Why Don’t We Teach Students to Think Sociologically?

Textbooks often promise to teach your students how to “think like a sociologist,” but what do they actually do? Most simply relay sociological theories and research findings to your students. That is, they tell your students what sociologists think, but not how sociologists think. But come to think of it, the very same thing could be said for how I often teach sociology and how it was taught to me.

Most of my undergraduate sociology education could be roughly described as my teacher saying to the class, “watch me as I sociologically analyze this aspect of society.” Then once the teacher reached their conclusion they would step back and say, “See? Did you see how I came to that conclusion?” If the whole class was still lost the professor would pick another similar topic and sociologically analyze it. And again s/he would ask, “do you get it now?” In the absence of direct instruction, sociological thinking is taught through repetition, trial and error, and inferred meaning[1].

“But there is no one way to think sociologically!” I imagine many of you are shouting in your mind. When discussing thinking like a sociologist with colleagues I am often told that there really isn’t a sociology to speak of, but rather many different sociologies tenuously connected under an umbrella term. This is a cop out. Especially for a discipline that prides itself in seeing commonalities within absurdly complex systems.

I completely agree that there are ways of thinking that are specific to sub-disciplines within sociology, but I reject the idea that these ways of thinking are mutually exclusive. I’m arguing that there are a set of habits of thought, recipes of understanding, ideologies, mental frameworks, heuristic devices, and so on that almost every sociologist uses when analyzing the social world, but we rarely teach them to our students directly.

Stop and think about it this fact for a second. See the familiar as strange for a moment. Isn’t this peculiar? Why would people tasked with teaching novices how to think like sociologists and become the sociologists of tomorrow not explicitly teach their students how to think like sociologists?

Why We Don’t Teach How To Think Like a Sociologist

I do not empirically know why instructors would not teach the mechanics of sociological thought, but I have a list of suspects- skill mastery chief among them. Instructors have practiced sociological thinking to the point that it no longer requires effortful thinking. Sociological thinking is automatic for us. This is not to say that sociological thinking is easy, but rather that with practice your mind can skip steps and your intuitive judgment is more accurate (Ambrose et al. 2010; Beilock, Wierenga, and Carr 2002; Lansdown 2002; Smith and Chamberlin 1992).

Second, I think many of us struggle to find the words to express the mechanics of our thought process because we lack the requisite metacognition[2]. We just do it, we don’t know how we do it.

Finally, within sociology and within communities of sociologists the legacy of how sociology has been taught in the past creates a structural/cultural force that says, “this is what sociology is and how it should be taught.” This is how I’ve seen 101 taught and this is how I am most comfortable teaching. No one taught me directly how to think sociologically and I turned out alright.

Next Week’s Topic: Sociology’s Imagination & Sociology as a Skill


  • Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., Norman, M. K., & Mayer, R. E. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Beilock, S. L ., S. A. Wierenga, and T. H. Carr. 2002. “Expertise, Attention and Memory in Sensor Motor Skill Execution: Impact of Novel Task Constraints on Dual-Task Performance and Episodic Memory.” The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology: A Human Experimental Psychology. 55(A): 1211–1240.
  • Lansdown, T. C. (2002). “Individual differences during driver secondary task performance: verbal protocol and visual allocation findings.” Accident Analysis & Prevention, 34(5), 655–662.
  • Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Pelton, J. A. (2014). “How Our Majors Believe They Learn Student Learning Strategies in an Undergraduate Theory Course.” Teaching Sociology, 42(4), 277–286.
  • Smith, M. D., & Chamberlin, C. J. (1992). “Effect of adding cognitively demanding tasks on soccer skill performance.” Perceptual and Motor Skills, 75(3), 955–961.

  1. I have to point out that this is exactly how common sense is learned, tacitly. Sometimes we hate in others what we see in ourselves.  ↩

  2. Julie Pelton (2014) has an excellent piece in Teaching Sociology on Metacognition and student learning that I would highly recommend.  ↩

We Need to Teach Sociology Differently

I think we need to teach sociology differently, especially intro courses and especially large sections of intro. My plan is to spend 2015 identifying the areas for improvement and then using empirical research to inform the creation of solutions. This is the first of what will be a year long series documenting my attempt to reimagine intro to sociology and remake myself as a teacher.

I said I think we need to teach sociology differently above, but I know for certain that I need to teach it differently. My Soc 101 class will be my laboratory for this project because I know that my class and the way I teach it are perfect examples of what’s wrong with the large format intro to sociology class. I’m not trying to be self-effacing or modest, but honest. I’m also not trying to make anyone else feel bad for how they teach their classes.

I teach between 200–400 students in a single intro class which limits what I can do, but I think many of us (first and foremost myself) over estimate what’s not possible in a large class. For instance, I fundamentally reject the idea that having a large section automatically requires the class to be lecture based and void of any written assignments.

