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Assessing Strategies for Teaching Some
Key Sociological Understandings


Caroline Hodges Persell

Department of Sociology
New York University

Antonio E. Mateiro
Department of Sociology
New York University
University College of London

* We thank the National Science Foundation’s “Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI)” division, and grants officer Myles G. Boylan, for their support of this project, supported by a Collaborative Research grant to Caroline Hodges Persell and Barbara Schneider from the National Science Foundation (DUE-0442836).  The information and ideas presented in this paper are those of the authors and their research, and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Science Foundation.  We are indebted to graduate research assistant Katherine May Pfeiffer for her help conducting the focus groups.

The Tables and References for this paper are online.


Assessing Strategies for Teaching Some
Key Sociological Understandings

This paper arises from a larger study exploring what leaders in the field of sociology think are the most important sociological understandings for students to obtain from a college-level introductory course and how they teach them.  Undergraduate student focus groups were used to assess strategies of teaching four key understandings identified by sociological leaders (Persell, Pfeiffer, Syed 2007), including the importance of the social, taught using state suicide data and the film Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment; the scientific nature of sociology, taught through a PowerPoint presentation and a research exercise; the importance of inequality, taught using a modified version of Monopoly called Sociopoly (Jessup 2001); and the social construction of reality, taught using Obach’s (1999) exercise and the film Race: the Power of an Illusion.  We assess these methods by comparing student answers to pre- and post-exercise questions and their responses in the focus groups. 

