My Students Don’t Read: Responses to a Classic Classroom Problem

All experienced instructors have had this happen to them: You assign an interesting reading that is pivotal to a topic on the syllabus. You emphasize to the students how important it is that they complete that particular reading, as it will be the basis of the next class session’s discussion. Walking into class, you smile, anticipating a smart, informed discussion on a fascinating topic, and ask a basic question to get things going. And then, the silence, and the signs: the blank stares, the eyes that won’t meet yours, the walls and shoes and notebooks that suddenly are the most interesting things in the room. Your smile drops as you realize the horrible truth: none of the students did the reading.

Quickly you realize it’s not entirely true: a small handful of students, the ones you can always rely on, tentatively raise their hands. Others may have skimmed the reading, or tried to do it just as class started. Still others pull it out as you ask the question, trying to do in 30 seconds what they need a concentrated 10 or 30 minutes to do. Despite this, the vast majority of the class simply did not do as instructed.

What’s the dedicated instructor to do?

I have been teaching for more than ten years, and this happened to me twice this semester alone. In one case, only one student out in my intro to IR class had read Thucydides’ short Melian Dialogue that IR teachers the world over use as an introduction to Realism—even though they had weekly reading quizzes on the material. In my intro to American politics course, none of them had read Federalist Paper #84, which outlines the arguments regarding the inclusion of a bill of rights in the Constitution. In the moment when I realized that my students were not prepared for the reading-based discussion I had planned, I had a decision to make: how would I respond to their lack of preparation?

A few options immediately came to mind.

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Teaching Trump Through a Human Rights Lens

This is  guest post from Dr. Lindsey Kingston, an associate professor of human rights at Webster University.  It was originally published  at the Websteropolis blog and is reposted on ALPS with her permission .  It is part of our Teaching Trump series, and the other posts can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

The political campaign and subsequent election of Donald Trump as president of the United States raises important questions about neutrality in university classrooms. Across disciplines, but particularly within the realms of international relations and political science, my colleagues struggle to identify fair and ethical approaches for “teaching Trump”. Yet as a human rights professor, the need to offer a critical perspective on current events has taken on a new, incredible sense of urgency.

Dr. Lindsey Kingston

My perspective on politics – one viewed through a “human rights lens,” if you will – requires me to assess U.S. domestic and foreign policies with an eye toward human rights frameworks such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and various binding instruments of international law. These rights are universal (meaning they belong to everyone, by virtue of being human) and are inalienable (meaning nothing you can do or say can strip you of your rights). The U.S. Constitution comes second to these principles, although it’s noteworthy that the Bill of Rights reinforces fundamental guarantees to justice, as well as freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion.

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Teaching Trump 4: the view from outside

After all the great suggestions from colleagues (here, here and here), I thought I’d chip in with some ideas from outside, given that this Trump thing seems to be global in impact.

In particular, I’d point you towards the endless memes and gifs out there, the new President being a gift for such vehicles. Just trawl your Facebook or Twitter feed, or simply google it, for more material than you could ever want for. I’d then point you to Jack Holland’s post here for ideas on how to then use these in the classroom.

Personally, I’m interested in how Trump plays into European politics. One ‘resource’ that I’ve found really interesting is the Every Second Counts site.

This started with a Dutch late-night chatshow picking up on Trump’s inauguration statement of ‘America first’, by putting together a package about why that should also mean ‘the Netherlands second‘. Having duly gone viral, equivalent packages have been made by other European countries and are collecting on the main site: personally, I like the Swiss one.

As well as being entertaining, they also contain pointed critiques of both American and domestic politics: watch one as a non-resident of either the US or the other state and you’ll find that you’ve been left behind at several points.

However, as stepping-off points for class discussion about political identities, self-images and othering (and gender, for that matter), these are great. Indeed, if you felt bold then you’d ask students to make their own version.

The Lithuanians don’t even aim for second…

Links to the full Teaching Trump series:

Teaching Trump 3

Today we have a third installment in a spontaneous series on teaching political science in the time of Trump, written by William R. Wilkerson, Professor of American Government and Politics at SUNY-Oneonta. Previous posts in this series are here and here.

