Table for one

Interestingly, much like my own office. Different dynamic, though

I’d like to pretend that the situation I’m about to describe is the result of some very careful planning, but I’ll assume that you all know enough about how universities work these days to know that it very much isn’t the case. Whatever the reason, when semester starts in a fortnight, I’m going to be teaching a module/course to a single student.

I’ve met my class earlier in the year and he seems very pleasant, so I’m sure it’ll be a great experience. But it’ll also be a brand new experience: that Oxbridge post that I never quite managed to secure, perhaps.
Of course, I’m prepping for this, because I won’t be able to use a lot of the tools in my pedagogic kit. No ‘discuss in pairs’, no simulations (not of the kind I run, in any case), not even flipping, since every single bit of face-to-face contact will be individually tailored to the one person. Continue reading

Conceptual Understanding Through Experiments

Today we have a guest post from Jonathan Rauh, a doctoral student in political science at East Carolina University. 

atomic-experimentActive engagement of the student is a key facet of experiential learning. In-class debate is one classic means of generating engagement, but it can favor students who are more extroverted. In-class debate also tends to be relatively light on the application of concepts but heavy on critical reflection. As an alternative, I have used in-class experiments derived from economics to teach how policy preferences are realized (or not) as a result of different voting systems.

In these experiments, I begin with a discussion in which I ask students about their own policy positions on issues like gun control, abortion, tax policy, school vouchers, universal healthcare, and the death penalty. This allows for discussion of political representation in different forms of government, which then leads into experiments where students are assigned a set of preferences ranging from, for example, far right to far left, and are subjected to a set of voting rules. This type of environment makes it easy to illustrate differences between voting systems, such as first-past-the-post and rank order preference.

If one has taken a course in experimental economics then one knows it is fairly common to have small monetary payoffs—for example, $10. These real monetary consequences lead students to quickly identify which voting strategies will best increase their chances of winning in the experiment.

I have found that the applied nature of the experiments provides a way for students to engage with theories that would otherwise just be abstract discussion points. Students whose personalities make them less inclined to debate are more engaged because their votes do not require explicit public statements. They are able to understand that one strategy is preferable to another and make adjustments in each round of voting without being singled out. Students who participate in my voting games show better test scores at the end of the year and, according to colleagues, have a good understanding of policy preferences and the complex interactions between competing political parties.

For a full discussion of implementing an in-class voting experiment see:

Rauh, Jonathan. 2014. “In-Class Experiments as an Accompaniment to In-Class Discussion.” Journal of Political Science Education 10(4): 453-470.

For a full discussion of experimental economics games that can be applied in your class to teach about topics ranging from preference recognition to lobbying to voting, see Charles Holt’s VeconLab at the University of Virginia:

A Plea for Poster Sessions

Many research methods classes end with student presentations of their research papers. In the typical format, this requires faculty to clear three days of class time for students and faculty alike to sit there and be bored by badly organized and poorly designed ‘presentations’ of research. Unless students are given significant guidance on what to include and how to organize it, their talks usually omit important elements of the paper. Instructors resent the loss of class time, students resent either the loss of instructional time or the obligation to sit there and appear attentive when they don’t care, and no one really gains much from the whole situation except, perhaps, a small bit of public speaking experience.

I’d like to make a plea instead for poster sessions instead of presentations. In a typical 50- or 75-minute class,  you can run two mini sessions where half the class presents and half is the audience. This costs you one period of instructional time – perhaps two – instead of three or four for standard presentations. Poster sessions are all about audience involvement. Instead of talking about their research once, students will speak about it informally and repeatedly for 20 minutes and respond to more questions from their peers as audience clusters come and go. They learn to speak succinctly and clearly about just the highlights of their research while still having to respond to questions about the details that students glean from the poster. With the aid of a simple poster review sheet, the audience members will engage more with their peers’ research and think more critically about it because their active involvement is a crucial part of poster sessions.

In short, poster sessions are significantly more active than traditional panel-style presentations, and they have clear benefits for presenters, audience members, and faculty alike. Guidance for students (and faculty) on what to put on a poster, and how to convert your traditional powerpoint presentation to a poster, is in chapter 11 of my Empirical Research and Writing: A Political Science Student’s Practical Guide. (Or request a review copy from CQ Press.) It also contains some basic suggestions for how to organize a poster session in a regular classroom without nice big bulletin boards.

Call for Submissions: Special Issue

The Journal of Political Science Education has issued a call for submissions for a special issue: Dealing with Explosive Issues in Today’s Classroom.

