Richard Skolnik – Author of Global Health 101
Writing about global health can help students strengthen their analytical skills, improve their writing, and prepare for “life in the real world.” This should be true whether you teach in a liberal arts setting or in a school with a public health or global health major or minor.
I have students prepare “policy briefs” in my global health courses. Few students have done this before and it tends to challenge them. In addition, preparing these briefs is a good way for students to explore in greater depth some of the key topics that we cover in class.
For my introductory courses, students prepare three policy briefs. The students write the briefs as if they are the Secretary of Health and I am the Minister of Finance of a low- or middle-income country. The first is on nutrition, the second on women’s or children’s health, and the third on communicable or non-communicable diseases. Each brief must be on a different country in a different region, to give the students opportunities to explore how key global health issues play out in different regions.
Each brief answers five questions that are central to policy making about global health:
• What is the nature and magnitude of this health problem?
• Who gets it?
• Why do they get it?
• Why should the Minister of Finance and the President care about this problem?
• What can we do at least cost and as fast as possible to address the issue and improve the health of our people?
The briefs begin with a summary paragraph – since the Minister of Finance is so busy that he has little time for more than the “30 second elevator speech.” Preparing this paragraph is also a good discipline for students and another area in which few of them have any experience.
The students are asked to make these briefs very concise, precise, and evidence-based. The briefs should use data and be well argued. As introductory students move from the first to the third brief, I ask them to include more information on costs and on comparisons between countries. In some teaching settings, the briefs are 4 pages long; in others, they are 5 pages.
Students often need help learning to make strong sentences to lead each section. I encourage them to write as if the Minister will only read those sentences and scan the rest of the paper. If these lead sentences for each section are done properly, the student should be able to combine those sentences into the summary paragraph at the start of the brief.
As students “get the hang of” writing the briefs, most of them enjoy doing so. They also respond well to the fact that the quality of the briefs improves each time, as they gain experience, receive feedback, and get more confident about this policy-oriented writing style.
In the upper level undergraduate course that I am now teaching, called “Case Studies in Global Health,” I assign a slightly different kind of policy brief. For this course, the students write one brief on the control, elimination, or eradication of a communicable disease; the second on health systems reform; and the third on efforts by a country to achieve more equality in health outcomes.
These briefs allow students to explore these topics for countries that we do not cover in class. The students write the briefs as if they are members of and reporting to an International Advisory Panel on the topic. The first five pages of the brief explore how the country carried out its disease control program, health reform, or quest for greater equality, following a set of questions that are to be used as section headings. The students follow this part of the paper with a two-page comment on how the program could have been carried out more effectively and efficiently, taking into account lessons learned in the course.
In the graduate level introductory course that I teach, I ask the students to write a more advanced version of the briefs that are assigned in my introductory undergraduate courses. First, the briefs have to be 6 pages, instead of 4. Second, the briefs have to include lessons that should be learned from other countries. Third, the briefs have to provide information about the cost-effectiveness of the proposed investments.
The student website for Global Health 101 contains a number of sample, 4-page policy briefs from an introductory undergraduate course:
Students preparing such briefs can usually benefit from seeing what a “good brief” looks like.
We have never carried out a “scientific” assessment of the impact of this type of assignment on student writing more generally. However, I started assigning such briefs in 2001. Since then, former students have written on numerous occasions to thank me for helping them learn to write “policy briefs,” noting how valuable it was in their professional life.
Unfortunately, there is one downside to this type of assignment. Rigorously reviewing and commenting on such briefs, in a way that will maximize student learning from them, is very time consuming. Thus, it is probably best done for relatively small classes or classes for which you have an especially talented teaching assistant.
Richard Skolnik is a Lecturer in the Health Policy and Management Department of The Yale School of Public Health and the author of Global Health 101. He has taught Global Health since 2001 and has more than 35 years of experience in global health and development work.
Richard Riegelman, Jared Augenstein, and Rachel Skolnik Light kindly provided comments on the draft of this blog.