Two Ducks Walk Into A Bar To Collaborate

Wiig and FerrellI find teaching the “soft skill” of collaboration to be so difficult that I usually don’t even attempt it. I make the same mistake that many of us make when it comes to collaborative activities or assignments — divide the class into groups and then step back. Within their groups, students chop the project into discrete tasks that are distributed piecemeal, with each member of the group taking a small piece of the whole. The pieces then are jammed together into a finished product right before whatever deadline I’ve imposed. Most groups stumble through the process to the end, one or two groups succeed spectacularly, and one group always falls apart.

Improvisational comedy (known in the trade as improv) offers a more promising route to effective collaboration.  Randy Nelson, who has worked at Pixar, Dreamworks, and Apple, distills improv down to two simple questions:

  • How do I accept what my partner is offering? Refusing an offer is an automatic dead end, while accepting one preserves the existence of creative opportunities.
  • How do I make my partner look good? A temporary suspension of judgment builds trust, altruism, and a sense of community, which also foster creativity.

The librarian Peter Bromberg’s list of ten principles of improv and why you should care also emphasizes the creative potential in accepting everything as an offer and building off of “whatever is given to us.”

There are some interesting second-order effects when these improv principles are put into practice. One, which is pointed out by Randy Nelson, is that attempting to avoid failure is much less productive than being able to recover from it. The best problem-solvers view failure as a learning opportunity. People who make avoiding failure their top priority usually end up becoming mired in it. More on failure herehere, and here.

Improv exercises — which are great icebreakers and team-building activities — can be found at the Improv Encyclopedia.

IR Cards Against Humanity

One of the greatest party games out there right now is Cards Against Humanity (free to download or $25 for a set), an adult version of Apples to Apples.  In the game, you have two sets of cards—one set either gives adjectives or asks prompts, such as “The healing process began when I joined a support group for victims of __________’, or ‘My plan for world domination begins with _________’ or; the other gives possible answers.  In each round, one player (the ‘judge’) turns over the top prompt card and the others, who each have a hand of 8-10 cards, anonymously throw down a single card in response.  The judge then reveals all the possible answers and picks a winner, usually whichever is considered the cleverest or appeals to their sense of humor. Apples to Apples is a family game; CAH most certainly not, with many of the cards having decidedly adult themes.

While the cards themselves have limited utility in the classroom, the gameplay is something that could easily work, particularly as a review game for an exam.  Creating a set of cards would take some time, but once finished, the set could be used again and again. And although I use an IR example below, this could easily be done for any sub-field or discipline.

For example, one set of cards could be concepts or people from the discipline, and the other set descriptive terms. Perhaps the first card is Realism, and players could throw in cards such as ‘black boxes’ ‘interests defined as power’ ‘Morgenthau’ ‘Waltz’ and ‘unitary actors’.  You could allow for special ‘NOT’ cards that students could throw down with cards that do not match, in case they do not have any appropriate cards in their hand. So for the Realism example, maybe one student does not have any appropriate cards, but they do have ‘Kant’ in their hand; they could use then throw down ‘NOT Kant’.

This would have the best utility as a review game, as players would need to understand the concept to be able to throw good cards into the mix.  You could even have students create the game for you—each week you could ask assign them several concepts and have them write prompts or possible responses based on the material from that week, and then use the cards they designed in the review game.  Each semester you would then get more and more material to use for the game.

Whodunnit?:Mysteries and Teaching Critical Thinking

I recently returned from a trip to the UK where sadly susherwood’s and my schedules were not compatible enough to arrange a meetup.  While I was gone a new reality competition started up in the US called ‘Whodunnit?’.  A cross between the game Clue and CSI, contestants on the show are ‘killed’ one by one with the remainder investigating the scene to determine how the crime was completed.  Those who come closest to understanding the details of the crime are safe from harm, and those who mess it up are in danger of becoming the next victim.