Understanding the Social

Scientific Basis of Sociology

Understanding Inequality

Social Construction


Assessing Strategies for Teaching Some
Key Sociological Understandings

        Teaching and learning requires decisions about what to teach, how to teach it, and assessments of what students are learning.  This paper builds on the work of the American Sociological Association (ASA) Task Force on Developing a Curriculum for a college-level high school course and a study of what peer-recognized leaders in sociology thought college students should understand about sociology after taking the first course and how they taught it.  The Task Force’s Draft Curriculum is available on the ASA website.   The results of interviews with peer-recognized leaders on understandings they hoped students would gain are discussed in Persell, Pfeiffer, and Syed (2007), and a comparison of the methods used by peer-recognized leaders and SoTL leaders is reported in Persell, Pfeiffer, Syed (2008). 
This paper examines efforts to assess strategies for teaching four of the key understandings deemed important by the Task Force and by leaders in the field of sociology.  In particular it asks, “Did students obtain the intended understandings?”, “What aspects of the teaching approach helped or hindered their learning?” and “Why?”  To address these questions, we used a combination of traditional methods of assessment (e.g., discussion and short essays before and after the teaching sequence) and focus groups.  Clearly not every important principle or understanding can be taught in a single module, limiting which ones could be taught and assessed in a single session. 
Many instructors rely on class discussion to gauge what students understand, and even more use some kind of writing to evaluate student learning (Baker 1976, Grauerholz and Gibson 2006).  We use those assessment methods and have added focus groups which allow close observation of student reactions, in addition to direct questions about the teaching approach being used after students experience it.  Because they were not students in the principal investigator (PI)’s class and indeed had never seen the PI before, they may have felt freer to discuss what did not work for them in a particular teaching module and why, as well as what they thought was helpful.  Focus groups are less costly of time and money than individual interviews but offer comparably rich data (Morgan 1988: 20).  They also yield similar results to surveys while often providing more detail than surveys (Ward, Bertrand, and Brown 1991: 266).  One limitation of using focus groups is that the number of students is much smaller than the number in most undergraduate classes, so the issue remains whether the method can be “scaled up” to a college class.  The flexibility and openness of focus groups can also result in digressions from the research goal (Henderschott and Wright 1993: 158).
Drawing on what was compiled by the Task Force and from interviews with peer-recognized leaders, we devised teaching “modules” designed to convey an understanding of portions of four of the nine themes sociological leaders deemed important for students to understand after taking an Introduction to Sociology course.  Some of the themes are clearly relevant for other sociology courses as well.  These four could be accomplished within a two-hour framework while leaving time for pre- and post- measures of student understanding as well as time for comments on aspects of the teaching strategy that students found more or less helpful, and why.   The modules aimed to teach some understanding of the “social” part of sociology (or learning to think sociologically), the scientific nature of sociology, the centrality of inequality, and the social construction of ideas.
Research Methods
Focus groups have sometimes been used to study teaching methodology.  A search in CSA’s Sociological Abstracts database for the terms “focus group” and “education” produced 191 results, almost all dealing with inequality within education rather than with assessing student learning.  A search for the term “focus group” alone produced a greater variety of articles, but few that dealt with focus groups as a research method.  Robinson and Schaible (1993) used a student focus group one week after the end of a class on “Men, Women, and Work,” but didn’t say how many of the 23 students from the course participated or much about the method.  Comments in that focus group illustrated how students felt they benefited from the diverse viewpoints of other students, learned more about how others felt (including their feelings of anger), and gained by seeing a female and male teaching team work well together.  Hendershott and Wright (1993) offer a helpful discussion of the history of focus groups in sociology, the strengths of the method, and how the results of focus groups compare with surveys.  They used focus groups to “assess students’ attitudes about university interdisciplinary curriculum requirements for program development, rather than to evaluate quantitatively the impact of teaching or courses” (1993:155).  Pippert and Moore (1999) used focus groups, surveys, and objective tests in their triangulated research methodology to assess the use of multimedia in large lecture courses.  All three of these studies reveal the value of focus groups for learning more about the perspectives and thoughts of students. 
