Using Media Materials to Set the Stage for Learning: A Strategy for All Disciplines

Humanities and social sciences instructors have long borrowed from media communications to drive home concepts. For example, a business instructor might clip a magazine article pointing out how inappropriate attire can negatively influence the outcome of an interview with a company. Philosophy professors might motivate a classroom discussion on hedonism by discussing the antics of popular young superstars as reported in the tabloids.

But are media materials that set the stage for student learning and motivate students effective only in the humanities and social sciences? Absolutely not! Educators in fields such as mathematics, nursing, computer technology, and others can effectively incorporate media offerings into their presentations as well. The only requirement is the will to hunt out and gather lively prose—in print ads, newspaper and magazine articles, commercials, signs, and even cereal boxes—that relates to the course concepts and to the students.

Why should instructors venture beyond the reliable information provided in textbooks to teach their lessons? As teachers know firsthand, students are afraid of certain subjects and disinterested in others. Students are, however, knowledgeable about and interested in various products, services, celebrities, and trends. Teachers can channel this familiarity and enthusiasm to nudge students into mastering difficult or seemingly irrelevant concepts.
Basic math courses that rely on word problems are known to generate fear in students who doubt their math abilities. Help might come in the form of a lowly tear-off coupon that offers $25 off a $75 dollar purchase at some clothing store. If the instructor rewrites the coupon in the form of a word problem, he or she can illustrate the relevance of those problems in everyday life: “Stacy became excited while shopping in her favorite clothing store when she saw a sign promising a $25 discount on purchases of $75 or more. How much will Stacy save if she buys an $82 sweater? What will her percentage of savings be if she makes the purchase?” Students might be more inclined to solve such a real-life problem, and with that success under their belts, they may be more willing to tackle textbook percentage problems dealing with lesser-known issues.

Would-be nursing students often fear the difficult nomenclature contained in pharmacology courses. Perhaps the instructor could refer to a current ad featuring the creator of an artificial heart, who promotes a cholesterol-reducing drug. The good doctor-scientist is a middle-aged, soft-spoken father figure who says he too must eat properly, exercise, and take the featured drug in order to avoid having his heart replaced by his own invention. Analyzing this ad, which includes the chemical makeup and the indications and contraindications for the drug in layman’s terms, one notices that not only is it reader-friendly, but it also speaks to viewers about their health and that of their loved ones. Using a message that hits close to home might make learning long lists of drugs and their uses more meaningful for students.

I have read several humorous essays that focus on technophobia. Saturday Night Live writers picked up on this unfortunate workplace phenomenon with their long-running skit featuring a sadistic “computer guy” who berated employees who asked simple computer questions. If instructors were to confront the sometimes tunnel-visioned technology majors with such confessions, these students might be more inclined to design materials and use methods that help the technology-challenged more easily learn new software.

Media materials can never, of course, take the place of meticulously written textbooks. However, if ads, articles, commercials, informal essays, tabloid newspapers, gossip columns, and even coupons elaborate in a reader-friendly way on real-world experiences, and if our students’ perception and reception of these materials is positive, why not let these free, nonthreatening materials enliven and enrich the education process?

Camille Belola is an assistant professor in the department of developmental instruction at Bloomsburg University.

Excerpted from The Teaching Professor, December 2007.