Lynn Ritchey, Sociology
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Overview and Context
About the Course
The Intro to Sociology course is a gateway course into upper-level sociology courses. I have taught this course for 29 years.
The audience is first-year students, many of whom will continue their education at the University of Cincinnati or transfer to one of the other 4-year universities in the area.
The student audience is very diverse: nearly 50% of the student population are first generation college students and two-thirds are over the age of 20. Our campus is open-access, so any student who has completed high school can enroll. We tend to have many non-traditional students and a great deal of variety in terms of academic preparation.
Syllabus for Introductory Sociology by Lynn Ritchey (Microsoft Word 60kB Oct14 13)
Key QR Assignment Description (links to section in this page)
How Quantitative Reasoning (QR) and Literacy are Approached
Early on, my definition of quantitative reasoning and literacy was more narrow and limited to subjects such as research methods, statistical analysis or calculus. I think it is essential for introductory sociology students to understand sociology as a scientific discipline using the scientific method to answer questions of the field. However, as I became a more experienced as an educator, I came to realize that students need to have quantitative reasoning and research techniques modeled for them: what questions sociologist study, how sociologists collect data, how we interpret what we find, and how we connect the data with theory. Students should understand that most sciences, including sociology, are quantitatively driven. And even for qualitative studies, it is important to be able to summarize and quantify information. My focus, currently, is to provide students a variety of opportunities to think like a sociologist by learning how to use and interpret data in relation to sociological theory.
Motivation to integrate QR
I believe it is important to demonstrate to students how sociologists think and how we go about collecting information and data to support our ideas, particularly quantitative data. Along these lines, I look at my job as helping students on their way to becoming sociological thinkers.
However, I recognize that the majority of my introductory sociology students will not become sociologists. I want to provide students interested in all disciplines with the ability to talk intelligently about data and ideas across a variety of fields. I think it is important for students to realize that being able to read and understand data has implications throughout life. In my opinion, it is the responsibility of educators across the curriculum to teach quantitative reasoning.
QR goalsWhen students enter my class, they often tend to blame individuals for their problems, rather than the multiple social forces that impact society and individual behavior. By the end of my class, I want students to be able to make a sociological argument that is supported by evidence. For their final assignments, I ask them to select a social problem and explain to me in writing why this is an issue using sociological theories.
I think the first essential quantitative reasoning skills are to be able to think in terms of relationships between variables. I introduce the scientific method and causal reasoning very early on in the course and continue throughout the course to reinforce the use of it through a variety of assignments and discussions. I want students to be able to think like a researcher.
I try to help students develop critical thinking skills so that when they get into a research methods class in two or three years, causal reasoning and reasoning with numbers will seem like second nature to them.
Pedagogic approaches used
My pedagogical approaches have evolved over time as I have come to understand the students' capabilities better. Early on in my teaching career I pushed quantitative reasoning a bit too much, in the sense of having too high of expectations regarding students' capabilities. Since then, I have pulled back and refined my approach.
I move students along slowly throughout the course. I help them to build their skills gradually by providing many opportunities for practice. I do a lot of repetition. I have created numerous assignments to teach quantitative reasoning, including a series called Socio-QUEST. Many of these activities are published online and a few are described below. In these assignments, students work online outside of class to find data or complete virtual activities, and then we discuss the activities in class.
One of the Socio-QUEST assignments is about race. It asks students to look at a series of pictures and identify the ethnic or racial group of each individual. There are about 16 photos. The students complete the activity and bring their data back to class. We discuss the distribution of how the class answered, and about how surprised they were in terms of their ability to answer. Then, we connect this discussion back to theoretical ideas.
During class and throughout the assignments, I model how to find and use online data. I teach students to do more than simply use Google and click on the first 3 hits. I demonstrate how to hunt for specific information online. Some examples of the websites I use are: General Social Survey, Pew Research Center, World Health Organization, U.S. Census Bureau and the United Nations.
I require students to complete assignments prior to every class. In a sense, this is their "ticket in" to class that day. After completing weekly assignments, students complete the an online form called a Praise, Question, and Possibility Form (PQP).
This form is how I help students connect to what they are learning at a personal level. The PQP form helps students focus on the material more actively because they have to think about it at a deeper level. Students only get credit for the PQP form if they are in class that day. I expect students to be able to provide three praises, three questions and three possibilities.
PQP Form questions
Praise: What do you like about the material? What piques your interest?
Question: What do you want to ask other students about the material? What "A-HA", did you have when reviewing the material?
Possibility: How can you use the information in your day-to-day life?
Knowing the course is successful
Over the course of the semester, I observe students discussing the information in a more meaningful way and asking more sophisticated questions. Imagine going through 14 weeks with a classroom of students and watching them develop a deeper level of thinking over that relatively short period–it's really refreshing.
