Adam R. Pearson (Pomona 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) introduce students to a powerful and accessible venue for engaging and transforming public debate; (2) foster critical thinking about real-world applications of psychological research; (3) develop students' research and writing skills; (4) provide students with experience communicating research findings to non-academic audiences; and (5) empower students by recruiting them as fellow educators to help advance public understanding of psychological science.
This action teaching assignment flips traditional student-teacher roles by turning students into public educators and disseminators of psychological science. Specifically, students are asked to identify a psychology-related puzzle (e.g., Why are U.S. obesity rates increasing?), examine relevant research evidence, and write a science-based opinion piece, or "science op-ed," of 750 words or less. These essays are then submitted to publication outlets of the student's choice. Through this assignment, students strengthen their research and writing skills, learn how to apply scientific findings to issues of public interest, become empowered to enter into and transform public debate, and become psychology educators as well as consumers. In addition, the public benefits from exposure to scientific evidence on matters of law and public policy. In the words of one student who completed this assignment, "I now realize that my own opinions can influence important legislative decisions and public opinion."
Background and Rationale
The phrase "flipping the classroom"—turning the classroom into a more dynamic learning environment (e.g., by saving class time for discussions, rather than lecturing)—has recently gained traction in higher education. Here I argue for a different approach to flipping the classroom—one that involves flipping student-teacher roles to recruit students as public educators and disseminators of psychological science. Specifically, I describe a powerful yet under-utilized course assignment, the science-based opinion piece (or "science op-ed"), with the potential for enhancing both student and public appreciation for psychological research.
Many undergraduate and graduate-level courses include some form of end-of-term paper. These papers are typically read by the instructor or a teaching assistant and rarely see the light of day after that. A highly engaging alternative to these types of assignments is the opinion piece. In addition to being far more enjoyable to grade than lab reports, op-ed assignments do four important things: (1) empower students and challenge them to engage and transform public debate; (2) develop students' research and writing skills; (3) engage students in "real-world" applications of psychological science; (4) treat students as contributors to, rather than mere consumers of, psychology education.
Description of Assignment
A strong op-ed starts with a bang—it engages the reader right from the beginning with a timely and provocative problem, clearly articulates a position, and is respectful of differing points of view. Even though the reader may disagree with the author, the reader comes away from the piece willing to seriously consider the author's perspective. From a writing pedagogy standpoint, the op-ed is a terrific forum for teaching how to develop clear and cogent arguments and convey them concisely (and with some flare). From a research standpoint, an op-ed can capture the public's attention and disseminate science in a way that few journal articles can.
Op-ed writing has been successfully incorporated into a variety of applied social science courses to engage students in new and ongoing policy debates (for notable examples, see Daniel Hudgins' Foundations of Social Welfare and Social Work and Kelly Brownell's Psychology, Biology, and Politics of Food), but has seen surprisingly little use within social psychology. Here, I describe a general approach to this assignment that can be readily implemented in a wide range of courses, including both introductory-level courses as well as more specialized seminars.
In this assignment, used in both an introductory-level social psychology course as well as a first-year writing seminar, students write a science-based op-ed of 750 words or less that brings relevant psychological research to bear on an important social problem. Students are informed that, although op-eds come in many forms, the best papers share several key features: They identify a specific puzzle (e.g., Why are U.S. obesity rates increasing?), examine the problem in light of current scientific thinking (theory) and evidence (e.g., research findings), and communicate some novel insight about the nature of the problem or propose a solution based on available evidence. Students are required to use three or more external sources beyond course readings to support their arguments and are asked to provide either (a) evidence that the article has been submitted for publication (e.g., a submission confirmation page), or (b) detailed instructions for submitting the op-ed to two prospective outlets of the student's choice.
Students are further informed that their piece will be graded on whether a central thesis has been developed, whether the thesis has been defended scientifically, and whether the piece is written in a clear, coherent, and engaging style for their target audience. Finally, students are reminded that, although it's fine to reach high, acceptance rates are typically highest for local and regional outlets and that, because social change often originates locally, even campus publications can be quite influential. In addition to these instructions, I also provide several resources to teach them about op-ed science writing as a genre and help them develop an evidence-based argument.
