Quick and Easy Classroom Polls

I know there are approximately one billion classroom polling options, each with its own special features and quirks. But, if you’re not already familiar with Zeetings, it’s a great one to consider.

What I like about Zeetings is that it is free to use for classes up to 500 students (with the Education and Non-Profits plan). Students can follow along on a laptop, tablet, or phone. Unless you want to track attendance or participation, they don’t have to login which makes set-up pretty easy. And it has a number of cool features. You can upload a PowerPoint presentation into Zeetings and then add polls or other features into the PowerPoint. You can embed YouTube videos and other content as well.

As far as polls, you can create different types: “thumbs up/thumbs down,” multiple choice, scales, rankings, text, and word cloud. I don’t use it for taking attendance or marking participation, although you can require that students put in their names to access the Zeeting (that’s under Settings). In my class, I typically use the polls as conversation starters and quick interactive interjections.

For example, I use it a lot in my 40-person Human Rights class. In a session on international human rights law, we talk about the concept of compliance. Before discussing why states comply (or not) with human rights treaties, I get them thinking and talking about compliance with domestic law by asking a few questions about their personal compliance with laws. Zeetings – if you don’t have participants to log in with names – means their answers are anonymous. So, I can ask questions like “Have you ever stolen anything from Whole Foods?” (the Whole Foods on campus used to be a notorious site for shop-lifting but, as I learned from this exercise last year, they are now banning students if they are caught shoplifting so the numbers went way down in the poll compared to previous years). I ask them a mix of questions about laws I assume at least some have violated and some that I assume none have violated. Then I use the word cloud

Word Cloud
Responses to: “Using one word, describe why you don’t comply with certain domestic laws?”

feature to ask two follow-up questions: “Using one word, describe why you don’t comply with certain domestic laws?” and “Using one word, describe why you generally comply with certain domestic laws?” These word clouds kick off a good discussion of compliance that flows into discussions of how domestic and international law are similar and ways they are not. And then we can apply that specifically to why states comply or not comply with international human rights laws.

Zeetings, because of different polling options, works really well to frame this discussion. I just started using it last year and I plan to play around with its features and integrate it into class even more when I teach Human Rights next semester.

If at first you don’t succeed…. try, try again

Over the years, I have tried to incorporate a blog assignment into my Introduction to Comparative Politics class. I think this is the fourth attempt and I might finally be close to a format that works.

The most recent iteration of this assignment, which I did last fall and revised for this semester, centers on the students selecting a country for the entire semester. I have them fill out a preference survey and then assign, to avoid overlap. I call the assignment the Country Expert Project and it involves a couple of components. First, the students write a short reflection paper before they start the blog posts. They are supposed to talk about what they already know about the country (sometimes the answer is “very little”) and why they picked it. This serves as a baseline, because they will also end the project with a reflection on what they learned about their country and what surprised them. Another small assignment at the beginning requires them to read a handful of academic blog posts; we then discuss blogs as a genre and how it is different than a research paper.

Continue reading

Keeping up with current events in the classroom

How do you include current events in your courses?

I’m teaching Introduction to Comparative Politics this semester and I just can’t keep up with all the relevant current events. Every morning, I scroll through my Twitter feed, full of examples that I can be using in class. My students tend to be very engaged with the news and I want to tap into this excitement by integrating more current events into class, but I just find it overwhelming.

What, in particular, are some of my challenges to integrating current events into a political science course, particularly an introductory course?

Continue reading

Do you have 2 minutes to improve your teaching? Watch one of these videos.

When I talk to other instructors about using more active learning in their classes, I regularly hear concerns about the time it takes to plan activities.  My number one piece of advice is to liberally borrow ideas from others. And, in fact, one of my favorite things about the active learning community in higher education is how many great ideas are already out there, just ripe for the taking.  

Image description: an illuminated clock in the dark.
Photo by Denilo Vieira on Unsplash

My university had its annual Teaching Day a couple of weeks ago and the keynote speaker was Claire Howell Major.  Among the many other insightful elements of her presentation, she shared a resource that was new to me: the K. Patricia Cross Academy. One of the primary elements of the website is a library of videos presenting teaching techniques.  Each video is short – just 2-3 minutes long – and presents a very practical and concise summary of a teaching technique.  The videos are clearly developed with the busy instructor in mind; each technique is presented with quick tips on how to use it in class. There are currently 39 techniques on the website. Some might be old hat to active learning pros, like the Think-Pair-Share, but there were some ideas that were new to me like the “Update your classmate” writing activity which I plan to use soon. Many of the techniques will be familiar to readers of my favorite book, Student Engagement Techniques (which I’ve already talked about here, here, and here), which isn’t surprising when you see that Elizabeth Barkley and her frequent co-author Claire Howell Major are the instructors behind the project.

