Transforming Pedagogies, Practices, and Products: Innovations for Quality Education

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 18–19, 2011

University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras and University of the Sacred Heart
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Our commitment to teaching includes multiple active learning strategies. This excerpt from our panel, Transforming Pedagogies, Practices, and Products, highlights five innovative ways to enhance the traditional classroom format from lectures to meaningful hands-on activities. As a cross-disciplinary panel, represented by literature, sociology, political science, mass communication and visual arts, we believe that these concepts can be easily adapted to meet the learning needs of students and professors in all disciplines. In this piece, each author presents a specific strategy and provides several clear examples of application. More specifically, Professor Deas outlines a concept she calls the tangible product, a scaffolding method designed to allow students to gain increasingly sophisticated analytical and critical thinking skills. Dr. Waldron-Moore, Dr. Alice E. Stephens, and Dr. Martin use role play, social media and case studies, respectively, to facilitate active student engagement. Through these methods, they help students create meaningful relationships between themselves and the real world. Finally, Dr. Lawton demonstrates how the use of a universal rubric is an essential tool for administrators, professors, and students alike to simplify course assessment.

Pia Deas: The Tangible Product

In my composition and literature classrooms, I structure my courses on a concept that I call the “tangible product,” an assignment that requires students to apply the skills they acquire over a semester. The projects vary, but have included magazines, performances, anthologies, and student-led conferences. Through a series of carefully scaffolded activities and assignments, students prepare a large-scale product that shows their abilities to analyze, synthesize, and apply course material. The best tangible products require students to combine research, writing, visuals, and even music effectively into sophisticated products that imaginatively reconfigure the course content. Ultimately, these products create students who are skillful, imaginative, and empowered creators of knowledge. Below, I detail two tangible product assignments I have created.

In freshman composition, I teach students to write effectively for diverse audiences. The course includes a revision assignment. Initially, students had incredible difficulty substantially revising an essay. Instead, students focused on relatively minor revisions—correcting commas or changing the title. Using the “tangible product” lens, I re-envisioned the assignment. Inspired by the underground ‘zine movement, I created an assignment that asked students to produce a ‘zine. In groups, students were asked to select a specific audience for their ‘zine and then revise a previous paper, so that it now fit seamlessly and effectively into the group’s ‘zine. In order to fit her essay into a ‘zine designed for teenage girls, one student rewrote her literacy narrative (on her work as a budding animal pathologist) into an essay to encourage teen girls to pursue scientific fields. Her group, at first, could not imagine her original essay fitting the selected audience, but her revisions were so effective, it fit in perfectly.

My goal in my literature survey classrooms is to introduce students to major authors through a chronological survey, but I don’t want them to miss the larger themes that transcend specific periods. Therefore, in African-American literature, for example, students design a group performance aimed to highlight a specific theme such as freedom, migration, or African religions. Then, they combine large-scale visual backdrops, spoken texts, and song to create dynamic performances. As preparation, the students conduct research, read literature, write annotated bibliographies, and produce scripts.

The “tangible product” effectively demonstrates to students and to me all they have learned. Students are proud of their knowledge and hard work, and appreciate each other’s creative, professional approaches to the material. Moreover, both professors and students now have evidence of learning that both groups can use in job materials, interviews, and portfolios. The “tangible product” concept is infinitely adaptable to all disciplines.

Pamela Waldron-Moore: Role Play as Pedagogy

As a political scientist with specialization in comparative politics and international relations, I value the ideal of global citizenship and educating minority students to become active global citizens. Such citizenship requires students to be aware of the world around them and their place in it; to understand how the world works socially, politically, culturally and economically, to recognize and value diversity, and to seek equity and justice for people everywhere. Global citizenship requires individual responsibility for sustainable development. It is difficult to teach such values in abstraction. Just as an artist cannot capture the beauty of sunset over the Grand Canyon by simply reading about it, our students cannot relate to the lives of citizens and practices of governments away from their local communities or imagine becoming part of the solution for a better world. Role-play provides a vicarious lens that transforms the college classroom.

Imagine a course in international relations where a student addresses a plethora of issues in an attempt to prescribe solutions for a sustainable earth. Students may read much in their texts but encounter difficulty formulating personal notions about what such knowledge contributes to their and others’ lives.

Employing the art of role play as a pedagogical tool allows students to switch citizenship to equip them with the transforming experience of walking in another’s shoes. Students select the country they want to represent and study as much about that country as possible. They consider multiple aspects of the adopted country and learn to think not as Americans but as spokespersons of the adopted country. This strategy requires understanding the policy-making strategies, needs, and political philosophy of that territory.

