for a College-level Introductory Sociology Course

Caroline Hodges Persell, New York University

Program Website


In 2001, the elected Council of the American Sociological Association (ASA) launched a Task Force with the goal of creating a curriculum for an advanced high school sociology course that could also serve as a model for introductory sociology courses in colleges and universities. This program took off from the work of that Task Force. One key component of the curriculum was enhancing the quantitative literacy of undergraduate sociology students.


The goals of the Task Force curriculum were to enhance students' understanding of the social world, increase their motivation and interest in studying the social world scientifically, increase their quantitative literacy, and help them in their post-secondary education and work experiences, with the long-term goal of creating individual and societal benefits. A second goal was to use the world wide web to offer students multiple ways of learning— through active engagement, observation of the social world, explorations of quality data, visual materials, and reading.

The National Science Foundation Project that followed up from the work of the Task Force had four goals:

  1. To refine conceptions of what should be taught in an Introduction to Sociology course in order to validate the curriculum.
  2. To learn more about how leaders in the field of sociology are teaching the principles they deem important for students to understand.
  3. To assess whether the curriculum and some of the pedagogical materials (data exercises, simulations, films, etc.) and practices collected or created actually increase students' understanding of important principles.
  4. To disseminate the curriculum and pedagogical resources assembled, as well as existing research on those resources.


The following actions were taken to advance the above goals:

Goal 1:

Telephone interviews with 44 leaders (elected heads of sociology professional associations, winners of awards for their research, NSF sociology grant recipients) to learn what they think students should understand after taking an Introduction to Sociology course, and how they teach sociology. Interviews were followed by a brief electronic survey. Results: are published in: Persell, Caroline Hodges, Kathryn May Pfeiffer, and Ali Syed. 2007. "What Should Students Understand after Taking Introduction to Sociology?" Teaching Sociology 35: 300-314. A second article "How Sociological Leaders Rank Learning Goals for Introductory Sociology," is forthcoming in the Teaching Sociology, October 2010 or January 2011 issue.

Goal 2:

Drew on the same interviews with leaders and made comparisons with existing literature, finding that leaders are more likely to bring research into their teaching, and somewhat more likely to use simulations. Results are published in Persell, Caroline Hodges, Kathryn May Pfeiffer, and Ali Syed. 2008. "How Sociological Leaders Teach Some Key Principles." Teaching Sociology 36:108-124.

Goal 3:

  • At Michigan State University, Barbara Schneider (Collaborative Partner), with Venessa Keesler and Baranda J. Fermin, developed and applied a rubric for assessing critical thinking. They applied the rubric to student learning in an Introductory Sociology course in a large public university and measured student learning.
  • Persell, Pfeiffer, and Mateiro conducted focus groups with undergraduates at a selective private university, testing materials for teaching 4 themes:
  1. thinking sociologically rather than individualistically,
  2. the scientific nature of sociology,
  3. the social construction of race,
  4. sources of socioeconomic inequalities.

Results:Efforts to assess the curriculum and some of the teaching resources have begun.

Goal 4

We have developed a web-based gateway to the curriculum, teacher resources, and student resources including Quantitative Literacy (QL) data exercises at this website.

A list of some of the (QL) data exercises is also available.
For specific examples, see: Census Data Neighborhood or Exploring Poverty or Religious Denominations.

Some of the QL skills and topics covered in the various exercises are reading data from tables and graphs; understanding concepts, variables, and attributes: "How to Read a (Quantitative) Journal Article;" collecting and coding data; and understanding the difference between empirical and normative statements.

There are also "instructor manuals" for each unit of the curriculum. The unit on Research Methods is especially relevant for the teaching of quantitative literacy.

In addition to the website, publications, and presentations at professional meetings, we have recently inaugurated an open social network on teaching introductory sociology on the social network site, Ning.


  • ASA Task Force Members;
  • Caroline Hodges Persell, New York University, PI;
  • Barbara Schneider, Michigan State University, Collaborative Research Partner and Co-PI;
  • Venessa Keesler and Baranda J. Fermin, Graduate Research Assistants, Michigan State University;
  • Kathryn Pfeiffer and Michael Chavez Reilly, Graduate Research Assistants, New York University;
  • Antonio Manterio, Ali Syed, Maude Shephard, and Jennifer Gerdes, Undergraduate Research Assistants, New York University.


To date, this project has been sustained by funding from NSF and by institutional support from NYU (providing the server for the website). Persell has been having conversations with the American Sociological Association (ASA) about housing and maintaining the website after the NSF grant expires. The social networking site is maintained by volunteers.

More information:

A slideshow guide to using the website is available.