Communication Studies 394-0: Undergraduate Research Seminar

Section 24: Persuasion in Health Contexts

Spring 2021

2:00-4:50 Mondays, via Zoom


Professor:      Daniel O’Keefe

                        office hours: Zoom/phone meetings by arrangement




Course website:


General description: This course is one section of the department’s junior writing seminar. This section provides a general introduction to theory and research concerning health-related persuasion. The course covers leading theoretical frameworks that have guided health persuasion research and practice (e.g., the transtheoretical model) and research concerning the design, execution, and evaluation of health communication interventions (especially campaigns). Students will complete a substantial research paper and contribute to class discussion of readings.


Prerequisite: Prior exposure to general persuasion theory and research (as is afforded by Communication Studies 205) is essential.


Readings: Class readings will come from articles available online. Reading assignments will provide the reference for each article; students will be responsible for obtaining the article online. Both the usual NU library system ( and the NU Galter Health Sciences library system ( are likely to be used.


Class procedure: For nearly every class meeting some reading will have been assigned. Class time will be a combination of Socratic discussion (in which individual students are asked questions about the reading, without their having volunteered and without notice being given) and open discussion (of the more familiar sort), with occasional brief structured lecture-like presentations. Students who are not prepared to answer questions about that day’s readings should not attend class.


Basis of grading: One's course grade is based on two elements: in-class assessment (45%) and the final paper (55%).


            Concerning in-class assessment (45%): In this course, one’s understanding of the course material (as represented in the readings) is not assessed through exams or quizzes or lab assignments. Rather, one’s grasp of, and thoughtful engagement with, the readings is assessed each week in class through one’s contributions to class discussion. Mere participation is insufficient to earn high marks, as one might participate in ways that don’t display an understanding of or engagement with that week’s readings. Relevant contributions can take a number of different forms. They might take the form of answers to questions that are posed in class. But they also might take the form of thoughtful commentary on the course material; for example, “I can see how that strategy makes sense in the application that that study focused on—but what about this other context? It doesn’t seem as though that approach would work so well, because . . .” displays an critical engagement with the material. Similarly, “Could this idea be applied in the following sort of way?” or “If this finding/conclusion is right, then, when faced with such-and-such sort of situation, should persuaders try to do X?” bespeak thoughtful analysis of the material. Mid-quarter feedback (probably during the week of 19 April) will be provided. [The oral presentation associated with the final paper is not part of the in-class performance assessment.]


            Concerning the final paper (55%): The final paper is a substantial research report, likely to be roughly 15 double-spaced pages (exclusive of references and suchlike). An initial paper proposal is due at class on Monday 12 April; individual conferences about the proposal will be scheduled subsequently (probably 14-15 April). A draft of the paper is due on Monday 3 May. Comments on the draft will be available not later than Monday 10 May; individual meetings about the draft will be scheduled when comments are available. The final paper is due by 5:00 p.m. CT on Tuesday 1 June.


            Each of these two graded elements will receive a letter grade, with the usual numerical equivalents (that is, A = 4.0, A- = 3.7, B+ = 3.3, and so forth). To convert the (weighted) course average into a course grade, the following scale will apply:


                                                course average            course grade

                                                 3.850 and up              A

                                                 3.500 and up              A-

                                                 3.150 and up              B+

                                                 2.850 and up              B

                                                 2.500 and up              B-

                                                 2.150 and up              C+

                                                 1.850 and up              C

                                                 1.350 and up              C-

                                                 0.500 and up              D

                                                 below 0.500               F


Academic dishonesty:  Don't do it. (If uncertain about what constitutes a violation of Northwestern University's standards of academic integrity, consult the University web site: .)


Bad things will happen if you do. (These can include a failing grade on the assignment—and worse. Again, see the University web site. For details on School of Communication procedures:



Sexual harassment:  Don’t do it, and don’t accept it being done. (For more information:



Accommodations for disabilities:  Any student requesting accommodations related to a disability or other condition is required to register with AccessibleNU (; 847-467-5530) and provide professors with an accommodation notification from AccessibleNU, preferably within the first two weeks of class. All information will remain confidential. For details:



COVID-19 testing:  To ensure the health of our community, Northwestern University currently requires students who come to campus or interact with the campus community in person regularly to be tested for COVID-19 routinely. Students must keep the Community Interaction Survey in CAESAR up-to-date, which is the method by which students communicate such plans to the University. Community Interaction Survey status, enrollment in classes with face to face meetings, and/or living in an on-campus residence dictate the frequency with which students must be tested. Students who fail to comply with COVID-19 testing or misrepresent their status in the Community Interaction Survey may face summary disciplinary action, including being restricted from campus or suspended.



Tentative course schedule:


Tu 30 March (“Northwestern Monday”): introduction and background

M 5 April: additions to RAT: past behavior, anticipated emotions, self-identity.

            pre-proposal meeting if desired (on Tu-W 6-7 April)

M 12 April health-focused models of behavior (e.g., stage models)

            paper proposal due

            (W-Th 14-15 April: individual meetings about the proposal)

M 19 April: risk appraisal, perceptions, interventions

M 26 April: health intervention/campaign planning

M 3 May: draft paper due (no reading assigned, no class meeting)

M 10 May: health intervention/campaign formats and vehicles

            (individual meetings about the draft this week)

M 17 May: health intervention/campaign execution and effects
M 24 May: no meeting (individual paper conferences as wanted)

M 31 May: no classes (Memorial Day)

Tu 1 June: final paper due by 5:00 p.m.


Tentative general course outline:


1.  Background: Health-related applications of general persuasion theory and research

1.1  General background concerning persuasion

1.2  Health-related applications of some persuasion-relevant theories

1.3  Health-related research involving classic persuasion variables


2. Potential additions to reasoned action theory

2.1  Past behavior

2.2  Anticipated emotions

2.3  Self-identity


3.  Some health-focused models of behavior

3.1  Stage models of behavioral change

3.2  Protection motivation theory and extended parallel process model


4. Risk perception and risk communication

4.1  Risk appraisal/perception

4.2  The relationship of risk perception and behavior

4.3  Interventions to alter risk perceptions

4.4  Risk communication: Some loose ends


5.  Health communication interventions/campaigns

5.1  Health communication interventions/campaigns: general overview

5.2  Intervention/campaign planning: formative research, audience segmentation, etc.

5.3  Intervention/campaign formats and vehicles

5.4  Intervention/campaign effects and evaluation




Daniel J. O'Keefe home page
Daniel J. O'Keefe email