And I am not going to be a martyr for sociology. I’m not going to spend every hour of the day grading or tending to my classes. The idea that you either forego written assignments in large sections or sacrifice all your free time grading is a false dichotomy. What I’m suggesting is, we should accept the very real constraints on ourselves and our classes and then innovate within them.

I also need to interrogate how my class is structured (both thematically and in terms of what happens during class time). So much of my teaching process is the legacy of how I was taught as a student or pedagogical ideas I picked up early on in my career when I didn’t know what I didn’t know about teaching. On a larger scale, so much of how all of us teach intro to sociology is the product of routines and ideologies established long ago. Many of these pedagogical routines and ideologies are not supported by the empirical research on cognition and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Sociologists are keen to point out how social structure and culture shape how we think of the world and the choices we make. I’m merely arguing that there is also a structure and culture to teaching sociology that shapes our choices in the classroom.

This is just the opening salvo to my year long project. In the coming weeks I’ll be much more specific in my critiques and provide potential solutions that are much more grounded in empirical literature than I have here. Through the spring months I will be identifying the things that need changing. This summer I will focus on creating the activities, assignments, and other resources I will use in my remodeled class. Finally, this fall semester I will teach a small (20 student) version of the class with the new structure to evaluate it before I launch the entirely reworked class across all of my sections in January 2016. I hope you’ll read along here at SociologySource and share your ideas with me.

Why You Don’t Know, What You *Know* You Know

Sociology exams have a way of blindsiding students.

“I was just certain I had aced the test until I saw online that I failed it.” I have heard statements like this after every exam that I have ever given. Maybe my approach to teaching and assessing student learning is to blame, but I’m guessing that many of you reading this have experienced the same thing. So what gives?

The problem seems to lie in our student’s ability to assess their knowledge. Students’ have unwarranted confidence in their mastery of course content. They feel they know things that they in fact don’t[1]. Research out of the UCLA Learning and Forgetting Lab suggest the problem may lie in how our students are studying. I’ll let Robert Bjork explain.

I hear Bjork saying, that when students try to judge their understanding of course material by looking at their notes and course texts, those judgments “will be very flawed.” This works in a way similar to the hindsight bias, once you know the answer it’s easy to presume you would have been able to do so without the help of your notes. So the best thing for students to do is to try and externalize their ideas so that they can assess them. Students who study with their peers, quizzing one another, will have a better understanding of what they know and what they don’t.

How To Help Students Know What They Really Know

The first question we should ask a struggling student is, “If I had watched you while you were studying for the test, what would I have seen you doing?” When students say that they, “reviewed their notes, reread chapters, etc.,” we have to encourage them to externalize their studying process.

Students need to say out loud, write down, or otherwise assess their learning outside of their head. If students like flashcards, great. But they need to say the definitions out loud before they flip the card over. If students like reviewing their notes, then encourage them to use another sheet of paper to cover up their notes. Then have them slowly pull the sheet down to reveal only the concept and not the definition/bullet points below. Then they can try to say aloud what they know about the concept.

Bjork’s study also suggests that clicker questions in the classroom can help students learn and not just assess their mastery of the concepts. After reading Bjork’s work I am strongly thinking about making practice quizzes available for my students to assess their learning before exams.

As the old saying goes, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” With just a few simple adjustments we can help our students know better what they know they know.

  1. I am simplifying things a bit here. Psychologists argue that learning and performance are not always one in the same. I’ll go into this more in a future post.  ↩

Should Common Sense Be the Enemy of Sociology?

Bring Back Common Sense

How do you discuss common sense in your classes? During my first few years of teaching I used to assassinate common sense as the enemy of sociology. But I no longer do.

Studies of cognition have shown that it is near impossible to learn new ideas until we are able to connect them to things we already understand (Bransford and Johnson 1972; Resnick 1983). This suggests that our intro level students are almost certain to connect the things you are teaching them to their already established common sense beliefs. Hostility to common sense then, threatens the very foundation your students will use to learn sociology (Mathisen 1989). Furthermore, interpretive theories and concepts like Weber’s Verstehen cannot be understood without considering how common sense is used to make meaning.

When we honor our students’ common sense understanding of the world, we show them respect and acknowledge where they are in the learning process. Today I treat my students’ common sense as their baseline for understanding. I start from what they already know and then move toward an empirical understanding of the world. If they are going to start with common sense anyways, why not join them?


  • Bransford, John D., and Marica K. Johnson. 1972. “Contextual prerequisites for understanding: Some investigations of comprehension and recall.” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 11:717–726.
  • Maithisen, James A. 1989. “A Further Look At ‘Common Sense’ in Introductory Sociology.” Teaching Sociology. 17:307–315.
  • Resnick, Lauren. B. 1983. “Mathematics and Science Learning.” Science 220:477–478.

