Comparative Politics 2019, Part 1

In line with the first and third bullet points in my post last year about teaching comparative politics, I’ve tried to make the relationships between course learning objectives, readings, and writing assignments more transparent to students. I’ve done this in part by making writing prompts refer more explicitly to what I want students to learn. For example, here is last year’s assignment about Venezuela, which I placed in the section of the course about democracy:

Read:

  • Scott Mainwaring and Timothy R. Scully, “Latin America: Eight Lessons for Governance,” Journal of Democracy 19, 3 (July 2008): 113-127.
  • Uri Friedman, “How Populism Helped Wreck Venezuela,” The Atlantic, 4 Jun 2017.
  • Moisés Naím and Francisco Toro, “Venezuela Is Falling Apart,” The Atlantic, 12 May 2016.
  • Juan Cristobal Nagel, “Venezuela’s Constitutional Crisis,” Caracas Chronicles, 12 January 2016.
  • Meridith Kohut and Isayen Herrera, As Venezuela Collapses, Children Are Dying of Hunger,” The New York Times, 17 December 2017.

Of Mainwaring and Scully’s eight lessons, which is most relevant for Venezuela? Why?

Answering the above question requires reading the Journal of Democracy article, which is good. Yet the question also demands that students apply a general framework to a specific context that is totally unfamiliar to them. A few newspaper and magazine articles aren’t enough to give students a clear sense of what is happening in Venezuela’s political system. The end result is a badly-constructed rhetorical situation likely to generate answers that aren’t relevant to the learning objectives behind the assignment.

Here is the 2019 version of the assignment, which I have placed in the section of the course on political protest:

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Iterating Student Game Design

More final thoughts on my heavily-revised course on development from last semester: as explained in Parts 4 through 6 below, I included a scaffolded series of assignments on design thinking through SCAMPER, a method for creative problem-solving. In a debriefing discussion on the last day of class, one student expressed frustration that the game she and her team had built was not graded. I only graded how well students had written their evaluations of other teams’ games. 

I thought this was a fair point, and said so. But my past use of peer review of student-designed games had proven to be useless — teams simply gave other teams’ games full marks regardless of the games’ actual quality.  And I really did not want to get involved in the minutiae of assessing the quality of all the games that students had created.

Then I thought of applying the last phase of design thinking — experimentation and iteration — to the problem at hand, and this plan came to mind:

  • Compress teaching about design thinking and the related preparatory assignments into a shorter period of time (e.g., first half of the semester).
  • Teams of student design games. 
  • Each team plays and evaluates a game created by another team.
  • I provide the evaluations of each game to its creators.
  • Each team then uses the evaluations as feedback to improve the design of its game. 
  • There is a second, final round of game play. This time each team scores the other team’s game against a rubric. The rubric focuses on how well the second version of the game incorporated the feedback on the initial design.

This sequence might satisfy students’ expectation that everything they do must be graded. 

Links to the original series on redesigning this course:

Alternatives to Traditional Research Papers

Today we have another guest post by Charity Butcher, Associate Professor of Political Science at Kennesaw State University. She can be reached at cbutche2[at]kennesaw[dot]edu.

Research papers are a common tool used to help students learn about a particular topic. However, students have become accustomed to using information in different ways, and will also be expected to present information differently in their future careers. I therefore decided to give students in my American Foreign Policy course the option of writing a traditional research paper or completing the same research project in a different format – a podcast, video, or poster. Nearly half the students in the class chose one of the alternative formats.

For the assignment, students were asked to choose a current American foreign policy issue, such as U.S. relations with a specific country or a broader foreign policy topic like development aid, human trafficking, climate change, or terrorism. Students first submitted proposals that outlined their topic, included a preliminary bibliography, and identified which format they had chosen. The end product had to describe the foreign policy issue and its importance to the U.S., analyze past U.S. foreign policies on the subject, and recommend future policy. Regardless of the format, students were evaluated on how well they addressed these elements.

