Changing a Comparative Politics Course

Looking back at Spring 2020, and making changes accordingly for 2021, despite that semester’s pandemic-induced weirdness:

I decided to use Helen Brown Coverdale’s study huddle technique, in the hopes that it will allow students to become more proficient in decoding academic literature. I am dividing the class into teams of 4-5 students each. Half of each team will be “green” and half will be “red.” Each week, students are responsible for analyzing a journal article of the corresponding color. I chose to use green and red font in the syllabus instead of red/blue because my hyperlinks are blue, and I did not want students to be confused. In addition to the font color, I have included the words “green” and “red” in case of students with colorblindness.

For the analysis assignments, students will be completing this template, which I believe is simpler than the worksheet I used last spring. I also expect it to be easier for me to grade, given my rubric, shown below:

Members of each team will be expected to share their analyses on the Canvas LMS and explain their thinking in breakout discussions at the beginning of class. Then I will review the article for the whole class. I fully expect students to botch identifying an article’s thesis and variables, at least for the first few iterations, for two reasons: 1) they haven’t demonstrated much ability to do this before, and 2) many journal articles have obscure phrasing and confusing organization (again, kudos to Journal of Democracy for keeping this to a minimum). But that’s ok — these assignments are low stakes, there are plenty of them, and I want students to practice the process.

I’ve scheduled this activity for Mondays. On Fridays, students will take an open-book quiz on both the green and red articles that were assigned for that week. Questions are multiple choice, but students who have not already familiarized themselves with the articles’ main arguments by participating in Monday’s process will probably do poorly. The quizzes are auto-graded by Canvas, so while they were a pain for me to create, they require no additional work on my part during the semester.

Reconfiguring the course around these assignments did mean jettisoning some content — topical units have been reduced, and fewer readings are assigned in those that remain. But in previous semesters, students weren’t always reading the journal articles listed in the syllabus anyway; instead, they frequently limited their reading to other, shorter items, and often they didn’t demonstrate a thorough understanding of what they did read. I expect the requirement that students share their written analyses of assigned journal articles with peers, and being tested on them, will convince students to put more effort into the task. This should result in more learning.