December 26, 2016

Main Points: What I Want My Students to Learn

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

I start every class by posting a list of key points I want students to learn that day. We often start by recalling the main points from the previous class, so that students can understand the continuity between topics.

As another semester ends I have been thinking about the main points that I want students to learn, regardless of the topic of the class. Sometimes it is important to take a step back and ask ourselves, “what does this mean, anyway?” (I guess if you ask yourself this question you are already starting to think like a sociologist.)

Here are some of the lessons I hope that my students take from my classes:

  1. Data matter

Sociology is a social science that relies on empirical observation to generate knowledge. The methods sociologists use are varied, from interviews to participant observation to surveys and population counts, and these different sources enable us to draw different kinds of conclusions.

I want my students to think about where data come from and to be able to understand the strengths and limitations of all forms of data. Sometimes while learning to think critically about data it is easy to slip into a cynical mode: true, data can be biased or manipulated—intentionally or unintentionally—and while all forms of data have limitations not all data are useless.

It’s one thing to know about systematic undercounts of a particular population within a data set (say, people who experience homelessness may not be counted in the decennial census), but it is wrong to completely dismiss all of the information gathered because of such limitations (and a good opportunity to learn about how researchers and data analysts acknowledge and try and compensate for their data’s limitations). Good social scientists admit the limitations of their data openly; consumers of research need to view these admissions as strengths.

Most of all, I want students to know that sociology is not just your opinion about the world around you. Instead, we start with questions, perhaps based on our personal experiences, and seek information to determine if our assumptions are indeed based on observable patterns. Sociology is about testing hypotheses that sometimes emerge from our everyday lives. But it is not just opinion.

I know that most of my students will probably never conduct a study of their own outside of the classroom. But I want them to be able to know how to read other people’s research, and where to find the original sources of data online. In the age of fake news and misinformation, learning to be a savvy consumer of information is vital. I want each and every student to come out of my class being able to fact check claims for themselves.

  1. Think critically

Along with understanding the uses of data and how to interpret research findings, I hope that all of my students develop tools to think critically about the world around them. We all have ways of viewing the world around us that might shape what we take for granted. How does our own unique personal history shape this worldview? How does it shape the way we perceive others and ourselves?

For instance, two students might look at an issue very differently based on their backgrounds. Rather than arguing about whose perception about something is right or wrong, I hope that my students look deeper and think about why they might take a particular position in the first place. How does my background inform how I view things? How might that differ from someone else’s experience? Being able to see the world through someone else’s eyes is a big step towards creating understanding of the experiences of others.

And this is a central goal of sociology, especially for ethnographers who study people’s everyday lives. Learning what it means to be a member of a particular group is not necessarily an endorsement of that group; after all, some sociologists study groups who have done things that are illegal, unethical, and immoral to better understand why and what motivates them. Researchers who study crime or deviance often seek to learn how individuals rationalize such behavior, not because they want to promote such behavior with their research, but instead to create a critically nuanced understanding of others.

Thinking critically isn’t the same as thinking negatively about others or the world around us. It is instead a deeper exploration of things we might otherwise take for granted.

  1. Learn how to learn

Learning does not begin or end within a formal educational institution. Chances are good that we will all need to develop new skills to keep pace with changes in technology in the coming years to stay competitive in the labor force.

And learning is fun. One of the reasons I enjoy being a sociologist so much is that I like to keep learning new things. I like reading about new research as much as conducting it myself. One of the tools of lifelong learning is asking sociological questions; these are questions that we can ask even if we aren’t conducting research, but seeking deeper understanding of the world around us.

I also hope that students in my classes develop skills that will translate into many aspects of life. Learning to write a clear, evidence-based essay in a sociology class can help in a future career when writing a memo in support of a particular workplace policy, for instance. Students get assignments well in advance of their due dates, and I encourage them to plan ahead and break down the assignments into smaller tasks rather than wait until the last possible moment to start them. I know I can’t convert everyone into being a "precrastinator" like me, but if I can help reduce procrastination that might be a way to reduce stress for students in the present and future.

Instructors, what are your “main points”?

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