Each of the alternative formats had pros and cons. For podcasts, students could include information that was similar in quantity to the traditional research paper. On the other hand, some students first wrote a paper and then read it for the podcast, making some podcasts less dynamic and creative than I had hoped. Overall the podcast option seemed to generate the same effects as a research paper, but added an extra step for students.  

The videos were more dynamic than the podcasts and generally included the same amount of content as a traditional paper. Students were very creative in how they presented information, signaling a bit more thinking than the traditional paper. The downside was that the videos were significantly more time consuming than papers for students to produce. Several students experienced technical problems.

Posters, which students had to present in class, were quite successful. The poster option allowed students to practice their presentation skills, though this occupied class time. It was also more difficult for students to include as much information on a poster as in a paper, though some of this additional information did get communicated in presentations.

Overall, I felt this experiment was successful. In the future, I will eliminate the podcast option and have more specific grading rubrics for each project format. Grades for video and poster formats should incorporate criteria on visual design and presentation delivery. I may also add other presentation options, such as Prezi. I may even add a blogging option!

A Basic Mistake

Back in July I wrote about a new writing assignment that I would be inserting into the undergraduate course that I’m now teaching. As is my standard practice, the directions for the assignment included a statement that students should refer to the rubric accompanying the assignment for an indication of how their work would be evaluated. I also instructed students to write about some of the concepts discussed by Tomer Perry in his series on best practices in game design (I put links to the relevant blog posts in the assignment directions).

Here is my mistake: the rubric did not have any criteria specific to the game design principles that students were supposed to address. When grading students’ essays, I didn’t think it was fair of me to penalize them for not writing about something that I had failed to include in the rubric. This was a reminder of a lesson I have learned repeatedly over the years but occasionally forget.

Badges and recognizing success

Badges are not exactly a new concept, but like many ideas that come from games, they are still not widely known in the world of higher education and learning.  As many of us know from playing sports or participating in Scouts-style programs as children, badges are physical marks of achievement given to those that show competency at a particular skill or for doing well in a competition. In video games like World of Warcraft, meeting a particular goal is called an ‘achievement’.  Each achievement you earn flashes across the public chat, allowing for recognition, and some of them come with special items or titles in the game.  Defeat the Lich King, and you not only get to bask in the glory of victory, but you earn the title ‘Kingslayer’. While typically meant as a form of visible recognition for an achievement, earning achievements or badges can motivate behavior and can be seen as credentials in their own right.

Motivation, recognition, and credentialing skills–sounds like what we want to do in the classroom, right?

Interviewing the EU in Brussels

Today we have a guest post by Jamal Shahin and Claske Vos, faculty in European Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Jamal also works at the Institute for University Studies at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. They can be reached at shahin[at]uva[dot]nl and C[dot]Vos[at]uva[dot]nl.

Students in our one-year M.A. programme at the University of Amerstam needed to simultaneously gain knowledge of the EU and develop research skills, all in a four-week ‘skills seminar’ that runs every January. We decided to address this challenge by having students research policy by gathering data
 first-hand from EU policymakers.

We start by inviting the students to consider their ‘burning question’—what they really want to explore—in their MA theses. In the seminar’s second week, they identify methods and theoretical approaches, with a specific focus on the relationship between policy fields and research methods. Students draft deliverables, which are then peer reviewed at this stage. In the fourth week, students learn more about the practice of European policymaking by interacting with EU officials and other ‘experts’ in Brussels. To prepare for this stage, students must first:

  • Arrange the interviews.
  • Create an interview protocol—semi-structured interview guide.
  • Present a literature and policy review in written form.

These tasks are intended to give students a clearer view of the topics they wish to raise with their interviewees. At the end of the entire process, the students are expected to write up a thesis proposal to submit to their thesis supervisor.

