Question Mark

Why Should I Care About Theory?

Prior to teaching my Public Policy Analysis students the practical skills needed to produce good policy analyses, I would spend time grounding practice in classic theories of policymaking. Every semester, about half-way into these discussions, I would wish I hadn’t even bothered. The looks on student faces usually ranged from general boredom to undeniable frustration. At their core, nearly all the expressions asked, “why do I need to know this?” I simply was not able to convey the idea that classical theories are “classics” because they, despite the passage of time, still illustrate and inform policymaking today.

Thankfully, my participation in the CATL sponsored 2013-2014 Teaching Scholars program gave me an unavoidable reason to reevaluate this material and the way I deliver it. As a result, the purpose of my SOTL project was to encourage greater student engagement with the foundational theories and concepts in the course and also to illustrate their continued relevance to the current policymaking environment.

Using D2L, students were asked to post current events that related to specific classical readings. They then were required discuss the ways in which the events posted by others connected to the readings. Of the nine classical readings prior to the midterm, students were required to post an event and a discussion to four.

The project was assessed in three ways: a midterm grade comparison with previous semesters, a post-course survey that measured familiarity with the readings prior to the midterm and those after the midterm, and a post-course survey designed to broadly assess the intervention itself.

Overall, student performance on the midterm increased slightly from two of the three previous semesters. Familiarity with the readings prior to the midterm (i.e., subject to the treatment) also was slightly higher than with the readings after the midterm (i.e., not subject to the treatment). When asked about the teaching method, many indicated the online discussions helped further their understanding of the readings to some degree and an even higher percentage indicated the assignment helped illustrate the current relevance of classical theories.

While the overall impact was not large and the current sample is small, the results of the project are encouraging. I have maintained the assignment in my syllabus and plan to assess its impact again this semester. From my own perspective, however, the most important impact has been the facial expressions that have gradually shifted from boredom and disengagement to greater understanding and curiosity.

Mike CrumDavid Helpap,
Assistant Professor
Public and Environmental Affairs

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