Evidence of Effectiveness
From student feedback, I have found the benefits of op-ed writing to be substantial, including empowering students, educating them about new venues for engaging public debate, and providing students with experience describing psychological research to non-academic audiences. Eight student op-eds from these two classes have now been published, including two that appeared in major regional and national outlets (see Finkelstein, 2013, and Mueller, 2012, respectively). Another student published a piece in the campus newspaper that stimulated a new diversity initiative at the college (see Qu, 2012). This student has since published eight more op-ed pieces, tackling topics ranging from the use of grades as a pedagogical tool to the role of MOOCs in the liberal arts.
Students have commented that:
"This op-ed paper gave me a completely new perspective on academic writing."
"It changed my mentality of writing. I was writing for a purpose."
"This is a valuable skill that I am sure I will use frequently throughout my life."
"Writing this op-ed was an awesome journey for me! I loved being able to directly express my opinion about something I care about."
"I truly had a blast writing this op-ed. I was very excited about my topic."
"Thanks so much for introducing me to my new favorite type of writing."
"I think that I have matured as a writer… I have become a more self-aware writer."
"I am excited to see how people react to this. After all, an op-ed is supposed to spark debate!"
"I now realize that my own opinions can influence important legislative decisions and public opinion."
Tips on Implementation
There are several terrific online resources for teaching op-ed writing. Two excellent resources are the National Communication Association's tips on writing and submitting an opinion piece and Duke University's Office of News and Communication's "How to Write an Op-Ed Article."
To highlight the potential impact of popular science writing on public policy, I begin by assigning two readings, Gawande's (2009) New Yorker article, which documents the psychological effects of solitary confinement, and an NPR news piece (2013) that describes the impact of Gawande's article on Congressional hearings and policy-making. Because few students are familiar with science-based opinion pieces, I also provide several published examples from psychologists and students. Two great examples are Gilbert's (2006) op-ed on common denial of personal biases and Puhl and Brownell's (2006) op-ed on the dangers of weight stigma. Student periodicals can be particularly effective in motivating students (see student samples below).
Finally, to get students thinking about their op-ed's position and intended audience early in the writing process, I use a simple but effective exercise that includes three prompts: (1) Who is your intended audience (e.g., local, regional, or national readership; college students, fitness junkies…)? (2) Before reading my op-ed, my audience will think this way about my topic… (3) After reading my op-ed, my audience will think this different way about my topic…
Pitfalls to Avoid
One of the main concerns raised by students in the course is that, while exciting in theory, the prospect of having one's written work scrutinized by newspaper editors can be intimidating and even debilitating. One method that has worked particularly well to encourage students to seek rather than avoid feedback has been to include a public process of peer review. For an exercise I call "Crafting a hook," students display only the first page of their first draft on screen for the class to read, prefaced by a one-minute summary of the core argument. The task for the class is to suggest revisions to the opening, focusing on the author's thesis and ability to capture the reader's attention. Although students are sometimes hesitant to initially volunteer, I've found that the atmosphere changes dramatically once students feel a sense of common purpose and hear the creative ideas that their peers have to offer.
Another potential danger in assigning op-ed writing is that some students may feel disempowered if they experience rejection after submitting their piece. For this reason, it's important to prepare students for the possibility of rejection, particularly when submitting to major media outlets (e.g., national publications). It's helpful to remind students that acceptance rates are often considerably higher for local media outlets and that even student publications can be influential in generating debate on college campuses. Requiring that students have 2-3 backup outlets prior to submitting can also help to set expectations for publishing, as well as orient students to the importance of choosing an audience. With this backup requirement, students often report a greater appreciation for the logic and strategy behind choosing publication outlets—an added benefit to this assignment.
Given the range of outlets available, from national publications with millions of readers to local news media and campus publications, the op-ed can be introduced at most levels of instruction, including high school, undergraduate, and graduate-level courses. Moreover, because op-eds need not be tied to a specific topical or content area, the assignment can be modified for use in a wide variety of psychology and social science courses.
Gawande, A. (2009, March 30). Hellhole. New Yorker.
Gilbert, D. (2006, April 16). I'm O.K., you're biased. New York Times.
Puhl, R. M., & Brownell, K. (2006, November 2). Wrong way to fight fat. Washington Post.
NPR Staff (2013, March 10). Solitary confinement: Punishment or cruelty? National Public Radio.
Finkelstein, J. (2013, December 23). Whose responsibility is it anyway? A new approach to fighting cyberbullying. Huffington Post.
Mueller, C. (2012, December 10). Local view: Anti-binge ads have opposite effect. Lincoln Journal Star.
Qu, X. (2012, February 16). Ethnic food can advance diversity education, if done right. The Student Life.