From first contact to first meeting

Many students are daunted by the prospect of interviewing experts in fields that they feel that they are only just starting to understand. It therefore takes some effort to assure them that their requests for information will not go unheard. We help the students write the initial emails that request an interview, and provide them with a rough template that describes the etiquette to use when presenting oneself to the potential informant. Our multidisciplinary faculty, which includes anthropologists, historians, political economists, and political scientists, can help the students express themselves to their interviewees. We hold a half-day workshop with the students, in which a range of lecturers from different departments present their own interview experiences.

Bursting the ‘Brussels bubble’

‘Brussels’ is seen by many as a distant place, remote from the realities of daily life, even for students of European policymaking. This course helps students break through this perceived bubble by allowing them to engage directly with the policymakers themselves, rather than studying the policy process only through literature. It also occurs after an intensive eight-week course on European integration theories, and thus helps bring this knowledge ‘to life’—something that for students is frequently an unexpected benefit.

Success in online teaching: working with your LMS

I’m teaching my online graduate research methods course this fall, and as it is a 9 week course it starts next week.  Since each new section of the course is cloned from the ‘master’ version of the course, every time I teach it, I have to go in and manually update the due dates for assignments.  Most of the syllabus simply says that things are due in Week 3 or Week 6, and the weekly assignments are listed on an ‘activities’ page for each week, but many of the assignments have due dates too, and those need to be changed. It’s tedious but doesn’t take too long.

I’ve noticed in the past that students sometimes miss assignments.  There are 3-4 each week, a mix of discussions, quizzes, and other assignments, plus scaffolded project components, and I will occasionally have students that miss an assignment or two.  I’ve been teaching this course for years, and rather ironically never noticed until today that there was something systematic about the assignments that students tend to miss.

I gave specific due dates to some, but not all, of my assignments.

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Negatives of Nuance

Related to Simon‘s and Amanda‘s recent posts about failing to get the results one expects, here is a very simple example.

My first writing assignment prompt this semester for my course on economic development and environmental change read as follows:

Purpose of this response: learn about the nature of poverty and perceptions of the poor.

1. Read the rubric below.

2. Read/watch:

  • MRU: Basic Facts of Growth and Development.
  • Easterly, Ch. 1 and Intermezzo, p. 5-19.
  • Emily Badger and Quoc Trung Bui, “In 83 Million Eviction Records, a Sweeping and Intimate New Look at Housing in America,” The New York Times.
  • Hans Rosling, “The Magic Washing Machine,” TEDWomen, December 2010.

Answer the following question:

  • William Easterly writes “When those of us from rich countries look at poor countries today, we see our own past poverty.” (p. 19). Is this an accurate view of poverty outside and inside the USA? Why?

My intent in asking the question — which I thought was obvious from the “statement of purpose” that prefaced it — was to get students to think about the differences between how they think about the poor at home and about the poor in countries that they’ve probably only seen on the news, if at all. In other words, I wanted them to start thinking about why our perceptions of the poor often depend on where the poor are located.

Instead students wrote about wealth and poverty from a historical perspective — that the USA once had a low level of economic development, as measured by GDP or income per capita, and that’s where other countries are today. The USA developed into a high-income, industrialized society, so probably other countries, even the poorest ones, will eventually do the same. There was no real discussion of the nature of poverty in the USA or why it exists.

So I need to a better question, something like “Are the causes of poverty in the USA the same as in other countries? Why?” or “If the USA is an economically-developed country, why does it still have poor people?”

Beyond the Essay: Briefing Memos

Today we have a guest post from Vincent Druliolle, an assistant professor at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. He can be reached at Vincent[dot]Druliolle[at]gmail[dot]com.

Undergraduates are repeatedly told that what they study is somehow relevant for practice, yet most assignments are structured as academic essays—even though only a handful of them will end up opting for an academic career. A few years ago, I decided that my students should have the opportunity to develop non-academic writing skills, and started assigning a briefing memo about an ongoing conflict.

