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.

Using Hidden Brain to Teach Research Design

Today we have a guest post by Sarah Fisher, assistant professor at Emory & Henry College. She can be reached at sfisher[at]ehc[dot]edu.

For undergraduates, the research methods course is often the most dreaded component of the political science curriculum. Students’ fear of mathematics, gaps in content knowledge, and lack of software experience (I’ve had students who have never opened Microsoft Excel, much less heard of a statistical software package) present pedagogical challenges for an instructor. 

Florian Justwan and I recently published an article about teaching social science research methods, “Scaffolding Assignments and Activities for Undergraduate Research Methods,” in the Journal of Political Science Education. The article, available here, includes instructions on how to use an episode of 30 Rock to teach content analysis, how to teach similar systems design with presidential speeches, and other activities. Teaching materials described in the article are available on my website.

One resource the article references is NPR’s show Hidden Brain hosted by Shankar Vedantam, which illustrates social science research for a popular audience with topics like the behavior of baseball umpires in extra innings and ways that colleges try to prevent summer melt. I ask students to identify the theory, hypotheses, causal mechanisms, and findings contained in different episodes and then tie this activity to longer articles assigned as homework readings. The program allows me to expand my range of examples beyond political science, important given that many of the students in my course are in majors ranging from sociology to athletic training to mass communication. This kind of content shows students that the scientific method isn’t reserved for academia; it can be used in their daily lives to interpret the world around them.

Assessing Student Preparation

This is follow-up to a previous guest post by Joel Moore on the benefits of assessing students’ preparation for class discussion rather than their participation in it. Students are asked to rate themselves on the amount of assigned reading they have completed prior to class, and this forms the basis of their preparation grade.

He has created a web app that simplifies the process. The app is available at https://joeldmoore.com/apps/preparation/.

A video that discusses how to use the app is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQdK1FwycKw.

Comparing American Foreign Policy Simulations

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

I am always looking for new simulations – particularly ones that are easy to use and require less preparation. For my American foreign policy course, I usually use my own simulation on Iran-US relations. However, the Council of Foreign Relations’ Model Diplomacy simulations, discussed by others here and here, was an opportunity to try something new.

My simulation presents a crisis in Iran-US relations involving nuclear weapons, state support for terrorism, and/or the rivalry between Iran and Israel. In the simulation, students engage deeply with a topic, engage with a large number of state actors, and must deal with the consequences of their decisions. My ability to introduce problems in real-time creates flexibility and makes the simulation more dynamic for the students. However, my simulation requires a lot of preparation, both for me and my students.

Model Diplomacy, on the other hand, offers professors a menu of topics to choose from, and many of the simulations can be completed in a single class period. The simulations come with outstanding background material, so there is little need for students or the instructor to do additional research. However, Model Diplomacy simulations do not move past a predetermined decision point and there are no consequences to participants’ actions. Students sometimes reach a decision very quickly, which might reduce what they learn from the simulation.

I decided to use both my simulation and Model Diplomacy in the last iteration of the foreign policy course, in an attempt to capitalize on the advantages of both. Two one-day Model Diplomacy simulations served as a starting point for a longer three-day simulation. For this longer simulation, students began with the Model Diplomacy Iran Deal Breach scenario, but were provided with additional stimuli during the simulation and were able to interact with other countries. The results were quite positive, and I will continue to use both the short Model Diplomacy simulations along with a longer more interactive simulation in the course.

Extensions to a Classroom Game on War and Peace in IR Theory

Today we have the second of two guest posts by Nathan Alexander Sears, a PhD student in political science at the University of Toronto and previously a professor of international relations at the Universidad de Las Américas, Quito. He can be reached at n[dot]sears[at]mail[dot]utoronto[dot]ca.

The game that I described in my previous post can be modified to demonstrate additional theoretical concepts.

Relative Power: Changing the amount of resources each state possesses at the beginning of each round creates differences in their relative capabilities. For example, State A could begin with $10, State B with $7, and State C with $5. This change may lead to balancing and bandwagoning behavior, which is important in neorealism.

National Identities: The game can be played with actual country names, such as the United States (State A), the Soviet Union (State B), the People’s Republic of China (State C), Great Britain (State D), and France (State E). This opens up the possibility that students’ ideas about national identities or knowledge of history may influence behavior and outcomes, which is central to constructivism.