The execution of the show does not really live up to the excellent premise, but watching it made me think about the use of mysteries to teach critical thinking in the classroom.  The inductive nature of being given a series of clues and pieces of evidence and trying to piece together events is quite useful training for students, and the use of mysteries gives it a fun edge that makes the answer worth knowing.  Any class that attempts to teach critical thinking could take a break to consider a mystery, although perhaps the best place for this is an undergraduate methods course.  I’ve posted before about Zendo, another critical thinking game that works great in methods.

I thought about assigning students to watch the show, but then remembered the fundamental rule of this blog: active learning is almost always better than passive learning.  So why have them watch a show when I can have them act it out?

If you want to try this, there are a few ways to go about it.  One would be to have students play the board game Clue.  This has limited applications though since the number of players is generally quite small, maybe 6-8.  Another option would be to give the students the details and evidence from a mystery–an episode of a mystery-themed show, or a short story or novel–and have them try to solve the crime.  Mystery buffs might spot the similarities though, particularly if you use a well-known case.

The option I’m toying with for this fall is to use a commercially available murder mystery party case. These are essentially role playing games, where each player is given a character to portray and they can trade information with each other both before and after the crime is committed.  The downloadable games contain all the pieces necessary to play and depending on the game can be run for as few as eight people or as many as 80 (more if people play as teams).

I like the role playing option because it’s highly interactive and requires the students to participate in gathering the information as well as analyzing it.  They also will not necessarily know when they have all the details of the case, which is more true to actual research, and can provide some interesting insights into ‘satisficing’ in this regard. The game could be a required element of the course or done entirely as extra credit.  My recommendation would be to require no more than participation in the exercise, and then award extra credit for correctly identifying the murderer, figuring out how the murder occurred, good game play, acting, and if you want, costumes.

Just remember that if you try something like this, the debriefing process afterward is essential to help students see the connection to the skills and content at stake–otherwise it will seem at best like a fun but pointless academic exercise.

If you try something like this (or have done already) I’m eager to hear about your experiences!


My new section of intro to international relations starts tonight.  Its an eight week course that meets once a week for hour hours.  Everything is prepped–syllabus printed, website set up, lectures ready to go.  Class starts in half an hour, and I can’t decide how I want to start things off.

There are two options: the first, my standard opener, is a discussion about how international events have had an impact on their day.  Students tend to struggle to come up with an answer at first, but as the discussion continues they struggle, by the end, to come up with anything that was NOT affected by international relations.  Its a nice way to create buy-in for the course, even for non-majors, and lets me start to learn their names.  After the discussion we do introductions and then review the syllabus, and then start the first lesson of the evening.

The second option is to use Victor’s Hobbes game.  It works really well as an icebreaker (they have to introduce themselves before engaging in combat) and makes the first experience in the class a fun one, thus also creating buy in.

The challenge isn’t which to use, but rather the timing.  Which is better as an opener with a new class?  We don’t really talk about realism until next week, so is the Hobbes game better saved until then?  If I do it tonight, should i use it as an opener, or later in the evening when they might be flagging?

Of course, my concerns about timing may be completing groundless: I doubt that the choice of when to do it–as an opener, before break, or a closing exercise–really matters that much in terms of the impact it has on the students.

…and now I want to test to see if it does have an impact.  Project for next  year’s TLC?

The Methods Silo Effect and Fixing Poor Research Skills

Today I want to discuss the Methods Silo Effect: the belief that a single methods class or sequence is sufficient to teach our students the skills of a political scientist.  Following this course, no more instruction in research skills should be needed, and students should be able to employ these skills without additional practice.

This is a dangerous assumption.

First, a confession: I LOVE teaching methods.  People don’t believe me when I say that, but it’s true.  There is something so freeing about teaching a skill, rather than content, and ties into my longstanding interest of using the non-political to teach the political.  Want to teach students about how to evaluate evidence and look for contradictions?  Great: use Zendo.  Need a way of showing students the difference between a random source and The Literature?  There is a scene in episode 1:3 of Sherlock where Watson notes some interesting details about a piece of evidence, and Sherlock’s reply notes how Watson ‘missed almost everything of importance”. It is therefore somewhat easy for me to suggest that methods training be incorporated more widely into our content courses.

