Does Active Learning Increase Student Retention?


What are the effects of our choice to engage in active learning on the college’s overall health?

It is admissions review season for us at F&M. It is the period of time that we think about bigger picture effects of our teaching and learning models. As advocates of our method, we should be aware that our penchant for manipulation and game play just might play a role in overall student happiness, connectedness to the faculty, and retention at our home institutions. As I went in search of research that might support this inkling, I found a few sources like the work of John Ishiyama. But it appears uncommon to try and situate the active engagement in game play into this bigger picture of keeping butts in seats for the entire institution.

So it is your turn…. what hypotheses are available? How can we study this? Personally I could imagine a somewhat nuanced relationship between active learning in the classroom and its effects on connectedness to a campus identity. But conversely, I suspect that personal academic performance isn’t a conscious factor for student attachment to a particular place….

What do you think? Does active learning affect college retention? How so?

Failing Fisheries Online Game: More Tragedy, More Hope, More Complexity


For those who are interested in a slightly longer game of tragedy of the commons than the Bunnies game (see below)…particularly one with a little more complexity, readers may prefer’s Failing Fisheries game. (scroll down a little on the page. It is under failing fisheries)


Much like the bunnies game, failing fisheries pits you against virtual opponents on a quest to make money. In contrast to the bunnies game, however, you can select for the temperament of your opponents or allow the game to randomly generate flexible, cooperative, or “independent” boat captains.

The game is more suited to a module on environmental decline than as an assist to clarify Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. This is because the game permits you to attempt to set fishing limits through agreements with other fisherman.

In my own rounds of play I managed to preserve the fisheries. Having said this, I was working with reasonably cooperative boat captains who permitted limits to be set on our maximum catch. So I didn’t ruin the fishery, but I also experienced my own pangs of jealousy as other boat captains were clearly better at fishing. (the snapshot clearly is a demo shot, I always made about 1/3rd what everyone else made.)


The game is winnable if you are moderately willing to watch the game’s fishery market trends and take out an occasional loan for better fishing equipment.

I strongly recommend reading the instructions FIRST on how to actually fish, since I succeeded in driving my boat several places but forgot to cast my nets. Live and learn.

If the Shmoo fits…. How Hackers Create Amazing Learning Spaces at Conferences

Shmoocon 2015 Logo

I waited to blog until today…. despite the fact that I met a handful of amazing new colleagues equally as interested in pedagogy and games… I waited. Just downstairs from the APSA TLC this year was an internet security conference called ShmooCon

I waited to blog until today because I was warned…. that it was probably best to leave my electronics unconnected to the hotel internet…. lest some mischievous lurker find their way into my system.

Instead, however…. I decided to infiltrate their conference to learn what there was to learn about being a ‘hacker’ at a conference with other hackers. And what I found….

Hacker conferences are designed with tacit active learning methods beneath them! Everywhere I went, everyone was asking questions, interacting, playing, pushing boundaries, and generally smiling. This in stunning contrast to our own national political science conferences. So… in no particular order….

this year’s shmooball was red

Stuff That Happens at Hacker Conferences That Engages and Encourages Learning

1. The Shmoo Ball…. looks like a red stress ball. In fact…. everyone at the conference has one. When the presenter(s) begins to make claims that are contestable… go ahead… throw it… throw that ball right up on stage! The sage on stage is openly questioned…Shock horror, fantastic!

2. Games games games everywhere… you can’t walk three feet in any direction at that conference and someone isn’t actively engaging their skills in active puzzle play. Hacker Fortress, Ghost in the Shell, all sorts of challenges for people to try and showcase their capabilities.

3. Active conversation, open critique, debate, and curiosity. Attendees were curious about each other, worked hard to listen, and teach each other!!!! It wasn’t just the speakers that had the monopoly on teaching…everyone taught everyone else.

