“How should I study for your test?” is the number one question students have for me hands down. Every time I field this question I want to respond, “How should I know? If I took the test I’d ace it. Not to mention I came to class everyday, I’ve read our text at least five times, and to top it all off, I wrote the damn thing. It’s been over a decade since I took intro. I can’t for the life of me remember how it felt to be a beginning sociology learner. In fact, I might be the worst person you could ask that question to.”

While I’ve wanted to say that to a student just to take in their expression, I would never because helping beginning students learn sociology is what my job is all about.

That said, I still think helping students develop good study skills is one of the harder tasks we all face. We have an “expert mind” compared to our student’s “beginner’s mind”. To you and I everything we discuss is interconnected, but to many of our students everything is small bits of info that are loosely joined to one another. So how do we overcome these hurdles and help students?

One of the best discussions of how to help students prepare for exams came to me last November on the TeachSoc Google Group[1] from Kathleen McKinney of Illinois State University. Her words summed up my approach better than I ever could[2] :

In terms of study tips for my [multiple choice] exams, I talked about active reading and listening. I explained that my MC questions were not simple memory/’spit-back’ questions but rather application/example/story problem questions. This was a struggle for them. So, I explained that when studying, memorizing definitions or ideas or results was step 1, rephrasing those things in their own words but ‘correctly’ was step 2, understanding my or book examples was step 3, generating their own, original and ‘correct’ examples/applications of terms and ideas was step 4, and correctly recognizing new examples/applications in my MC test story problem exams was step 5 (in terms of learning and doing well on the exam)…

I couldn’t agree more with Kathleen; a big step in the right direction is getting students to move from passively reading/listening toward a more active approach. Too often students sit through class or read through the book and just let the information waft over them while they nod their heads knowingly. The problem is, if nodding your head is the most active part of your listening/studying, you are probably going to struggle on the test.

I want to encourage students to take an active studying approach and also help them develop the skill. To this end I put together a handout for theme explaining the approach in detail (download it here). While the handout goes into more detail below is a bulleted outline of my approach.

  1. Understand a concepts definition (this is where many students stop)
  2. Rephrase the concept in your own words
  3. Apply the concept to your life
  4. Come up with an example of your own
  5. Look for concept pairs (i.e. concepts that are opposites, complementary, etc.)
  6. If the concept has a pair, compare and contrast the two.

Beyond active studying, I encourage students to study together, because you often need someone to double check the definitions you rephrase, your applications, examples, and your analysis of concept pairs. That is, if you incorrectly understand the concept, inaccurately rephrase the concept in your own words, misapply the term to your life, etc., then actively studying won’t help you. Studying in groups increases the likelihood that studying mishaps will be identified and rectified.

I’d love to hear how do you help your students prepare for exams either in the comments, on our Facebook page, on Twitter (@SociologySource), or send me an email Nathan@SociologySource.com

  1. Which, if you teach sociology, you should join. Watch this video I made to learn how to join.  ↩

  2. Kathleen gracious gave me permission to reprint her thoughts here.  ↩

As many of you know, I am the editor-in-chief of SociologyInFocus.com and we are looking for great writers and sociology teachers to join our team of authors. SociologyInFocus features articles written to a student audience that take current events, pop culture, or interesting tidbits of information and uses them to illustrate sociological concepts. Sociology teachers around the country use SociologyInFocus to start class discussions, to supplement class readings, or as assignments/extra credit (each article has 4 questions that students can answer).

Are you a sociology teacher who can write about sociology in ways that are fun, approachable, and interesting to a student audience? Then we want you to join our ranks. You can find more information and start the application process by going to www.SociologyInFocus.com/join


Will I Get Paid For My Work?

Yes. Authors are paid for all of the work published on SociologyInFocus.

How Often Would I Have To Publish?

We ask that authors publish at least once a month to be considered a permanent author.

Do You Accept Guest Posts? Can I Just Publish Every Now and Again?

Yes we do and yes you can. And you will be compensated for your guest posts. Feel free to send a post idea or manuscript to Nathan@SociologySource.com.

I Have More Questions!

Please check out our application page (www.SociologyInFocus.com/Join) for more information. You can also email me directly at Nathan@SociologySource.com.

I am crazy. I just want to lay that down before I tell you my plans this semester.

I am broadcasting my office hours live every Wednesday afternoon this semester. This semester I have over 400 students and I have to do something to try and make myself more available. Each week, during face-to-face office hours I only interact with 0 to 5 students. My hope is that I can raise this number substantially by making it dead simple to start a dialogue with me.

