Finding the Best Ways to Teach Sociology

Professor's “teacher-as-student” approach is a good match for Roanoke

"Most research universities teach graduate students how to be good researchers - not how to be good teachers," says Dr. Kristi Hoffman, associate professor of sociology. So she spent her first sabbatical working on several teaching-related projects.

Hoffman, who grew up in Richmond, Virginia, joined Roanoke College in 1995. She has a B.A. in sociology from the University of Virginia and both an M.S. and a Ph.D. in sociology from Virginia Tech. She had focused primarily on issues involving family, crime and criminal justice but is delving more into education and society.

For the first month or two of her sabbatical, Hoffman reviewed several books on teaching critical thinking and active learning. Two she found especially noteworthy were "What the Best College Teachers Do" by Ken Bain and "Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty" by Elizabeth Barkley, K. Patricia Cross and Claire Howell Major.

After paring down many of their ideas and techniques and factoring in her own teaching style, Hoffman created a list of principles to provide a framework for assignments. As an example, she decided to incorporate in each course several class projects that explicitly link co-curricular and community service activities to course readings and writing assignments. "All of the projects give students multiple opportunities to practice oral and written communications skills," Hoffman says, "as well as acquire more in-depth knowledge of a particular topic."

In addition to emphasizing out-of-class projects, Hoffman decided to limit lectures to between 30 and 45 minutes; incorporate more in-class assignments requiring students to write down ideas and questions, sharing with a partner and working in small groups; and use films, video clips and Internet assignments to change the pace of the classroom experience.

Putting Ideas to the Test
"Most of the new ideas have worked well," Hoffman says, adding that some have proven more difficult to implement. An innovation in her revised and renamed course on the sociology of the family ("Intimate, Marital and Family Relationships") falls into the "worked well" category.

Students who selected the Historical Perspective on Families option in that course went on a field trip to Explore Park, a local outdoor museum off the Blue Ridge Parkway. During the visit, the class witnessed true-to-the-time re-creations of everything from a Native American village to a 19th-century farmhouse. "The field trip proved to be a great icebreaker and reference point for the week-long lecture and discussion of 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century family life," she says. "My only regret is that we didn't have enough time at the park!"

The sociology of the family course also included options for community service projects, such as the semester break Habitat for Humanity trip, the extended weekend Appalachian Plunge trip or weekly tutoring at the West End Center, an after-school program serving needy children in Roanoke city.

In her greatly revised Introduction to Sociology course, students also could choose between: (1) working on three projects and taking two exams; or (2) working on one project and taking four exams. "The two evaluation scales allow students to determine to some degree how their learning in the course is structured and the measures used to assess their work."

Again, the projects link an out-of-class experiential or community service component with ideas and theories studied in class. Examples included tutoring at the West End Center, attending notable events through Roanoke College's Henry H. Fowler Public Policy Program or lectures given by visiting Fulbright Scholar Dr. Omer Genckaya or participating in film discussions over dinner or book discussions over lunch. This innovation might well be labeled a "work in progress," Hoffman says, adding that it is challenging to juggle the out-of-class activities with her other teaching, research and service responsibilities.

Creating New Courses
Hoffman returned from her sabbatical armed with new courses to teach as well as new techniques to use in the classroom. In her new Education and Society course, students are exploring social issues related to education in the United States. "Students have been a part of the educational system for most of their lives," she says, "so it's important for them to step back and take a look at the sociological system."

Her success in using service learning in her classes also gave rise to another new course not even proposed as a task for her sabbatical: Understanding Poverty Through Service. She and Jesse Griffin, the College's director of community service and assistant to the chaplain, are teaching this innovative service-learning course for the first time in May.

"In this course, students will perform several days of community service for a variety of agencies in the Roanoke Valley," she says, "as well as read about, research and discuss multiple perspectives on poverty and the rationales for community service. They'll explore their own motivations for participating in community service while integrating their experiences with important sociological research on poverty and social change."

Assessing Dating Patterns
Hoffman's productive sabbatical also freed up time for her to begin a study of dating patterns on two college campuses, a first step in a multi-stage research project.

Working with Dr. Tracy Luff, a colleague who is currently teaching at Concord University in Athens, West Virginia, they have collected information on college dating patterns at their respective schools through focus groups.

"Our findings indicate that social norms regarding dating are in flux with a variety of interaction patterns co-existing," Hoffman says. "While we found many similarities, we also documented some surprising differences between the schools, suggesting the influence of campus culture on dating patterns." Hoffman and Luff presented their research findings at Southern Sociological Society meetings in Charlotte, North Carolina. The topic: "The Influence of Campus Culture on Courtship Patterns Among College Students."

The success of the dating study prompted Hoffman to enlist a student, Lauren Alexander, a senior from Mount Crawford, Virginia, to provide significant assistance on an in-depth study of dating patterns in fraternities and sororities at Roanoke. Lauren spent a full academic year on the study for her sociology honors project. "It's a great project for Lauren," Hoffman says.

A Very Good Fit
Hoffman's "teacher-as-student" approach aligns well with the College's educational philosophy. "I'm glad to be here," she says. "Roanoke values good teaching and supports good teaching - but just as important, Roanoke values good research and supports good research. Moreover, the College is open to change and constantly engaging in curricular development."

Not surprisingly, this sociologist appreciates the College's approach to students. "Roanoke is committed to providing a rich educational environment that will nurture the whole person, not just the intellect. This is an ideal place for me."