Journalism professor explores how helping students embrace data offers new approach to writing instruction

LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas professor who teaches data storytelling has written new work about how embracing the idea that data is all around can be a new approach to teaching writing.

Each semester, Christopher Etheridge, assistant professor of journalism & mass communications, hears students ask how much math will be involved in a class or suggest that they are not good with numbers. In a chapter for the new book “Better Practices: Exploring the Teaching of Writing in Online and Hybrid Spaces,” he shares how reflective learning, or helping students realize that data can be used to tell a story that is true to their own experiences, can be a new approach to writing instruction.

The chapter “Reflective Learning in Data Storytelling” shares the experiences of Etheridge and co-author Heidi Skurat Harris of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. They key is helping students realize data is not a set of arcane numbers hidden in official databases but rather information that informs everyday life, such as tax information, sports statistics, traffic rates and business figures.

“We can do data literacy for journalists, strategic communicators, marketers and others, but it wouldn’t make as much sense or be as efficient as teaching it to all manner of writers,” Etheridge said. “Heidi and I said, ‘We want students to realize that data is around them all the time.’ A big part of the work is getting the data, but the tools to do that, you already have.”

Etheridge and Skurat Harris share their example of reflective learning in teaching writing. In their class, the authors have instructed students to pair up and reflect on an experience in their lives they feel is worth writing about. The students share their ideas with the larger class, who ask questions and offer ideas on the type of data needed to properly tell the story.

One student shared that they were nearly hit by a car while walking through an intersection. That led to questions about accident rates at various intersections, severity of accidents, numbers of tickets written in certain areas, most dangerous times of day and how such data could be found and put to use in writing about the experience.

Throughout the chapter, the authors share how they guided students to take ownership of their own stories. They also share examples of how such a reflective experience could be used in other classroom settings along with strategies adjusting approaches for different class sizes or majors.

“Better Practices,” edited by Amy Cicchino of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Troy Hicks of Central Michigan University, contains 19 chapters written by authors on topics such as collaborative writing, teaching in online/hybrid courses, textual analysis, writing for social media, open-media assignments and building trust in online writing. Published by WAC Clearinghouse, each of the book’s chapters are written by an early-career writing instructor paired with a more veteran educator.

“Amy (Cicchino) and Troy (Hicks) came up with the idea that we don’t have to be the best at everything, but we can be better at what we do and how we teach writing for the book,” Etheridge said of the editors. “Originally it was looking at online teaching, but there are so many ways we are teaching these days that we decided to explore some of the ways we can get where we want to be with small adjustments to our delivery and content.”

For their chapter, Etheridge and Skurat Harris share research supporting the practice of reflective learning and steps for how writing teachers can implement it in their own classrooms or teaching modules. The key in reflective learning with data is helping students realize that data is not an intimidating set of numbers, but a useful way of telling a story and helping people understand the experiences of life, the authors wrote.

“Some of the best ideas I’ve ever had as a communicator have come from regular life and seeing how people have presented an idea through a billboard or ad campaign,” Etheridge said. “We want to help students realize they can do the same.”

Etheridge said the chapter was inspired by the idea of providing students with the skills employers say they are looking for in early-career writers. As part of previously published work, Etheridge and colleague Peter Bobkowski wrote how editors, producers, hiring managers and others told them they want students with “spreadsheet wherewithal,” or the ability to handle and interpret data for readers and audiences.

“They tell us, ‘We don’t need everybody to know how to code,’ but they do want more of their staff to be able open Excel, put in numbers and be able to get some good results and make sense of the information,” Etheridge said.

Thu, 04/11/2024


Mike Krings

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