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Student Centered Teaching in Sociology & Classroom Power

What is student centered teaching in sociology?

As college instructors, many of us have been exposed to the concept of “student-centered learning.” I actually find this term to be harsh, placing undo responsibility on students. I am sure we can all relate to being in a learning environment where we felt inferior or an obvious sense of a hierarchical power structure. For most of us, this power dynamic likely impacted our performance.

I believe as professors and instructors we can shift this framework, by checking our own assumptions and attitudes related to teaching. One easy step we can take is to change our language around pedagogy starting changing the traditional “student-centered learning” to “student centered teaching.”

One tool that I have used throughout my career to work toward a model of student-centered teaching is social media. You can read about how I have come to use Twitter assignments in the classroom and my five reasons to use Twitter in the sociology classroom, but in this piece I will to focus on my student-centered philosophy and how I have structurally implemented it in the classroom.

Social media and student centered teaching

What I Learned from Graduate Seminars on Teaching Sociology

As I was training to become a sociology instructor, I was fortunate to be able to take two separate graduate-level seminars specific to “teaching sociology” and I received on-the-job training as a Teaching Assistant in well over a dozen college courses. Through all of these experiences, I often heard about “student-centered learning.” It was not until I attended a conference session on teaching sociology where I was made aware of the alternative, did I truly understand the concept of teaching from the perspective of students.

More or less this discussion revolves around regular topics of concern for sociology instructors. “How do we make students read?,” “Talk in class?,” “Do their homework?,” or just generally show interest in sociology? Arguments made in the Teaching Sociology session, support the idea of increasing “rigor,” being more authoritative, or even tricking students into course engagement. Overall, sociologists who teach from this perspective expect their students to find interest in outdated textbooks, abstract journal articles, nap-worthy lectures, and forced “class discussions.”

The tendency, then, is to find solutions that penalize students for poor work, rather than incentivizing students for good work.

My Philosophical Assumptions about Teaching Sociology and Student Centered Teaching

My teaching philosophy differs from many of these “old school” hardliners. Before I get into my student-centered teaching philosophy, I will first present a list of philosophical assumptions that I make in my course design.

1. I trust my students

The first assumption that I make when I am designing and teaching sociology courses is that students want to know something about society. Perhaps they do not have the same questions that interest me, textbooks or current journal publications, but I truly believe that if you put sociology in the hands of young people, they will use it to answer questions.

This is why I teach students to see the world through different perspectives rather than memorize terminology. Even as professional sociologists we all have to look up certain terms, equations, or theories. This is after years of coursework, obviously the memorization technique does not work. This is why I trust that given the resources, students will engage in such a way that improves their futures, as well as produces a better educational environment in the classroom.

2. I trust sociology

I understand the level of rigor that goes into sociological research. There are flaws in academia, but producing enough knowledge is not one. This is why I teach my classes with the assumption that sociological knowledge is valuable, and if applied will improve the well-being of people.

Too often, classes are being taught from the perspective of a life-long academic sociologist. There are very few of our students, especially in lower division courses, who want to get a PhD in sociology and spend their careers writing journal articles, but I trust the discipline of sociology to offer insight to students in a wide variety of career paths. In other words, I do not feel obligated to use gimmicks or sales pitches, to demand interest.

Strategy for Implementing Student Centered Teaching

My overall philosophy when teaching sociology is to put its theories and methods in the hands of young people and give them goals to achieve. This is a stark contrast from any teaching philosophy that “makes” students do things. For example, I do not give students any assessment of their reading progress, rather I give them goals that require they know the information contained in the reading.

Thoughts on Rigor in the Sociology Classroom

I am really drawn to conversations about student outcomes and assessment. Students rarely perceive my class as “hard.” As evidence you can see my 2 out of 5 rating for Level of Difficulty on Rate My Professor, but seriously, I hear student “rumblings.”

I actually take some pride in the “easy professor” label, but I am able to because at the end of each semester, I have a collection of works that demonstrate each student being able to apply theoretical, methodological, and philosophical sociology to their lives and careers.

Luke Hanna

Luke is Applied Worldwide’s co-founder and CEO. He received his M.A. degree in Applied Sociology from the University of Northern Colorado and conducts community-based research, writing about topics such as Islamophobia, urbanism, and racial inequality. Luke is a veteran of the US Navy and has over six years of experience teaching sociology at the college level, during which he has developed innovative teaching methods incorporating the use of social media in the sociology classroom.