Teaching Tips

Hot Off the Press:
Using Popular Media in Instruction

By Sharon A. Hollander
Georgian Court College

I read about it in Glamour. Can I use information from a web site? There was something on that in the newspaper last week. Who hasn't heard comments and questions like these in class? The popular media, by definition, is everywhere, and Psychology classes are magnets for material from newspapers, magazines, the Internet, and more.

After a semester or two of smiling politely at the mention of USA Today or Yahoo.com, I realized that the popular media could be a valuable resource for my students. The information is often current, interesting, and accessible. Instead of trying to redirect class discussion, I decided to integrate these information sources into my courses and wanted to do so in a thoughtful manner. The results were so positive that I now encourage other instructors to use the popular media in their teaching.

There are many reasons why a daily newspaper or visit to cyberspace should play a role in your course.

Reading. There is a nearly universal faculty complaint that students simply don't read enough. On-campus reading of quality materials is at an all time Iow. Teaching with the media encourages reading in general and more specifically, reading in Psychology. Material from carefully chosen newspapers, magazines, and web sites can be used to complement, enrich, and promote conventional academic reading.

Furthermore, these sources are read long after students complete their formal education. Be honest - how many of us reach for An Outline of Psycho-Analysis with our morning coffee? Pedagogical use of the media allows faculty to help shape students' life-long reading habits, both on- and off-line.

Critical Consumption of Information.Including the media in Psychology lessons can help students become critical consumers of information. With the advent of the Internet and desktop publishing, everything looks credible and professional. Think about the different levels of quality among magazines alone. How does Psychology Today compare to US News and World Report or Good Housekeeping? With faculty guidance, students can learn to differentiate between peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed material, between professional and general interest articles, and between meaningful graphs and cool graphics.

Popular Media as Sources for Academic Work. Information gathering is easier than ever and once identified, quality articles in the popular media can be valuable sources for research papers and may lead the way to more scholarly inquiry.

Reduces Plagiarism. It is well known that long papers, repeat assignments, and broad topics tend to invite plagiarism. Assignments based on the popular media can be brief and are usually specific and timely, naturally counteracting these problems. Assignments and activities can be easily rotated from semester to semester making copying from sources, purchasing papers, or recycling papers from class to class extremely difficult to accomplish. It has been my experience that short papers and discussion of current articles outmaneuver even dedicated shirkers, copiers, and procrastinators.

Strengthens Students' Skills. The popular media can be used to stimulate student writing and discussion, nurture their curiosity, and deepen their knowledge. Ultimately, these assignments can strengthen students' language, computer, and critical thinking skills.

Real Life and Interesting. Lastly and most importantly, the discussion and writing that stem from the media can be fascinating. The choice of timely topics, the examples used, the relatively short length of most popular media articles, and the students' familiarity with the topics and people discussed make for interesting reading. These works show the application of Psychology to real life. Psychologists often contribute to sources like abcnews.com and The New York Times and students should be encouraged to utilize them.

Copyright Is On Your Side. Most of the teaching tips which follow involve an instructor copying articles from newspapers, magazines or the Internet and distributing them to students to read. Generally speaking, copy away! There are no copyright problems. While most materials are copyrighted even if the copyright notice is not present, and copyright infringement is a crime, faculty can legally photocopy limited portions of written works for classroom use. This is considered "fair use" because your purposes are educational, not commercial, not for profit, and you are not in competition with the source or author.

Classroom Discussion. There are many ways to integrate popular media and instruction, starting as early as the first class of the semester. As an icebreaker, faculty can bring in short articles related to the course and lead small group or whole class discussions on them. Students can easily talk about these articles because they are non-threatening and in a familiar format. This technique works especially well at the beginning or end of any class session. When on track, students genuinely exchange ideas and assist each other in understanding the issues. See Kramer and Korn (1996) for tips on facilitating these discussions. They emphasize establishing ground rules, clarifying the instructor's role for the class, and providing students with training in active participation in a discussion.

