Snippets from Comparative Politics

Some end-of-the-semester thoughts on my comparative politics course, in relation to a post from the beginning of the semester and to Simon’s post last week about a framework for active learning.

First, the simple stuff:

Running this course with only ten students at 8:00 a.m. is problematic, for reasons I have mentioned before. Lack of students definitely decreases the level of activity in my Gerkhania simulation. Attendance has picked up but is still only eighty or ninety percent, so in the future I really need to give pop quizzes — in paper, rather than electronic, form — on a semi-frequent basis.

I have noticed a problem with the reading responses. For these assignments, I usually pair an article from an academic journal — often the Journal of Democracy — with shorter and more current items from news outlets like The Atlantic, Politico, and The New York Times. Some students developed the habit of reading only the latter and ignoring the former. I need to force students to read the journal articles, but haven’t quite figured out the best way of doing this.

Now for the complex stuff:

The first round of Gerkhania — design a new government — consumed all of last Tuesday’s 75-minute class, which was great. On Thursday, students completed both the second and third rounds, so not great, because I had to create something new for the students to do for the simulation’s third day, which is tomorrow. Since students in the second and third rounds voted on bills that I had created, I decided to have them write their own bills for the unexpected round four. Here is an example of one the role prompts I created for round four:

  • You are an Izba citizen of Gerkhania who practices the indigenous Izba animist religion. During the country’s civil war, your home in Silwatta was destroyed and your family was killed by Khan militia forces. Write a bill that, if approved, will increase the chances that your your family’s killers are brought to justice. Send the text of this bill to the instructor. You will earn 10 points if the parliament approves the bill. These points are void if the parliament approves a contradictory bill.

To take a stab at the first part of the framework proposed by Simon — what do students actually do in this simulation that might be considered “active”? They directly engage with each other, rather than through me, in a semi-structured discussion. I deliberately step outside of the conversation, other than to occasionally ask students to clarify their statements and to write notes of their decisions on the board. Students should also be contemporaneously evaluating events in the simulation — against prior experience and pre-existing beliefs — which is different from simply recording information that I transmit to them verbally.

I find the second and third parts of the framework, effect and measurement, difficult to untangle. Discussion between students is an activity that is easy to observe. You know when it happens. Measuring the quality of discussion as it happens is difficult. And students’ thought processes are in large part invisible to me — I have little idea what kinds of cognitive gymnastics might be occurring during the simulation, especially if they are not reflected by the words coming out of students’ mouths. So by default I use an indirect form of measurement, the post-simulation essay, in which students analyze whether their behavior in the simulation conforms to theory. But given the limitations of the environment — only one class, of ten students, and all of them participating in Gerkhania — I have no control group. and can’t compare the effects of the simulation against other forms of instruction.