Back to Basics with CATs

Two Eye Color CatAs promised in a previous post, an example of the usefulness of CATs:

I’m teaching comparative politics this semester, and in this course I divide the content into five geographic regions. and four themes (formerly five themes, but I spun one of them off into a separate course). For each region, students have the following assignment:

Write an essay that uses a single theoretical perspective (rational actor, structural, or cultural) to explain the political events described by the assigned readings.

The first two iterations of this assignment did not meet my expectations — overall the class had done a poor job synthesizing information and presenting coherent written arguments. I looked through CATs for a technique that might work as an in-class writing exercise and found the “one-sentence summary,” which I modified. I gave each student a copy of the following text, created by yours truly but reflective of students’ writing:

I feel as though without a strong and effective ruler being in command a country will either have a revolution or the people will be politically oppressed. A democracy requires economic growth, import and export markets, an education system so people have well-rounded knowledge to participate effectively in elections, and the right culture. The readings discussed South Africa’s modern economy being the product of technology which in turn was able to create democracy. However, in other countries the political leaders control power rather than the people and this results in democracy depending on them by means of their interests. Although the readings we read about sub-Saharan Africa had many different views on the economies of African states all of the readings emphasized the role of political leadership in a rational actor mindset in order to create the democratic systems that they do have.

I gave students ten minutes to edit this passage to make it better address the assignment instructions. I projected the instructions and the passage on the wall screen.

After ten minutes I had each student come to the front of the room and use the classroom computer to make a change to the passage. Other students provided input and I facilitated discussion.

By the time the last student was finished making changes, the passage had been reduced to a single sentence. It wasn’t the ideal thesis statement, but students seemed to understand my point that it’s important to concisely state one’s argument at the beginning of an essay or a presentation.

I then demonstrated how the easiest way to construct a thesis statement for this kind of assignment is to simply reword the question asked in the instructions — in this case, something like:

The rational actor theoretical perspective best explains political events in sub-Saharan Africa.

Once this was accomplished, I had five minutes of class left to do a “wellness check-in” — I went around the room asking each student “How is life treating you?”

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