Missouri State University
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n
o p q r s t u v w x y z


This paper presents the findings of a joint project in two very different political science classrooms. In both cases, traditional writing assignments were transformed to digital stories in order to increase student engagement, critical reflection, and media literacy, while still maintaining an overall emphasis on critical thinking and analysis, always important in the social sciences. The paper details the transformation of the two assignments to digital formats, presents survey data on the reception of the new assignments among students, and also discusses the strengths and weaknesses of these assignments in the college classroom. Overall, the assignments were well-received by students, and both professors felt the assignments realized all of the learning objectives. Critically, the assignments also contributed to an increase in digital literacy skills and a high level of student enthusiasm and satisfaction. Data indicates that the assignments were useful in generating early student engagement with political science and international relations majors and should be viewed as a possible tool to promote long-term student success and retention across diverse learning environments.


As college professors, most of us are focused on two principal issues: how to ensure that our students learn the necessary content of our fields and how to foster learning beyond this specific content, in terms of life skills. It is this dual motivation that prompted some change to one of our traditional written political science assignments and, ultimately, generated this analysis and article. Many academic disciplines embrace writing assignments as a means to advance learning and enhance general educational outcomes that include improved writing, research, and analytical skills. Political scientists, in alignment with the common practices of the social sciences, assess student learning, at least in part, through written assignments—from the short article to the longer research paper. Given all of the attention that digital literacy has received in the scholarship of teaching and learning, we decided that it was past time to reinvent at least one written assignment in order to determine if students could attain the same level of critical reflection and analysis using a digital format. We also hoped to generate excitement among students to promote larger institutional efforts to foster student success and retention. If successful, we reasoned, we would have not only accomplished the specific assignment goals, but we also would have introduced a potentially new digital skill to our students, thereby preparing them not just for their next college course, but also for life beyond the classroom.

In order to situate our analysis, this paper first presents a review of some of the relevant literature on the use of technology to foster critical reflection and student engagement along with some information on the ways in which academic engagement fosters student success and enhances student learning. We then introduce our digital assignments and the ways in which they enhance reflection and global engagement for learners, especially for learners from the “millennial” generation. After a detailed discussion of our assignments and an assessment of them, we offer some concluding thoughts on assignment transformation. After employing this course vehicle, it is clear to us that the use of digital stories should be more widespread, as the digital format enhanced students’ digital literacy, augmented their critical thinking and analytical skills, and also generated engagement with course content, thereby enhancing student success and retention.

Media Projects, Critical Reflection, and Global Civic Engagement

It is now common for instructors in a range of fields to comfortably use and promote a range of technologies in the classroom. However, while the main focus of this paper is on the application of a media project to political science or international relations course design, a brief discussion of the merits of critical thinking and reflection as a pedagogical tool to increase lasting global civic engagement is warranted to further explain the choice of digital storytelling as a primary assessment. Barr and Tagg (1995) in their landmark work on the shifting paradigm from teaching to learning argue that when contextual cues provided by the class disappear at the end of the semester, so does the learning. Barr and Tagg go on to emphasize this point by suggesting that in the learning paradigm, faculty are primarily the designers of learning environments that facilitate the best methods for producing learning and student success. Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning model provides a framework for understanding how students learn. Kolb found that learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. The experience of creating digital storytelling projects requires many deliverable components including phases for research, outline, script, execution, revision, and sharing. The nature of the project, therefore, provides students with the opportunity to find a deeper understanding of the material. In addition, the platform allows students a venue for making conceptual connections and applications with the global community. The intent is to lay the seeds for critical thinking, as well as lifelong engagement in civic and global affairs.

Supporters of Transformation Theory, an evolving theory of adult learning, suggest that beliefs must be tested through action (Mezirow, 1991). At this point, critical thinking and reflection become essential tools in the learning process (Mezirow, 1996). As students explore a deeper understanding of international affairs, the requirement to construct a digital story that provides a visual framework to course concepts forces students into a problem-solving dynamic that must employ a variety of learning styles simultaneously. The additional assignment caveat to tie the story to one issue, one country other than their own, or one social problem requires that students step outside their cultural frame of reference and see the problem in a global context, creating a new framework for engaged learning. Stimulating the development of generational cohorts of informed, engaged citizenry requires the practice of civic responsibility. Gottlieb and Robinson (2006) outline four essential civic competencies including intellectual, participatory, research, and persuasion skills that may be compatible with the broader goal of enhancing the critical thinking skills needed for effective citizenship.

Building healthy habits of critical thinking, reflection, and global civic engagement are educational objectives of the digital storytelling assignments. The desire is to provide the ideal environment for transformational learning while building healthy habits of civic engagement for the future. Research has found evidence that continuous reflection combined with active engagement leads to enhanced knowledge, skills, and cognitive development (Eyler & Giles, 1999). Additionally, Eyler (2002) suggests that when students share their conclusions through presentations in the classroom, other students are more likely to become engaged, resulting in more compelling conversations. Finally, Eyler argues that effective citizenship should not only be about interest and commitment but also should include the ability to analyze problems and engage in action. The decision to include a media project thus employs many tools of engagement by harnessing the interest of millennials in a semester-long media adventure, providing a platform for active learning and expanding the reach of the assignment through group discussion.

Providing an enhanced array of assignments such as media projects can lead to a more sophisticated and deepened understanding of course concepts and world view while also generating more student interest in and engagement with course materials. In order to inspire student engagement in a way that is transformational, research suggests that instruction must move beyond the traditional lecture format to a model that involves students in the learning process such as writing or problem-solving (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 2006). Indeed, McKeachie’s research into teaching methods suggests that in order to create active learners, colleges must create vehicles that move beyond the transmission of knowledge (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2010). By engaging students with timely, active-learning activities, enhancing critical-thinking skills, and building global interest, media projects can serve as the spark to stimulate connections to engage students with their interconnected global world. Connecting students with meaningful activities is especially important in the first and second years of college when students generally connect with and select their majors. Indeed, experts suggest that students who are connected with a major early in their college careers tend to have higher levels of student success and persistence (Schreiner, 2009).

In order to maximize engagement, classroom strategies must connect with students at an emotional as well as intellectual level. For students to learn new information that may conflict with their existing theories of a social problem, it is essential that they be confronted with the problem in a context that requires analysis beyond a surface investigation; otherwise, they may retain their original understandings or misconceptions (Colby, Beaumont, Ehrlich, & Stephens, 2003). An essential part of designing educational experiences that provide transformative political engagement and foster critical thinking is being explicit in making the connections between the activity and the real-world political applications (Colby, Beaumont, Ehrlich, & Corngold, 2007). While it would be best if civic engagement were employed across the curriculum, it is difficult to mandate this curricular change in most institutions. However, individual instructors can design assignments that meet this goal (McCartney, Bennion, & Simpson, 2013). Digital stories provide a reflective catalyst for that transfer process.

While the method of harnessing civic engagement outlined in this paper has been employed by political scientists, the transformative properties of the activity lend itself to many disciplines. Serving the cause of civic engagement by placing democratic ideals and process in the core of postsecondary education is part of a national call to action initiated by the U.S. Department of Education. This call came from activities that culminated in a report published in 2012 entitled A Crucible Moment. After extensive dialogue with community stakeholders, The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement recommended that college activities be designed to prepare students to become informed, engaged, and globally knowledgeable citizens (The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, 2012).

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