The research reported here was conducted at a large, selective, multi-ethnic urban research university in 2006.  After clearing the project and the recruitment methods through the University Human Subjects Review Committee, we recruited participants through advertisements on the university’s electronic Career Net (classified ads) and by distributing flyers in introductory sociology, anthropology and psychology classes.  In total, these methods attracted several dozen inquiries, resulting in 12 participants.  The respondents were screened to ascertain whether they were undergraduates, had not already completed an introduction to sociology course, and could make the Wednesday afternoon time slot for the focus groups.  The time requirement was the biggest constraint.  One graduate student who responded to the Career Net advertisement participated in the first focus group before we more carefully restricted the focus groups to undergraduates.  The other 11 participants were recruited in response to flyers distributed in classes.  In order to preserve confidentiality, all participants were assigned a pseudonym consisting of a generic, although gender specific, first and last name, which was used throughout the focus groups.  All participants were paid a token sum of $20 for their participation.  Participants were allowed to participate in multiple focus groups. 
We conducted four focus groups over a two-month period.  Each one focused on one of the teaching goals and used a teaching strategy that could be completed in less than two hours.  All focus groups were based on scripts prepared in advance by the PI.  Focus groups were conducted with between five and eight participants and attended by the three-person research team (consisting of PI, graduate research assistant, and undergraduate research assistant).  During the session, the PI described the purpose of the focus groups, taught the theme, and posed the discussion questions.  The graduate research assistant moderated the focus group portion of the session that sought students’ responses to the teaching strategies used and their reflections on the methods’ strengths and limitations.  The undergraduate research assistant directed students to the classroom, collected and organized consent forms and student information forms, gave students their pseudonyms, and prepared materials such as handouts and question sheets in advance.  All three researchers took notes during the focus group whenever they were not doing something else, and the sessions were tape recorded and transcribed by the undergraduate assistant.
Each focus group began with a brief introduction explaining the purpose of the study and the focus group, followed by written responses to several questions (pre-tests), and discussion.  After the discussion, either a video or an exercise was employed as the teaching strategy, followed by discussion based on the substance taught in the film or exercise, and written or discussion questions.  The focus group ended with a series of moderator questions aimed at obtaining students’ responses to the teaching strategies used.        
We briefly discuss the four learning goals below.  Table 1 describes the module materials and how the themes were taught.  Subsequent tables present student responses which are discussed in the text. 
Understanding the Social
The most frequently mentioned teaching goal of sociological leaders was having students understand the “social” part of sociology.  This refers to the importance of being able to understand and explain behavior in terms of social factors that go beyond an individual’s psychological attributes.  For a thoughtful discussion of one strategy for teaching this understanding, see Hanson (2002). 
The session began with a brief introduction and students then wrote responses to the question, “Why do you think people commit suicide?”  Following this, state by state suicide data were distributed, and students were asked to write a response to a second question, “Why do you think suicide rates vary by states?” followed by discussion of their responses.  This teaching strategy is very usefully discussed in greater detail by Adams (1993). 
After discussion, the film, Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment, was introduced and the following questions were discussed: “How do you think the participants playing the role of prisoner will act?” “Why do you think they will act that way?” “How do you think the participants playing the role of guard will act?” and “Why do you think they will act that way?”  Then the film was shown, followed by a discussion of the questions “Why do you think the prisoners and guards behaved the way they did in the Zimbardo simulated prison experiment?” “Suppose all the people who were randomly assigned to be guards had instead been assigned to be prisoners, and vice versa.  How do you think that would have affected the behavior of the people?  Do you think they would have behaved differently?” “Why or why not?”  Returning to the suicide data, students were asked “Why do you think the rates vary by states?”  The session ended with a series of moderator questions regarding participant responses to the materials and exercises. 
Comparing student answers written before and after seeing the film suggests that the film was effective in teaching students to emphasize social factors over psychological ones (Table 2, Part A).  When initially asked to give possible reasons as to why people would commit suicide, responses tended to emphasize psychological factors: “I think people commit suicide because of a combination of overwhelming pressures and sadness possibly coupled with some sort of emotional/psychological issue that leads them to this sort of drastic decision, generally after some sort of tragic experience in their lives” (Maria).  This changed somewhat when presented with state level suicide data, but more participants changed after seeing the film: “I think it goes back to feeling isolated, trapped in rural areas.  People can get around easily in a city and do things on their own, with public transportation, etc.  This is less true in rural areas” (Patricia).  They had begun to consider contextual factors that might be related to suicides.