How To Hold Online Office Hours

I will be using a Google+ feature called Hangouts on Air. Hangouts allow up to 10 people to video conference (in a manner very similar to Skype). Hangouts on Air broadcast the video conference live online and after the broadcast the video is available for students to watch on YouTube. The amazing part of Hangouts on Air is how simple it is to pull off. The recoding, broadcasting, and archiving on YouTube all happens automatically; you just click one check box. If you’ve ever Skyped with someone, you have almost all the skills you’d need to broadcast your office hours. I promise you, if this becomes a pain to manage, I’ll be right back here to tell you about it.

Students will be able to “hangout” during the recording (i.e. appear on air with me) using their Google+ accounts. Georgia Southern University, where I teach, provides all students and faculty with Gmail accounts which come with Google+ accounts built in. For students who are camera shy, they can send their questions by email, tweet, or instant message.

I’ve created a handout for my students that explains how this whole thing works and how they can get their questions answered. You can download it and adapt it to your class.

More Examples

I am not the first to try this. John Boyer aka the Plaid Avenger at Virginia Tech has been holding online office hours for his mega-classes of 2,670 students. Boyer’s approach is far more animated and humorous than mine, but if you are thinking about holding online office hours, watching a little of his work might help you. I studied his Ustream feed to pick up on the mechanics of broadcasting, receiving real time questions, etc.

Wednesday 1:30 EST You Can Watch Live.

I am crazy for doing this. Not for hosting online office hours; that will become far more common on a long enough timeline. I am crazy for broadcasting my first live office hours right here in front of all of you. Check back on Wednesday at 1:30EST and you can watch the live stream on this very page. It will be embedded below and we’ll do it live.

The video above is a fantastic illustration of how carefully manicured reality is. While filmmaker Adam Lisagor breaches social norms by dancing in an airport, the people around him do work to protect his failed performance and pretend that they don’t see him acting a fool. There are loads of public breaching videos, but at 64 seconds short, this video is begging to be included in your classes.

Week one. Second class. I pause mid-sentence in my lecture covering Everything Is Obvious: Once You Know The Answer by Duncan Watts. My eyes sit momentarily transfixed on the double doors at the back of the lecture hall before I direct them to the floor. Holding a syllabus in my right hand, I amble from one end of the stage to the other without uttering a word. My students sit silent, watching me, waiting to see what I’m going to do next. I crumple the syllabus in between my hands and launch it up into the air toward the mass of students. “Catch!” I say breaking the silence. Sure enough the ball of paper lands easily in the hands of a student.

The student’s eyes lock onto mine and she shows me the paper firm in hand like a baseball player shows an umpire the clean catch of a foul ball. With a nod of the head I say, “Please stand up.” A look of surprise, then awkwardness flash in sequence over the student’s face. Once standing I ask, “I didn’t know you were a physicist. How many physics classes have you taken?” “Uh… None. Well, one in high school, but none here.” “Forgive me, but I just saw you estimate the acceleration, velocity, and angle of that paper lickety split. How on earth could you have done all of those calculations on the fly if you are not a student of physics?” A slow smile emerges before it’s transformed into an unimpressed smirk. “Well, everyone knows how to catch things. It’s… it’s-” “Common Sense?” I ask her before she can find the right word. She nods.

People intuitively use physics everyday, but they aren’t physicists. When Newton theorized gravity he only told people what they already knew; things fall to the ground. Big whoop. Except, the scientific study of physics and mathematics made it possible to land a space shuttle on the moon and this is just one example of the myriad of innovations the scientific study of physics has made possible. I have never met a student who would say that physics was a pointless discipline. And yet, students often say that sociology is pointless because it only tells us what we already know. It only confirms what anyone with common sense would know.

Intuitive sociology (a.k.a. common sense) is the enemy in an introduction to sociology class. As the terrible saying goes, “everyone’s a sociologists” and that’s the problem. After a lifetime of understanding the world around them with intuitive sociological methods, which are atheoretical, non-systemic, and riddled with bias, students think to themselves, “well my common sense has gotten me this far, no reason I shouldn’t use it in this class.” Except, common sense leads the student down the wrong path nearly every single time in a sociology class. Students have to unlearn their common sense and resist the impulse to trust their gut.

I throw a syllabus at my students because I want to remind them that being able to catch something doesn’t mean you’ve mastered enough physics to ace the class without trying. I throw that syllabus because I feel compelled to call out the cognitive error that is common sense early and often.

