Death to Student Presentation Day

Special thanks to Dr. Dean Hammer for these insights

We’ve all been there….. I designed my course to maximize scholarly thinking as well as “real-world” skill development… in a stroke of brilliance..tah dah!… in-class presentations with obligatory questions expected from the audience…..

And what followed were many many minutes of zzzzzz inducing info-pedia. Student presentation day was just chunk after awkward chunk of soul breaking data spew… artfully guided by ubiquitous but quirky fonts on ppt slides.

I hated it, the students hated it….we all become lifeless automatons inching our way through class time.


Active class + Student Presentations = check email and update the Facebook status.

I had reverted to the stone ages in the pedagogy of active learning…..

Luckily, this day was also in-class observation day…so my senior colleague was available to witness the disaster….ahem…..awesome….juuuuust awesome.

In his wisdom he gently offered ……”Why not have them present an argument instead of just giving information?”


See that? not only had the light gone on in my head…but it was a compact and efficient one..

I said “give presentations. ”

They heard “write a lecture and deliver it to a passive room.” I gave them no context, no real role, and no motivation to participate…..and I expected them to be active.

The only real benefit to the exercise was to the students speaking at the front of the room…which was fine but…no…not it wasn’t.



In-Class Presentation Day
Pandemic Philly: Simulation with Embedded Press Conference Briefings

This Fall….Students will present arguments for a pandemic containment action plan. Each team must convince leaders and press of the soundness of their vision. The role of the presenters is to make a sound case for the thoroughness and unique approach of their 30-day plan of quarantine containment. The media, (the rest of the class) will ask questions for clarification and challenge each presenter’s conclusions. Following all 4 group presentations individual class members will vote for the most effective action plan to be put into place.

What I love about this….is that there is context, motivation, argumentation, and roles for every student.

Stay tuned for how this turns out!

Tacit Tactical Techniques for Teaching

Time to get meta! It is annual review time at my institution….I hate/love this point in the summer because I am forced to/have the opportunity to reflect upon my approaches to research and teaching.

This is me reflecting....
This is me reflecting….


In the process, I came to some generalized insights about my approach to assignment design. I decided that in my most satisfying assignments had one of three tacit techniques buried somewhere underneath. Although I’m certain there are more than three…The following is what I penned typed out…

Alternate Modes of Expression: Demonstrate Mastery Through Transfer
I think that one means to developing student intellectual capacity comes from asking students to express course content in ways that force lateral thinking into other disciplines or topics—this is sometimes referred to as transfer. I attempt this most commonly in my introductory courses because students are generally very good at rote memorization and regurgitation, and often mistake this for mastery of content. Along these lines, I work to develop assignments that force students to manipulate the content they thought they knew into mediums they might normally eschew. Among my favorites? 1. task students groups with drawing images of course concepts and debates without the use of written words; 2. tell them to write a haiku that summarizes the reading for the day; or 3. apply a theoretical perspective studied in class to popular film. (See: Hunger Games Example)

Words Control Perspective: Language Has a Direct Effect on Expression
Political science is full of cool concepts that students take as inherently neutral. The truth is, many words are part of particular communities of discourse. That is, words tend to enable some kinds of expression while disabling others. Concepts such as terrorism, collateral damage, or even mother/child/family… open and close off routes of expression just by using them. My all-time favorite author for breaking this down is Carol Cohn. She wrote a brilliant article in which she discusses “technostrategic talk” (available via pdf through the link)…Cohn beautifully articulates her participation in a community of defense intellectuals. She learns to speak through their acronyms and discuss the very serious business of missile accuracy. In the process, however, Cohn admits that in learning their language, she could no longer clearly express concepts that she found important–human rights, loss of loved ones, the devastation of war on communities. An absolute must for all my courses.

Warning, this is a demanding but thoroughly enjoyable read for undergraduates.

Reflecting on Self and Structure: Games and Simulations
A great deal of my development in pedagogy involves experimentation with simulations and games. Games afford a unique opportunity for role play, oral and written expression, and development of group work skills. Simulation and game play also create a spirit of competition that most (but not all) students find energizing and entertaining. However, the biggest benefit to these teaching tools, in my opinion, is their potential for critical thinking development. This occurs in two ways.

First, post-game exploration of the rules and structures requires that students critique the model inherent to the game and then to ask what role those rules played in driving the outcome.

Second, post-participation self-reflection of behavior requires that students consider their actions in the scope of game play in order to help them identify areas for professional development. My favorite version of this is Victor Asal’s Hobbes Game

Props Can Make the Game

I know …..I know what you are thinking….

