Using Always Up-to-Date Learning Materials to Spark Discussion and Debate
students taught per semester
years spent teaching with Top Hat
Teaching with outdated print resources didn’t reflect an evolving political landscape
Information today unfolds at breakneck speed, meaning traditional print content is likely to become outdated in a matter of semesters. This is a reality that Holloway Sparks, Lecturer in the Political Science department at Georgia State University, knew all too well.
In her senior seminar, titled “Democracy, Dissent, and Revolution,” she often struggled to find suitable content for her students to read. The class focuses on protest politics and is case-study based, meaning traditional textbooks were unlikely to cover timely political milestones. When Sparks first started teaching the class in 2017, she would source different printed resources pertaining to the class topics and upload them to her LMS. The problem? Since certain topics take months or even years to be reflected in print materials, these case studies were often outdated by the time students read them. “When the Supreme Court issues an opinion, or a major protest happens, we need to tie that into the class, because it impacts the framework through which we study the concepts,” Sparks explained.
To make matters worse, because the readings Sparks used had no interactive or graded elements, some students were coming to class without reviewing the content at all. “Static readings meant I had to lecture for the first 30 minutes of class just to get everyone on the same page,” she explained.
“It’s just so easy for me to add things that happened two weeks ago, or two days ago”
Authoring course content to make learning more personal and relevant
When Sparks discovered Top Hat in 2018, she realized she could use the dynamic courseware platform to author her own interactive content tailored to her course via specially designed modules.
For her 25 student seminar, Sparks assigns her authored modules on Top Hat, with learners required to complete them before arriving to class. Each module consists of a written overview of the topics being discussed, which Sparks can easily edit on the fly. Supplemental resources like videos and news articles make the modules feel current and engaging, and allow Sparks to reflect local stories where possible. Graded questions throughout serve as knowledge checks and embedded discussions prime students to synthesize their knowledge before arriving at class. Finally, ‘exit tickets’ ensure students are clear on what they need to know—and provide Sparks with helpful data—before the next class.
Being able to regularly update content allows Sparks to always provide her students with the most current information—even with a rapidly evolving news cycle. “It’s just so easy for me to add things that happened two weeks ago, or two days ago,” Sparks says. “I’m able to pop in the link or the video or whatever I want them to see, which means everyone’s read the same thing and is up to date.” Even better? Sparks has attached points to the readings, incentivizing students to complete their assigned chapters.
Sparking dialogue and debate with relatable case studies
Since adopting Top Hat, Sparks has noticed a marked difference in the arc of her classes. Not only does she have more time to collaborate with students, she’s noticed that the depth and nature of discussion is also improving. “Top Hat encourages students to read and think more deeply before class,” she shares.
Today, Sparks spends the first five minutes of class clarifying any questions the students have about the module content, before diving into discussion and debate. “We now start with activities that are higher up in Bloom’s Taxonomy. The students have time to really wrestle with ideas in a way that wasn’t possible before,” she says.
Sparks’ tailored content has also made learning feel more personal and relevant to her students. For example, she added videos about a Black Lives Matter rally that several students attended into a module examining protest politics. This led to a spirited discussion in class, where students discussed current, local events and how they connected to the themes of the course. “The discussion gets better the further we get into the content, and now we get an hour of that as opposed to 15 minutes. We get more of that magic,” says Sparks.