In just 2 short minutes, you can find a new idea to engage your students.

Social Capital and M&Ms

Social capital is a “fuzzy” concept but serves as the foundation for some key comparative politics theories that we cover in my Introduction to Comparative Politics course. To help my students get a better grasp of the concept, I borrowed an activity from economics: the ultimatum game.

Briefly, I have the students pair up and distribute a handout to keep track of offers in the game. The students first need to allocate roles: proposer and responder. I tell them that the student whose middle name starts with an earlier letter in the alphabet is the proposer, just to randomize it somewhat. The proposer makes an offer of a division of some resource. Because candy is a (near) universal motivator, I use M&Ms and Skittles (I let the pairs decide which candy to play for, but I like to offer skittles for lactose-free students). I distribute 50 candies per pair and they play 5 rounds; in each round, the proposer makes an offer to split 10 candies. The responder can only accept or reject the offer. If the responder rejects, neither get any (they go back to me). If the responder accepts, then they divide the candy.

Continue reading

Follow up on Model Diplomacy

A while back I put out a plea for new simulations for my Introduction to International Politics class. I asked specifically about the Council on Foreign Relations’ Model Diplomacy simulations and got some useful feedback (on that and others). In case others are interested, I figured I’d post a follow up.

I decided to structure my course around two sets of simulations. First, I planned on a series of four different one-day Model Diplomacy simulations, at key times during the term. I replaced my group debate assignment with these. Since I centered the group debate assignment around current events as a way of applying course material to a contemporary question, the Model Diplomacy simulations were a reasonable replacement since they, too, focus on a current event. Continue reading

Public Health Simulation

This is a guest post from Sarah Fisher, Assistant Professor Politics at Emory & Henry College, written with Roger Yu, PhD Candidate in Biomedical Engineering at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 

Public health crises require coordination between scientists, government officials, and the public. This past summer, we had the opportunity to combine courses on biotechnology (taught by Roger) and international relations (taught by Sarah). We created a simulation to illustrate some of the challenges officials face when dealing with epidemics. Prior to the simulation, students in the biotechnology course learned about viruses and watched 2011 film Contagion. The international relations students focused on state responses to the recent Ebola crisis (some resources included the Stuff You Should Know podcast and discussion of Ebola songs).

Continue reading

Learning Outside the Box

How do we get our students excited about class material? How can we encourage students to apply class concepts to new and unique situations? One avenue for increasing student motivation and encouraging students to make connections between course material and the “real world” is through co-curricular activities. By co-curricular activities I mean any experiences that happen outside of class but complement the classroom learning experience. In my classes¹ this includes: speakers, on and off campus talks or events, course-related films, and theatrical performances.²

Continue reading

Desperately Seeking Simulations

Over the past five years, I’ve used two different simulations in my Introduction to International Politics class: Statecraft and International Relations in Action. They each have their pros and cons, but I haven’t been thrilled with how either worked in my class. I think I could make International Relations in Action work with some modifications, but I like “off-the-shelf” simulations precisely because they do not require a significant amount of work.

Which leads me to a question for our loyal readers: has anyone used the Council on Foreign Relations’ Model Diplomacy simulations? On the plus side, it appears to be free for students. This is a huge advantage over Statecraft, which seems to get more expensive every few years, and IRiA, which required a book purchase (although used copies came fairly cheap). On the flip side, the roles are all domestic US actors and the focus seems to be on foreign policy decision-making. This is one of my main questions, for anyone who has used these simulations, are they useful for an Introduction to International Politics class despite the US foreign policy framework? The Case Library looks promising, but I already spend a lot of time in the class trying to get the students to think outside of the US context that I’m worried this simulation will undo that work.

So, consider this my call into the wild. Any feedback on the CFR’s Model Diplomacy simulations? I’d love to connect with anyone who has experience with them. Feel free to comment here or email me at mallendo-at-gwu-dot-edu.

Split room debates

Another easy active learning technique from Elizabeth Barkley’s SET book is the split-room debate. I use this one fairly regularly, in part because it is so easy to implement and requires zero preparation. Barkley says controversial topics with “two identifiable, arguable, and opposing sides” are best for this exercise. You simply have the students move to a side of the room to represent their position and then formulate their argument.

Continue reading