Side Note: This Makes for Great Theater

I found it interesting how the students seemed to come alive as the paper sailed through the auditorium. The mood of the room changed when the crumpled ball of paper broke through the imaginary wall the separates the presenter from the audience. I spend so much of the first few weeks trying to emphasize that our class will be different than all of their other large lecture classes they may have taken, but this simple activity did more to make that point than any number of words could.

Just in time for the beginning of the fall semester, the ClassPack 2.0 is now available for members to download. The ClassPack features my lecture notes, lecture slides, activities, assignments, and music from SociologySounds.com. This outstanding teaching resource is completely free to all members.

Will It Work With My Text Book?

Because you have my detailed class lecture notes the ClassPack can be easily modified to fit any intro text. That said, this second edition of the ClassPack is influenced by and would work well with Society the Basics by John Macionis, You May Ask Yourself by Dalton Conley, and The Sociology Project by the NYU Sociology Department[1]. I have used the previous two texts with this ClassPack and intend to shift to The Sociology Project soon.

How Do I Download It?

To get the ClassPack all you need to do is log in as a member of SociologySource.com. Not a member yet? No sweat, sign up here to become a member.

More Features Coming Soon

The ClassPack is launching in Beta. That is, it’s still under development. I look forward to adding new features soon. Today, we are launching with lecture notes, doing sociology activities, extra credit assignments, and a music collection for each of the seven class modules. However, only the first two modules include lecture slides. I hope to add lecture slide decks over the course of the fall semester. If you want an email when new features become available, click here.

  1. This great intro text will be published later this year by Pearson. I’ve got an advanced peek at the book and it’s really great.  ↩

Are you going to Denver for ASA?  Want to hang out with cool people who love teaching sociology?  Then come hang with the staff of SociologyInFocus.com and SociologySource.com.  


UPDATE (8/9/12): We are happy to announce that Sociological Images will be joining us.  Lisa Wade, founder of Soc Images, will be there and hopefully you will too.  See you there!


When: Saturday 8/18 from 3pm-5pm

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Come on down, grab a drink, and look for Nathan.  Check twitter for updates as well.

See you soon!


Pacing back and forth on stage, which is my custom to the chagrin of my 8th grade speech and debate teacher, I press the button on my clicker and the slide on the large screen at the front of my 500 hundred seat theater changes. I pause my lecture momentarily and look out over a sea of faces, counting how many have furrowed brows or heads cocked sideways like a confused house pet. The slide is simple with a black background and white letters that shows a quote from our text book You May Ask Yourself[1]:

Quote About Women Making Less Money Than Men

I stand quiet and the rare silence draws the eyes of the entire class toward the stage. I wait for a few moments and ask, “do you see it?” Awkward silence and muted chuckles fill the air until someone, typically in the front, raises their hand and asks, “do we see what?” “Oh, you don’t see it. Here, let me help you.” I push my clicker and this appears behind me:

“Do you see it now?” I ask again. After the confused silence becomes unbearable a student will inevitably say something to the effect of, “wow, that really sucks for women. Is that what you are looking for?” I shake my head no. “What would a conflict theorist say about this last half of the sentence.” Still nothing. “Ok, don’t feel bad, what I’m asking you to do is some fairly high-level analysis and that takes practice.”

“You’ll remember that conflict theorist are always asking, ‘who benefits from this?’” I hope you’ll also remember how conflict theory argues that those in power hide in plain sight either because their privilege seems unremarkable or because the privileged are not spoken about. With this in mind look at this sentence again and ask the conflict theorist’s question, ‘who benefits from this?’"

The class and I work together to solve the mystery of the loaded language and it doesn’t take long for us to decide that men benefit from sentences like this.

The inspiration for this activity came from what Michael Kimmel (2004) wrote in the New Internationalist magazine:

Often, though, the invisibility of masculinity makes it hard to see how gender equality will actually benefit us as men. For example, while we speak of the ‘feminization of poverty’ we rarely ‘see’ its other side – the ‘masculinization of wealth’. Instead of saying that US women, on average, earn 70 per cent of what US men earn, what happens if we say that men are earning $1.30 for every dollar women earn? Now suddenly privilege is visible!

I push the clicker one more time and the following appears:

With a single question we start a class long discussion about gender, privilege, and the social construction of reality. “Why don’t we say it like this?”