CJ Pascoe on Teaching Developing Minds

“Students with a well-developed sense of self feel less threatened by new ideas involving beliefs that conflict with their own” (Ambrose et al 2010:160)

Teaching “traditional aged” college students about sex & gender can be tricky. Many of them are still discovering who they are. Even the most basic ideas about sex & gender can seem radical/threatening when the concepts are first introduced to students.

Last fall I sat down with Dr. CJ Pascoe from the University of Oregon to discuss her groundbreaking work Dude You’re a Fag and her award winning teaching. Given her area of expertise, I was dying to have her weigh in on how she overcame this pedagogical challenge.

*Note: this clip is excerpted from a much longer interview. More clips to come soon. *

Sociology Source Joins The Society Pages

Sociology Source has found a new home as part of The Society Pages. The site is going to stay pretty much the same. It will still be focused on ideas & resources for teaching sociology. However, I’m hoping to bring more voices on to the site. So if you have a great idea or resource for teaching sociology, send me an email (Nathan [at] SociologySource [dot] org).

A huge thanks goes to Doug Hartman, Chris Uggen, Letta Page, and especially Jon Smjada at TSP for making this all happen.

It’s an honor to join all of the other wonderful blogs on The Society Pages.

The Genie Scenario. What would you do?

Ideology is a lot like implicit bias. A smart person knows they have it, but they often struggle to see or describe it. One of the only ways to draw ideology into the light is to present it to students in unfamiliar ways. With this in mind I created the “Genie Scenario”.

Want to assign this to your students? Send them this link to an essay version of this complete with four assignable questions.

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Walking along the beach one bright morning you trip over a hidden piece of driftwood. On all fours, a bright metallic spark of light escapes from the sand below searing your eyes. Like a blinded archeologist you clench your eyelids together while sweeping away the warm sticky yellow grains until your hand settles on something hot and smooth.
         “Are you done rubbing my lamp or should I come back later?” You whip your head around. A lumpy blue cloud with arms and a smiling face stands above you.
         “My god you’re… you’re a…”
         “I’m a genie, yes. Now how about you stand up and let’s talk about what I can do for you.”
         “Do I get three wishes?”
         “Nope. Not that kind of genie. Get up. Brush yourself off and get ready to listen carefully.” Rising to your feet you subtly grab a a piece of you hip and pinch down hard. You don’t wake up. This is happening.
         “As the saying goes kid, time is money.” Genie says arms folded. He starts in while you brush yourself clean. “I have been to the future and I know how you will live your life and how it will come to an end- well for our purposes here, the more important point is that I know *when* it will end.”
         “Wait, how I die?” Genie raises his hand.
         “Can’t give you that. Plus, knowing your fate only imprisons the rest of your life; just ask Oedipus and Cronus. What I offer you is the opposite of that. I want to give you… freedom.”
         “I am prepared to give you all of the money you will earn over the rest of your life. Take this offer and you’ll never have to sell another hour of your life to your employer. I will return ten more times over the remainder of your life each time with 1/10 of the money you are set to earn over the remainder of your career.”
         “Accept my offer and you are free to do anything you like with your time on Earth. Keep working if you like. Volunteer, travel, paint, or binge watch Netflix, it’s up to you. You would finally be truly free to do what you want. However in return, every time you see me, before I give you your money, I’m going to painlessly remove one of your fingers.”
         “So, do we have a deal?”

Bringing Capitalist Ideologies Into Plain Sight

I follow the “Genie Scenario” with a quick think/pair/share. That is, I ask my students to write down whether or not they’d take the offer and why. Then they talk to their classmates briefly before we talk as a whole group.

I have asked nearly 2,000 students to consider this offer and almost all of them have said they’d turn it down. The most common theme running through all the reasons they have given me for saying no can roughly be summarized as, “I need my fingers to live a quality life and once they’re gone they can’t be replaced.”

I ask my students to raise their hands if their reason for saying no fit’s with this summary and almost the entire room lifts up their arm. Then I ask them, “But couldn’t we say the exact same thing for your time? And many of you sell that for almost nothing.”

The Genie Scenario makes it easier for students to see one of their ideologies (i.e. selling my labor is normal if not moral). From here it’s much easier for students to understand Marx’s economic determinism and false consciousness, Gramsci’s hegemony, and the Frankfurt School’s critical theory. After the Genie Scenario, Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism helps students see how culture and the economy are both created by ideology and both also play a role in creating ideology.

Before You “Go Off” On That Student

When a student is angry pull them closer to you. Embrace their critique and thank them for it. Show them that you really hear what they are saying and ask them to keep talking. If right now you think I’m crazy, that’s okay. This is a counterintuitive approach and that’s what makes it both disarming and pedagogically rich.

