Jennifer S. Hunt (Buffalo State College)
Please note: Instructors are welcome to use or adapt these teaching ideas for their own classes, provided the use is noncommercial and appropriate credit is given.
To: (1) strengthen academic skills involving library research, persuasive writing, and oral communication; (2) understand social problems related to women, gender, and sexuality; (3) learn how to identify and evaluate effective interventions for social problems; (4) achieve greater self-efficacy about contributing to social change and justice
In this action teaching assignment, students make an optional $5 donation to create a "grant fund" for addressing an important social problem related to gender or sexuality. Each student then identifies a specific problem of interest, such as lack of education for girls in developing nations, human trafficking, or the bullying of GLBT youth. Next, students conduct library research about the scope and causes of their chosen problem, identify effective interventions, and write a mini-grant proposal advocating that the collected money be used to fund a particular intervention. In the last phase of the assignment, students briefly summarize their proposal in an oral presentation to the class, after which they vote to decide which proposal should receive the pooled grant money. Once the class has selected a grant proposal for funding, the money is donated to an organization that carries out the intervention identified by the student, and a letter accompanying the donation explains how the organization was selected and includes the names of all class members who donated funds.
Background and Rationale
Students often express a general desire to "make the world a better place." However, there are many reasons why they may not act on this goal. Students may not have an in-depth understanding of important societal problems and the various psychological factors that contribute to them. Even if they know about an issue, they may not understand how the research and theories they are learning in their classes can contribute to effective solutions. Students also may question whether one person — especially someone who is young or not affluent — can make a meaningful difference. This action teaching assignment uses a simulated grant process to help students learn about effective ways to address societal problems and understand how small actions by individuals can result in social change and justice.
Description of the Grant Assignment
I developed a grant assignment for my introductory college course on gender, although it could be adapted quite easily for other classes. In my course, students examine social issues related to women, sexuality, and gender in the U.S. and abroad from psychological and other disciplinary perspectives.
When the grant assignment is introduced, students are asked to select a problem related to women, sexuality, or gender that they believe is particularly important. Students are also asked to contribute $5 to create a "grant fund" that will be used to help address one of the problems selected by a class member. This donation is framed as a small, manageable donation that could be accomplished by, for example, giving up a minor luxury (e.g., a latte coffee). The instructor donates money to the grant fund as well.
For the grant assignment, students conduct library research to learn more about their chosen problems, including social and psychological factors that contribute to their persistence. They also identify interventions that have some demonstrated effectiveness in addressing those issues. Based on this knowledge, they write a mini-grant proposal in which they discuss their problem, present a potentially effective solution, and argue that the class grant money should be used to fund the intervention.
After the papers are submitted, students summarize their proposal in a brief oral presentation to the class (approximately 4 minutes long). After hearing all of the presentations, the class votes on which proposal should receive the pooled grant money. The money is then donated to an organization that carries out the intervention identified by the student. A letter [changing-the-world-letter.pdf] accompanying the donation explains how the organization was selected and includes the names of all class members who donated funds.
This assignment incorporates many aspects of action teaching. It increases awareness of social problems related to gender and sexuality, an understanding of psychological and social factors that underlie these problems, and insight into how effective interventions are developed. It also helps students to see how small actions by individuals (e.g., $5 donations) can collectively contribute to social change. Finally, it helps students develop skills such as library research, persuasive writing, and oral communication, and gives them an introduction to the grants process.
Student Reactions and Evidence of Effectiveness
Student reactions to the grant assignment have been very positive. In my course on gender, students identified a wide range of social problems, including sex trafficking, maternal health care, negative body messages in the media, bullying of GLBT youth, and lack of education for girls in developing countries. In addition to cultivating a solid understanding of these issues, students identified some excellent methods and programs to combat them, such as the Fistula Foundation, the Polaris Project (human trafficking), and media literacy programs. Although there was substantial support for several proposals, the class ultimately voted to give their grant money to the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, which provides educational opportunities for girls in South Africa. In all, $150 was donated ($115 from 23 students and $35 from the instructor), an outcome that was later publicized in a campus news story about the student whose proposal was chosen.
Throughout the grant assignment, students were excited that the class would actually help address a problem related to women, gender, or sexuality. Not surprisingly, they were less enthusiastic about conducting library research and writing a paper. However, knowing that they could potentially win grant money and support a personally meaningful cause helped motivate students. Most students put a lot of effort into their proposals and oral presentations. The quality of the presentations was apparent to other class members, and many students stated that it was hard to select a single program to support, given so many good options. Some students suggested asking for larger donations in future semesters, so that more than one grant could be awarded.
The primary assessment of the grant assignment involved open-ended responses to questions about what the students had learned. Student comments included:
- "Opened my eyes to many problems concerning gender, sex, and feminism I wasn't aware of."
- "I learned about things I didn't know existed, i.e., developing countries and women's maladies."
- "[Became] aware and conscious of gender issues that still go on."
- "Challenging but inspiring/educational."
- "It gave me a new perspective to look at things."
- "Challenged me to critically think and to understand issues outside my own."
In addition, students frequently stated that they increased their skills in library research, writing, and oral communication.
Although overall class evaluations were not intended to be an assessment measure for the grant assignment, it is notable that introducing the assignment substantially improved students' overall rating of the course (M = 4.70, corresponding to "Excellent") compared to the previous class offering (M = 3.86, corresponding to "Good"), even though the change increased students' workload.
Tips on Implementation
Given all the components of the grant assignment (i.e., library research, written proposal, oral presentation, grant selection), it is important to start early in the academic term to ensure adequate time for completion. Depending on student level, it may be useful to require intermediate steps, such as outlines, to facilitate feedback at early stages.
It also is helpful to provide students with guidelines on selecting a proposal to be funded. Students should be encouraged to consider the importance of the problem, effectiveness of the proposed intervention, and degree to which funding will make a difference, rather than just the quality of the oral presentation.
Finally, it may be useful to provide introductory readings or other materials that expose students to contemporary social problems related to the course topic. For example, many students believe that gender discrimination is no longer a serious problem, at least in the United States. Before engaging in the grant assignment, it's helpful to expose students to a book such as Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Kristof & WuDunn, 2009) and its companion Half the Sky website. It also may be useful to provide case studies of individuals and programs working to address relevant social problems.
Pitfalls to Avoid
It is important for instructors to vet students' initial ideas about interventions. Some students will suggest broad interventions that, even if empirically justifiable, would be difficult to support with the class grant fund. For example, a proposal to provide teachers with additional training about GLBT bullying would be difficult to fund if selected. You also may wish to discourage proposals that require ongoing support or management, such as sponsoring a child in a developing country or making microloans that involve reinvestment following repayment.
Because being asked for money partway through the semester may be off-putting to students, I recommend mentioning the donation to the class grant fund in the course syllabus. Students should not be forced to donate to the fund if they do not or cannot support it; in my experience, this occurs very rarely.
The grant assignment involves three key components: the establishment of a class grant fund, the development of proposals about effective solutions to important social problems, and the use of a competitive grant process to select one or more proposals for funding. Because these components are not tied to a specific topical area, the assignment can be modified for use in a variety of courses. For example, students in a traditional social psychology class could identify social problems related to prejudice or aggression. The assignment also could be used in courses on health psychology, environmental psychology, or other psychology and social science courses (e.g., courses related to problems concerning children and families). In addition, the assignment's components can be altered to accommodate student level and course learning objectives. For example, the length of the proposal could vary depending on course level, or the assignment could be scaled down to include an oral presentation but no paper.
Kristof, N. D., & WuDunn, S. (2009). Half the sky: Turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide. New York: Vintage Books.