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.

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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).

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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

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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.

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Rethinking my digital ban

I’ve long been a diehard “laptop ban” advocate. Basing this decision first on intuition and later Startup Stock Photoson empirical evidence, it was rarely an issue beyond the initial student grumbling. Among hundreds of student evaluations, a very small handful (less than 5) mentioned it as an issue. Although I included the caveat of “if this is problem for you, please talk to me,” no one ever did. Case closed, or so I thought.

As I’m getting ready for a new term, I read with interest this piece in the Chronicle on starting the semester. Basically, I read the whole piece, nodding along until he got to his critique of the laptop ban. I didn’t think too much of it at first; I have always stated that I’m willing to make accommodations, just no student ever asked. But then I read the piece from Digital Pedagogy Lab he linked to and I’m already singing a different tune.
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The US Election in a Comparative Context

Teaching in DC, at the #mostpolicallyactivecampus (GWU’s unofficial Twitter hashtag), I decided to embrace all the craziness of the election season and design my Introduction to election2016Comparative Politics syllabus around it. I bring the US in as a point of comparison a lot already – both in formal assignments like debates and informally during class discussion – but this year, I will be more deliberate about it. Knowing my student population, they will be watching debates and following the election like hawks. If I can tap into that enthusiasm, I think it will be a good hook for student engagement. Bonus points if it means they become move critical consumers of news about the election. Continue reading