Transforming Teaching Through Active Learning: Case Studies from the Social Sciences

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 16–17, 2018

Stetson University
Miami, Florida


This paper examines case studies of active learning pedagogical techniques in the social sciences.  Whereas active and applied learning strategies have been around for some time, recent changes in the academy, our students, and the world make implementing some form of active learning, especially in subjects such as business and economics, the social sciences and the humanities, imperative. It is almost universally accepted that, for our twenty-first century students, the time is right to switch from purely teacher-based delivery of content to learning activities performed by students. This includes reaching our students through reading, writing, discussing, role-playing, listening, and reflecting. Active learning can also include specially designed games, capstone courses, and internships. Our analysis provides an overview of some of the active learning strategies we have employed at Farmingdale State College, SUNY, and their success as transformative teaching pedagogies.

Overview of Some of the Literature

Pedagogy and teaching methodologies in the social sciences and business have changed significantly over the past twenty years. The traditional lecture-based model of teaching supported by a series of in-class exams, classroom discussion of readings and course material, and supplemented with a research paper of varying length depending on the specific field, has given way to the realities of teaching Generation Z. While the effectiveness of the traditional lecture-based course is subject to debate, a whole new set of pedagogies embracing a range of technologies and modalities has emerged and proven to be not only more effective in reaching our students, but also better able to engage our students in the subject matter content.

Within the fields of business and economics, there has been a significant movement to introduce and use popular culture as a teaching tool. One of the methods embraced is the use of video clips from popular television shows. Hall and Pemska-Mickluch (2016) present the case of using clips from The Simpsons, Fox’s long-running cartoon series that is still popular. These clips tell a story in a way that engages students and keeps the subject matter approachable—economics in this case. After viewing episodes or clips of the show, students are asked to respond to and analyze the economic dimensions of the story, making the material more interesting and relevant to the students than when simply basing the discussion on historic facts and data.

Micheletto (2011) presented the case of the introduction of classroom experiments that are illustrative of key concepts in the field of economics, and that require students to use an audience response system to provide input. This process not only generates data, but it also creates an atmosphere where students are engaged and part of the process of generating knowledge. Onyema and Danil (2017) focus on the use of information and communications technology (ICT) in the classroom. They present the case for leveraging mobile devices for content delivery and flipped learning, and to convert the classroom into an active environment for knowledge creation by their students.

Hauhart and Grahe (2010) focus on the growing importance and use of the capstone course experience in the fields of sociology and psychology. In the capstone, students are expected to integrate, apply, and extend core concepts and skills developed during their studies.

The discussion above presents only a small portion of the growing body of literature on the various emerging methods that can be employed to reach our students. It is apparent though, that at their core, these methods focus on moving classroom teaching from passive lecture-based models to student-oriented active learning models.

Active Learning in the Social Sciences- Some Successful Examples.

Table 1 presents a range of examples and cases of active learning pedagogical techniques in the social sciences. Many of these methods have been applied in the classroom at Farmingdale. This active-learning approach includes reaching our students through reading, writing, discussing, role-playing, listening, and reflecting.  Active learning can also include specially designed games, capstone courses, and internships.

Table 1: Applied Learning in the Social Sciences: Some Successful Examples
Reacting to the Past: Pioneered at Barnard College, New York, Reacting consists of elaborate games set in the past in which students are assigned roles with “victory objectives” informed by classic texts in the history of ideas. (
Washington Internship Institute: Students receive credit from their home institution while interning in Washington D.C. in subjects such as environmental studies, history and the humanities, criminal justice/pre-law, biology, and health care. (
Short-Term Study Abroad: Students take a Farmingdale course with a Farmingdale instructor while visiting and experiencing another culture.
Applied Empirical Research Projects (Capstone courses): Students integrate a wide range of concepts, methods, and techniques from their specific field of study in the completion of a research project that may culminate with classroom/public presentations, multi-media presentations, or presentations at a research conference.
Business and Economic Simulations: Business simulations lead the student to apply concepts, methods, and techniques studied and acquired through their studies to make, apply, and reflect upon decisions to a situation leading to a range of potential outcomes.
Audience Response Systems
Introduction and Use of Popular Culture
Mock Trials (Ahmadov, 2011)
Flipped Classroom and Use of Personal Electronic Devices

Study abroad travel experiences expose students to other places, peoples, and cultures and are the surest way to get our students to think globally.  Further, study-abroad promotes global citizenship. Study abroad is also a form of applied learning, and required for graduation at some colleges and universities in the United States.  Farmingdale State College students are non-traditional, often first-time college students with full-time jobs.   For these students, a full-semester traditional study abroad program is not an option for them.  Therefore, we developed short-term study abroad options where students take a class with a one-week study abroad component (such as over spring break or the Thanksgiving holiday recess). Whereas employers are somewhat ambivalent about the “cultural and global competencies” that study-abroad curricula try to inculcate, research has shown that if students can clearly articulate how a study-abroad experience has developed or strengthened their interpersonal communication and leadership skills, they are more likely to be hired (Harder, 2015, p. 41). Our courses were designed to do both: to strengthen communication and leadership skills, while developing students’ cultural and global competencies.   All of these skills are components of active learning paradigms.

