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Salena Brody


Highlighting SPSSI Teaching Award Winners

It’s hard to know what you don’t know: Using Deep Dives for teaching fuller histories

Salena Brody, Professor of Instruction – Psychology, The University of Texas at Dallas,
Winner, 2021 Teaching Resources Award

Sometimes the best teaching ideas come from students. I teach the Psychology of Prejudice, an upper division reading and writing intensive elective with about 30 students each semester. Though each weekly class session is just under 3 hours, for years I would continually struggle with fitting in a lecture, discussion, and the small group assignment I had prepared for students. Upon noticing that there was never enough time to finish the group work, a student wisely asked “is there any reason you couldn’t assign this ahead of class sessions?” This change made so much sense and has been a winning approach ever since.

In current formulation of the course, students complete all assignments before each class session including a weekly Deep Dive. Each unit’s Deep Dive involves five or six targeted questions on course readings along with questions about supplemental video clips, podcast episodes, op-eds, news stories, and even full-length documentaries. I release Deep Dives the week prior to the unit, allowing me to update the assignment with current events or connections to the prior week’s unit. The questions include precise instructions for the length and format for their responses (e.g. Please provide 4-5 detailed bullet points for what you found most discussion worthy in this piece). The Deep Dives are graded for completion on a thirty point scale and are due 24 hours before each class session.

Having students complete these individually frees up class time for discussion that is now intentionally interspersed within the lecture. The Deep Dives have dramatically changed the quality of class sessions. Students are individually accountable for deep thinking on each topic and we use class time to call upon those thoughts in a collective setting. Since I read all Deep Dives before class, it has helped me to not be surprised by student perspectives that might emerge during a discussion and to be able to specifically call on students to bring unique perspectives or to be able to summarize aggregate responses. This approach has made me a more responsive teacher and the students more confident to contribute during discussions. The completion grading approach allows students to freely express their thoughts and hopefully minimizes demand characteristics.

The pedagogical goal of the Deep Dives is for students to come to class with ample historical and social context for understanding the week’s topic and for each student to have enough time to think about what they want to further process, discuss, or debate. I often include reflection questions about whether students have learned this information elsewhere (e.g. Did you learn about the Elaine massacre before? If so, when?). One of the course’s central themes is examining how our historical knowledge systems are shaped. The weekly practice of reflecting on the production of their own knowledge base through the Deep Dive assignments helps students understand a broader point at the end of the semester: it’s hard to know what you don’t know. They come to see patterns of erased and overlooked histories and we end the course learning how to become involved in local and state curriculum decisions in public education. Although the Deep Dives take several hours for students to complete each week, students overwhelmingly appreciate the richness of these assignments. In an era when learning fuller histories has become controversial, I feel hopeful to see students willing to put in hours of work to fill in gaps in their knowledge base not only without complaint, but with a sense of purpose and urgency.

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