This change is also evident from comparing students’ expectations before the video and their responses after seeing what actually happened (Table 2, Part B).  Those who had not previously read about the Zimbardo experiment did not believe that the participants would act differently in their roles as prisoners and guards: “There should be no difference between prisoners and guards.  Since the assignments [of prisoner/guard roles] were arbitrary, why should there be a difference?” (Jeff).  Afterwards, all of the students’ responses noted how real the experiment seemed, and how real the situation became: “People can become dehumanizing just to maintain their status as a guard.  It’s pretty astounding how people can change like that” (Jeff). 
In the focus group, several students noted the advantage of seeing a video of the Zimbardo experiment over just reading an article about it (such as Haney, Banks and Zimbardo 1973).  Several noted how it made the experiment much more believable, and more real: “I think actually being able to see what happened in the experiment.  I’ve read the article before.  When I read it, it was less believable.  Actually seeing it was much more effective” (Maria).  Another said, “I liked the video ‘cause you hear about the experiment.  It means a lot to actually see it” (Patricia). 
Clearly the film helped to convey to students how powerfully social situations can affect the behavior of individuals.  The variations in suicide rates by states also helped them to go beyond thinking only of individual explanations for suicide and consider possible variations in social contexts.  Using this film and presenting suicide data by states are methods that could be used in classes of almost any size.  In mass classes, students could break into pairs or small groups to discuss some of the questions raised in the focus group.
Understanding the Scientific Basis of Sociology
The second most frequently mentioned sociological learning goal mentioned by sociological leaders was having students understand the scientific basis of sociology.  For particularly useful discussions of this understanding, see Kain (1999) and the January 2006 special issue of Teaching Sociology devoted to cultivating quantitative literacy.  This focus group occurred in a computer lab with PCs and internet access.  It began with a brief introduction and students were then asked to give written responses to the questions: “Do you think sociology is scientific?” and “Why, or why not?”  These were then discussed, and written answers were given to the questions “What does a field need to have to be a science?” and “What keeps a field from being a science?” which were also then discussed.  This discussion was followed by a brief PowerPoint presentation regarding what makes a field scientific and an exercise in which participants were asked to find and print four sociological abstracts based upon original research studies.  Students were then asked to discuss the abstracts they found and to decide whether their abstracts were based on primary research or not.  This was followed by a second discussion of the questions: “Do you think sociology is scientific?” and “Why or why not?”  The session ended with a series of moderator questions about the exercises. 
Based on a comparison of responses to the pre- and post-exercise questions (Table 3), it is difficult to determine if the teaching strategy convinced students of the scientific nature of sociology, because initially most wrote that they thought sociology is scientific.  Several qualified this by saying that it was not as scientific as hard sciences like physics or biology: “I think it’s somewhat scientific, but not quite on the same level as biology, chemistry, physics and other sciences.  Sociology does involve research, theories, and experiments as sciences should.  However, it’s still somewhat subjective, and mathematical formulas and the like rarely apply to it or aid it in figuring out exact answers” (Mary).  Most students mentioned the importance of research, theory and observation in their answers, and in response to the second written question, “What does a field need to have to be a science?” they identified these as criteria for deciding if a field is scientific.  Perhaps because students were largely recruited from introductory social science classes, they were somewhat predisposed toward thinking sociology is scientific.  Only one felt that sociology is not a science: “No.  While sociology uses facts as a springboard for thought and research, it is concerned with human practices which cannot really be predicted…  To be able to prove and/or disprove its theories and get the same result every time [is what makes a field scientific]” (Ronald).  Even this student, however, who felt sociology was not a science, thought that sociology was fact- and research-oriented. 
Because of most students’ pre-existing beliefs in sociology as a science and because of the relative lack of discussion after the exercise, it is difficult to determine what students learned.  Many students did not respond during the post-exercise discussion, and the one student who was skeptical of sociology as a science responded after the exercise by saying “I don’t know.  There is definitely scientific method, but it’s being used to… but that’s still… I still have my doubts” (Ronald).  Interestingly, while some students were unable to determine whether an article was a research article or not, at least one was analyzing the articles based on their abstracts and suggesting some flaws in a given study: “Well, one thing I noticed was that a lot of my data was from surveys, and like, the thing is, once I read that this many teens smoke pot, but to get that information they would have to… ask ‘do you smoke pot,’ but then there might have been kids who don’t admit or kids who almost tried it and feel that counts and it’s not exact” (Patricia).  
