Thinking Comparatively

Last time, I posted about ways to get students involved in making hypotheses, forming expectations, and testing them with instructor-provided data. Today’s activity leverages technology in a different way, by allowing students to collaborate on data generation and encouraging comparative thinking as a means of drawing conclusions.

I begin by creating and sharing a Google spreadsheet (1) with several questions across the top of columns, and several cases listed one to a row. Then, pairs or small groups of students are assigned one or two cells of the resulting table. For example, my Intro to American Politics class did comparative civil rights struggles, comparing African Americans, women, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and the LGBT+ community as cases, and motivations/starting conditions, core strategies, de jure discrimination, and de facto discrimination as questions. One group of students might have motivations and strategies for African Americans, and another group had de jure and de facto discrimination for LGBT+ Americans.

Students then used their textbooks, which had fairly thorough coverage of these issues, and their personal laptops to fill in their group’s cells with a couple sentences of summary and key highlights. Groups that did not finish during the allotted 15 minutes of class time had to complete it for the following class, usually by emailing a central group member. We began our discussion the next day by projecting the completed table on the board (most students pulled it up on their personal laptops), and looking for similarities and differences in the strategies groups used. African Americans and LGBT+ Americans used the federal courts, but women focused their struggle primarily on the states and state courts, and neither Hispanic nor Asian Americans have used the courts much at all. What might explain this?

The effect of the tabular format is to redirect the students’ attention from within-case narratives – which after all are the way their (and most other) textbook tells the story – to facilitating making comparisons across cases. During the discussion, we added several additional variables to the table such as year of first major pressure action as a potential explainer (independent variable) for certain outcomes; students with laptops kindly researched and provided the information – data – as needed.

Much like the data activity I posted last time, one of the great positives about this activity is that it can easily be adapted to nearly any topic. I and my colleagues have done it with comparative global economic crises, international organizations, and theories of international relations. Other ideas include:

  • Electoral and party systems
  • Important theorists or theories
  • Comparative campaign behavior/strategies
  • Bureaucratic responses to 9/11
  • National reactions to Bush’s proposal to invade Iraq

In short, if you can think of a couple instances or cases, and a couple questions to ask, then you have a workable activity. What topic springs to mind that you can try this with?


(1) The school where I did this activity uses Google for Education, meaning all students had Gmail/Google services access and most were accustomed to using the Google apps. While several were new users of the Google Sheets application, their classmates helped orient them as needed. Using Google Sheets requires the sheet creator to have a Google (Gmail) account, but it is possible for students to edit without having their own Google accounts. Simply adjust the sharing settings to allow anyone (public) to edit.