How my classroom experiment became a surprising way to help students focus


March 1, 2019




Five years ago, I was at a crossroads. At that point, I’d been teaching journalism at NYU for 10 years. I had experienced several shifts in student behaviors and educational methods. In this day and age of constant stimuli and information overload, multitasking and skimming have become the norm. In a lecture, it’s hard to tell if students are listening, shopping for shoes on Amazon, or checking Twitter. It’s even less clear how well they’re paying attention when completing assignments and readings at home.

That’s why I began creating online learning modules. These were, in essence, interactive textbooks built in Google Docs to weave together journalism practice, ethics, and history with grammar, punctuation, and writing and editing tutorials. Ultimately they became the foundation for this online master’s degree program in journalism.

These modules addressed what I saw as a problem with journalism education. At NYU we have always done an excellent job teaching core journalistic skills such as reporting and writing, but in my opinion we often gave short shrift to the history of our field, as well as to the various ethical issues at play. These modules not only filled a hole in our curriculum, they came equipped with an important diagnostic element that enabled me to track each student’s progress through the material. I could easily see if a student needed help with, say, compound adjectives or sentence structure. Then I could provide additional help, or direct the student to additional resources to aid in their understanding.

Each module started with an exploration of journalism, such as how to research a story, conduct interviews, basic story structure, ethics, discussion of what constitutes libel and defamation. Then through reading and oral comprehension passages students were taken through the history of journalism from Thucydides to Gutenberg’s printing press, 18th century pamphlets and early newspapers, to the first investigative efforts, the impact of new technologies, profiles of famous journalists of the past, coverage of war, major scandals, and much, much more.

There were also sections with grammar and punctuation, the sort that can bedevil students—compound adjectives, that v. which, antecedents, dangling participles, the use of quotes, semicolons. Each was followed by a multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank test that was automatically graded to measure students’ understanding and mastery of the material. For international students, I even retrofitted the Google Android Voice Recognition app to work with the modules. Students could read a passage aloud three times and with Google’s help I could tell them how good their pronunciation was and what needed work.

Soon after, I began assigning these interactive learning modules in all of my classes, graduate and undergraduate alike. They proved popular with students, who preferred the interactive nature usability and autonomous nature. Other faculty asked if they could use these modules in their courses. I built a new set to give incoming international graduate students a grounding in the First Amendment and ethics, as well as address typical grammatical pitfalls. Subsequently, the Journalism Institute tasked me with building a set of six modules to replace an existing law and ethics course required of all undergraduate journalism majors. Following these successes, I created and commissioned several other interactive modules on fact-checking, AP Style, online database research, and more. To date, more than a thousand NYU students have completed at least one of the modules, and they are required in many of our core courses.

Then a funny thing happened. Not only was I able to introduce vast troves of new material to students that we otherwise couldn’t cover, I realized that students retained the information from the modules better than they did from lectures, class discussion, or the reading. To test this theory, I turned to a large lecture course I taught on the history of journalism to 120 undergraduates.

For the closed-book midterm, I instructed students to choose eight questions from a pool of 21 questions and write short essays. Seven of the questions came from my modules, another seven from the reading, and the last seven plucked from the lectures. Overwhelmingly, students chose to answer questions from the modules—and they did particularly well on them. The same thing happened on the final: students did far better answering questions that sprouted from the modules. I repeated the experiment the following year and got identical results.

My theory is that students did far better on the modules because they couldn’t complete them without concentrating. After each section were knowledge checks, and to answer the questions meant a student could not multitask or skim. I had designed the questions so that a student couldn’t simply perform a find/replace function and locate an answer. She had to understand what she had read. Contrast this with my lectures. Students could look like they were listening, but I could never be sure they actually were, nor could I know whether they read what I had assigned.

That’s the exciting thing about this new online master’s in journalism at NYU. We can use technology to improve on education. I have been a professor at NYU for 15 years, and I know the ways that in-person classes can fail students. First, it’s very difficult to teach a class when you have students with a wide range of abilities and knowledge. If you teach to the top third, you lose the bottom third. If you teach to the bottom third, you risk losing the top third. If you teach to the middle, you could lose the top and bottom.

Not only do modules allow us to track a student’s progress, we can intervene and provide assistance at the first hint of confusion. We can provide a fully customizable experience for each student, providing help to those who may not be completely fluent in English or assisting students with grammar, punctuation, and even pronunciation. We can spot the student who has a background in journalism and may not require more drilling on ledes and nut grafs. They can get to work reporting right away, and focus on improving their craft.

And we’re just at the beginning. Down the road, with advances in artificial intelligence, we will be able to do things we haven’t even dreamed of doing yet. And this online journalism master’s program will be, I hope, at the forefront, pushing the boundaries in education.

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