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Teaching American Government w/o a Textbook Revisited
Unformatted Document Text:  familiar with. Simply substituting a couple of interesting books in place of a standard textbook is of limited pedagogical value, however. Weiden and Phippen (2005) discovered that students from the test groups (using a series of short critical books) performed no better than students in the control groups (who read a standard textbook), even though the test group found the content more palatable. We sought to address this issue by incorporating critical thinking exercises into our course and thereby engaging the students more fully. We hoped to place the students in the same position as the Founders - those they were reading about in Berkin’s book and whose arguments are contained in Wooten’s. In fairness to the students – and the ever present fixation with the course grade – we thought that we should spend some time teaching our students how to analyze problems and discussing how well the Founders and their successors resolved the conflicts they encountered. So, early in the course we gave several short writing assignments designed to help them develop the skills needed for critical analysis. These one-paragraph arguments were written on questions which surfaced during class discussions. For example, the investiture of a new university president at Idaho State University led to a debate about whether or not prayers offered by local clergy at the event were in keeping with the Founders ideals and intentions. We critiqued these papers with respect to how well their arguments resembled the arguments that had been demonstrated in class for them on several previous questions. We assigned grades in the following manner: excellent arguments addressed the questions of conflict between the right of free exercise with the restraints of the establishment clause and also used logic and materials presented in class – Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists and several US Supreme Court cases – to support their chosen position; good arguments were not as well organized or supported but contained some of the

Authors: Steinfeldt, Andrew. and Phippen, Earl.
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familiar with.
Simply substituting a couple of interesting books in place of a standard textbook
is of limited pedagogical value, however. Weiden and Phippen (2005) discovered that
students from the test groups (using a series of short critical books) performed no better
than students in the control groups (who read a standard textbook), even though the test
group found the content more palatable. We sought to address this issue by incorporating
critical thinking exercises into our course and thereby engaging the students more fully.
We hoped to place the students in the same position as the Founders - those they were
reading about in Berkin’s book and whose arguments are contained in Wooten’s.
In fairness to the students – and the ever present fixation with the course grade –
we thought that we should spend some time teaching our students how to analyze
problems and discussing how well the Founders and their successors resolved the
conflicts they encountered. So, early in the course we gave several short writing
assignments designed to help them develop the skills needed for critical analysis. These
one-paragraph arguments were written on questions which surfaced during class
discussions. For example, the investiture of a new university president at Idaho State
University led to a debate about whether or not prayers offered by local clergy at the
event were in keeping with the Founders ideals and intentions.
We critiqued these papers with respect to how well their arguments resembled the
arguments that had been demonstrated in class for them on several previous questions.
We assigned grades in the following manner: excellent arguments addressed the questions
of conflict between the right of free exercise with the restraints of the establishment
clause and also used logic and materials presented in class – Jefferson’s letter to the
Danbury Baptists and several US Supreme Court cases – to support their chosen position;
good arguments were not as well organized or supported but contained some of the


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