Writing. Writing is not just for English classes any more, and the popular media can be used to incorporate writing into Psychology classes. Both strong and weak writers can benefit from practice. Written responses, summaries, and critiques of articles are only a few examples of media-based assignments. I have students explore and review web sites related to the courses I teach. These short papers focus on the purpose of the site, its strengths and weaknesses, and the potential benefits for specific users (e.g. psychologists, students, educators, clients, caregivers). Students can assess not just the content but the visual or numerical aspects of articles and sites, as well. Evaluation of material from the popular media can help prepare them to evaluate more complex material, such as articles from professional journals, writings on psychological theory, and grant proposals.

Speaking Across the Curriculum. Articles are great as the focus for individual or group presentations or debates. Students can do oral presentations from their critiques, prove or disprove points from an article, or debate ethical dilemmas. Phelps (1998) encourages students in her Child Psychology course to take a position on a controversial topic related to class and to defend their stance through discussion, debate, and written assignments. She recommends sources such as Time, Parenting and Atlantic Monthly to garner information on topics including child welfare, day care, television viewing, and spanking. Other issues that lend themselves to this type of pedagogy and have recently received considerable media attention are teen violence, overuse of psychotropic medication, euthanasia, and culturally-sensitive books and curricula.

Critical Thinking. The media are a valuable source of information for thought-provoking long-term assignments, such as term papers or annotated bibliographies. Students can also create clipping files, portfolios, and reaction logs in following an issue of interest over an entire semester. They can look at events as they develop, examine how the issue is covered, contrast coverage in different sources, and compare points of view. It is especially eye-opening when students compare a popular article with the original research upon which it is based.

Cultural and political messages, such as stereotypes rooted in ageism, racism, and gender and disability bias, can be examined through the media. Carroll, Skinner, and Hedgepath (1998) use a heretofore unstudied form of popular media - greeting cards - to identify how women are portrayed and to sensitize students to the importance of messages from everyday items. In their Psychology of Women/Gender and Women's Studies classes, students assess both pictorial and written messages from the cards and may write personal responses to these messages. In fact, no aspect of the popular media need be overlooked in teaching critical thinking. Instructors report using everything from birth and marriage announcements to calls for human eggs and adoptable children, as well as personal ads, to encourage reflection on a variety of issues.

Net Worth. Although computer skills are extremely important, any instructor who uses technology runs the risk of being overshadowed by it. Having students use information from the Web creates its own challenges and many faculty have noticed an increase in time demands when using the Net. Although many students are quite savvy, others have little or no knowledge about how to use a computer or to locate sources of interest and will require instruction and encouragement. Will emphasis on Internet usage be at the expense of the actual content of the sites or lesson? Think about how much time, in and out of class, you would like to devote to this. Balance Net usage with other information sources, such as books, journals, interviews, and videos.

Faculty. Finding a relevant and appropriate article can be very challenging for both students and faculty. A good article should meet the same criteria as a good example in a lecture (Galliano,1997). Scanning publications at home or in the library can be quite productive. Web-based search engines are incredibly helpful and can locate a wealth of articles relevant to any Psychology course. In addition, most libraries have "lnfotrac," "EBSCO Host," or a similar database of articles from the popular media. It is also important to note that old news may still be good news. For example, my students continue to appreciate articles on Ryan White in conjunction with lectures on HIV/AIDS. These pieces are still relevant to the issue despite being published in 1990.

Day in and day out popular media present excellent applications of psychology. Depending on the courses you teach and your subdisciplinary interests you should develop your own list of popular media sources which you read or skim regularly. To augment your list, ask your colleagues which popular media publications they find most helpful.

Students When students select their own sites and articles, they can pursue topics that may not be covered in the curriculum or are not of general interest. However, the breadth of information of varying quality in the public domain is remarkable. Will students be able to separate trash from treasure? Recently, I required students to choose and evaluate a web site relevant to early childhood and to e-mail me the address and a brief description which would become part of a list to be distributed to the whole class. More than one student e-mailed me what were essentially advertisements! Remember these critical points when asking students to find their own articles.

