Professors tackling undergraduate theory courses recognize that when teaching theory, they may well be having to teach students how to think beyond mere recitation of lists and facts. In mass communication theory courses, instructors not only ask students to recognize and comprehend, but also to move on through the higher levels of Bloom's (1956) taxonomy of learning. To reach higher levels of learning, students must apply, analyze, synthesize and evaluate. A mass communication theory class requires students to abstract themselves from something that has been part of their entire lives and to impartially assess media in their culture. Professors also emphasize how they try to encourage students to bring theory to life through the student's own personal experience (Baran & Davis,1995; Ramsey, 1993).
In effect, students must participate and observe what they study, and as such, they become at least informal participant observers in that they "elicit from people their definitions of reality and the organizing constructs of their world" (Goetz & LeCompte, 1984, pp. 109-110). This is especially true in classes requiring discussion and/or journal entries. The professor acts as an "arbiter" of these observations, guiding students in helping to understand their field notes and trying to find theory to develop explanations.
To develop critical thinking skills and to obtain a vista into how students creatively define mass media in their own lives, students can be assigned to create metaphors of their own relationship with the mass media. The following highlights some of the literature in the field related to critical thinking and teaching methods, describes the application of the metaphor in an undergraduate mass communication theory class, and overviews the results in one particular case.
According to Ruminski and Hanks (1995) in their survey of AEJMC members, most respondents indicated they valued critical thinking skills but lacked consensus as to its definition. The most common element in definitions offered was the inclusion of the word "analysis," with about half the respondents using it.
These steps are essentially Dewey's Reflective Thinking process (1933) offered, for example, as a way to enhance criticalthinking skills and, thus, decision-making abilities in a media-planning class (Strohm & Baukus , 1995). The authors felt the application of such thinking abilities in class was imperative to helping students deal with ambiguity, be flexible and adapt to a changing work environment.
"Reflective observation" was one of four experimental steps identified by Ramsey (1993) in a model for instructional design. The model, itself, forwards reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, active experimentation and concrete experience as the steps for more active classroom learning. In an example for a mass communication history course, Ramsey suggests that the Concrete Experience might be reviewing media coverage of a war. The Reflective Observation would follow with student papers discussing media coverage of global conflicts. A subsequent lecture and class discussion developing public reactions to global discussion helps students develop Abstract Conceptualization. While students then follow up with reaction papers applying class concepts to more recent global conflict in the Active Experimentation step.
Such experimental activities have been incorporated into mass communication classes, such as Dardenne's (1994) description of "Student Musings on Life Without Mass Media." Based on diary reports from students in several mass communication classes, he identified key themes elicited such as companionship, easing routine tasks, addiction, antidote to silence, alternative activities, fear of thought and resolutions. And in a survey of public relations educators, nearly every respondent indicated he or she very often incorporated active learning exercises in the classroom (Lubbers & Gorcyca, 1996). …