“Teaching political science can be challenging for many reasons.  We often discuss topics that students have a vested interest in, subjects that can be very upsetting for some students, or topics about which students may vociferously disagree. For this special issue of the Journal of Political Science Education, we are looking for submissions (systematic quantitative or qualitative studies, case studies, or reflections) that investigate how political science educators can deal with a variety of explosive issues that arise in classroom discussions or are at the core of political science syllabi. Specifically, we are looking for manuscripts about novel, effective approaches to these issues, and about how educators deal with classroom challenges that arise organically from:

  • Teaching about race, sex, gender, and discrimination.
  • Teaching during a time of fear or political contentiousness.
  • Teaching when our methods go awry (or show unexpected results).

If you are interested in submitting a manuscript, or have questions or suggestions, please contact the editors at Deadline for submissions is March 1, 2017.”

A final Brexit sim reflection

In our last post on this, Matthew LeRiche (Memorial) talks about his takeaways from our Brexit game held before Christmas.


With the semester now over and course commentary and review in progress it is clear that the Brexit simulation lead by Simon Usherwood in conjunction with Chris Huggins was one of the highlights for my undergraduate students. This past semester the Political Science Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN for short) was able to run its Public Policy Certificate program based at our UK based Harlow Campus – a gift from Lord Taylor many moons ago and a great platform to link our North American students to Europe and the world.

Although tardy in my contribution to the de-brief from the exercise, the following is a reflection on the exercise from my perspective and that of my students. The multi-layered nature of this simulation afforded great opportunity for learning. In particular, it afforded different learning to take place for the different groups involved, since the various groups of students involved from different institutions were undertaking quite different courses. For the MUN group, the key challenge and thus most important learning opportunity was the need to reconcile internally and manage the process of balancing several internal interests to then engage in a single front in a negotiation. For a group of public policy students this afforded an opportunity to think more deeply about the public policy process. Continue reading

Evaluating module evaluations

As for many of you, January is the time when students’ evaluation of your autumn courses and modules come in. It might also be the time when you have exciting conversations with line managers.

I think that I’ve laid out my view on such evaluations over the years – managerialist and often mis-directed questions – but perhaps its useful to think about how you can make the most of the information they provide.

As so often, three ideas to frame all of this.

The first is that course evaluations are useful, if properly contextualised. That means using them together with all the other feedback you get from students, plus your own reflection. I like using the ABC method for more constructive student input, but there are also all those chats you have with students, plus their assessed work: if no-one seems to understand concept X, or confuses A and B, then maybe you’re not presenting things very well to them. The key point here is triangulation: does a piece of evidence have support elsewhere?

The second idea is that you have to engage properly with the evaluations and the reflection. I, probably like you, have been known to skim through the comments, find the thing that it is obviously ridiculous and use that to roll my eyes about the whole exercise. As political scientists, we should know that just because people sometimes say and do silly things doesn’t mean that they are silly, or that everyone is silly. Instead, we need to understand why they say these things and how we might respond.

Of course, this is a bit tricky, especially when evaluations are anonymous and asynchronous to the class activities. Hence the importance of you running your own running evaluations throughout your contact time. Often, the source of the frustration is that you feel you’ve done something and the student hasn’t recognised that: this autumn, I laid on much more support on my assessment than before, only to read one student’s comments that even more was needed. The point should be that I need to think about how I communicate what I provide more clearly next time, rather than trying to track down this year’s lot and justify myself.

And this is the third point. Course evaluations are not meant to be character assassinations and – in the very large majority of cases – are not used as such by students. Much more common, in my experience, are staff taking comments as personal attacks.

Just as evaluations are about the students’ experience of the course, rather than about the student themself, so too should you treat them as about the specific instance of the course, rather than about you.

There’s the old teacher-training trope – which is actually very useful – that says people go through three stages in their teaching practice: they start by thinking everything’s about them (as teachers), then think it’s all about the students, and finally realise that it’s about the specific instance of interaction between them and the students. And so it is here.

One of the things we keep on returning to here at ALPSBlog is the idea that there is no one right way of doing things, only a series of choices that you can explore with your students. That requires self-awareness and self-criticality, underpinned by a sense that things will never be completely ‘right’ in any lasting sense.

Course evaluations might be flawed, but that doesn’t mean they’re not useful. But it also doesn’t mean that they are the be-all and end-all.

The Change All Around, Part 1

The spring semester is about to begin, and as usual I have changed what I will be doing and how I will be doing it. I thought it might be interesting for the dear readers of this blog to learn about some of the factors that will affect my teaching over the next few months. But just to be contrarian, I’ll start in reverse chronological order:

I’ve decided to use Michelle’s technique of placing simulations at the end of the semester when both students and I will be approaching burnout mode. I have done a complete redesign of my comparative politics course, dropping the themes in favor of more traditionally-presented content like the diverse institutional arrangements of democracies. In an attempt to get at this topic, I have resurrected my Gerkhania simulation, but have tweaked it to give it more structure. First, I will assign students roles that have different ethnically-oriented, two-sentence backstories. The class will then convene as the Gerkhanian Commission for National Reconciliation, which has the following tasks: Continue reading