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What Think-Aloud Protocols Can Teach Us about How People Manage Political Information
Unformatted Document Text:  studies” (e.g., Wineburg 1991, 2001) that detail what we have to learn from watching experts and novices perform the same task and comparing across the two. Here, I report on the results of think-alouds with four novices (students who are either in or have just completed their first political science course) and four experts (who have completed at least fifteen credits of political science with a 3.4 GPA or higher). I note very explicitly that this is a preliminary study, and that I make no grand claims based on such a small sample. But, the results I present are interesting, and invite some broader speculation about their possible meaning. I begin this paper with a discussion of how I have redesigned my introductory American Government course around the goal of cultivating my students’ civic competency (and enhancing their civic skills). Following the discussion of one big question (on how students manage political information), I discuss theories of student learning, coupled with expert-novice studies, as a way of casting some light on expectations. I then describe the think-aloud method and share some preliminary results from a first-cut at using this methodology. I conclude by suggesting directions for future research, some of which are already in progress. Redesigning an American Government Course Goals for the Course What do I want to do in my government class? One goal may be to transmit content knowledge to my students. Students should leave an introductory American government class knowing certain factual items – what each of the three branches of government do, major differences between Republicans and Democrats, differential rates of political participation across demographic groups, etc. Despite differences in the orientations of those who teach this class within a department and within the profession, a certain amount of standardization exists in what is taught, driven in part by the somewhat homogeneous textbook choices available to those of us teaching the class. Content knowledge matters, to be sure. However, there are certain limits to how much it should be the central focus of the introductory course. First, much of this information is easily available in print and online – spending class time listing the 2

Authors: Bernstein, Jeffrey.
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studies” (e.g., Wineburg 1991, 2001) that detail what we have to learn from watching
experts and novices perform the same task and comparing across the two. Here, I report
on the results of think-alouds with four novices (students who are either in or have just
completed their first political science course) and four experts (who have completed at
least fifteen credits of political science with a 3.4 GPA or higher). I note very explicitly
that this is a preliminary study, and that I make no grand claims based on such a
small sample. But, the results I present are interesting, and invite some broader
speculation about their possible meaning.
I begin this paper with a discussion of how I have redesigned my introductory
American Government course around the goal of cultivating my students’ civic
competency (and enhancing their civic skills). Following the discussion of one big
question (on how students manage political information), I discuss theories of student
learning, coupled with expert-novice studies, as a way of casting some light on
expectations. I then describe the think-aloud method and share some preliminary results
from a first-cut at using this methodology. I conclude by suggesting directions for future
research, some of which are already in progress.
Redesigning an American Government Course
Goals for the Course
What do I want to do in my government class? One goal may be to transmit
content knowledge to my students. Students should leave an introductory American
government class knowing certain factual items – what each of the three branches of
government do, major differences between Republicans and Democrats, differential rates
of political participation across demographic groups, etc. Despite differences in the
orientations of those who teach this class within a department and within the profession, a
certain amount of standardization exists in what is taught, driven in part by the somewhat
homogeneous textbook choices available to those of us teaching the class.
Content knowledge matters, to be sure. However, there are certain limits to how
much it should be the central focus of the introductory course. First, much of this
information is easily available in print and online – spending class time listing the
2


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