The briefing memo is indeed a format widely used in government, international organisations, consultancies, and NGOs. However, because of the large range of topics and theoretical perspectives covered by my module and the limited number of teaching weeks, I had to find a way of integrating such an activity into my small-group seminars. I came up with the idea of making the memo a preparatory activity for my in-class simulation on peacebuilding and transitional justice.

The briefing memo differs from the traditional essay in both content and format. It is policy-oriented, because it is aimed at practitioners and decision-makers, and it presents information in a concise and attractive manner. It requires critically analysing source material beyond the standard academic literature, selecting what’s most relevant, and presenting it in a way that can convey the complexities of the conflict analysed.

Most students have never written a memo, but I don’t give them any guidelines. Instead, I ask them to look up examples that they can use as models. I prefer to ask the students to present their memos in class and discuss the difficulties of writing it. The first seminar of the simulation is thus about comparing and learning from the work of one’s fellow classmates. For class discussion, I recommend selecting at least a very good memo, a (very) bad one, and a few with significantly different formats and/or content. The greater the variety of memos, the better. I want the students to learn from each other, so I adopt the role of a facilitator, asking them to explain why they’ve chosen a given format and/or content, and fostering a class discussion about these aspects.

Many students admit that, as I warn them beforehand, it’s difficult at the beginning to figure out how they have to write the memo. Instead of assessing it at this stage, I ask the students to submit a revised version after the simulation that reflects what they’ve learnt from their classmates’ memos. Guidelines about how to write a memo can be provided at this stage or even afterward as part of a debriefing.

While writing the memo is an activity in its own right, in this case it is also a way for the students to acquire the knowledge necessary to participate in the simulation. They learn what information the memo should include because they have to put themselves in the shoes of the actors for whom the memo is written in the first place. In this way, the memo prepares students for the simulation, while the simulation provides an opportunity for them to reflect on the writing of the memo. And for the instructor, memos are quicker (and less boring) to mark than essays.

Transparent Teaching in Action: Sometimes you aren’t as good as you think you are

In the last few months I’ve been interested in transparent teaching. Basically, transparency is a commitment to all of your students to be transparent about your expectations for a class, particularly when it comes to course assignments. Transparent teaching requires being clear and precise about 3 things in an assignment:

  1. Purpose–explain to the students WHY you are asking them to do this assignment.  Don’t just assume they know how it connects to the material.  Talk to them about the skills and knowledge they will gain and how that is relevant to the course, major, program, or other aspects of their lives.
  2. Tasks–be explicit about the tasks students must follow to complete the assignment.  Sometimes we tell our students to ‘write a 5 page essay’ but don’t realize that many of our students might not know what we mean by an essay–it means different things in different fields, and not all of your students will have taken a polisci class before. Of the three areas, this is where we tend to be the most detailed in our assignments, but even here we can probably be more clear about exactly what we want than we area.
  3. Criteria for Success–the students need to know how their work will be evaluated to determine whether they have successfully completed the assignment or not.  This might mean a rubric, or just a list of what you are going to be looking at.  But one of the most important elements–and the one I messed up on–is it provide examples of successful work.  This might be student work, or something written by a professional working in the field. Want students to write a strong literature review? Show them what a strong one looks like, and talk to them about what makes it strong.  Contrast it with unsuccessful or weak work.  Better yet, give them the examples and the rubric, and have THEM score the work, so they understand how the criteria is applied.

Yes, all of that takes time.  But we owe it to our students to give them every chance to achieve success in the work we assign them.  If we think it is valuable for them to do this work, then we need to give them the detail and time it takes so that success is entirely in their hands.  Plus, doing this has wider benefits.

