Engaging Students, Part 2: Lecture Summaries

Transitioning from passive to active learning in our courses can be a daunting task.  At ALPS we focus quite a bit on games and simulations, and one of the chief concerns raised by newcomers to these pedagogies is the loss of control an instructor must face as they move away from a lecture model.  This week’s technique is aimed at instructors who want to dip their toes into the active learning pool, rather than cannonballing off the diving board.

Let’s talk about the lecture summary.

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LeBron James, Realist: A Paper Assignment for Intro to International Relations

This is a guest post from Sarah Fisher, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Emory & Henry College.

Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper has his quirks, but his deeply rooted concern for relative power and hegemony, whether winning a Nobel Prize or crushing trivia, is pure realism. LeBron James’ contract details reflect the fluidity of alliances, another realist.


Sheldon Cooper and LeBron James are just two of the individuals my Introduction to International Relations students analyzed for their final paper this past semester. After assigning this paper assignment to three different classes, I’ve enjoyed reading papers that outline Leslie Knope’s liberal tendencies and even the realist principles in a sorority’s official pledge.

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Leading Donkeys To Water

Never assume.
Never assume.

Given the value I place on authentic writing assignments, I’ve been a bit frustrated at recurring problems in the briefing memos submitted by students who are taking my first-year seminar. For example, each memo is supposed to begin with a specific one-sentence recommendation, but I often see vague run-on sentences that would not be acceptable in the workplace. One potential mechanical solution is to adopt the fifty-word sentence method, but set the limit at perhaps only thirty words.

While thinking about the above technique, I suddenly recognized a more fundamental problem: as with methods of investigation, most students don’t know what memos are or why they exist. And if students don’t understand the function of a type of writing, content and format become meaningless.
The Purdue Online Writing Lab contains excellent information about professional writing, and its description of memos is worth quoting in full:


Memos have a twofold purpose: they bring attention to problems and they solve problems. They accomplish their goals by informing the reader about new information like policy changes, price increases, or by persuading the reader to take an action, such as attend a meeting, or change a current production procedure. Regardless of the specific goal, memos are most effective when they connect the purpose of the writer with the interests and needs of the reader.

If I use the briefing memo assignment in the future, I’ll point students to this resource and assess whether students understand why memos are used.

Outsourcing Manuscript Reviews

Smile SecretaryAcademic journal editors regularly ask me to anonymously review manuscripts that have been submitted for publication. Given that this work is unpaid and has a negligible effect on my prospects for promotion, it usually ends up far from the top of my priority list.

I recently realized that this task could be outsourced to undergraduate students as a writing assignment. Students in many of my courses already analyze journal articles, so why not make the process experiential? They can use the same guidelines and rubrics they use now, but with a more authentic role, audience, and format.

I can see a series of scaffolded components to this exercise:

  • Evaluate the manuscript from a stylistic perspective. Is the writing free of  mechanical errors? Is it concise and easy to follow?
  • Locate a piece of literature in the manuscript’s bibliography. Analyze it using the criteria that I link to above. Explain whether the author of the manuscript under review is referencing this literature appropriately.
  • Analyze the argument in the manuscript itself using the same criteria.
  • Make a recommendation about the manuscript–for example, accept, revise, or reject–and justify one’s recommendation. This could be performed in teams as a collaborative activity, with the members of each team deciding upon a joint recommendation and then presenting this recommendation to the class.
  • I compile the students’ work into a single assessment of the manuscript and submit it to the journal’s editorial staff.

The downside to this idea is that I never know when I will be asked to review a manuscript, so I can’t schedule it as an assignment before the course starts. But I’ve found that both I and my students often enjoy a change in routine.

The Best Laid Plans

Cat and MouseA while back I wrote a series of posts on reworking my first-year seminar. My assumption was that this fall’s version would meet three days a week, as happened in the course’s initial iteration. I recently learned that instead it will meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Given that much of the course involves student-to-student interaction in the classroom, the new schedule necessitated further changes. To start, I dropped the book that I had originally fit into the last third of the semester, and with it plans for a class-wide Twine project. The course now looks like this:

  • Team-based Twines on the book An Ordinary Man (Rwanda).
  • Simulation exercises on the first four cases in Chasing Chaos (Rwanda, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone).
  • Team-based Twines on the last case in Chasing Chaos (Haiti).

Since this is a course for incoming college students, I added The New Science of Learning and some other meta-cognitive content on skills for academic success. This means that students will have on average three writing assignments on readings per week even though the class only meets twice a week, which I think this is a good thing. Students won’t be able to forget about the course between Thursdays and Tuesdays.

As I discussed in my informal assessment back in January, I had a problematic formulation for the briefing memo that prepared students for each Chasing Chaos simulation. I’ve rewritten the assignment instructions accordingly, and created a new sample memo for students to use as a guide. The effort that I’m putting into the design of this course reflects something about how college works that I’ll discuss in more detail in my next two posts.