Travel Courses at Farmingdale State College conform to Kolb’s Active Learning matrix, which cycles through stages of Concrete Experience; Reflective Observation; Abstract Conceptualization; and Active Experimentation. Concrete Experience occurs through the travel component of the course. Students make Reflective Observations in the raw travel journals they are required to maintain and submit at the end of the semester.  Abstract Conceptualizations are prompted by the critical thinking questions students answer in response to the workbook (which is the midterm) and textbook (which they write about in their journals) assigned for the class.  Active Experimentation occurs through further critical thinking questions based on instructor comments on student journals, and through subsequent revision of those journals. The bulk of the writing and reflection for these classes takes place before and after the travel component is completed.

As part of their reflection students are asked to answer the question: What do you think you learned from this particular study-abroad class that you could not have learned from a regular, formal, lecture course?  After an initial review by the instructor, students are allowed to take more time to revise their journals and reflect on and revise their answers to specific questions before final submission.  The journals become more than just a travel diary; they became a scholarly review.  Therefore, this course has demanded a writing intensive designation. Above all, constant writing, reflection, and revision, as well as discussion, has made this class a serious academic seminar and experiential learning experience.

Reacting to the Past ( is an innovative active learning pedagogy Farmingdale instructors have incorporated into their social sciences courses, especially history classes.  Pioneered at Barnard College, New York, by noted historian Mark Carnes, the Reacting to the Past Consortium now consists of over 500 colleges and universities.  The Reacting to the Past exercises consist of classroom games set in the past. Students are assigned roles with “victory objectives” based on assigned readings of classic texts. Reacting to the Past exercises allow students to become the historical actors they are reading about.  The exercises place students into the historical situations they are studying: “Students learn by taking on roles, informed by classic texts, in elaborate games set in the past; they learn skills—speaking, writing, critical thinking, problem solving, leadership, and teamwork—in order to prevail in difficult and complicated situations.” Reacting to the Past roles have no “fixed script and outcome.”  Students are required “to adhere to the philosophical and intellectual beliefs of the historical figures they have been assigned to play, they must devise their own means of expressing those ideas persuasively, in papers, speeches, or other public presentations; and students must also pursue a course of action they think will help them win the game.”  Several Farmingdale instructors have participated in Reacting to the Past seminars, which are held every year in New York and around the country, and used this pedagogy very effectively in their classes.  Faculty and students have noted that Reacting to the Past gave them a different and broader perspective on the material and issues under discussion.

Internships are an important component of active learning. Farmingdale State College has partnered with the Washington Internship Institute as one venue for internship opportunities for our students. The Washington Internship Institute offers a wide variety of internships in government offices, nonprofit organizations, and for-profit companies. Recent Farmingdale students have been placed at the IRS, the non-profit No Labels, The Center for American Democracy, CNN, the Iraqi Embassy, and Capitol Hill offices.  The four-day-per-week internship is supplemented by two courses: an internship seminar and an extra course selected by the student.  The Washington Internship faculty include top policy professionals and leading academics, who guide students in examining policy issues. They also utilize their extensive academic and professional connections to enrich courses with a variety of notable guest speakers and site visits.  Students receive credit from their home institution while interning in Washington, D.C. in subjects such as environmental studies, history and the humanities, criminal justice/pre-law, biology and health care, etc. (

Assessment of all of these active learning tools is crucial.  All of these active learning strategies conform to Kolb’s Learning Cycle model in that each includes Concrete Experience, Reflective Observation, Abstract Conceptualization, and Active Experimentation.  Kolb’s model informs our approach to assessment.


Over the past decade, colleges and university professors have had to find new ways to guide their students. The traditional “sage on the stage” model of instruction does not resonate with the reality that every student has access to a wide array of facts and knowledge right at their fingertips. Our task has moved to one of guiding our students in how to interpret, analyze, and present this vast set of facts and knowledge. The active-learning processes that we have presented above demonstrate the myriad of techniques that are now being applied in the classroom—all meant to better aid our students in gaining the knowledge and skills that they will need to be successful after leaving the college classroom.


Ahmadov, A. (2011). When great minds don’t think alike: Using mock trials in teaching political thought. PS: Political Science and Politics, 44(3), 625-628.

Hall, J. C., Peck, A., & Podemska-Mickluch, M. (2016). Bringing active learning into high school economics: Some examples from The SimpsonsJournal of Economics and Economic Education Research, 17(2), 55-63.

Harder, A., et al. (2015, March). Does study abroad increase employability? NACTA Journal, 41-48.

Hauhart, R.C., & Grahe, J. (2010). The undergraduate capstone course in the social sciences: Results from a regional survey. Teaching Sociology, 38(1), 4-17.

Micheletto, M. J. (2011). Conducting a classroom mini-experiment using an audience response system: Demonstrating the isolation effect. Journal of College Teaching and Learning, 8(8), 1-13.

Onyema, O.G., & Daniil, P. (2017). Educating the 21st-century learners: Are educators using appropriate learning models for honing skills in the mobile age? Journal of Entrepreneurship Education, 20(2), 1-15.

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Spring 2019: Transforming Teaching Through Active Learning