“The last thing you need is to spend more money on teaching….. you don’t have the time to jazz up your in-class activities with silly posters or toys….”

But the truth is…

I can’t hear you

over the sound of my new GIANT INFLATABLE 20-sided DICE.


Sometimes if it is more fun for you… it is more fun for them. Cost… between 10-20 dollars shipping included. There are several retailers out there…. email me if you need a list. Happy Saturday.

Blogging as Getting Beyond the Classroom

Undoubtedly, the online writing forum is the dominant form of contemporary national conversations about any topic you can think of. While some of us have attempted to use blogging as a way to teach, many of us have found the challenge of the online environment has only added to complexity of the teaching process.

Technology is here to assist! Not drag us down!  But it can be made simple….

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 10.15.19 AM

An excellent working example (that I encourage you to visit and comment upon) is Stephanie McNulty’s Comparative Politics blog “Wandering Classroom” at Franklin & Marshall College. Dr. McNulty  has used blogging as a platform for students to connect what is happening around the world to the concepts covered in her class. Students must post a blog providing analysis on a contemporary event, and also comment on each other’s blog posts.

Dr. Stephanie McNulty

McNulty grades students on their blog posts and their comments on one another’s work….but here’s the kicker…. because these posts are public anyone can read and comment. It is an added pressure to perform and to interact outside the walls of the classroom.

(Feel free to comment on their posts to get in on the game!)

Most importantly, these blog posts are more than just fodder, they are actual graded writing! THINGS WE ALREADY DO MADE INTERACTIVE, PEER CRITIQUED, AND GRADED?

This is where I double face palm myself for all the one page reaction memos I have assigned that go only onto my own desk. Simple, better, interactive.

Bravo Dr. McNulty!

Does Active Learning Increase Student Retention?


What are the effects of our choice to engage in active learning on the college’s overall health?

It is admissions review season for us at F&M. It is the period of time that we think about bigger picture effects of our teaching and learning models. As advocates of our method, we should be aware that our penchant for manipulation and game play just might play a role in overall student happiness, connectedness to the faculty, and retention at our home institutions. As I went in search of research that might support this inkling, I found a few sources like the work of John Ishiyama. But it appears uncommon to try and situate the active engagement in game play into this bigger picture of keeping butts in seats for the entire institution.

So it is your turn…. what hypotheses are available? How can we study this? Personally I could imagine a somewhat nuanced relationship between active learning in the classroom and its effects on connectedness to a campus identity. But conversely, I suspect that personal academic performance isn’t a conscious factor for student attachment to a particular place….

What do you think? Does active learning affect college retention? How so?

Failing Fisheries Online Game: More Tragedy, More Hope, More Complexity


For those who are interested in a slightly longer game of tragedy of the commons than the Bunnies game (see below)…particularly one with a little more complexity, readers may prefer’s Failing Fisheries game. (scroll down a little on the page. It is under failing fisheries)


Much like the bunnies game, failing fisheries pits you against virtual opponents on a quest to make money. In contrast to the bunnies game, however, you can select for the temperament of your opponents or allow the game to randomly generate flexible, cooperative, or “independent” boat captains.

The game is more suited to a module on environmental decline than as an assist to clarify Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. This is because the game permits you to attempt to set fishing limits through agreements with other fisherman.

In my own rounds of play I managed to preserve the fisheries. Having said this, I was working with reasonably cooperative boat captains who permitted limits to be set on our maximum catch. So I didn’t ruin the fishery, but I also experienced my own pangs of jealousy as other boat captains were clearly better at fishing. (the snapshot clearly is a demo shot, I always made about 1/3rd what everyone else made.)


The game is winnable if you are moderately willing to watch the game’s fishery market trends and take out an occasional loan for better fishing equipment.

I strongly recommend reading the instructions FIRST on how to actually fish, since I succeeded in driving my boat several places but forgot to cast my nets. Live and learn.

Simulations and Games Index

One request we here at ALPS received at TLC was to create a page that indexed all the various games, simulations, and class exercises that we’ve posted over the years on the blog so that they are more readily accessible for folks.  We’ve gone ahead and done just that–the page, accessible from the home page of ALPS or this link, now has a fairly comprehensive list of everything we’ve covered, plus some we have not.  The various posts are organized by category–American Politics, IR/CP, methods, theory, etc– for your quick reference. Hopefully our readers–whether long time or just arrived–will find the page useful for tracking done an exercise or game on a particular topic in political science.