Teammate Evaluations, Revisited

Students in my courses do a lot of team-based projects. In an attempt to prevent free riders, I have teammates evaluate each other. This semester I have again modified the evaluation system a bit, with an unexpected result.fusball-table

For the past three semesters I’ve been using Google Forms to distribute and tabulate anonymous surveys in which students rank themselves and their teammates. The instructions on this survey:

Evaluate the performance of everyone on your team, including yourself, by ranking all members of your team with a different number. Each number can be used only once, otherwise your responses will be discarded. Assign the number 1 to the person who made the most valuable contribution to the project, the number 2 to the person who made the second most valuable contribution, etc. Only enter information for your team. Leave questions for other teams blank.

My explanation to students of how rankings translated into points — in this case, up to 40: Continue reading

Teaching the Value of Replicability

Guest contributor Markus Gastinger is at the Technical University of Dresden. He can be contacted through and is willing to share his material upon request.

Markus Gastinger

In the winter term of 2015/2016, I was teaching a course on international organizations (IOs). The course was attended by 25 Master students and supported by a lecture. Since not all students had a prior degree in Political Science, we began by reviewing three major IR theories – realism, neoliberal institutionalism, and social constructivism. We had a fair mix of readings for all three but realism was underrepresented because of its state-centered ontology. We discussed constructivist texts with true zeal but they did not – and I write this with great deference and sincere admiration – lend themselves to (quick) lessons in replicability. This cannot be said of rational-choice contributions. After we had discussed the Principal–Agent (PA) model, we read an important contribution by Liesbet Hooghe and Gary Marks (2015) published in The Review of International Organizations. This article struck a chord with students since its large-N approach to studying delegation (the transfer of authority to an international secretariat) and pooling (the transfer of authority to a collective member-state body) gave them an overview of 72 IOs.
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Ethical Exercise

Philosophers Football 2Here is an example of Michelle’s last post about activating prior knowledge — an exercise that also relates to my caution against relying solely on dense canonical texts to engage students.

In class, give students the following scenario:

You have a brother who has been living with you since losing his job a few months ago. Recently he has seemed unusually distracted. One day while rummaging through a hallway closet, you accidentally knock your brother’s coat onto the floor. A cigarette lighter with the letters “LS” engraved on it falls from one of the coat’s pockets. The next day, while listening to local news on the radio, you hear a story about a woman named Linda Smith who was found murdered a few days before. Police have asked the community for help with the investigation. Do you inform the police that your brother might be the murderer?

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Bridge Repair

Forth BridgeIn my last post about teaching comparative politics, I discussed replacing expository writing assignments with a set of templates for students to use when designing presentations. I thought the templates might be a more effective method of getting students to apply theory to past events. For the spring semester, I have decided to ditch the theoretical content altogether, for these reasons:

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When an activity goes completely, yet wonderfully wrong

Last week I used Phil Arena’s collective action problem activity for the third time. The first two times, I ran it pretty close to his suggestion. I asked the students to make a contribution to a public good by writing a long sentence a number of times by hand. If enough (2/3rds of the class) did, I provided a public good of donuts and coffee for the entire class. As I ran it in the past, no one contributed. My students – small classes of 20 or fewer – live together and it was easy for them to see that on one else was doing it and it made no sense for them to incur the costs. As such, the activity itself was effective in illustrating a collective action problem (and I usually still provided the treats).

This year, this lesson fell during midterm week and it was even more evident that no one would “contribute,” so I thought I would try something different. The night before class, I sent an email telling them that if 75% of them wore school colors to class and wrote out the lyrics to the school fight song, I would provide treats. I figured that this was extremely low cost and that they would certainly earn their public goods. In fact, I was worried I was setting the cost so low the activity wouldn’t carry the same impact as in years past.

I was wrong. And, in the case of one class, spectacularly wrong.

My first section had ten students contribute, short of the thirteen needed. The discussion proceeded as it has in the past and the activity was effective in illustrating the collective action problem.

What my second section did left me speechless. They interpreted the email as me, in my role as dictator of the class, issuing an edict (we had just finished discussing non-democratic regime types). At the urging of a few students, the entire class decided to rebel and all wear USA-themed outfits (in some cases, pretty elaborate outfits complete with face paint). And they entered the room singing the national anthem.

Rebellion in the classroom
Rebellion in the classroom

Since I was teaching the collective action problem to explain why democratic revolutions are rare, this unexpected turn made the activity even more effective for the day’s learning objectives (that they created and overcame a different collective action problem was impressive). In fact, it provided a nice segue into my revolutionary threshold activity.

Goes to show that activities don’t have to go according to plan to be effective.

Tinkering with Comparative Politics (Again)

Tinker ToysI’ve begun tinkering again with my comparative politics course, mainly because I’m still not satisfied with what students are getting from it. Previous discussions on this topic include:

So, yes, this course has been a source of frustration for a long time.

As I have noted previously, the essay templates that I created for last semester’s class didn’t work well. The templates were intended to be preparatory exercises for essays and presentations, but the application of theory required by the former was not evident in the latter. So maybe my template was badly designed.

For the next time around, I’ve created separate templates for each of the three theoretical perspective I want students to use as analytical lenses:

These new templates are more specific in what they ask for than the single older version. Perhaps this replaces a demand for creative thinking with an excessive level of step-by-step guidance, but I’m willing to live with that if the end product is better.

Instead of trying to get students to improve their essays by tacking on yet another writing assignment, I could simply drop the essays altogether and rely on the templates as scaffolding exercises for in-class team presentations. Each student would be at minimum accountable for choosing a theoretical perspective and completing the appropriate template at five separate points during the semester. There is a good chance that members of a team will select different perspectives and will need to decide on which one will make the strongest presentation. Teams will then compete against each as usual.

Abandoning the essays will reduce the amount of expository writing, but given their content in past iterations of the course, students weren’t learning much from them anyway. On my end, grading will be easier, especially if I convert the templates into an LMS-based fill-in-the-text-box format.

Politics in Real Time

No ControlStudents often perceive history as a series of unique and disconnected events that are irrelevant to the experience of the present. Subsequently abstract principles seem impossibly vague. A recent column in The New York Times is a brilliant demonstration of how to solve this problem:

What Would Thucydides Say About the Crisis in Greece?

A nice complement is:

Europe’s Attack on Greek Democracy

That these two essays were written by a historian and an economist, and published online to a global audience, is perhaps illustrative of how political scientists fail to communicate effectively with students and with the wider world about current events.