Benefits of Student Reflection

Today we have a guest post from Colin Brown, assistant teaching professor, and Jennifer Ostojski, Ph.D. candidate, from the political science department at Northeastern University. They can be contacted at  colin [dot] brown [at] northeastern [dot] edu and ostojski [dot] j [at] northeastern [dot] edu.

This year we have had to adapt the short, focused simulations for reinforcing material that we like to use in the classroom to the virtual environment. This adaptation has caused us to think more about the value of independent student reflection in relation to group debriefings.

Colin had previously developed a simulation of coalition-building in Germany (available here at APSA Educate) for introductory comparative politics, which had two main learning objectives: (1) gain familiarity with German political parties as an example of multipartism, and (2) understand that big, centrist parties can still exert a lot of agenda-setting power in sometimes-chaotic multiparty systems. A key part of the exercise is the bargaining that occurs as students walk around the physical classroom.

In Spring 2020, we switched to online teaching two weeks before Colin had scheduled the simulation in his course. He made it an optional extra-credit online exercise, in which about one-third of the class participated. In lieu of a debriefing, students submitted ungraded answers to three questions:

1. What did you find hardest about reaching a coalition agreement?

2. What new perspective does this give you on the German case in particular?

3. What might be some of the strengths and weaknesses of coalition governments, and how did those play out here?

We used slightly different online versions of the simulation in Fall 2020. In Colin’s course, students stayed muted/invisible and used the private chat function to communicate during simulation sessions. Jennifer’s larger class used breakout rooms with students communicating with one another behind the scenes via Zoom chat, a classroom Slack channel, and social media (which more directly simulated the more intentionally chaotic in-person discussions). Colin assigned students to parties right as the simulation began while Jennifer provided students with party roles beforehand.

Based on the written responses and discussions, students in our courses learned the central lessons of the simulation equally well, and equal to the in-person format in prior years, despite the difference in communication methods and the timing of role assignments. However, Colin’s Spring cohort seemed to demonstrate better knowledge of both the specifics of the German system and broader concepts about multipartism, whereas the students in our Fall courses displayed more learning of broad concepts than of specific details. We found it interesting that the Spring students seemed to pick up more details from the simulation despite it being, well, March 2020. Our hunch is that writing responses to the reflection questions caused students to spend some minimal amount of time and effort checking whether they were correctly using relevant concepts. Although it is hard to rule out selection effects, engaging in independent reflection might benefit students’ learning whether the simulation is online or in-person, even if it is not the most memorable or visible part of the exercise.