Democratic/Authoritarian States: The game can include democratic and authoritarian structures for internal decision-making. For example, one team might be required to make decisions by majority vote, while another group may have a single individual who makes such decisions with the other students acting as advisors. Regime and institution type is important in liberalism, especially in democratic peace theory. Continue reading

Simulating War and Peace in IR Theory with a Classroom Game

Today we have the first of two guest posts by Nathan Alexander Sears, a PhD student in political science at the University of Toronto and previously a professor of international relations at the Universidad de Las Américas, Quito. He can be reached at n[dot]sears[at]mail[dot]utoronto[dot]ca.

This game introduces students to theoretical concepts in IR, such as neorealism, neoliberalism, constructivism, and bargaining theory.

The class is initially divided into two states. The object of the game is to meet two, and only two, goals: (1) to survive and (2) to maximize the amount of money spent on enjoyment. Survival means that a state is not defeated in war by another state.

The game entails multiple rounds, usually three or four depending on class time. Each round should take approximately 10 minutes. In each round, states begin with a budget of $10 and must make two decisions. First, each state must decide how to allocate its budget between two mutually exclusive items: armaments or enjoyment. States may choose any combination of the two items, but must allocate all of their resources each round. For instance, a state may choose $8 for enjoyment and $2 for armaments or $0 for enjoyment and $10 for armaments. These resources are nontransferable between states.

Second, each state must choose a foreign policy of peace or war. If all states choose peace, then the outcome is international peace, and each state ends the round with the money they allocated towards enjoyment. If a state chooses war, then it must declare war against a specific state(s). If war is declared by any state, then the result of that war is determined by the side that has spent more money on armaments. A state that prevails in war not only keeps its own money for enjoyment, but also steals the remaining money that the defeated state(s) allocated for enjoyment. A state that is defeated in war is eliminated. For example: Continue reading

Flipping the Research Methods Classroom, Part 5

Today we have the final post in a series on building a flipped course by Natascha van der Zwan and Alexandre Afonso, assistant professors at the Institute of Public Administration at Leiden University, the Netherlands. They can be reached by emailing Natascha at n.a.j.van.der[dot]zwan[at]fgga[dot]leidenuniv[dot]nl.

Our previous posts discussed why we wanted a blended learning approach to our research methods course, the design of the course’s online modules and offline workshops, and the involvement in colleagues. We have saved the best for last: what did students think of our redesigned course?

Because of the time and energy required by this project, we became very invested in it. We thought the flipped classroom was awesome. So when the course evaluations came back in, we were happy to read that students generally liked the flexibility that the new course design gave them, the look of the online environment, and research methods content. A few students even mentioned their appreciation for the academic skills modules — they had been struggling with certain skills like academic writing, but as graduate students they had felt too embarrassed to ask for help. Continue reading

Flipping the Research Methods Classroom, Part 4

Today we have the fourth post in a series on building a flipped course by Natascha van der Zwan and Alexandre Afonso. Both are assistant professors at the Institute of Public Administration at Leiden University, the Netherlands. They can be reached by emailing Natascha at n.a.j.van.der[dot]zwan[at]fgga[dot]leidenuniv[dot]nl.

Online, Open and Collaborative?

So far, we have written about the general idea behind our flipped classroom, the online environment we designed for this course, and the offline workshops that we organized around our online modules. Throughout this project, we wanted to design a course that would be as open and transferable as possible. On the one hand, this meant creating content under a Creative Commons Share Alike license, so it could easily be shared online. We also wanted to involve our colleagues who know much more about certain specialized research methods than we do.

When we designed the course’s online component, we included a section in which our colleagues told our students about their own research projects: which methods they used, what they thought were the advantages or disadvantages of these methods, and what they wished they had known before doing their research. We initially wanted to ask our colleagues to write on a blog, but we didn’t want to increase what students had to read or watch, so we eventually settled on podcasts. Alex has now recorded a number of podcasts with some of our colleagues on a range of topics, such as the comparative approach in researching tax policy, doing interviews with EU and Commission officials, or social network analysis applied to fair trade networks.

