Active Learning in an Eight-Week Class

I thought it might be useful to document the types and numbers of active learning exercises I use in a typical class. Active learning can become so ingrained that it becomes an essential component of lesson planning, and that has certainly become true for me.  When running short on time, I am now more likely to cut from the lecture than I am from a planned activity. I’m not sure if what I list below is the right balance, too much or too little, but it may be useful to see what one of us on ALPS considers ‘normal’.

This class, my intro to American Politics course, just finished this week.  It met eight times on Tuesday nights from 530-930pm.  Every week they engage in a semi-Socratic conversation with me about the material during lecture;they have extensive discussions about relevant issues; they complete interactive textbook assignments as homework; and a group does presentations and leads discussion on current issues in US politics (this term, based on issues in the presidential election).  None of these are included below but they are an integral part of the course.

I tried to link to everything I could–if there is no link or other credit given, its safe to assume that the assignment is one I created.

Week 1, Political Culture and Citizenship

  • Administered the US Citizenship test disguised as an ‘ungraded pre-test’
  • “Politics as Pie” exercise where they have to divide up a hypothetical pie amongst themselves and discuss their rationale for who gets what, when, and how.
  • Assign them to discover their political ideology through an online quiz.
  • Groupwork to develop the crucial characteristics of a democratic system.

Week 2, Historical Foundations and Federalism

  • “Designing a Political System” exercise from Mertens et al Instructional Manual for Ginsberg, Lowi and Weir’s We the People.
  • Watch “The Storm” from Frontline and discuss the role of government in disaster management.
  • Grant Game (students choose from two different types of school grants to discuss the difference between categorical and block grants).

Week 3, Civil Liberties and Civil Rights

  • Exercise on Missouri’s ‘Amendment 2’ on religious expression, designed by my colleague.  It is a series of articles from supporters and opponents of the amendment and an assignment that asks students to analyze their arguments and then act as a judge in a simulation of a potential court case on Amendment 2.
  • Life in the 1950s v. today discussion.
  • Students take a literacy test from the Jim Crow era.
  • Primary document comparison of Declaration of Independence and Declaration of Sentiments.
  • Midterm evaluation where I ask them to write down what about the course and instruction (including texts and activities) is helping them to learn and what is inhibiting their learning.  I give them feedback the following week and adjust the course in at least one way to accommodate their ideas.

Week 4, Congress and Presidency

  • Play the Redistricting Game (they play at home and then we play again in class together).
  • Exercise on Best and Worst Presidents and the criteria we use for judging ex-ante and ex-post.
  • Extended exercise on presidential succession laws.
  • NY Times exercise on fixing the deficit.

Week 5, Bureaucracy and Judiciary

  • Podcast on Bureaucracy with powerpoint slide that they must fill in as they go.
  • Hobbes game to illustrate life without law.
  • One year i had a guest speaker, a man who had been wrongfully accused of murder and imprisoned for 22 years before being exonerated.

Week 6, Public Opinion and Campaigns & Elections

  • Electoral College exercise that has them work through the reasoning of the number of EC votes needed and what happens if there is no majority.
  • Another EC exercise that gives them vote totals and has them explain which candidate wins based on different voting methods (popular vote, electoral college, proportional electoral college, EC with no majority winner).
  • Arrow’s Theorum exercise from Van Belle and Nash’s Novel Approach to Politics
  • Polling exercise where they each get a question (some standard, most of them flawed in some fundamental way), and they have to poll either each other or the university community.  We use this to start a discussion on issues with polling, and we then look at examples of good and bad polls used in US politics.

Week 7, Interest Groups and Parties

  • We do a WW Norton simulation on interest groups together in class that illustrates the various techniques groups use to influence Congress.
  • We play a Two Party System game (from Grant’s Playing Politics)that illustrates why the US has a two party system.

Week 8, the Media

  • Lots of video-based discussion this week, usually using SNL and clips from Fox News and MSNBC.  I also show them the season 6, episode 5 episode of the Simpsons. “Sideshow Bob Roberts‘ to illustrate things like agenda setting, framing, priming, and the minimal effects hypothesis as well as campaigns and electoral fraud.
  • Analysis of different organizations covering the same event to illustrate framing.
  • Post test repeating from the first week to see how their answers changed.

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