Although initially students balk at the enormity of the exercise, they soon revel in their new roles. The challenge becomes fun. Students learn when learning is fun. They assume a stature of self-confidence. Believing that they are more informed than anyone else in the classroom on their country’s beliefs, actions, and challenges heightens their self-esteem.

The technique of role play in the international relations classroom serves multiple purposes. It transforms thinking and develops in students a superb way to explore new information and refine career choices. Role play breaks down stereotypes, teaches equity and tolerance, and exemplifies respect for diversity. It has encouraged students to seek careers in domestic and international public policy.

The number of students who leave the role play classroom and choose careers in the global arena speaks volumes for the success of role play as a pedagogical tool. Role play can be engaged in any discipline. Its transformative power ignites passion for justice and equity, helps students locate themselves in the human family, and motivates them to become architects of a sustainable global environment.

Alice E. Stephens: Social Media as Pedagogy

Transforming passive viewers who look at visual media into active consumers who can see and evaluate the visual media they consume was the aim of a civic engagement module developed in the college course, African-American Images in the Media that analyzed and critiqued the use of negative racial stereotypes (Stephens, 2009).

Students created and delivered community lecture presentations on topics related to the representations of African Americans in the mass media, thus taking the classroom into the community. This final project engaged students in difficult course content while training them as change agents for empowering their audiences to process media messages critically and articulate experiences of “double consciousness” when encountering negative stereotypical representations of themselves in popular visual media thus increasing their media literacy.

Establishing connections between Africa and the African Diaspora was the goal of a three-part African nation presentation assignment that served as a precursor to the community lectures. Students were instructed to focus on the ancient past, colonial period leading to independence, and present day of selected countries. Early efforts resulted in passive internet searches focused solely on the colonial period, which reinforced media stereotypes of Africa and its citizens.

Using Zeleza’s notion that remembering, imagining, and engaging the original homeland is a critical measure of the Diaspora identity, and that the African Diaspora experience can be characterized as a state of being, a process of becoming, a consciousness located between the “here” and “there” (2009), students were re-directed and encouraged to include social media such as Facebook as an interactive global research tool to connect with citizens of their African nation. As a result, students became more engaged which lead to improved presentations and increased geographic knowledge of the African continent.

In the case reported here, students who used social network as an interactive communication research tool became more deeply engaged in course activities. The links established with global citizens of their assigned African nations using social media gave students first-hand knowledge and a better understanding of the citizens of Africa, and allowed students to successfully connect their knowledge of the African Diaspora to the global media portrayals of African-descended people.

Rosalee Martin: Case Studies—Life Applications

Case studies have been used as a teaching technique for generations. The use of case studies allows students to rethink validity of individual analysis in group discussions. Furthermore, case analysis reinforces the critical thinking skills of problem solving, value clarification, and effective communication. Students are expected to apply cases to course context, testing their understanding of critical concepts and theories. Cases are found in textbooks, current events, social media, videos, YouTube, and are created by students and the professors. Cases vary in size and content depending upon the objectives and learning outcomes.

The beauty of using case studies is that it is not limited to a specific course, but can be adapted to various courses. As a sociologist, I have used case study analysis in the following courses: Introduction to Sociology, Interventive Methods in Social Work, Minority Group Relations, Conflict Resolution, Marriage and Family, Human Sexuality, Senior Seminar, and others. In order to get students to analyze race relations in the U.S., I had students select a case study of O.J. Simpson, Rodney King, or the Jena Six. Students did extensive studies of the specific case and then met in groups with other students who also study that person. The discussion was based on provided questions as well as group-driven issues. Each group then reported findings to the class as a whole. Students evaluated this approach as a creative way to study black/white relations. Another assignment given was to present issues related to bullying or suicide creatively. Students were to view several YouTube videos on the specific issues prior to completing their assignment. The results were phenomenal—poems, videos, posters, short stories and others. A student wrote a poem called Suicide has a Face. It was about a close friend who committed suicide just a year earlier. She felt somewhat guilty about not preventing it. A line from her poem is “He feared that no one was here for him or wanted to hear from him so his water colors of pain turned into mass presents of dark colored calligraphy, His eyes watered like oceans of ray reflecting sun beams…” Another student evaluated the course as follows: “this assignment was very real and very personal. All my life I’ve been the outcast. I’ve been made fun of and I’ve been bullied. I reached a point in my life where I believed I was worthless and in valuable . . .I’ve had so many suicidal thoughts…I thank God (I didn’t). This assignment gets a 10…it is my favorite one of the semester.”