Involving colleagues created a new problem for us. Interviewing a colleague on something like social network analysis is one thing. But if a student subsequently asked us to teach social network analysis, we would not have the relevant expertise. So when applying for additional funding for this project, we asked for and received money for colleagues to design modules for us in their areas of expertise. This meant that we could broaden the range of methods included in our course quite extensively, while reducing our own role in it – something we felt would contribute to the project’s continuity of we stopped teaching the course at some future point in time.

Then things got out of hand. Our faculty board was happy to oblige with our funding request on one condition: could we use the project to do research within our faculty on open and collaborative teaching? Fast forward to September 2017, when a research team of four frantically bombarded colleagues in the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs with e-mails and flyers to ask that they please, please participate in our survey on online and open educational resources. We are still analyzing the survey data but here are some insights that we can already share with you:

  • A blend of online and offline is the preferred method among students for a course on research methods: interestingly, there is very little support for an exclusively online format.
  • 92 percent of staff consider using open and online materials in their teaching, showing a high potential for these tools if the right infrastructure is made available.
  • Staff often thought online materials saved time—they can be re-used, while lectures have to be delivered identically year after year.

Our last post in this series will discuss what students thought about the course.

Flipping the Research Methods Classroom, Part 3

Today we have the third post in a series on building a flipped course by Natascha van der Zwan and Alexandre Afonso. Both are assistant professors at the Institute of Public Administration at Leiden University, the Netherlands. They can be reached by emailing Natascha at n.a.j.van.der[dot]zwan[at]fgga[dot]leidenuniv[dot]nl.

Going Offline 

In our two previous posts, we wrote about the general idea behind our flipped classroom in Research Methods and producing the content for our online modules. Today we will discuss the offline series of workshops in which students gain hands-on experience with the research methods or skills they studied online.

When you do a big blended learning project such as this one, it’s very easy to get carried away by the new and shiny part: your attention will go predominantly to the online content. This makes sense: the online component is often not only the novelty aspect of the course, but also the more time-consuming part to produce, and the one that will last. It’s very easy then to fall into the trap, as we did, of not paying enough attention to the more familiar offline part of the course.

When we applied for funding to set up the flipped classroom, our idea about the offline component was as follows:

Students will be stimulated to go back and forth between the theoretical material online and the concrete application of the methods in class. This course design will stimulate a much more experiential learning process than in a traditional research methods courses, as the course will assist the students in “learning by doing” research. The learning experience is also much more interactive than in a traditional course setting, as students are actively involved in each other’s research projects, jointly handling common challenges involved in doing research during the course seminars.

We were wrong. Our initial idea – to have students do the workshops, as they were writing their thesis – presumed that all students would at the same stage of the thesis project by the time they took our course. This was not the case: some had started but switched topics, others were already quite advanced and still others had not even started thinking about a thesis topic yet. In other words: the activities we envisioned them to do (e.g. carry out a qualitative interview with a respondent) simply bombed. We had to find a plan B. Continue reading

Flipping the Research Methods Classroom, Part 2

Today we have the second post in a series on building a flipped course by Natascha van der Zwan and Alexandre Afonso. Both are assistant professors at the Institute of Public Administration at Leiden University, the Netherlands. They can be reached by emailing Natascha at n.a.j.van.der[dot]zwan[at]fgga[dot]leidenuniv[dot]nl.

How to Build a Flipped Classroom

University teaching is not very different from the way Adam Smith or Max Weber taught a century or more ago. Aside from the inescapable PowerPoint, there is usually a lecturer standing in front of a group of students who take notes. The reason teaching stayed the same may be purely path dependent: departing from this format may go against administrative rules and habit. Developing new ways to teach requires an investment in resources in time and energy that always run scarce when the new semester looms. At Leiden University, we are lucky to have a great deal of institutional support and a clear commitment from the university for developing innovative forms of teaching.

And this meant . . . going to the film studio!

Leiden University wants to play a leading role in the development of open educational resources. There are several Leiden-originated massive open online courses (MOOCs) on Coursera, including a course on kidney transplants by the Leiden University Medical Center and our colleague Bernard Steunenberg’s MOOC on Politics and Policy in the European Union. Over the years, the university has developed quite an infrastructure to make these MOOCs, with several studios on campus to create instructional videos. Also Leiden’s Online Learning Lab employs professional videographers and instructional designers who specialize in online learning and in helping faculty members such as Alex and myself make the jump to online video content.

We had a list of demands that we wanted for our flipped classroom. These were, in no particular order: Continue reading