In isolation,  a single methods course or sequence is simply not enough to really build the research skills of our students. First, one class must by nature be a hodge-podge that includes at a minimum research design, ethics, stats, qualitative approaches, philosophy of social science, writing, professionalization, and basic research skills.  Choices must be made about where to go in-depth and where to make cuts, and it is unlikely that students will be truly proficient in all these areas at the end of a course.  While other methods and skills courses may be available, this is not necessarily a panacea: if required, they pose opportunity costs at the expense of content courses; if not required, students are unlikely to take them.  Regardless, there are logistical issues for smaller departments in terms of finding faculty to offer these classes.

Second, skill retention is an issue. We all have seen the student who recognizes a concept or name, but cannot define or identify it despite having previously done well on a test on the subject.  Methods in particular depends on reinforcement and active use of the concepts, and three or four activities and assignments on the same area is not necessarily sufficient for students to have truly internalized the skill. As with a  foreign language, constant exposure and use is needed for the skill to really develop.

Third, restricting methods to a single class makes students question the very value of taking the class. They tend to come in suspicious or scared of methods as it is, and if they only encounter the ‘math stuff’ in the one class, they may not fully appreciate the role of methods in political science and thus end with a distorted view of the discipline.

My particular concern is less on stats and more on the basic research skills that we expect all of students to have. And I worry that it is in this area that we are most in danger of failing our students when we fall prey to the methods silo effect.

Yesterday I attended a session on research skills at my university’s Global Citizenship Project Summer Collaboratory, a venue for discussing the implications of our new general education program. The facilitator’s passed out a handout on information literacy from the Association of College and Research Libraries that said the following (paraphrased):

A competent researcher is able to:

  • Determine that additional information is needed (ie, their own opinion is insufficient)
  • Access the necessary information (find sources effectively)
  • Evaluation information and sources critically
  • Reflect on the information and potentially reevaluate existing opinions
  • Use the information effectively in making an argument
  • Cite appropriately to avoid plagiarism

The facilitators then asked us to consider at what stage in the process do students tend to get into trouble.  Most people cited the second and third areas as the most troublesome spots. My answer: ever single stage.

Sobering, but true.  I’ve seen every step go wrong.  I get papers that are full of first-person opinion with not a single external source, as it never occurs to the student despite explicit instructions that outside opinions are necessary to make their point.  Others have “sources,” but rely on Wikipedia and the first five results from google.  Few papers are brave enough to include potentially contradictory evidence; more common is what I call the 2 AM Problem, where students discover a piece of evidence that contradicts their thesis several hours before the paper is due, and rather than struggling with it or revising their work, they pretend it never existed.  Then we have the papers that are strings of endless quotes with no original argument, or where the evidence and the thesis don’t quite match.  And then we finally have the papers that commit none of these sins, but instead lack footnotes, citations, or have a bibliography of simple URLs.  I suspect we all have our horror stories.

And yet how many of us go forward with assigning research papers, trusting that students either have the above skills already or will somehow manifest them before turning in the work for our course, only to be disappointed in the final product?  I have certainly been guilty of this. At best I require a one-page topic description and annotated bibliography and offer to read rough drafts; many instructors go further and require rough drafts and peer-editing.  Such measures are crucial, but they are often designed as assessments rather than continued skill-training exercises, or are more aimed at defeating the average student’s poor time management skills than reinforcing skills. Noble goals, but still, not enough.

Just as we require students to learn the content in our classes, if we wish to assign research papers, then we must be willing to teach students how to do them, step by step, and give them a chance to practice the skills before they are assessed on them.  We must escape from a methods silo mentality: A single methods class (or even a sequence) will not do; these skills must be practiced and reinforced throughout the major.

I have a few exercises already on these skills and I will post a few of them in the coming weeks.  But I want to invite comments pointing to ideas and assignments that readers have found useful in helping students not only break the research process down into manageable chunks, but to actually practice the different stages before being graded on a final effort.