To understand why this approach works, first we have to examine how teachers commonly frame a student’s vehement challenge.

Student “Attacks” & “Defending” Our Selves

When a student challenges you, how do you respond? Or let’s take a step back, what are the adjectives you use inside your head when thinking about a student assertively challenging you or the ideas and research you are presenting them? It’s not uncommon for teachers (myself included) to frame a student’s challenge as “an attack” or frame their posture as “willful ignorance.” We might tell our colleagues afterwards that we had to “defend ourselves” from students who were “not willing to learn” or “blinded by their [insert perceived culprit].” The crucial self-reflexive question that we should ask ourselves is, what are we defending and how does that affect our teaching?[1]

Most of the time we are protecting our identities as teachers. We have spent years in graduate school and in our careers developing our identity as a competent teacher and content expert. But every teacher, no matter how developed their teacher identity, has a voice in their head that questions their competency and wonders if their identity is built upon a foundation of self-deception.

You might be tempted to think that this is an issue for only new teachers or sub-par teachers. To the contrary, the more reinforced our identity as a teacher is, the more egregious a student’s challenge can feel. That is, our internal monologue can tell us, “I am a full professor who’s won teaching awards and has published on this topic for decades. Who is this student to think they can pull my card!”

The point I’m making here is that it is perilous to conceptualize a student as your adversary. But if this conceptualization still rings true for you, then my suggestion is you employ an Aikido like approach to your students. In Aikido, you are trained to redirect the energy of your attacker. In this case, you take a student’s powerful energy and redirect it toward your learning goals.

How to Handle Student Challenges

Imagine a student has come up to you after class with a red face and explains all the ways that you, your class, and sociology in general have “got it all wrong” in a tone of voice teetering on the edge of incivility. How would this interaction go if you said something like this:

“Thank you for sharing this with me. I know that it’s not easy to challenge a professor or what’s written in a textbook. We are always talking about how important it is to think critically about things, so I absolutely appreciate the fact that you are thinking critically about our class. I hear you saying… , is that right?”

This is a classic deescalation technique. You are showing the student that you are hearing them, you are affirming their point of view, and most importantly you are role modeling civility and inviting them to join you. This is a powerful, mature, and authoritative response that projects confidence and compassion.

From here, encourage your students to continue talking. Often their outrage is based upon a misunderstanding of the course material, an error in logic, or the fact that they have privileged their anecdotal experiences above the empirical evidence you showed them. Ask questions that will direct the conversation to these mistakes. You will often find that the student’s own inner teacher will emerge and teach the students to better understand the material, acknowledge their logic errors, and accept that their anecdotal evidence and the empirical evidence can both be accurate.

There are numerous examples in society of how we adjust our expectations and tact when working with novices. For instance, when we deal with children, or a “new hire” at work, or the server at the restaurant who is “in training” (Goffman 1961/2013). I’m not suggesting that we “coddle entitled students”, rather I’m suggesting that we reframe student challenges as a passionate request for help.


  1. Note that I am not talking about abusive student-teacher interactions. If a student crosses that line, my approach may not be appropriate.  ↩

You Should Write For Contexts!

If you could have the public’s attention for a moment, what would you tell them about our education system, teaching, and/or learning?

Contexts, the ASA’s sociology magazine, is looking for people like you to write for our teaching and learning section. Your article can be about any topic related to education (Pre-k-12 & higher ed) and/or teaching and learning in general.

Each article is only 1,500 words long and we don’t use jargon, footnotes, or citations.

Are you interested? Then you can contact me (Nathan Palmer editor of the T&L section of Contexts) at npalmer@georgiasouthern.edu

Your audience awaits.

When Students Stop By Your Office Unannounced

The office drive by is the worst. A student walks by my office door, sees me inside and says, “Hi, Prof. Palmer are you busy?” Then there eyes fill with this look of vulnerability. In the past I used to just say, “Yes I am. Could you send me an email or come back during office hours?” This was always followed by an awkward moment. Students either were angry that I was being so selfish with my time or they just looked sorta heartbroken.

But now I know the secret to deflecting the office drive by.

“Prof. Palmer are you busy?”

“I am, but I always have a moment for a student like you.” I say with a smile.

“I’m having a problem. I [insert student problem].”

Then if I can answer the question in a snap I do so, but if the question requires even 2 minutes to answer I say, “You know what? That’s a really important question. I think that we should schedule some time when both of us can give our full attention to this. Can you send me an email about this or do you want to come back during my office hours?”

This approach works because it 1. allows a student to feel heard and 2. it screens out questions that can be answered instantaneously.

I’ve often thought how funny it would be to go over unannounced to one of my student’s dorm rooms and just knock. “Hi, are you busy? I wanted to talk about our class for a minute.” The look on the student’s face would be priceless.