  • Students may try to find appropriate articles but the instructor should provide a double check. "Advertorial" (advertising deliberately designed to resemble editorial) can be very convincing.
  • Remind students to consider their source or author; look for specifics (such as facts, figures, and quotes), be wary of vague information and generalizations, and verify their information by checking or clarifying it through other sites or sources. A site on Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder set up by a pharmaceutical company will probably have different information than a site established by an advocacy or support group, though both may be factual and informative. Instructors may also want to distribute a list of preferred or exemplary sources.
  • Students often do not know how to cite information from more modern sources, such as web sites, list servers, or e-mail. Direct instruction and examples may be necessary.
  • Consider availability when asking students to locate articles. Some topics are easy to find over the course of a few weeks but there may be students who need assistance.
  • Inform students of which sources will be accepted and which will not.

Articles and web sites may be familiar but this does not mean that writing about them is, and many students report having little or no experience with this type of source in their college writing. Like any assignment, the requirements and grading criteria should be clearly articulated. Criteria for grading a media-based assignment, such as an article review, may include:

  • Relevance of article to course or assigned topic.
  • Level of sophistication and/or originality of the article. I sometimes tell students that academic work has a lot in common with professional diving. If you choose a very easy dive, like a brief article in Woman's Day you'd better do a really good job on it and it still may not stand out. On the other hand, if you select something more challenging off the high board, like a lengthy piece from Utne Reader, the judges (me) will take that into consideration and scores are usually higher.
  • Clarity of written work, both mechanically and ideationally.
  • Basic understanding of the article, usually indicated by a succinct summary.
  • Depth and breadth of the evaluation. I look for three well-articulated and distinctly different points about the article in the course of a short essay.

At any point, the popular media can be used to illuminate course material, enliven lectures, add drama and humor to class, and put a face on psychological concepts and issues. For example, the media can illustrate the role of psychological science in the legal system. Miller (1997) included recent newspaper and magazine articles detailing repressed memory and eyewitness testimony cases in her course anthology for an undergraduate Psychology class that examines human memory and legal issues. Students were also directed to monitor relevant web sites.

Medical and developmental issues are often well-represented in the media. I teach in New Jersey and have been diligently clipping articles on an autism cluster in a nearby neighborhood. Published reports from parents and other articles on the cluster have been fact-filled and very meaningful to students, portraying autism in ways that far surpass a textbook. Students often contribute articles and web addresses to my collection.

My college is also located in proximity to the McGuire Air Force Base and the influx of refugees from Kosovo has received a great deal of media coverage. Several instructors I know have incorporated articles on this crisis into their courses. Clearly, articles on both local issues and global matters have a place in the classroom.

Higher education and the popular media are a natural match. With newspapers, magazines, and web sites, faculty can provide opportunities for reading and writing, curb plagiarism, help students evaluate information, and encourage critical thinking and discussion. It is important to remind students that useful information and ideas are accessible and may, in fact, be on their doorstep.

SHARON A. HOLLANDER is a practicing Psychologist and Assistant Professor of Education at Georgian Court College. She received her PsyD from Pace University in 1995. Her current research interests pertain to the interaction of pedagogy and popular culture, and consultation in educational settings. She can be reached at koshka@idt.net with your favorite popular media sources.

References & Recommended Readings

Carroll, K. A., Skinner, L J., & Hedgepath, S. (1998, May). Cultural and political messages about
     women: Portrayal of women In greeting cards. Poster session presented at the Fifth Annual APS
     Institute on the Teaching of Psychology, Washington, DC.
Galliano, G. (1997). Enhancing student learning through exemplary examples. APS Observer, 10(4),
     28-30, 37.
Keating, A. B., & Hargitai, J. (1999). The wired professor: A guide to incorporating the world wide
     web in college Instruction. New York: New York University Press.
Knowlton, S. R., & Barefoot, B. O. (Eds.). (1999). Using national newspapers in the college
     classroom (Monograph No. 28). Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina and The
     New York Times.
Kramer, T. J., & Korn, J. H. (1996). Class discussions: Promoting participation and preventing
     problems. APS Observer, 9(5), 24-25, 27.
Miller, L. A. (1997). Teaching about repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse and
     eyewitness testimony. Teaching of Psychology, 24, 250-255.
Phelps, K. E. (1998, May). Encouraging class debates in child psychology courses. Poster session
     presented at the Fifth Annual APS Institute on the Teaching of Psychology, Washington, DC.

Note: This article first appeared in the May/June 2000 (Vol. 13, No. 5) issue of the APS Observer.