Last week, while teaching Dante’s Inferno, I moderated a lively two-day class discussion about medieval and modern values and religion. How did Dante define virtue? How do we define it? For Dante, why was lust not as terrible a sin as theft of property? Why did his age consider gluttony a moral failing rather than a self-destructive behavior that one can take to Jenny Craig?
I know why students were so engaged: the catalyst for their interest was a “sin survey” I administered the previous week. In the survey, I listed 50 behaviors. These ranged from the medieval sins of gluttony and usury, to acts our culture has no trouble condemning—such as murder, rape and the assassination of presidents. I also listed actions that we might value differently, depending on who we are: binge drinking, cheating on tests, and neglecting studies.
I also included some cultural hot-button issues: premarital sex with numerous partners, homosexual acts, abortion. I tried to make the list both current (including items on biological warfare, for example) and nuanced (listing drunk driving separately from killing someone while driving drunk). The instructions to the students were simple: rate each item from 1 (not sinful at all) to 5 (most sinful).
In the past, I have done this activity on paper: this time, I used a Web-based survey program. The survey answers were anonymous. The results of the survey, taken by 47 students in two sections of my literature course, were then averaged, yielding a value from 1 to 5 for each item. The basis for the class discussion, then, was a handout that ranked the 50 behaviors from least to most awful, indicating the distribution of responses (how many 1s, 2s, etc.).
The ensuing discussion was highly charged. Rape and child beating were the two worst behaviors. But surprisingly, cheating on a marriage was also in the top 10. Students debated why. They also noted that while drunk driving was bad, it was worse if someone were killed. “It’s not as bad if you get away with it,” they concluded. They took note of split voting: Though homosexual acts wound up in the middle of our list, nearly an identical number of students rated it “the worst” as rated it “not sinful at all.” “We mirror our culture,” they decided.
What makes this survey work as an effective prompt to lively class discussions rests in the fact that it provides a link between students’ own values and the ideas presented in the course material.
I teach English, but it can work in other disciplines as well. Consider nursing, for example: What if an instructor asked students to indicate how often they practice healthful behaviors in their diet, sleep patterns and exercise? What would you expect to find? How might this be linked to a discussion of motivating patients to make healthful choices?
In economics, one might survey students’ money behaviors: how they use credit, how they budget their money, their awareness of the cost of everyday items (anything from cars and heating bills to taxes and the cost of a draft beer). Are the principles of economics translated into real decisions about money?
In education, one might want to learn how students study, what they value about education, what they believe about children. In child psychology, a teacher could ask students to rate a variety of parenting behaviors. In biology, a survey might ask students to respond to a series of real-life scenarios in which they decide whether biological knowledge might be “of no importance” or “crucial.” What role is science likely to play in decisions that communities must make in the years ahead?
Making links between our disciplines and the lives students lead, or expect to lead when they graduate, engages students’ thinking. The best learning happens when students integrate new information into their understanding of the world. We can encourage this by making the ideas and information in any course more personally relevant.
Barbara A. Mezeske is an associate professor at Hope College in Michigan.
Excerpted from The Teaching Professor, March 2006.