Student-Designed Review Games

As final exams approach, I thought I would share an excellent way to get your students to review for their exams.

Its not uncommon to use review games like jeopardy or trivial pursuit as a way of helping students in introductory courses to prepare for their exams.  A colleague of mine takes it to the next level though, and has the students design the review games themselves.  She puts them into small groups and gives them a class period of 1h20 to design the games.  Each group is assigned a chapter or two from the text and the associated material, and is told to design a 20 minute game for the class to play to review that material.  The group with the most creative game is awarded extra credit on the exam.

Some examples of the games they have played include:

-A musical chairs style game, where a rubber chicken in a bikini is thrown around while the music plays, and the person holding the chicken when the music stops has to answer a review question.

-‘Pin the UN on the Geneva”-students blindly try to pin a small model of the United Nations on a map of Europe; the country they land on (if not Switzerland, which presumably earns them a pass) determines the category of question they are asked.

-The Fly Swatter game–answers are posted on post its on the board; the class is divided into teams with a representative from each team at the board with a fly swatter.  When the question is asked, the first person to swat the correct answer wins the points.

-“Soaking Cotton Balls”–this messy game involved wet cotton balls that would be thrown at a dartboard, which determined the number of points awarded for a correct answer.

Variations on standards such as jeopardy, candyland, and trivial pursuit are also common, but the above examples show the creativity the students demonstrate.

There are lots of advantages to this system.  First, it makes the students responsible for their own review.  In preparing their game and the questions for it, they will in fact be studying for the exam.  Second, it makes the learning and reviewing process itself fun, which means that students will be more engaged in the review process during the games themselves. It ends the term (or provides a nice breather midway through) on a fun note. Finally, it saves a lot of work for the instructor, who might otherwise be preparing for and leading the review.

Songs about International Relations

I have noticed in the past that every so often people will put up a list of songs that match certain International Relations theories.   One list that I like is by Michael J. Tierney which you can find here:

Tierney  for example cites “One is the Loneliest Number ” by Three Dog Night”  as an illustration of Polarity  and   Imagine  by John Lennon as an example of Norms and Ideas.   While lists like this are fun I have thought about how this hobby might be used in the classroom to engage students. I have done so in a couple of different ways that students have enjoyed. The first has been to play a song in class or list it on blackboard and have the students debate briefly which theory is best tied to the song.   This has had unusual outcomes.  For example I had one student tell me that they struggled with what Post Modern analysis was getting at  until we talked briefly about the song “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” by Wang Chung.   Really.  What got them thinking were the lyrics:


Turn up your radio
The words we use are strong
They make reality


What I thought of as a fun little game made the light bulb light up for this one student.   I have also had students send me songs and their lyrics with a theoretical explanation about why that song is a useful primer on one theory or another.  I have gotten passionate expositions on the NeoMarxist assumptions behind Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”  , (of course) Pink Floyd’s “Money”or the Hobbesian logic of the Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil.”   Realism also led a student to recommend a song by No More Kings I had not heard before but ended up really enjoying (note it is a lot better if you have seen the Karate Kid) called “Sweep the Leg.”   Has anyone else used music in class in this way or others?

Site Administration 

20 Minute Legislature

I’m a big fan of the twenty minute simulation.  One of the big hurdles to using sims in the classroom is the perception that they take a lot of preparation on the part of the professor and a lot of class time to do properly. But sims do not need to be a big production in order to be successful.

Take for example my 20 Minute Legislature, an adaptation of an exercise found in the endlessly useful Instructor’s Manual for Ginsberg, Lowi, and Weir’s We the People.  I should note that I don’t use their text, but this is the best guide I’ve found in terms of suggesting discussion questions and activities.  Its a great go to reference, and deserves its own post.

