How Much Does the Layperson Know?

Today we have another guest post by Gigi Gokcek of the Dominican University of California.

Students are often surprised to learn how little the average person knows about politics, or even current events. In response, I encourage my students to ask their friends and neighbors how much they know about government in the United States or elsewhere. Occasionally a student reports back to me about his or her conversation in the dining hall with a few friends. I decided to create an assignment to demonstrate to students how much they knew about world events relative to their peers.

The assignment requires students to work in groups to design a brief survey on a timely global event, which they administer to non-political science students and adults. While familiarity with survey research was not required, approximately 75 percent of the students enrolled in the class had already completed our methods course. To avoid disadvantaging anyone, I split the class into groups of three so at least one student in each group had some understanding of survey research. I also assigned readings on the topic and spent some time reviewing different types of questionnaires in class.

I ran this activity in two of my courses – Politics of the Middle East and United States Foreign Policy – and required groups to administer the survey on other college campuses in the San Francisco Bay Area. Topics ranged from women’s rights in the Middle East to terrorism. The second time I ran the activity in my United States Foreign Policy course, I students had to administer their surveys to laypeople in new locations in a wider area. Some students traveled as far north as Santa Rosa, and even to the state capital in Sacramento.

Each survey asked about ten questions, with half of them asking for demographic data. Using Excel or SPSS to calculate some descriptive statistics, students presented their data with graphs and illustrations in PowerPoint slideshows. They also submitted an essay in which they analyzed their findings and discussed what they had learned through the experience. Above all, this assignment allowed students to debunk some preconceptions that they may have had when they started the course. They learned that science majors actually knew far more about politics and world events than they presumed, and that older adults did not always know as much is commonly assumed.

One outcome of the activity that one could have foreseen was evidence of the increased sensitivity that our society now has about issues like terrorism. Despite the innocuous nature of the assignment, one of the groups was approached by the FBI after they had conducted their survey. Administering surveys about terrorism, or other security related matters, can now draw the attention of the federal government! I learned to use caution in advising students on appropriate survey themes.*

*Editor’s note: Doesn’t the FBI have better uses for our tax dollars, and could this be a teaching example of the so-called War on Terror’s chilling effect on free speech?