Participating Actively to Shape What Comes Next

Photo from 1909 showing two girls wearing banners that read "ABOLISH CHILD SLAVERY" in english and yiddish.

Children at the 1909 May Day parade in New York City protesting child slavery. This course discusses the history of youth political activism and participation in the United States. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress. This image is in the public domain.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Students writing their own exam questions? Students submitting questions that will guide discussions in class? Students running discussions based on their own presentations?

What’s going on here? Has the world been turned on its head? Students actively shaping their own education?

Such are the techniques that Professor Jennifer Light uses to teach STS.080 Youth Political Participation, a course that has just been published on OCW. The course surveys young Americans’ participation in political activism over the past 200 years and assesses the impact of young people’s media production and technology on politics.

Why Get Students So Involved?

Professor Light explains the thinking behind her innovative approach to instruction in the Instructor Insights on her This Course at MIT page.

Having students write exam questions, that’s something Professor Light has some experience with, having done this for 20 years. Why? “It encourages students to take a more active role in their own education, consider how course content is related to their own interests, and figure out exactly what they have learned in the class.”

The discussion questions she requires students to send not only ensure that the discussions will be of interest to them, but the questions allow Professor Light to see how well students understand the readings, which are extensive. Writing questions also allows students to let her know when they are confused, without opening themselves to embarrassment in front of the entire class.

The student-led presentations in the Spring 2016 course addressed topics assigned by Professor Light and ranged from young people’s participation in World War I to conservative youth movements to the relationships between cultural and political expression. The presentations “sparked many conversations in class about how to define what ‘counts’ as political participation,” which interestingly “reflects the newly developing consensus that we need to revise our scholarly understandings of the meanings of political participation, past and present.”

How Do Students See It?

And how do the students view all this participatory classwork that Professor Light demands of them? You can see one student’s reflections about her own learning experiences in STS.080 on the This Course at MIT page.

Professor Light’s approach seems to have worked beautifully. Regarding the exam questions, the student says, “Even modern history can seem detached from students’ lives when we are learning it, but in this way, Professor Light made what we had just learned applicable to something we cared about. Not only that, but it made it easier to remember and to appreciate the history as well!”

What else can you say but, “Right on!”?

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