Learning Actively through Communication Experiments

In this section, Jared Berezin shares how communication experiments engage students in a kind of active learning that generates both intellectual and emotional responses. He describes how he emphasizes process instead of grades during the experiments and provides an example of an experiment designed to spark students’ deep thinking about persuasive description.

Valuing Active Learning

In our end-of-term class discussion, as well as in the formal students evaluations, students consistently highlight the benefit of the in-class activities and communication experiments. As a teacher, these are my favorite moments of the course as well. The experiments are active, fun, unpredictable, low-pressure, yet challenging and engaging. Each experiment has its unique set of requirements, objectives, and constraints, which generates a wide variety of outcomes among the different teams.

Emphasizing Process

This combination of intellect and emotion—head and heart, logos and pathos—makes the activities memorable, and will guide the design of future experiments.  

—Jared Berezin

Participation is critical, yet the results of the experiments are not graded. Instead, the emphasis is on the process that students work though in order to produce some thing. We treat each experiment as a palimpsest—after sharing the texts that have been generated, students reflect on the various approaches of each team, how they tackled the challenges built into the experiment, and the thinking that they engaged in in order to produce a deliverable.

An Example: The Persuasive Description Experiment

Following a discussion on how intentional description can influence and persuade an audience to adopt a particular perspective, students engaged in an experiment of persuasive description. The class went outside to a green space on campus. Working in small groups, students produced written descriptions of the green space. Each team’s description needed to reflect one of the following perspectives, which I supplied, and the description could not explicitly mention the perspective:

  • A developer surveying this space for the construction of a new building
  • An environmental activist seeking to preserve green spaces on campus
  • This is where you and your new partner had your first kiss
  • This is where you and your former boy/girlfriend broke up
  • A groundskeeper who manages this space and cuts the grass every three days

After approximately 10 minutes of exploring the space and writing down ideas, each group of students shared a cohesive description with the class. The audience attempted to guess the perspective and purpose of the description, after which the authors explained the rationale behind their rhetorical choices. For example, the group of students who wrote from the perspective of a professional surveyor emphasized the precise physical dimensions of the space and its possible uses as a site for a new academic building. Conversely, the group of students who assumed the perspective of an environmental activist focused on the beauty of the trees and people studying on the grass.

After reading their work aloud, we discussed how an author’s rhetorical choices–carefully selected adjectives, naming conventions, emphasis, organization, and scope–can influence how an audience views and understands a place, event, object, or scientific development. Even when reading a text that appears strictly fact-based and devoid of subjectivity, we can attempt to understand a writer’s unstated perspective and purpose through close reading.

Generating Intellectual and Emotional Responses

This experiment and others often generate both an intellectual and emotional response in students. Indeed, while working on an experiment, the student teams are often engaged with deep thinking, collective brainstorming, and even laughter. This combination of intellect and emotion–head and heart, logos and pathos–makes the activities memorable, and will guide the design of future experiments.