Basically I give students five categories for spending a $100 billion national budget: Education, Transportation, Health and Welfare, Environmental Protection, and Defense.  They must budget each of these areas, and cannot give equal amounts to each.  They have 2 minutes to do so as individuals, and then based on their ranking of each area, I assign them to ‘committees’ which then have three minutes to come up with a committee budget for the legislature to consider.  Proposed budgets get placed on the board.  The students then have five minutes to persuade others to vote for their budget bill, making whatever promises and exchanges they please.  The final vote is held, and then we debrief for the last 7 minutes or so.

I’ve tried this a couple of times with good success.  I served as the Rules Committee (and the President) and mandated that there were no amendments allowed, that no one could vote for their own bill (in unequally sized groups this was important), and that only one bill could pass.  I also determined the order the bills were discussed.  I have played with the incentives involved, offering extra credit to the winning bill’s team and to the individual who’s personal budget most closely matches the budget that passes.  These rules and incentives do matter–the last time I tried this game, no bills passed.

Ultimately whether someone wins or loses is irrelevant.  The game is a quick and interactive way for students to understand the tradeoffs in budgeting, the role of committees in the legislative process, log rolling, and the influence of self-interest (as the authors predict, education always receives the most money).  Students can see that the process is messy and that what they consider to be good bills still need votes in order to pass. As a bonus, you can also compare their budgets with the actual discretionary budget of the US.

The exercise provides a great reference point throughout discussions of Congress and general discussions of politics as “who gets what, when and how” (as the authors note).  It works particularly well at the start of the lesson on Congress, and while I used it in a class of 25 could be adapted for larger and smaller groups relatively easily.

Leaving the Room Open to Unexpected Learning

Several weeks ago while playing a few rounds of the prisoner’s dilemma I came across an opportunity to learn from my students.  The game went in this way: Students were to play one round of the Prisoner’s Dilemma (rat out your partner in order to win more, or cooperate to reduce a prison sentence).

A pair of women in the corner simultaneously cooperated.  For those unfamiliar with the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the standard of the game is for both people to rat out their partners.  Sometimes people do cooperate but normally they don’t.

We discussed the gave at some length and then I began the standard social scientific move to iterated repeat games.  I asked the students to play 9 rounds of the game. After 9 rounds the two african american women were still cooperating though they had never talked before in class prior to this game.

Here is where it got interesting.  I explained that in general we should expect people to cooperate some but not all the time.  The students nodded along.  The two women in the corner looked at me quizzically. So I knew there were potentially different explanations for why cooperation and defection were good or bad strategies.  So I asked the students: “ladies, why were you constantly cooperating?” Another student, a while male, tried to explain to them how they were being irrational.  That they needed to realize that they weren’t maximizing their opportunities.

And one of the pair said, “You people don’t really know what it is to grow up in an environment where security really is a problem.” She said: “In my part of town you don’t cheat people or rat them out.  You can’t, no matter how much money you might get from it, because you don’t know if the person you cheat is going to show up and shoot up your mom’s house, or kill your brother.”

The classroom recoiled in horror.

I could have shut this down.  Clearly we had entered a space in which the student offered up a lived experience to question the theoretical conclusions. A lived experience that ran close to being socially, economically, and racially charged.

It is at these moments that we must decide whether to let it ride or to embrace it and try to dig deeper into it.  At once, here were two women presenting the room with an entirely different perspective.  One that most had never been privy to.  The learning was shifting immediately beyond the theoretical importance of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, to understanding a diversity of perspectives, to how to think about who was in the room, to try to consider what truth and the imperatives of action really dictated.

I was reminded that active learning isn’t always planned learning.  Control is the purpose of the rules in a game, but what exactly we are trying to control is the question.

My challenge to reader is to consider the way in which control is leveraged in active learning, and to question just how much we really need and for what purpose.

My thoughts keep going back to that awkward silence and the exasperation of the male student toward the continued cooperation of the two females. It was such an eerie and powerful thing to say….so much so that I’m not even certain what we learned exactly, and I suspect that this is the point of exposure to new perspectives.  Not so much that we come out with clear conclusions, but that we throw them into a controlled disarray.