I too have struggled. My focus so far has been to spend more class time on two things: 1) the founding and how it informs what is happening in American politics today, and 2) on what political science, and social science generally, can tell my students about the rise of President Trump. I agree that neutrality is important. I need to be able to potentially reach all my students, regardless of their position on issues or their party affiliation. Three syllabi that helped guide my teaching this semester:

I also found the following blog posts, mostly by political scientists, particularly useful in putting together readings for students on various topics: Continue reading

Teaching Trump #2

A follow-up to Amanda’s post about teaching in the time of Trump. Trump’s campaign and administration represent an opportunity to teach about racism in the construction of national identity. I stumbled into this subject accidentally in my globalization course last week, with an assignment that asked students to write a response to “Is France or the USA a more global society?” Students were supposed to reference the following items:

Yesterday I heard this radio report about residents of Newton, Massachusetts, one of the wealthiest and therefore whitest communities in the USA: Continue reading

Teaching Trump

I’m struggling with how to approach my classes right now. I’m teaching introductory courses in international relations and American politics, and therefore the actions of the first couple of weeks of the Trump Presidency are highly relevant topics of conversation. Political Science professors often talk about what level of neutrality to maintain in their classroom—do you try to appear neutral, despite having clear political opinions? Or do you make your own perspective clear, and assure students of your fairness to their own beliefs?—but regardless of your politics, the hyper-polarizing nature of the new administration’s actions make the neutrality side harder and harder to justify, even as taking a partisan angle becomes more likely to shut down discussion.

When I struggle on these sorts of issues, I turn to fellow educators, who are producing excellent work struggling with this and other aspects of teaching about the exceptional nature of the 2016 election and the Trump Administration. This is particularly helpful while I’m still sorting through my own thoughts and considering the approaches I want to take. Under the cut are some thought pieces I’ve seen freely available around the web on these issues to give you a place to start in case you too are struggling with Teaching Trump. Few of them offer specific lesson plans, though, and so for those, I turn to the ALPS community, either as comments or in the form of guest posts, to start building specific lectures or lesson plans to engage students on this extraordinary time. Continue reading

The Social Security Game

Today we have a guest post from Tyler Chance, a doctoral student and instructor at University of Missouri-St. Louis. He can be reached at  trc6df [at] mail [dot] umsl [dot] edu.

social-security-cardsSocial Security and its financial problems is one important policy issue that is probably not on the minds of most U.S. college students. The Social Security Game ( ), created by the American Academy of Actuaries, is a fun activity that I use to teach my students about policy choices. The game’s goal is simple: fix Social Security so that Americans can receive retiree benefits after the year 2034. You can choose to reduce benefits, increase revenues, or apply a combination of both.  The game provides quick videos that explain the different viewpoints behind each policy alternative. After each decision you make the game uses estimates from the Social Security Office of the Chief Actuary to calculate how close you are to fixing the problem.

I like to use the game in my Introduction to American Government course, as well as in my Congressional Politics course, but it has wider applications. When I teach Introduction to American Government, the game demonstrates why paying attention to this policy issue is important and how it can be messy and hard to fix. I first have the class vote on whether we should reduce benefits or increase revenues. From there we vote on subcategories; for instance, if we voted to reduce benefits, we would then need to choose from a range of options provided by the game, such as increasing the full retirement age, reducing Cost-of-Living-Adjustments, and lowering benefits for future high-income retirees. A class in which students have diverse political ideologies quickly illustrates just how complicated the Social Security reform can become.

When I teach Congressional Politics, the game functions as a mock legislature. In this project, I play the role of a newly-elected president acting on a mandate to reform Social Security. I assign each student a specific legislator and have them research their stance on the issue and the demographics of their constituency (or you can provide students with that information on index cards).  I then encourage the students to work through the game with their constituencies in my mind.  So far, solving the problem of Social Security has been close to impossible for my classes, which allows me to show institutionalized gridlock and constituent-based constraints in practice.

The game can also be effective as an individual homework assignment. Have the students play the game and share experiences. Were they able to solve the problem? What route did they take—benefit reductions, increased revenues, or a mix of the two? Why did they choose a particular strategy?