5 ways to teach effective media literacy skills in your classroom
This semester, I graduated from ASU’s Cronkite school with a bachelor’s in mass communication and media studies. Throughout my degree program I learned a great deal about media literacy, including which methods tend to engage students and which ones don’t. My generation (sandwiched between millennials and Gen Z) grew up with the internet, which means we have an inherently hands-on approach to it. We use it every day and we always have. Because of this, teaching media literacy skills to people my age and younger is both vitally important and somewhat challenging to traditional classroom ideology.
Research papers are a common way to teach nuanced concepts, but they don’t work for topics like media literacy. They tend to be tedious and stagnant, whereas mass media is vibrant and fast-paced. To effectively learn media literacy, students must practice the concepts rather than merely describe the theories behind them.
So, if research papers are out, what’s in? Here are five ideas.
1. Stop searching and start doing.
One of the biggest problems plaguing today’s student population is the overwhelming amount of information they sift through daily. This includes everything from intense political discourse to 15 different recipes for the same dish. The overload tends to cause burnout, which makes it hard to learn new things like media literacy. Cut through the noise in your classroom by challenging your students to take an action.
This action can be anything relevant to your class, but some examples include registering to vote or learning how to invest money. These are skills that many students are not taught at home and do not have practical experience with. Make sure they know that you’re there for them and that you can offer them the right way to take the action, even if they mess up. You can also combine this exercise with a current events discussion about why they found the task challenging and how they believe the system or process could be improved. Successful completion (or even an attempt) of the action teaches them how to move forward with purpose and become a more informed citizen. More informed citizens = better media literacy.
2. Find and discuss misinformation.
Have students track the information they view in a 24-hour or week-long period. In that time, they should find at least one piece of misinformation — perhaps a tweet or an article — that they can share with the rest of the class. This opens up a group discussion about the misinformation’s origin, why it’s wrong, and the reputability of the source. Is this an isolated incident or is it concerningly frequent? How many people are likely to believe this information if they saw it out in the wild.
3. Utilize the sites they’re on already.
Twitter is starting to make an appearance in the classroom, which is a good thing. Instagram stories and even TikTok are lesser-known but equally viable tools. TikTok gets a bad rep due to its origins as a musical lip-syncing app, but it has expanded into a much larger audience that features smart and media-savvy youths (from elementary school to college) making surprisingly detailed content. Teens are discussing history, politics, social justice and psychology in a bite-sized format that can be looped as many times as it takes to get the message across. Unlike with Snapchat, the video doesn’t disappear after 24 hours, and TikTok’s interface allows for more detailed editing.
An assignment through TikTok could involve making a 30- to 60-second long video about a topic related to your class and media literacy. Students can write a short paragraph to go with the video about where they got their information, but make sure this isn’t too regimented or they’ll focus on that rather than the media learning experience. Plus, it should be fun!
4. Lend a hand to Wikipedia.
During the fall 2019 semester, I took Dan Gillmor and Kristy Roschke’s Digital Media Literacy I class at ASU. Our culminating project was learning about Wikipedia and editing an article of our choice for the better (here’s mine!). Because it was so hands-on, I learned a great deal (and even enjoyed the process). Such an assignment is both high and low stakes — high in that the changes are public, low in that they can be reversed if necessary.
Wikipedia is an incredibly student-friendly platform. Most students have used it their whole lives and are familiar with its basic workings. They tend to understand its importance and don’t have to pay for its features, which encourages them to give back through content contribution instead. That being said, giving students adequate resources is especially important for this activity. Wiki Education offers interactive editing tutorials that I found extremely helpful.
This assignment can be tailored to any class. It is obviously well-suited to English and history courses, but it could even be used in biology or engineering. The important thing is that it gets students to make a real-world change, rather than merely submitting a paper into the vacuum of Canvas. Ideally, they’ll learn that the responsibility of spreading correct information lies with all of us, not just “the experts.”
5. Create a blog.
In addition to the Wikipedia assignment, my classmates and I wrote blog posts. Blogging has waxed and waned over the years since its inception in the early 2000s, but with sites like Medium, it is continuing to hold its own. Teaching students how to keep a blog — not a blog about their day-to-day life, but rather an analysis of the media that interests them — is a good way to let them approach content creation in a manageable environment. I wrote my class blog on food allergies and the way the media portrays them, because that issue affects me personally. Another student may write about politics, business or even music. Subject is secondary to the more effective components of the assignment: choice and timing. Additionally, a good blog post about any topic includes links to multiple outside sources that the student must evaluate, which teaches relevant research skills.
By letting students choose what they’ll study, they don’t just find out the basic terms of media literacy and responsible content creation, they personalize it to the way they’re most likely to use it in the real world. This is key because media literacy is not a theoretical concept — it must be applicable to reality the moment the student learns it. The more relentlessly useful the material they learn, the more positive things they will have to contribute to the world.
Finally, blogs are not long, but they are complete. A research paper may be 10 pages, but a good blog post is around 500 words. This is a manageable length to even the most reticent students but offers a challenge to the more advanced ones who tend to rely on wordiness to make their point. Spreading out multiple blog posts over the course of the semester ensures students never get too overwhelmed but they still understand the principles being taught to them. As a bonus, they can link to their finished pieces on Twitter or Facebook.
Media-literate students can change the world.
Every student is capable of learning media literacy, though different methods may work better for different people. The most important thing is to assign them work that doesn’t feel distanced from their real lives. Let them explore, let them create, and let them play (yes, college students need to play, too). Help them emerge from your class a well-informed individual that can actively and intelligently contribute to their communities and larger society. We need it now more than ever.