Colleagues have told me that they can tell when students have taken my course because their logical reasoning and writing skills are so much better compared to students who haven't taken my course.
I see students make progress in their writing throughout the course and in their final papers. I also see improvement in their discussions. Partly, I attribute this improvement to providing students with a safe, non-judgemental environment in which to express their ideas. I work with students to draw out their ideas more clearly and then show them more nuanced ways to think about the issues. It is a really gratifying experience to see how far students come in their ability to reason sociologically about social issues.
The PQP forms also provide weekly feedback on how the class is going and on the level of students' thinking. Using these forms, I can track students' progress on a week-to-week basis in terms of whether they're moving towards the goal of being able to think sociologically.
Socio-QUEST assignments guide students in collecting information from the internet and in drawing conclusions about the data. One benefit of using these activities is that they scaffold how to understand and interpret numbers within a sociological context. I assign Socio-QUEST activities weekly throughout the semester. Below I will describe three different assignments; approximately 20 more are available online from the Socio-QUEST site. These assignments were designed for introductory level, first- or second-year students.
The first Socio-QUEST, Durkheim's Study--Suicide (Microsoft Word 27kB Oct14 13), helps students to understand the use of theories to describe social phenomenon. Students read Durkheim's Suicide, which is a study by French sociologist Emile Durkheim about the causes of suicide. Students must identify the independent and dependent variables within the reading. Then they have to apply what they have learned to a current social issue.
In a second Socio-QUEST, Social Class and Social Stratification (Microsoft Word 38kB Oct14 13), students study social-economic status using an online marketing tool. Students enter their zip code and the site shows profiles of people who live in that zip code. Marketers use these types of profiles to market products. Students do a comparison among different zip codes. They must identify what type of products they would market to each zip code based on the description of a cluster of people with specific socioeconomic characteristics within a neighborhood.
For a third Socio-QUEST (not available online), students look at constitutions from around the world. I point them to a helpful database such as the Constitution Finder that contains most of the world's constitutions. Students do a mini-qualitative analysis between the constitutions of different countries to determine what is similar and what is different. They must answer the question, "Why would we expect to see similarities and differences?" One of my goals is for students to see that historically, when you see language about everybody being created equal in a society, you can almost guarantee that the United States or England had an impact on that country's constitution. This activity helps students begin to see larger social forces and how these forces impact societies.
- Lack of student preparation. The biggest challenges for me are students who come to class unprepared, i.e. not having read the materials. Switching to the hybrid format for my class has made a significant improvement in that area. By requiring students to show that they have done some work ahead of time outside of class, students arrive better prepared. Such preparation is particularly important for group work. This way, all of the students in the groups have read the material and are ready to go. Otherwise, students who are unprepared cannot process the information fast enough to produce the quality of products that I'm expecting when I assign a group project.
- Sometimes assignments don't work well. Lots of things fail. But when this happens, I think, "Well, that didn't work. What do I need to do to make it work?" Sometimes my Praise, Question, and Possibility form provides me with a lot of insight about what to discuss in class or how to change things for future classes. For example, I had one assignment where students looked at different stratification systems including the caste system in India, the class system, and present-day slavery. This assignment really upset many students. I received numerous comments from students who were shocked because they didn't realize slavery still existed. One student became so upset that he created a student organization to raise awareness about these issues.
- It's okay for assignments not to work. Recognize that not everything will work, but that when things don't work it doesn't mean that the assignment was bad. Instead, it means that the assignment needs to be changed in some way.
- Focus on the learning. The key to keep in mind here is, "How can you best get the students to learn the material?" Keep in mind, it might not be the way you learned the material and you may need to use a variety of approaches.
- Talk to your colleagues. For me, a great way to learn what works and what doesn't is talking with other faculty members: going to professional meetings and talking about teaching. I consider myself fortunate to be in a college that values teaching very highly. Our focus is on teaching, and we engage in conversations about our teaching almost daily. Having that ability to talk to your colleagues about your teaching and what they're doing is just fabulous.
- Use online resources. I also recommend using websites like the projects hosted by the Science Education Resource Center (SERC) and Teaching With Data. Sites like these invite you to contribute materials that enable you to spread the word about what you are doing, and host collections of materials that illustrate what other people are doing, and what works.
Socio-QUEST is a collection of guided internet assignments in sociology authored by Lynn Ritchey and others. It includes Webquests, Virtual Explorations, and Internet Scavenger Hunts.
Syllabus for Introductory Sociology by Lynn Ritchey (Microsoft Word 60kB Oct14 13)
Insider's Guide to the Professor's Mind is a site maintained by Lynn Ritchey that is designed to enhance professor/student interaction by helping students understand our quirky requests as Professors.