4. Ethical behavior requirements? Never hurts to be clear: ” ShmooCon supports the free and open exchange of information. We are proud to have attendees with unique and diverse viewpoints on just about any topic. We want to foster the exchange of ideas among attendees and think the community benefits from inclusiveness. To that end, we are committed to providing a friendly, lively, and welcoming environment for all. For your part, please be awesome to one another.”  –read… you get thrown out for being a jerk.

I found myself saying the same things over and over again…. THIS IS A LEARNING ENVIRONMENT…. a conference as a learning environment!… TLC is good but I see we have much to aspire to…. Well done shmoo…. well done!

On the downside however? in a brief emergency I did end up flipping on my phone’s hotspot to download a file…. and now whenever I type “hahaha” into my google hangout screen an animated fox and chicken pop up and laugh at me. Touche….

When Hobbes Turned Liberal Institutionalist….

This week I returned to my roots to replay another version of Victor Asal’s Hobbes game. One of my favorite things about the Hobbes game is that it can always be slightly altered to introduce new kinds of interaction in the game.

In order to do this you really do need to play Victor’s original game first.

Then, a week or two later…. hand out the cards again. I wanted Wednesday’s interaction to be more akin to the picture of the international system represented by liberal institutional models of interaction. Specifically, I wanted to introduce variation, not simply in terms of individual power levels, but types of potential cooperation.

Tell them, today, the kind of card you get matters. (watch them peer at the front of their card anxiously….see how the people holding aces and kings begin to smile)

Project an image of the hierarchy of poker hands on the board and explain which kinds of hands are better than others. (you will get confused looks from people who have never played cards…don’t linger on this …. just smile and say…. everything will be alright)

The text and images below are from the website but you can find the image anywhere really.

Straight Flush & Royal Flush


Four of a Kind:

Four of a Kind

Full House:

Full House





Three of a kind:

Three of a Kind

Two pair

Two Pair

One pair

One Pair

High card

High Card

Now… tell them that individual cards can challenge each other. In that case, the higher value card wins, takes the other card, and then the loser sits down.

BUT… they are also free to create pairs, triples, and even complete 5 card poker hands. (I limited them to five…. continue to ignore the people who don’t know cards)

Then…. say…. go!

Observations by Students in Debrief:

  1. MASSIVE VARIATION in behavior from the original game….. some team up and produce collective security others go it alone.

  2. Students who had initially powerful cards (Aces) felt more assured than those who had low number cards. But everyone had an opportunity to collaborate to build a good poker hand in order to feel safer.

  3. Students reported feeling less concerned about relative gains and more interested in absolute gains as they searched for other potential allies.

  4. All the students agreed that the structure of the game more closely aligned with what they imagined the international system to be like: more opportunities for cooperation in many different ways, but still anarchic and fraught with distrust and fear for survival.

  5. Students who had no idea about poker hands were sometimes preyed upon, but most often, were assisted by colleagues with similar cards.

Prior to this exercise the students were unconvinced by the Kupchans‘ work on collective security and the institutionalist perspective. They preferred the ‘pragmatism’ of Mearsheimer and Waltz. After the exercise, the students reported understanding, more clearly, what the Kupchans’ were getting at. I’ll definitely do this again in tandem with the original form of the Hobbes game.

Zombie Apocalypse…. survival guide or excuse for defection behavior?


Tonight I get to ask Max Brooks about the implications of seeing the world through a zombie apocalypse. Tune in! 

A standard of IR theorizing is the notion of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. A zero-sum game in which you can either rat out your partner to avoid heavy costs in exchange for lighter costs, or you can both cooperate and stay silent for a payout to both parties.

This is often referred to as the PD, the Hobbesian world of all against all. It is a survivalist ethic where the suboptimal outcome is better than being caught with the sucker payoff. The scholars on this post frequently create games that reveal this outcome. See Simon Usherwood’s Post

The potential costs of this thinking are often hidden when thinking about a zombie apocalypse. Apocalypse preparedness is about ensuring that you are ready when global infrastructures fail. The Centers for Disease Control actually have a site dedicated to zombie disaster preparedness. However, zombie preparedness it is also strongly linked to survivalist behavior which can then be linked back to the PD and defecting rather than cooperating.