My Marriage and Family class analyzed a case study I wrote related to marriage dynamics; my social work class analyzed the same case from a counseling perspective. Human Sexuality students had to enact a couple’s contract with his or her significant other. This required the couple to spend time with each other and to discuss critical relational issues including finances. There are numerous other examples of how case studies have been effectively used as a teaching pedagogy in my classes.

Saadia N. Lawton: Progressive Learning Patterns and the Universal Rubric

Charged to make our teaching methods and grading policies transparent to students, in recent decades, educators have become consumed by the enigma of assessment. Ushered in with a variety of new terms and tools, the products of student learning must be measureable. However, despite our best intentions, we are often confounded by ways to bridge the gap between policy (syllabus and rubrics), practice (teaching methods), process (direct measures), and the products (student’s skills evinced by their work and administrative reports).

Most university core classes provide a breadth of knowledge in a particular field. These introductory courses showcase the rich depth of the field in a way that entices prospective majors and minors, and function as auxiliary to an alternative study. A well designed course affords students the opportunity to hone a particular skill. In the case of an interdisciplinary field such as art history, my courses help students to master (visual) analysis. Like many of my colleagues who employ a scaffold approach to learning, my teaching methods include up to ten diverse non-traditional pedagogical approaches to develop analyses. My philosophy to narrow the scope and design course materials with one goal in mind allows students to develop and hone their analytical skills at each progressive stage. Each “tangible product” within the scaffold is designed to test student’s knowledge in a format that reinforces their strengths and challenges their ability to showcase analyses in a different format. Graded on a consistent point system that correlates with a letter grade, my universal rubric is used throughout the semester to reduce potential confusion that multiple rubrics can cause. Thus, my administrative reports reflect a dynamic pedagogy and evince the progressive learning patterns of each student measured by my universal rubric (Appendix A; if you adapt the universal rubric, please give credit to Dr. Lawton). Equally importantly, in my courses, students internalize the standards of the field through the rubric. To demonstrate this understanding, I have them score each other and then average their scores to give each student a final grade on the presentation. This has been remarkably successful and students have proven to be accurate and fair critics and evaluators of each other’s work.

If the syllabus is our contract, then the rubric constitutes the clause used to evaluate student learning. The intense mania that revolves around rubric construction is often followed by a paralysis that stymies pedagogical creativity. In my professional opinion, the more clauses you have the greater complications you and your students will encounter. If you employ a scaffold method, then consider no more than two rubrics in your courses: one that addresses the overarching standards for the field, the other allows you to score (and later assess) the skills you expect students to master at the semester’s end.


We believe that designing effective active learning strategies is an essential aspect of creating dynamic classroom learning experiences for our students. In our experience, educators must pay careful attention to course conceptualization, design, and scaffolding so that students are successfully brought into the learning process. Moreover, a thorough understanding of specific strategies, including, but not limited to, role play, social media and case studies, allows us as teachers to excite and engage students in the material. The results are extraordinary as students take part in imaginative ways that challenge them to think critically and engage the world in positive ways. Then, through careful documentation and assessment, we evaluate our methods and continue to strengthen our approach. Ultimately, we incorporate best practices in order to deliver a quality education that meets the overall educational mission of the institution.


Andrews, G. R. ( 2008). Diaspora Crossings Afro-Latin America in the Afro-Atlantic. Latin American Research Review, 43(3), 209-224.

Dates, J. L. & Barlow, W. (1993). (Eds.) Split Image: African Americans in the Mass Media. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press.

Martin, T. (1993). Garvey and Scattered Africa. In Joseph Harris (Ed.) Global Dimensions of the African Diaspora (pp. 441-514). Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press.

Stephens, A. E. (2008). Community Lecture Presentations. Research presentation at the 8th Annual Lilly Conference on College and University Teaching in Traverse City, Michigan.

Stephens, A. E. (2009). Extending the College Classroom into the Community: Using Community Lecture Presentations to Create Media Literacy – A Case Study. Unpublished research paper presented at the 4th Annual Arts In Society International Conference, Venice, Italy.

Zeleza, P. T. (2009). Africa and Its Diasporas: Remembering South America. Research in African Literatures, 40(4), 142-164.

Zeleza, P. T. (2010). African Diasporas: Towards a Global History. African Studies Review, 53(1), 1-9.

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Spring 2012: Emerging Pedagogies for the New Millennium