Back to Basics with CATs

Two Eye Color CatAs promised in a previous post, an example of the usefulness of CATs:

I’m teaching comparative politics this semester, and in this course I divide the content into five geographic regions. and four themes (formerly five themes, but I spun one of them off into a separate course). For each region, students have the following assignment:

Write an essay that uses a single theoretical perspective (rational actor, structural, or cultural) to explain the political events described by the assigned readings.

The first two iterations of this assignment did not meet my expectations — overall the class had done a poor job synthesizing information and presenting coherent written arguments. I looked through CATs for a technique that might work as an in-class writing exercise and found the “one-sentence summary,” which I modified. I gave each student a copy of the following text, created by yours truly but reflective of students’ writing:

I feel as though without a strong and effective ruler being in command a country will either have a revolution or the people will be politically oppressed. A democracy requires economic growth, import and export markets, an education system so people have well-rounded knowledge to participate effectively in elections, and the right culture. The readings discussed South Africa’s modern economy being the product of technology which in turn was able to create democracy. However, in other countries the political leaders control power rather than the people and this results in democracy depending on them by means of their interests. Although the readings we read about sub-Saharan Africa had many different views on the economies of African states all of the readings emphasized the role of political leadership in a rational actor mindset in order to create the democratic systems that they do have.

I gave students ten minutes to edit this passage to make it better address the assignment instructions. I projected the instructions and the passage on the wall screen.

After ten minutes I had each student come to the front of the room and use the classroom computer to make a change to the passage. Other students provided input and I facilitated discussion.

By the time the last student was finished making changes, the passage had been reduced to a single sentence. It wasn’t the ideal thesis statement, but students seemed to understand my point that it’s important to concisely state one’s argument at the beginning of an essay or a presentation.

I then demonstrated how the easiest way to construct a thesis statement for this kind of assignment is to simply reword the question asked in the instructions — in this case, something like:

The rational actor theoretical perspective best explains political events in sub-Saharan Africa.

Once this was accomplished, I had five minutes of class left to do a “wellness check-in” — I went around the room asking each student “How is life treating you?”

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!

Puzzle Pieces: Part 2

Jigsaw Puzzle 2As mentioned in my first post in this series, Chasing Chaos by Jessica Alexander corresponds well to the student outcomes I created for my first-year seminar — in part because of the associated simulations I had created for another course. But my informal assessment of these simulations last fall leads me to think that they need three major adjustments.

First, the negotiation phase for each simulation can be shortened to only one class period. If no team achieves its goal in the allotted time, that’s ok — these are crisis scenarios. Second, I am dropping the reward for a unanimous agreement between teams so that students are less likely to abandon their roles in pursuit of earning the maximum number of possible points. This will create more contentiousness and by default result in a proportion of student teams “losing” what they didn’t have to begin with, but again, I think this is ok.

Third, the briefing memos that I assigned to prepare students for the simulations were too complex. This type of analytic writing exercise is detailed in CATs (“analytic memos,” pages 177-180). As noted in CATs, the technique requires large amounts of time and effort from both students and the instructor, but it serves as a high-quality and realistic skill-building exercise for students. In my case and in contrast to the recommendations of the authors of CATs, I grade the memos as formal assignments  — otherwise students won’t do them.

Because of these three concerns, I have altered the instructions for the briefing memos as follows, and I have inserted information for the Rwanda simulation for the purposes of example:

You are employed by the Humanitarian Information Unit at the U.S. Department of State (HIU). A new President has been inaugurated, and the President’s senior foreign policy advisors seek recommendations on U.S. responses to emerging political and economic conflicts around the world. The HIU has been assigned the task of providing these advisors with recommendations that conform to the mission of the HIU. Your job is to write a briefing memo for your superiors in the following format:

♦ Single-spaced paragraphs with a blank line between each paragraph, 11 or 12 point font, and no longer than two pages.
♦ Correct identification of memo’s author and recipient. The sub-heading of “Recommendation,” followed by a single concise sentence that states your  recommendation.
♦ The sub-heading “Justification,” followed by at least one paragraph explaining why the U.S. government should adopt your recommendation as foreign policy. Background sources should be referenced using in-text citations rather than with footnotes or endnotes—for example, “(Eggers, 87)”.

See the sample briefing memo for guidance.

 Background sources:

♦ Samantha Power, “Bystanders to genocide: why the United States let the Rwandan genocide happen,” Atlantic Monthly 288, 2 September 2001.
♦ Jason K. Stearns, “Congo’s Peace: Miracle or Mirage?” Current History 106(700), May 2007.
♦ Thomas Turner, “Will Rwanda End Its Meddling in Congo?” Current History 112(754), May 2013.
♦ Jeffrey Gettleman, “The Global Elite’s Favorite Strongman,” New York Times, 4 September 2013.

