college

Volunteers work with youth to create posters for an HIV awareness campaign. Photo by Peace Corps via Flickr.

Service-learning is an extremely high-impact educational practice. Research shows that it increases students’ social responsibility and civic-mindedness, awareness of stereotypes, tolerance for diversity, and commitment to continued civic engagement and development of multicultural skills like empathy, patience, reciprocity and respect. Teachers may assume the benefits of service-learning come from relatively advantaged students reducing their prejudices through contact with relatively disadvantaged service populations. This is only part of the story, though. New research shows that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are actually more attuned to structural — instead of individual — explanations of inequality during service-learning.

Sociologists Molly Clever and Karen S. Miller analyzed their students’ written reflections on a service-learning project focused on food insecurity. The students came from Introduction to Social Justice and Social Problems courses at a small, private, liberal arts college in rural Appalachia. They were predominantly white, but varied in their social class background. The service-learning project involved touring a local food bank and then planning, preparing, serving, and dining at a meal with their food-insecure neighbors. 

Clever and Miller analyzed their students’ written reflections before and after the experience, and compared the learning processes of students from low socioeconomic status (SES) to their middle- and high-SES peers. They found that low-SES students focused more on the impact their service had on others rather than on themselves. They were also more attuned to what the people they were serving were learning and to systemic explanations for inequality. These differences suggest that the common way of thinking about the benefits of service-learning — that is, as outcomes produced through prejudice reduction — fails to capture what low-SES students are getting out of the experience.

Based on these findings, Clever and Miller offer several suggestions to improve service-learning pedagogy for students of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Instructors should:

  1. Include essay prompts that encourage students to engage more critically with their assumptions about the service population. 
  2. Create more opportunities for students to directly engage with the service population. 
  3. Assess outcomes other than prejudice reduction, since it isn’t the most important learning outcome for all students.
  4. Be thoughtful about how the relationship between students’ social identities and service site contexts could impact the student learning experience.

Molly Clever and Karen S. Miller. 2019. ““I Understand What They’re Going through”: How Socioeconomic Background Shapes the Student Service-learning Experience.” Teaching Sociology. 47(3) :204-218.

Image from rear of stadium seat lecture hall facing forward, photo by nikolayhg, pixabay CC

Jessica A. Cebulak and John F. Zipp. 2019. “Using Racial and Class Differences in Infant Mortality to Teach about White Privilege: A Cooperative Group Activity.” Teaching Sociology

White college students often struggle to understand, recognize, and learn about white privilege. Many students prefer a “color-blind” approach that denies racial inequalities altogether. Although there are other teaching strategies that try to overcome this, too many simply shift the conversation to inequalities in social class. These strategies fail to address the complicated relationship between race and class. As a result, students struggle to understand, for instance, why affluent, well-educated Black women still have higher infant mortality in the United States than low income, poorly educated white women.

Recent experimental research by Jessica Cebulak and John Zipp tests a new method for teaching about white privilege. The researchers designed an intervention to find out whether exposure to white privilege instruction through cooperative learning, group exercises increases understanding of white privilege for everyone. Then, they brought their intervention to the classroom, providing students with two days of videos, targeted instruction, and small group discussion on race and white privilege, followed by a semester-long cooperative learning group activity. To see whether the intervention was effective, the researchers tested students’ racial attitudes at the beginning and at the end of the semester.

The key finding of their study is that white students’ awareness of white privilege and understanding of racial inequality increased when they were taught in a mixed-race, cooperative learning setting. Students of color also had significantly greater understanding of the concept of white privilege after the intervention, though experienced stressful emotions when working in groups with white students. Instructors need to consider whether the potential benefits outweigh the potential impact and emotional stress these types of interactions have on students of color.

Four young adults stand in a circle facing each other. They are all smiling. One is holding a piece of paper.
Photo by US Coast Guard Academy, Flickr CC

As a sociology instructor, I have
been thinking about how ice breakers can be used for students to get to know
each other and to seamlessly move
into course content. There are a lot of good ideas for ice breakers online,
including some that do a great job of building community in the classroom. However,
I find myself moving away from them because they seem to be a one-trick pony.

Here are three examples of ice breakers that could be used to
connect students with each other, as well as slide right into sociological content.

The Machine by Viola Spolin of Hull-House

Hull-House educators, Viola Spolin and Neva Boyd, used improvisation and theater games to help their students, who were often immigrants, become “fuller participants in democratic society.” The games created new ways to for immigrants to connect with each other, even if they had different cultures and backgrounds.

One of Viola Spolin’s activities was to have a team of people create a “machine.” Each person in the activity is a single “part” of the machine. It starts with one person making any motion and accompanying sound. It must be something that they can repeat over a few minutes. Then someone else adds another part to the machine, specifically, a motion and sound that works in reaction to the first motion and sound. Then someone else adds in another part and then another. The machine can speed up or slow down, adding a level of silliness.