This exercise did not receive a particularly positive response during the moderator questions.  Although they enjoyed being able to choose the topics they explored in the abstracts database, at least two students were unclear as to the point of the exercise: “Maybe I missed something, but today we… discussed whether or not sociology was a science and we discussed whether or not something is research or not, and that just seems very trivial with these conclusions” (Jeff).  This reaction is consistent with the relative lack of discussion following the exercise, where several students did not even respond.  One also stated that trying to determine whether an article was research or not was confusing due to being limited to looking only at the abstracts: “The whole abstract thing.  Everything I got I was pretty sure it was research, but not totally.  Without the full article I was not able to tell for sure” (Mary).  Based on these responses, it seems that for students who are relatively unfamiliar with sociology or the idea of sociology as a science, it may be beneficial to thoroughly explain what to look for in abstracts and to explain beforehand the reasons why the question of whether sociology is scientific or not is an important one. 
Understanding the Centrality of Inequality
Social inequality was another commonly identified teaching goal in the study of sociological leaders.  Specifically, in the words of one leader, this refers to “The way in which opportunities are enhanced or constrained by previous life experiences—in families, schools, neighborhoods, based on race, gender, social class, where you grew up”.  Many articles have been written discussing various ways instructors have sought to increase students understandings of inequality (see, e.g., Abrahamson 1994; Brezina 1996; Coghlan and Huggins 2004; Corrado, Glasberg, Merenstein, and Peele 1000; Davis 1992; Dundes and Harlow 2005; Groves, Warren, and Witschger 1996; Hattery 2003; Jessup 2001; MacNevin 2004; Manning, Price, and Rich 1997; McCammon 1999; Miller 1992; Misra 1997; Nichols, Berry and Kalogrides 2004; Renzulli, Aldrich, Reynolds 2003; Simpson and Fischer 2006; Teaching Sociology 1995; Thompson 1987; Tiemann, Davis, and Eide 2006; Wetcher-Hendricks and Luquet 2003; and Wright and Ransom 2005).  For these reasons, another focus group attempted to assess a method of teaching the importance of class inequality by discussing family income data and using a modified version of the game, Monopoly
After a brief introduction, students were given a handout of 2005 Household Earnings from the U.S. Census Bureau and asked to give a written response to the question “Why do you think different households receive different amounts of income?”  This question was then discussed, and students wrote a response to a second question: What affects what people in different occupations, or with different amounts of education, skill, and years of experience, are paid?  After this, the participants were placed randomly into one of four teams, representing four social classes. 
Prior to the session, the undergraduate RA prepared money piles and printed the modified rules for a version of the game Monopoly called Sociopoly (see Jessup 2001).  These rules changed the game in the following ways.  First, players were organized into four teams, the first of which started the game with $1,500 and collected $200 and two houses each time they passed Go.  The second team started the game with $1,030 and received $150 and one house each time they passed Go.  The third team began with $960 and received $125 and one house each time they passed Go.  The fourth team started with $505 and received $100 for passing Go.  Second, unlike Monopoly, Sociopoly does not require a team to own all three properties of the same color before they can buy houses and hotels.  Third, the game begins with $1,000 dollars in Free Parking, and all fines (i.e., Jail fines, Community Chest and Chance fines, etc.) go into Free Parking.  In order to win Free Parking, however, each player must pay a $20 “Parking Fee” each time they pass Go.  Fourth, if a Team 1 player lands in Jail, they pay $200 and continue playing.  Upon leaving jail, they advance to their nearest owned property.  If a Team 2 player goes to jail, they need to wait three turns, roll doubles, or pay $50.  If teams 3 or 4 roll doubles, they go to jail and must either wait three turns or pay $100 to get out.  Fifth, a team that goes bankrupt must stand in the corner until the game is over.  Finally, each team must keep a record of assets and liabilties and the number of times around the board.  It should be noted, that due to everyone’s lack of familiarity with the new rules, they were not always enforced in the early part of the game.  For example, Teams 3 and 4 rolled doubles several times without going to jail.
The game was followed by a discussion of students’ responses to the game.  Referring back to the Earnings tables, they were asked to respond to several questions: 1) Why do you think some household incomes differ from others?  2) Is there anything besides the hypothesized causes we suggested earlier?  3) What affects what people in different occupations, or with different amounts of education, skill, and years of experience are paid?  4) Do you think that a) starting points, i.e., how much wealth people are born into and b) the rules of the game might influence their social class?  How?  The session ended with a series of moderator questions. 
