If you teach in a sociology program, you have no doubt heard of teaching through active learning. Most college instructors now know that students learn more and perform better when actively engaged in (and out) of the classroom (Bajak 2014, Killian and Bastas 2015). In their 2017 report, “The Sociology Major in the Changing Landscape of Higher Education: Curriculum, Careers, and Online Learning,” the American Sociological Association Task Force recommends that sociology programs “incorporate multiple pedagogies across the curriculum, including those that support active learning within and beyond the classroom” (Pike et al. 2017:4)

The positive impact of active learning in sociology classrooms has been recognized for some time. For over a decade, other scholars (e.g. McKinney 2007, p. 118) have shown that that ‘‘in-class assignments and out-of-class learning opportunities that involve application and relevance’ help students learn.” Moreover, Spalter-Roth et. al (2010) note that students with experience using sociology in their courses are more likely to attain jobs in the field.

The fact is, however, that there is an uneven distribution in who gets access to active learning experiences. For example, my research shows that among the 15 highest-ranked liberal arts colleges in the U.S. with sociology majors, all but one (93%) offer sociology courses (above and beyond internships and required methods courses) that include active learning experiences (U.S. News and World Report 2016). The mode and mean numbers of such course offerings among the 14 departments were 4 and 3.6. Students at these schools see among their sociology courses a plethora of opportunities to do hands-on work and use the sociology they are learning.

What, however, about students at non-elite colleges and universities in the United States? Do sociology students at these schools have access to active learning opportunities equal to that at the more highly ranked institutions? Not yet–for the most part. Just thirty-six percent of a sample of AASCU (American Association of State Colleges and Universities) members with sociology majors now offer courses that include active learning (above and beyond internships and required methods courses). Eight percent have created applied/public sociology concentrations (other than social work or gerontology) or declare their entire major applied/public sociology.

While instructors at elite liberal arts colleges in the United States tend to have more resources at their disposal, all instructors—no matter their budget or the size of their classes—can find ways to incorporate active learning into their courses. Campus Compact, TRAILS (Teaching Resources and Innovations Library for Sociology), and Teaching Sociology provide a wide variety of active learning resources. New textbooks, such as Sociology in Action, deliver a whole active learning class in one text. Most students at elite schools already have access to many resources outside of the classroom out of reach of students at non-elite schools, but there’s no reason they should corner the market on good teaching. Providing active learning experiences in non-elite, as well as elite college classrooms allows all sociology students to experience the thrill of doing sociology as they learn it.


Read more about The Cambridge Handbook of Sociology: Core Areas in Sociology and the Development of the Discipline, Volume 1 and Volume 2.

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