Kimmel, Michael. 2004. “A Black Woman Took My Job.” The New Internationalist Retrieved online July 30, 2012. http://www.newint.org/features/2004/11/01/men/

  1. This is in no way intended to be a critique of Conley’s You May Ask Yourself rather it is a critique of nearly all introduction to sociology books. I flipped through 5+ intro books before writing this and all of them have a sentence similar to the one that appears in my slide above.  ↩

The first week of a sociology class is tough. One of the first things many of us teach is the Sociological Imagination, or the idea that our individual lives are affected by social forces. I’ve found that students either don’t understand what that means or they think that “only other people” are affected by social forces. To illustrate the concept and to show them that it affects them personally I have this dead simple activity.

Ask your class to break up into groups of 3–5 and answer some question (the question is irrelevant to the activity). Tell them that each group needs to identify one member to be the leader and another member to be the secretary who writes down what is said. Let them work for about 2 minutes, just long enough that every group identifies a leader and a secretary.

This is where I tell my class to stop everything and stand up (I teach 300+ students so, that many students standing is a sight to behold). With the whole class standing I say, “Ok, if your group is all male or all female sit down now.” After about a third of the students take their seats I say, “Now if you are not the leader or the secretary, sit down.” “Great, now I want all of the group leaders still standing to come up to the front here and stand on the left side of the stage. And all you secretaries still standing can stand on the right side of the stage.”

As the students file down the aisle and take their sides an awkward laughter slowly builds. “So what trends do we notice in these two groups?” I ask the class. It doesn’t take long for the students to notice that there are almost no male secretaries and only around a 1/3 of the leaders are female.

“So, like I was saying, our individual choices are guided by social forces and cultural values. Do you see what I mean now?”

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this summer, you’ve heard Carly Rae Jepsen’s unbelievably catchy pop song Call me Maybe. The song has become an internet phenomenon with lip dub versions of the song being posted online by celebrities like Katy Perry, The Harvard Baseball Team, President Obama, and even the hosts of NPR did a cover of the song. Given the ubiquity of the song within pop culture, the song is worthy of sociological critique[1] and I can guarantee your students will have at least heard the infectious number.

The Song Lyrics & Messaging

I’ve talked before about using pop songs to teach gender norms and Call Me Maybe’s lyrics are ripe for a similar class activity. The song lyrics are vapid, standard pop song romance themes. The crux of the song centers on this girl’s desire to have the object of her affection call her. It’s the same standard “pick me, pick me!” passive feminine messaging. Instead of taking what she wants, the girl in the song is hoping she can lure the boy into pursuing her. The title isn’t “I’ll Call You, Maybe”. Analyzing this song, especially if you are teaching right at this cultural moment, would be a great lead in to a discussion of gender roles and sexuality norms between heterosexuals.

To highlight the gendered messaging of the song, play the video for Justin Bieber’s Boyfriend right after showing Call Me Maybe. Bieber, who is freshly 18 years old, is trying to redefine himself as a mature artist (I just threw up a little). Anyways, the first release off his new album Boyfriend is a song projecting his power, affluence, and sexual prowess.[2] Jepsen is asking you to call her maybe and Beiber threatens to burn you with fondue gravy.

Bieber and Jepsen are touring together right now (don’t ask why I know this), so their music must be targeted to a similar demographic. I brought up this apples to apples comparison with my class last spring and we had a great discussion when I asked them, “why are there such starkly different messages about sexuality and gender between these two songs?”

The Video: Heteronormative or Not?

The video for Call Me Maybe alternates back and forth between Jepsen playing with her band in a garage and a heteronormative fever dream that she has for the Abercrombie & Fitch male model that lives next door. The video is a straightforward crush flick (just made that up) until (SPOILER!) the boy she’s been eying gives his digits to the guitar playing dude in the garage.

So is the video enlightened and pro-sexual equality? Well another way to look at it is, the guitar player and Jepsen both seem shocked if not distraught. The video is sure to inspire a healthy discussion about heteronormativity, gender roles, and even the relationship between a piece of art and the audiences reaction. That’s not bad for a throwaway, soon-to-be-forgotten, summer confection.

In Conclusion:

Hey, I just wrote this,
And this is crazy,
But here’s my idea,
So teach it maybe

  1. I’m certainly not the first to analyze the song. This post was inspired by this Slate’s Culture Gabfest podcast and this Entertainment Weekly cover story.  ↩

  2. The song also demonstrates his ability to knock off Justin Timberlake and bite the Ying Yang Twins/David Banner style. Amiright? Huh? Huh? (Warning: Both these songs are astonishingly misogynistic).  ↩