The conflict:

A previously-unknown armed group calling itself the Hutu Liberation Front (HLF) has attacked three Congolese villages near the Rwandan border. The attacks killed the villages’ residents and several Congolese soldiers who were stationed at a checkpoint along a nearby highway that runs between Kinshasha and Kigali. The Rwandan government claims that the HLF is under the direction of Congo’s ruling political party and it has mobilized Rwandan army units for a potential incursion into Congo to fight the HLF. Simultaneously soldiers in Congo’s army who identify themselves as Tutsis have mutinied against their commanders and are leading a rebellion against the country’s elected government. French and U.S. intelligence agencies report that the mutiny may have been encouraged by the Rwandan government.

Authentic Writing

QuandaryHere’s another example of how to bring more authenticity to a writing assignment by specifying the role of the author, the audience for which the author is writing, and the format that the author should follow.

Below are the directions from last year for one assignment in my globalization course.


1. Charles A. Kupchan, Ch. 5 “Alternatives to the Western Way,” No One’s World.
2. Charles A. Kupchan, “Democracy in Egypt Can Wait,” New York Times.
3. Chris Buckley, “China Takes Aim at Western Ideas,” New York Times.

Choose one of the “multiple modernities” predicted by Kupchan. Find a peer-reviewed journal article about democratization in a nation-state in the region that Kupchan discusses. Does the article support or refute Kupchan’s prediction? Why? How is the article’s argument constructed and what academic discipline is represented? Are the other author’s argument and conclusions the same as or different from Kupchan’s? How?

For this year’s version of the course, I changed the directions as follows:

You are employed in the market research division of Quandia, a U.S. company that sells digital routing systems for telephone and internet networks. Quandia’s management has decided to try to expand its business into an overseas market—either China, the Arab Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Russia, or Turkey. The management wants to identify which location presents the best opportunity for Quandia, but it is concerned about whether it can operate effectively in any of them.

  1. Read:

• Charles A. Kupchan, “Chapter 5: Alternatives to the Western Way,” No One’s World.

  1. Choose one of the geographic locations below and read the associated articles:

• China

· Chris Buckley, “China Takes Aim at Western Ideas,” New York Times.
· Howard W. Frenchot, “China’s Dangerous Game,” The Atlantic.


· Charles A. Kupchan, “Democracy in Egypt Can Wait,” New York Times.
· Elizabeth Dickenson, “What Happened to Arab Liberalism?” Politico.

• Russia

· Strobe Talbot, “The Making of Vladimir Putin,” Politico.
· Alec Luhn, “Scenes from Putin’s Economic Meltdown,” Politico.

• Turkey

· Osman Rifat Ibrahim, “AKP and the Great Neo-Ottoman Travesty,” Al Jazeera.
· Steven A. Cook, “The President Who Ate Turkey,” Politico.

  1. Write a three page, double-spaced report in 11 or 12 point font that:
  • Identifies which of the “multiple modernities” discussed in No One’s World is most relevant to Quandia’s potential market, and explain why.
  • Incorporates information from the articles about the potential market you selected.
  • Recommends whether Quandia should enter this potential market and explains why.

I strongly suspect that the quality of students’ work on this assignment this year will be better than it was last year.

Informal Assessment of the Chasing Chaos Simulations 

A few general conclusions about the Chasing Chaos simulations that I’ve discussed previously:

Chasing ChaosStudents found the personal narrative of the Chasing Chaos book extremely engaging. Perhaps this is evidence that biographies and autobiographies should play a greater role in exposing students to unfamiliar people, places, and events. In an end-of-semester survey, students also commented that they thought the simulations were realistic and easy to understand. Some also said that they appreciated the way the simulations gave the entire class opportunities to interact even though each simulation lasted for only one to two class periods.

The briefing memos — in which students wrote about the assigned readings before each simulation — demanded too much creative thinking from students. Students simply never developed the ability to use information I provided to predict a potential future conflict and then recommend a response to it. As Bidisha Biswas and Agnieszka Paczynska note in their worthwhile recent article on teaching policy writing in PS, government agencies value employees who can analyze a situation and justify their recommended response to it in a clear, concise, relevant manner. To better give students practice in developing this skill, the briefing memo assignments probably should present students with a set conflict — perhaps the one described in each simulation’s intelligence report — to analyze and respond to, instead of requiring them to first fashion a hypothetical conflict themselves.

During the negotiation phase of the majority of the simulations, students abandoned their roles, so to speak, to try to achieve a unanimous agreement that would maximize the number of points earned toward their final grades. To me this is a good reason to simply eliminate the bonus-for-unanimous-agreement option. The downside of this change is that a truly competitive simulation in which not everyone can win might produce severe angst among students who have been raised in a culture of “everybody always wins because everybody is special.” On the other hand, students need to be introduced to reality at some point in their lives. In terms of my job security and career advancement, I am relatively well-insulated from the potential complaints of students whose narcissistic delusions of self-worth I punctured.

My last thought also relates to the potential cost to the instructor of using custom-made simulations. Due to declining enrollment and a change in the university’s core curriculum, I have no idea when I will next be teaching the course for which I developed these simulations. If I’m to avoid my labor going to waste, I’m going to have to figure out how to I can use the simulations in another course, which in itself means even more work on my part.