Postcard image shows a large brick building with many windows on a street corner. The top corner of the postcard reads, The Hull House, Chicago.
Postcard of Hull House in the early 20th century. Wikipedia, public domain

With the right class, this would be a great way to break the ice during the beginning of class. In addition to being fun, this activity can be used to introduce a variety of topics. For instance, I might use this at the start of a Juvenile Delinquency class as a way to introduce the history of the juvenile justice system. Jane Addams and the entire Progressive Era are important because they reacted to the brutality found in the Houses of Refuge — all covered in my Juvenile Delinquency course. This activity could also be used in social work classes to introduce Jane Addams and various perspectives on helping people, or in a Methods class that uses the “Maps and Papers Nationality Map” to talk about early scholarly studies. Lastly, you could use this activity in an Introduction to Sociology course to illustrate the interconnectedness of society and its institutions.

Deviant Behavior Notecards

In this activity, I write down ten
different deviant and criminal behaviors that range in seriousness from leaving
a dog in a closed car to physical assault to using someone else’s Netflix
account when you aren’t paying for it. Depending on the size of the class, I divide
the students into small groups of three to six and give each group the same set
of ten cards and ask them to place them in order from most to least serious. All
group members must agree on the order. It gets the groups talking, and they
always laugh about certain behaviors and how they think that they aren’t
serious even though they know that they are.

After they have organized their list, I ask the students to identify three themes that they used to organize the list. Usually, they include things like the punishment that would come with the behavior, the harm done to the possible victim, and the moral consequences of the behavior. This leads me into a discussion about the social construction of deviance and how we determine what is deviant and what is criminal. I also use this as a way to teach students about the difference between deviance and criminality. You could use this second activity after the first, or on its own. In small groups, students separate the behaviors into a Venn diagram with sections for criminal behaviors, deviant behaviors, and then behaviors that are both. This activity could also be used in a Juvenile Delinquency, Criminology, or Deviance course.

Zoom Puzzles

This activity draws on children’s books called Zoom and Re-Zoom. These books have also been used as a form of team building by Launch Leadership and Andrea Johnson. In order to prepare for this ice breaker, you need to create the sequential pieces based off of the children’s books. Each piece should include one image. The next piece then consists of the previous image within another image. You can see an example with the roosters from the book below. You could also create your own Zoom puzzle. Once your puzzle is created, depending on your class size, you could split the class into small groups of four to six people. Give each group the same puzzle and simply ask them to solve the puzzle. They will need to piece together the story from the puzzle pieces.

At first, students look at the pieces and think that it’s a jigsaw puzzle so they start to move the pieces around. Eventually, someone notices that there is a similar image in multiple puzzle pieces. For example, as seen above, in Zoom, there is a rooster that shows up on numerous puzzle pieces from different vantage points. At that point, they start to realize that it is the same scene across all of the pieces; it is just further and further zoomed in. In order to complete the activity, students have to arrange the images from the farthest out to the closest in.

This is a fun activity for students because it gets them out of their seats and because there is something tangible for them to move around on their desks. They talk with each other and laugh once they realize how to solve the puzzle. This activity could be used in an Introduction to Sociology course to introduce the Sociological Imagination and the idea that students need to “zoom out” and look at the structural influences on their lives and behaviors. Personally, I would use this in a Juvenile Delinquency class to talk about the differences between macro- and micro-level theories. This would help students understand the differences in theories of crime and what these theories focus on as reasons for criminal behavior. I think it would work in a similar way in a sociological theory course.

We, as sociology instructors, often rely on ice breakers as a way to lay the foundation for active learning or future discussions, and I think that we could make them even more useful. I hope that one of these ideas may be helpful for you, not only to help students connect, but to help you to move directly into course content too.


Dr. Andrea Krieg is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Elmhurst College. She earned her PhD from Bowling Green State University in Sociology. She teaches a variety of courses and loves her time in the classroom.

graduation (2)
Here is an active learning exercise that could be used with “A Matter of Degrees” by William Beaver (Contexts, Spring 2009).  Students will be asked to reflect on the purpose of college.  It could also easily be used with a discussion of manifest and latent functions and could be paired with statistics on levels of education throughout the world.

Below is a list of reasons for attending college that students commonly cite.  Please check the reasons that were motivating factors for you to attend college.

________ To get a better job

________ To acquire a set of skills

________ To earn a higher income

________ To follow a significant other

________ To meet new people

________ Due to doubts about what to do in life

________ To get a degree

________ To get out of parents’/guardians’ house

________ To meet a future husband or wife

________ Pressure from parents

________ To make a difference

________ Pressure from high school (teachers, guidance counselor)

________ Friends were going to college

________ Other: _________________________________________________________

Group discussion questions:

  1. Why do you think most students go to college?
  2. Do you think that you are learning skills in college that you will use in your job someday?  Does you think some majors teach more practical skills than others? If so, how?
  3. What was your main reason for going to college?
  4. In your opinion, what is the value of a college degree?  In other words, what does it show?