Student learning was assessed based on a comparison of responses to pre- and post-questions (Table 4).  Written responses before the game emphasized various social factors that might influence a household’s social class, including education, age of members, and number of working family members: “Single parent families would earn less income because only one person is working, families with a stay-at-home parent would earn less income.  Families with two or more people contributing to income would earn more money” (Patricia).  One student also emphasized the importance of luck and personal connections.  In many ways, despite being asked to add or alter their responses to the initial questions, oral responses did not always directly address the question.  They did, however, suggest that by playing the game students had gained some understanding of the importance of “the rules of the game” and who makes them.  One student mentioned that the sales tax has a greater effect on the poor than the rich: “Sales tax—poor people spend a larger share of their income on household goods, so they’re actually paying relatively more in taxes than the rich.  We learned this in my economics class” (Jordan).  Others addressed the issue of who determines these rules: “They can afford to make their voices heard.  Money buys everything.  It buys advertising, policy, power.  It buys people, it pays people off.  Nobody at this table would say that our government is not corrupt to the point where you can buy people off.  So if you have enough money you can make things happen” (Madison). 
Students stated in response to the moderator questions that the exercise helped them better understand the importance of social structure in determining social class: “You cannot get away from the structure.  You cannot get away from ‘Well the rules say you don’t get $200 for passing Go, you get $125 and a house.’  You can’t get away from what the rules dictate.  So it gets you thinking and you have all these preconceptions but then acting it out like, the rules are the rules and you can’t get away from it” (Madison).  Students also reported that the game allowed them to relate better to more abstract issues of class inequality:
"The simulation was starting out with unequal resources and money and unequal distribution even when you do get paid.  It’s very similar to real society and it helps to like… we were just playing a game, but we were all getting emotional and sensitive because it’s money and it’s our houses and lives and it’s good to see it on a small scale.  I feel that it helps you apply it to a bigger scale more easily if you can act it out, and then, we can’t really act any of this out for another fifty years of our lives to like actually buy houses and acquire money but to act it out right here helps your understanding of how life is" (Madison).
They also found the discussion helpful, saying that “I thought talking about it afterwards to kind of make the connection between real life, like, yeah ‘it sucks,’ we always had to go to jail, but then we made the connection that like, poorer people and people that don’t make as much money end up in jail a lot more because they can’t buy themselves out” (Patricia). 
The focus group comments illustrated the power of the game to illustrate how some people have more difficulty getting ahead than others, and the importance of preexisting wealth and structured rules for those outcomes.  We had only one person on each social class “team,” and it is difficult to imagine the game working with more than two or three people on each team.  Using this strategy in a large class would require a number of sets of Monopoly and considerable advance work preparing the packets of money for the four social “classes”.  It also might be difficult to play long enough in a single 50-minute class session for the simulation to have its full effect.  In the 45-minutes students in this session played, no team went bankrupt and had to stand in a corner, but bankruptcy loomed for Class 4 when they stopped playing.  In short, this seems to be an effective teaching strategy, assuming the practical exigencies can be met.
Social Construction of Ideas
A fourth important learning goal noted by sociological leaders was the social construction of ideas.  This refers to the idea that concepts like race and gender are the product of social rather than natural processes.  For a related study of the ideologies used to explain inequalities, see Goldsmith (2006).  Discussions of issues and methods related to teaching about race occur in Alicea and Kessel 1997, Batur-VanderLippe 1999, Bordt 2005, Davis 1992, Fritschner 2001, Haddad and Lieberman 2002, Higginbotham 1999, Jakubowski 2001, Pence and Fields 1999.  The aim of the teaching session we conducted was to assess the degree to which a particular video and discussion contributed to student understanding of the social construction of the concept of race. 
