In the Classroom: Getting Students Excited by Kicking Them Out

Originally published April 6, 2018.

It's been a day of discoveries.

One of these was extremely aggravating: turns out you don't get a new deferral on student loans after finishing grad school. Someone ought to tell Ms. Sallie Mae that the Ph.D. that will soon be tacked on to my name doesn't come with an honorarium.

Another discovery, one made during my introductory reporting course, was far more rewarding. It turns out one of the best ways to get media students excited about news writing is to kick them out of the classroom to write news stories about anything they'd like. When class started, I sent my students right back out of the room with only one instruction: have a finished story by the end of the period.

They were welcome to write up anything they liked as long as it was written in news style. This freed them to sensationalize otherwise mundane stories as long as they could frame the topic in a factual and newsy way (for journalism folks, this meant building the story around our news values). One pair of reporters turned in a report explaining that another student found on the street was not going to patronize Amsterdam's Red Light District during an upcoming study-abroad trip. Another pair wrote about how multiple students had their lives changed by a tasty new coffee drink called a "Milky Way" offered at a nearby cafe.

But much to my surprise, other teams uncovered genuine news during the hour-and-a-half exercise. Two visited and wrote about events that I didn't realize were going on near our building. Another introduced readers to a band fronted by the director of our journalism program.

I wasn't sure how students would react to the assignment. They're a good group, but the exercise was so loosely structured that I feared some would lock up from the uncertainty of it all. What I've read in the literature suggests students thrive on structured learning environments and benefit from uncertainty reduction. And I think for syllabi, tests, and big assignments, structure is extremely helpful.

Today, however, in the midst of a series of highly structured out-of-class reporting assignments and a program-wide crackdown on poor grammar and AP style, the freedom was overwhelmingly well-received. Students were beaming as they returned to the classroom after collecting information to quickly hammer out and revise their stories. And, much to my surprise, they were eager for me to read what they had written. That's definitely not something I'm used to—students are typically so worried about the points they fear they'll lose on writing assignments that turning work in is akin to getting in line for the gallows. Furthermore, though I haven't gotten to reading their stories in depth, initial scans suggest their work was at least as good as their out-of-class reporting, which they typically spend much more time laboring over.

This was the first time I'd tested this particular classroom activity. In the future, I'll look forward to this particular exercise each semester. Getting students excited is tough, so I'm going to latch onto this success and see if I can build it into similar classroom activities in other courses.

I'm curious, others who teach media, do you offer similar kinds of in-class activities, and how do your students react to them? And if you teach in another field, what sorts of things do you do to get students excited in the classroom?

Ken Wardteaching