A fourth way of teaching elections

Simon just posted about 3 ways of teaching the 2015 British elections, and I thought I would chime in with a fourth way to teach elections: the student-led discussion.

Essentially you have students work in small groups to lead a discussion about the candidates for a particular office or the debate on a ballot issue.  They get 10 minutes to present the candidates/issue (usually incorporating videos or news articles or prezi/powerpoint), and then have to lead a 20 minute discussion amongst their peers.  The instructor sits in the audience and does not participate, but takes notes throughout, particularly on any factual mistakes, and debriefs the group at the end.   In the US this works really well because the elections usually have a multitude of local and state offices that the students might not otherwise know about, such as judges, auditors, and assemblypersons.  It is also a highly portable exercise, in that its easy to swap out whatever offices are contested in a given term. When there isn’t an election going on–or if you are teaching about a country that does not have fixed elections– you have them do it on ‘current issues’ in politics instead. You can make the leadership itself a small portion of the grade–say 5%–and student participation affects their overall participation grade.

I’ve used an activity like this in my intro to American Politics class regularly since 2010.  It usually works really, really well.  I have the advantage of usually teaching this class in a 4 hour block for only 8 weeks–so the August-October class ends just before the November elections.  That means usually in the fall section we do Campaigns, and in the spring, Current Issues.  For campaigns, i usually select the specific offices we cover–if a race is completely uncontested, its not going to lead to a lot of debate–but with Current Issues, I let the students choose, although I retain a veto that I’ve almost never had to actually use.