The session began with the principle investigator’s brief introduction thanking students for participating and introducing the researchers and the goal of the project, followed by students writing answers to the question, “Do you think different racial groups exist in the world?” and three follow-up questions.  Then the students did the Obach (1999) exercise, in which they were presented with six circles with varied shading patterns and asked to place these circles into two different groups.  This was followed by discussion and the showing of the 37-minute short version of Part I of the film Race: The Power of an Illusion.  After the movie, the following questions were discussed: “Do you think racial categories are based on scientific criteria?”  “Why or why not?”  “Where do you think racial categories come from?” “Why?”  The session ended with a series of moderator questions. 
Student learning was assessed by comparing responses to the pre-movie and post-movie questions (Table 5).   This comparison offers two possible interpretations.  It can be said that students did learn from the exercise because answers to the initial questions tended to emphasize physical features.  A typical response listed “Facial features/Skin color”.  After the exercise, however, most respondents emphasized the social and subjective nature of race: “Yeah, well, we don’t interact with people based on tint but on perceived cultural difference” (Jason). 
In the discussion following the film, one respondent also said that “I thought it was interesting that the video said we created race.  I never really thought of it that way” (Elizabeth).  At the same time, however, many participants also listed things like “heritage” or “nationality” as distinguishing characteristics, indicating that they already had the social in mind.  This is also suggested by responses in discussion, such as “I’ve seen things like this before in other classes and wasn’t really under the impression of biology being the real basis of race” (Mary). 
This interpretive ambiguity may result in part from differences in the wording of the before and after questions.  Because of this difference, it is difficult to assess what students thought before the exercise and to adequately compare that with their responses following the video.  Therefore, one of the things we learned was that in order to make inferences regarding the effectiveness of an exercise from student responses, the same question must be asked at the beginning and end of the teaching process.  Based on student comments in the focus group, we also learned that asking for written responses before doing the Obach exercise shaped participants’ responses to the exercise, making them assume that the exercise related to race. 
In addition, some students felt that the video, running at approximately 37 minutes, dragged on too long and was too “overdramatic” (Patricia), with one referring to it as “pretty after school special” (Mary).  For this reason, this video, or similar videos, may work best in smaller classrooms, as it may be difficult for students to focus on a video which they perceive as slow or overdramatic.  Students did, however, appreciate having the chance to talk seriously and openly about race.  As one wrote, “I liked talking about race in a serious way.  Usually, whenever anyone talks about race they try to make it humorous” (Jason).
Teaching and learning involves a series of complex decisions and practices.  First is ascertaining what understandings are important for students to obtain from the courses and curriculum they take.  The second involves finding and/or developing strategies for teaching those understandings.  These strategies are subject to a number of constraints, including ones set by the length of class periods, class size, and the amount of advance preparation required.  Third is the question of assessing whether students’ understandings of complex and abstract ideas benefit from the strategies used to teach them, and how and why.  This paper has focused on the third question.  It shows the value of using multiple methods for assessing student learning and particular teaching strategies, including before and after essays, discussion questions, and open-ended discussion in focus groups run by someone other than the students’ instructor.  It reveals how focus groups can provide insights into students’ thinking and reveal more about how students perceive a given teaching strategy such as an exercise, game, or film.  Such insights suggest questions about teaching methodology which can lead to more research in the future.  If students respond to a film like Quiet Rage more positively than Race: The Power of an Illusion, what is it about these films that lead to different reactions, and how can this information be used to improve the quality of instructional videos and their use in classrooms in the future? Why do students respond so positively to Sociopoly?  We need continued dialogue and research on all of these questions.  As we better understand which methods are most effective for teaching the main sociological understandings described in (Persell, Pfeiffer, Syed 2007), we can begin to improve teaching methods, and as a result hopefully improve student learning experiences.   We also need to know whether various strategies work differently for different types of students, and why.  Much more needs to be learned before the discipline of sociology, or perhaps any discipline, is ready to conduct meaningful systematic assessments of student understandings.

   The learning goals, outline, and narrative for a course drafted by the Task Force is available at:

  The nine themes were: 1)  Understanding the “social” part of sociology, or learning to think sociologically. 2)  The scientific nature of sociology.  3)  Complex and critical thinking. 4)  The centrality of inequality.  5)  A sense of sociology as a field. 6)  The social construction of ideas.  7)  The difference between sociology and other social sciences.  8)  The importance of trying to improve the world.  9)  Understanding the important social institutions in society.