Research by the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) team at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas has shown that increasing transparency in our assignments doesn’t just impact their work on those assignments. It leads to big gains in student confidence and sense of belonging in college, particularly for disadvantaged populations who come to college less prepared.  At UNLV, they saw a 20% increase in retention for these students who participated in classes where just two assignments were transformed to become more transparent. I led a project at my university last spring on transparency, and while I’m still evaluating the data, those who participated indicated they found the training sessions and transformation process very useful.  If you want to attend a training on TILT, review their extensive resources, or read the ongoing research, head to their Resources page.

So here I am, someone who has trained on transparent teaching, conducted multiple trainings myself, and doing research in the area.  I’ve also used specifications grading in the past, which is in the transparent teaching wheelhouse.  I’m a pro, right?

Yeah, right.  Every time I think I’ve ‘got’ something when it comes to teaching, I end up learning how much more I have to learn.

I’m teaching a new course this semester called Sex, Marriage, and Violence, and I’m running it largely as a seminar.  Students have to write weekly papers on the readings and pose discussion questions that form the basis for class.  In the syllabus I included a purpose statement for these papers as well as a rubric, and the instructions (I thought) were clear: I wanted a full APA style bibliographic entry for each article or chapter, a 1-2 sentence summary of their main claims or findings, a 500-1000 word analysis of the themes, debates, gaps or issues raised by the readings for the week, and 1-2 discussion questions.

The first papers showed up on Monday, and all but one of them failed to follow this format.  Only a few did the bibliographic entries or summaries; some put the summaries in the main body of the paper (something I explicitly said not to do); only a handful gave discussion questions at the end; and a few wrote essentially annotated bibliographies, with no effort to compare or synthesize the readings.

A couple of students messing up is probably their fault; almost everyone messing up is clearly mine.

The good news is that this is fixable.  Because this is an assignment that starts early and repeats weekly, I was able to catch the problem in week 2.  This is an advantage of using smaller stakes assignments throughout the class–there is less harm to the student if they are completely off base in their efforts, and you have a chance to teach them how to improve. 

To fix this, I recognized a key mistake on my part: while I had provided a rubric, I had not provided an example of successful work.  So I drew up a 2 page outline of a paper.  I didn’t write an entire paper myself.  But the outline showed them the formatting I wanted to see in the paper, such as showing them that I wanted the bibliographic entires and summaries BEFORE the paper proper, and the discussion questions AFTER, not embedded in the text.  And I wrote an example of a thesis statement based on the readings for Week 2 along with a single paragraph showing them how to analyze one of the readings according to that theme.  Drawing up this document took me about an hour, but the students SO appreciated it.  They now had a visual aid to see what I wanted with examples, not just a list of requirements and criteria.  I also allowed them to resubmit their paper by the next class, and throughout the course, will ask students to keep anonymized versions of their work so I will have student-written examples to show future classes.

All of this goes to show that even when you are trying to be transparent, sometimes you might not be able to anticipate what kind of information or models the students need to really understand what you want them to do. When that happens, it is typically OUR fault as instructors, not theirs as students. Now, some students will get it wrong no matter how clear you are, but there are definitely times when we are wrong when we think we are being clear.  I’ve sometimes thought that the ‘provide examples of successful work, and show students why it is successful’ is optional, but on reflection I think this is perhaps the most important thing we can do*. This was an important wake-up call for me that even when I think I’m doing a good job, I can still get it wrong. 

*There are those who question providing examples of successful work lest students simply copy it.  I completely understand the critique, but i think with creativity on our part, this can be overcome. Often I am demonstrating formatting and technique, not content, so as long as you change the content out, there’s little risk of copying.  My go-to example is to make arguments about why cats are better pets than dogs, and I can illustrate the expected structure of an essay, a bibliographic entry or citation, a thesis statement, and using evidence to defend a claim using this very non-political example.

Another point here is that providing a structural template for students who aren’t strong writers is super useful to them.  I’m fine with them imitating my structure–I’m teaching them how to write a strong paper.  I encourage students who have more advanced writing skills to branch away from the suggested structure in my outline/template to find their own style.