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November 21, 2002

HOW TO TEACH: Merging theory with practice

Pitt-Johnstown communication professor Diane Nicodemus used to be frustrated by students' comments such as, "My volunteer job is better than any course I ever took." Then she decided to do something about it.

"This indicated to me that there was a disconnect between the classroom and experiential learning. I felt that theory and thought could be merged with practice and action to form new dimensions in service learning, where you not only perform service but you learn something," she told a group at the Nov. 15 Teaching Excellence Fair.

So she adapted her Theories of Persuasion course and partnered with Merrily Swoboda, who heads the UPJ communication department's internship program, on a venture to combine student service-learning projects with helping local agencies become more effective in serving their constituents.

With support from a provost's innovation in education grant, the pair were able to purchase computerized, multi-media systems equipment, and to train students how to use web-based technology as a persuasive tool.

Students studied principles integral to effective persuasive campaigns and skills to apply those principles, including web site construction and design, as well as multi-media presentations.

Small teams of Nicodemus's students then worked with Johnstown-area not-for-profit agencies to evaluate their promotional materials, particularly web sites. The teams were required to make written and oral reports to their fellow student teams and the instructor, as well as to agency personnel.

In terms of meeting the course objectives, "students had to learn theories of persuasion, use writing and speaking skills in a real-world environment as well as in the classroom, apply their knowledge of technology to evaluate web sites and work in collaboration with the agencies," Nicodemus said.

She said the benefits to students included developing teamwork, and fostering social, interpersonal and conflict-resolution skills.

The students were required to present four formal conceptual papers that included analyses of the agency's web site credibility and accuracy; the audience the web site served, including performing survey research on demographics, beliefs and attitudes; information provided on the web site and its organization, and the web site's motivational appeal to the constituents, all in order to make recommendations for improvements.

The expectation is that the service-learning experience will lead to internships at some of the agencies, Swoboda said.

–Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 35 Issue 7

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