SOCIOLOGY STUDENTS TELL US ABOUT LEARNING SOCIOLOGY
The goal of my project was to further our understanding of how sociology majors believe they learn the content and skills of the discipline. In addition, I hoped to gather some data on what learning strategies, behaviors, or attitudes correlate with success in the major. Ultimately, my long-term goal is to apply the findings to improve student learning in Sociology. My project was a multi-method adventure involving four studies: focus group, learning logs, face-to-face interviews, and self-administered questionnaires. Students were located on different places on pathways to learning in terms of surface-deep approaches and novice-expert status. In addition, they reported five types of connections to plug them in to learning: interpersonal, across courses, to the discipline, among related ideas/skills, and to their lives and the “real” world. Finally, correlates of success in the major included being young and white, making internal attributions for success, and reporting high rates of class preparation.
Background of the Project
About three years ago, frustrated by what I perceived as inadequate understanding of my discipline and limited sociological expertise by some students in my Sociology senior experience course, it occurred to me that we don't really know how students learn Sociology or develop the sociological imagination, and certainly not from the student's point of view. Thus, the goals of my project were to further our understanding of how sociology majors believe they learn the content and skills of the discipline as well as to gather data on which behaviors or attitudes correlate with success in the major. Past research on learning in Sociology has focused on Introduction to Sociology students and used primarily quantitative methods. Other work has assessed the impact of one specific teaching strategy or assignment. My focus was on sociology senior majors, using primarily qualitative methods, to give the students a voice in telling us how they learn.
Methodologies or Evidence
My project was a multi-method adventure involving four studies. The work is in the tradition of the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), and classroom or program action research. The four studies consist of a focus group of nine sociology senior majors from around the United States, an analysis of the learning logs of eight Illinois State sociology seniors, face-to-face, structured interviews with 21 Illinois State sociology seniors, and self-administered questionnaires completed by 54 Illinois State seniors. Details about the research methods can be found in my final project report.
Learning Log Analysis
This small but fairly diverse group of sociology seniors mentioned learning strategies including making connections, finding relevance of the material to their lives, talking with others, working with peers, interacting with faculty, and reviewing and writing. The students discussed strategies that fit current best practices such as collaboration with peers, obtaining feedback, interaction with faculty, time on task, and active learning. Their ideas on making connections and increasing relevance to their own experiences fit with theory and empirical work on placing new learning in the context of students existing knowledge.
I attempted to look for similarities or differences in the patterns of responses between stronger and weaker students (operationalized using a group of factors). The main difference between these two groups of students in this study was in the quality of the learning log itself. The stronger students had lengthier learning logs with more detailed reflection. They were more likely to be critical of their own study behaviors and to respond to all the probes, as well as to include additional reflections compared to the other students in the class. Whether these differences simply reflect the fact that the stronger students worked harder than others on the learning log because they do so with all their assignments and/or that something about the process of reflection is related to learning or success is not something that can be answered by the data from this study. Some prior research, however, indicates that when engaging in self-assessment (a form of reflection), stronger students are more accurate in that self-assessment.
The three most commonly mentioned study strategies that work best in Sociology were talking with others about the material, using application and real life examples, and various forms of review and repetition. Greater engagement in the discipline of Sociology was significantly related to greater frequency of six positive study/academic behaviors. In this study, measures of success include Sociology GPA, expected senior thesis grade, level of engagement in the discipline, score on a sociological imagination essay question, and measures combining these variables. Age and race, were each related to four of these measures of success in Sociology with younger students and white students having greater success. Making internal attributions for success in Sociology courses, greater frequency of coming to class well prepared and greater frequency of completing all homework on time were each related to more success in Sociology on three measures of success. Thus, this study is hinting at demographic variables, attitudinal variables, and study behaviors that may distinguish more and less successful Sociology students.
Summary of Results
FIVE TYPES OF CONNECTIONS PLUG STUDENTS INTO LEARNING
THREE CONTINUA OF THE LOCATION OF STUDENTS ON THE PATH OF LEARNING
Less to More - Success in the Major & Developing the Sociological Imagination
Surface to Deep - Learning Strategies and Epistemologies
Novice to Expert - Learners/Learning
The Focus Group Study
These honors students expressed thoughts about learning that often fit with models about learning in the higher education literature including the importance of experiential and active learning, the role of developmental factors, the constructivist nature of knowledge, the need for integrated learning, and the importance of interpersonal relationships. Additionally, the students comments confirmed some of the seven principles of good practice in undergraduate education including cooperation among students, active learning, student-faculty contact, prompt feedback from others, and respect for diverse talents and learning styles. With few exceptions, the responses of these successful students pointed to their ability to acknowledge their role in learning and to make internal attributions for their successes. They also highlighted some particular behaviors that they believed positively impacted their learning including attending class, writing, reading, and reflecting. The strongest theme in this conversation, however, was connections. Students noted the importance to their learning of making connections with peers and faculty, between in- and out-of-class learning opportunities, among courses, over time, between lecture and readings, between the abstract and the concrete, and between material and their lives.
These students pointed to application and relevance as key to learning the discipline. Most also indicated they used one or more study techniques involving some form of repetition, rewriting, note taking/organizing, and reviewing. Interactions with peers and instructors were often reported as important for learning as were completing readings and other assignments, and attending class. These students indicated that core required courses were often a source of difficulty in learning sociology. They also tended to report the use of fairly similar learning strategies for sociology in general, for the sociological imagination specifically, for difficulties in learning sociology, and for learning in other disciplines. Exceptions were the tendency for a larger percentage of students to report using interpersonal strategies (getting help from faculty and peers) and a smaller percentage of students to report use of application and examples when they are having a difficulty in their learning compared to learning sociology in general.
Quotes from Students in the Studies
“I did not do any preparation before class. Sometimes I look over the material, but usually I go to class unprepared because I find it easier to learn if it is fresh in my brain. It is difficult to teach the material to myself.”
“Professors outside of the classroom can be a lot more helpful than inside the classroom; the guard is let down and the relationship is more of a mutual respect, not the professor lecturing or deciding on your collective academic ‘fate’.”
“To gain more knowledge, I go to [outside] lectures relevant to course material. I recently joined AKDÃ¢â‚¬Â¦I think that this will help me meet and interact with a lot more people within the major.”
“I tend to learn concepts best when I can apply them to my life or some aspect of the world.”
“Senior Experience also proves difficult to me, I think, because of it being a capstone course that has used other courses as building blocks up to it. This is somewhat troubling for me because I have throughout my academic career [found] that it is difficult for me to retain knowledge from each course for long periods of time. I have heard many students talk about this problem.”
Challenges, Pitfalls, and Future Work
Challenges or pitfalls of this project include that it was difficult to operationalize a “successful” learner of Sociology and the small sample sizes may have limited some analyses.
We must focus, now, on designing studies to assess whether these strategies, perceived by students as effective for learning our discipline, actually are effective, when, for whom, and what processes underlay that effectiveness. In addition, we need to extend this work to at least two other populations: 1. majors who are struggling to learn and succeed in the discipline and 2. Sociology students on other campuses. Finally, I hope to conduct related research on engagement in the discipline and on the development of the sociological imagination over the course of the major.