The following is the latest installment of the Toward Better Teaching advice column. You can pose a question for a future column here.


Reader Question:

Dear Bonni, I know that both you and your husband have podcasts and that you love not only producing them, but consuming them. Do you use podcasts in your teaching, too? —From an adjunct looking to expand my use of podcasts beyond my own listening

Podcasting is an incredibly powerful and intimate medium. There’s an authenticity to it that is difficult to produce in any other communication channel. Alex Blumberg, the co-founder and CEO of Gimlet Media, a podcast network, shared about that kind of intimacy during a 2016 Podcast Movement talk: The Second Golden Age of Audio. He stressed the truth that comes forth in what he calls “good tape”:

“You can hear when somebody is telling you something that they believe to be true, that has an emotional truth to it. That is what makes audio so particularly vital.”

But educators don’t have to limit their use of podcasts to personal enrichment. There are plenty of ways to use podcasting to enhance our classes and enjoy them as learning communities, as well.

Extend the Learning About a Topic

The topic of utilitarianism gets explored quite a bit in my business ethics class. To help them learn more about the framework, students listen to an episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast. In The Halo Effect: Why It’s So Difficult to Understand the Past, they hear about Denny Gioia’s past job as a recall coordinator at Ford, makers of the 1970s subcompact Pinto vehicle. The Pinto is known for being emblematic of the problems inherent in relying solely on a utilitarianism paradigm for making ethical decisions. Despite safety concerns about the Pinto’s fuel tank design, Ford decided not to take the financial hit involved in conducting a recall. The Hidden Brain episode reveals Giolia’s nagging questions about his role in the choices that were ultimately made about the fate of the Pinto. While Giolia had expressed concerns about the safety of the vehicle, he wound up formally voting not to issue a recall on the car. It is powerful getting to hear about his wrestling with his involvement all these decades later.

Donald Bullock, a Vanguard University business major who graduates in December of 2021, was in the class where we listened to this episode. He remembers about the experience:

“I enjoyed listening to it so much, that I wound up listening to it twice. I also benefited by getting to refresh my memory about the specifics of the stories by reading through the transcript. By experiencing these events through auditory storytelling, I could really visualize it in my mind, and the ways in which utilitarianism has an impact on real-world situations.”

If an entire podcast episode doesn’t match the way you are trying to extend students’ learning, you can produce short clips. This American Life has a podcast clipping tool called “Shortcut,” which they share on the Shortcut website is a “web app that lets you quickly and easily turn your favorite podcast moments into personalized, animated, and transcribed videos that can be shared to social media with just one click.” The podcast app, Overcast, lets you share clips from within the app. Portions of podcast episodes are notoriously hard to share, but with these emerging services, it is getting a lot easier.

Deepen Learning Through Prediction

In James Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, he emphasizes the ways in which having students use prediction strengthens their learning. When we predict what might happen next in a story, for example, we are able to understand concepts better and increase the likelihood of remembering them in the future. Even when we are wrong in our forecasts, Lang reveals that, “taking a few seconds to predict the answer before learning it, even when the prediction is incorrect, it seemed to increase subsequent retention of learned material. That was true even when that prediction time substitutes for—rather than supplements—more conventional forms of studying.”

In teaching an introduction to business students about three goals all economies share, I enjoy using an episode of the Planet Money podcast to help them learn about price stability. Episode 216: How Four Drinking Buddies Saved Brazil describes Brazil’s high inflation rates that caused citizens to lose all confidence in the country’s currency. I play the first half of the episode, which described the problem in vivid detail. The episode describes how:

“Just two decades ago, inflation was so high that grocery stores were raising their prices every day. Shoppers would run ahead of the worker changing the price tags so they could pay the previous day’s price.

A series of leaders tried and failed to stop inflation. One instituted a price freeze. Another froze bank accounts. Then, the government brought in four economists who had been talking to each other for years about how to fix Brazil’s inflation problem.”

About halfway through the episode, before the economists are brought in, I pause the recording and ask the students to get in groups and discuss what advice they would give the Brazilian leaders on how to address the situation. I enjoy this exercise greatly, as not only is it a compelling story about the economy, but it also often has the result of getting many students to listen to Planet Money episodes well beyond the one that is assigned for the course.

You might extend students’ learning through the power of audio storytelling, or deepen their learning by having them predict what happens next in a podcast episode tied to real-world events.

Get People Moving

One nice thing about podcasts is how portable they are. While you can listen to episodes via a web browser, most people listen using a dedicated podcast app on their smartphone. In recent years, I have found that all students have access to a cell phone and are able to use an already-installed podcast app, or download one to use to listen to a podcast during class. In the rare instance where someone’s phone was not operational, other students in the class would just share their audio with a partner for the exercise. Once we are able to listen to podcasts on mobile phones, it eliminates the need to remain inside of classroom walls, or in front of a computer screen for an online class.

In Minding Bodies: How Physical Space, Sensation, and Movement Affect Learning, Susan Hrach encourages us to “take [the learning] outside.” She relocated a class discussion to an outdoor environment with tables and benches. When reflecting on the experience, one of the students commented that, “Being placed in a new environment has kept the lesson as a unique memory.”

Our university is near a nature preserve and inland delta, with beautiful views and ocean breezes. It takes about three minutes to drive there and is a respite from the busier traffic of the freeway and residential streets. I’ve taken students there and had students self-select into groups of two or three and listen to a podcast episode on a walk away from the area where we all park. I choose an episode that will only take about 15 minutes to take in. On their walk back, they each share a key theme that emerged for them from the episode and the ways in which their learning was deepened. This experience generates a strong memory that people have regularly talked about fondly many years after our class has ended, just as Hrach’s student noted.

If relocating yourselves to an entirely different context is too challenging to coordinate, you could just have groups find a place outside the classroom to listen to an episode together. When teaching an online class, you can have people optionally go for a walk or otherwise move their bodies as they listen to an episode and then call into a phone number to discuss what they learned afterward. Web conferencing platforms like Zoom provide telephone numbers to call into, instead of having to join via their apps, and there are dedicated conference call services (such as freeconferencecall.com) that provide a centralized phone number to use, as well.

The natural next step could be to have students create their own podcast to demonstrate what they’ve learned in any class you’re teaching.

Regardless of how you use them, podcasts can be a great way to engage students and foster powerful learning experiences.