As I’ve discussed here and here, I’ve experimented quite a lot with my comparative politics course, which I teach every spring semester. Simon’s post on ridiculous learning got me thinking again about questions — namely how I’ve structured the course around them in non-optimal ways.
I seem to have fixed the problem of students in the audience being unwilling to ask questions of other students who are delivering presentations in class — just require them to do so. But more significantly, the presentations themselves are frequently based on ill-formed questions.
Simon’s exercise might be the first step in teaching students that a good question is more about process than about subject. Another step in the right direction might be for me to specify the questions that students can use for their presentations. Previously I’ve given students quite a large degree of freedom in choosing presentation topics — they had to be based on reading assignments, but the actual content of the presentations was left to the students’ initiative. This method hasn’t worked very well.
I thought of a possible alternative when reading articles on teaching about the Middle East since the Arab uprisings in the April 2013 issue of PS: Political Science and Politics. My comparative course is divided into a matrix of geographic regions and themes. Previously I’ve grouped students solely according to theme, with each group creating its own presentation for each geographic region. If I assign students to regional groups instead, and prepare questions ahead of time, students might develop a better ability to think comparatively.
For example, I could assign a general question, such as “Why did authoritarian governments fall in the Middle East?” Each group would need to first decide upon the process it needs to use to answer the question and then select a different case to examine.
Or I could provide groups with specific questions on a single case. For example, “What was the relationship between authoritarian government and the military in Tunisia before the revolution?” and “What role did religious organizations play in the revolution in Tunisia?” Again groups would need to first identify how to answer their respective questions.
Either method will require me to prepare lists of sources relevant to the questions students will be presenting on — additional work for me, so I’ll have to think more about this.