When we use this metaphor of zombies to think about 21st century security issues and global threats is this helpful or harmful? Does the fear engendered in imagining a Hobbesian state of nature accidentally give us excuses to behave poorly…. and if so, is a zombie apocalypse the wrong analogy for thinking about disaster? I previously considered this as a potential critical teaching assignment

BUT….If you would like, tune in tonight at 7:30 on Al Jazeera America’s The Stream….as I ask World War Z author Max Brooks himself what he thinks the limitations might be?

Max Brooks: From disaster fiction to real life preparedness

Gender’s Purpose: Marketing as Political Texts

If you’re struggling for something fun on a day that you’ve set aside to do critiques of power, try these two bits of jaw-dropping oogle-fests.

Eastern Airlines

Artifacts like these thrown into a pool of students are as brilliantly accessible as they are fascinating. The first is a poster from Eastern Airlines. This is an advertisement that was accompanied by a whole series of commercials in which young beauties paraded across the screen declaring their flight routes and finishing with the words “Fly me.”

Have your students read the text on the poster. The artifact in play clearly posits a role for women as object and tacitly suggests who the passengers on the flight should be. The language is open and reasonably clear that students should be able to unpack the assumptions and roles that are in the piece. Now that we have them sufficiently irked…


The second artifact is clearly a war propaganda piece. This is Howard Chandler Christy’s work from WWI. For students in their first years of thinking critically, this appears as a poster that puts women in the weak position. But the text here is more complex. Just as in the first artifact, the roles and audience can be unpacked reasonably easily…. but there is now a new layer of manipulation. Gender isn’t simply encouraging male behavior…. it is, in fact, harmful to both genders by emasculation.

Artifacts like this force the students to recognize gender, and social construction as powerful and real components to theories of politics. And they’re just plain fun.


Jedi Mind Tricks & Revealing the Wizard

There are two very good reasons for instructors to explain their pedagogical choices to students starting at day 1 and repeating consistently throughout the course: Evaluations and Intellectual Development.


“These are NOT the droids you are looking for”

Control for the outcomes you want to see reflected. For your purpose you can try: “These writing assignments are meant to expand your ability to do research.” “I am working to develop your intellectual depth by reading closely” “This course is ORGANIZED and CHALLENGING, but rewarding.” or “The important part is your voice not mine, in shaping your development this semester.”

The point is, consistently priming and reminding students of the methods behind your madness makes them less likely to beat you with it later when they evaluate you. You might even find them saying things like…. “the course is challenging but rewarding.”

Manipulation of expectation and perception, however, is NOT, of course, the most important component.


“Looking behind the curtain to see the wizard.”

Whether the students understand it or not, there is a reason behind the structure and chronology of your course. For the vast majority of syllabi it reflects the development of the discipline and its families of thought. As scholars we know that knowledge development of scholarly literature is not linear, nor is it comprehensive. Furthermore, the labels we create for things are not REAL. Realism, Institutionalism, Constructivism, Feminism are families of perspective. (the link being an example of the unfortunate reification of these labels) They are not, in themselves REAL things. Allowing our students to believe that is deeply problematic.

Talking about the development of the field reduces reification of labels and helps students understand that inquiry is a conversation, among people, on paper….it does not represent permanent and inherently true knowledge….

I know of two ways to pull back the curtain:

1. Through their own intuition. Put them through scenarios that reveal the logics that we attribute to particular writers. Prisoner’s dilemma behaviors are recognizable even if you don’t know the PD. Victor Asal does a wonderful job of this in his Hobbes game.

2. Explain it to them in narrative form.  Scholarship to undergraduates always has a capital “S” on it. Break it down and explain it in a plain-mouthed manner. “We can’t seem to figure out why it is we can’t stop fighting. Why do we fight?” (wait for an answer) “distrust of others….that is one answer, you know who thought that was Hobbes.”

TELLING THEM exactly WHY I’m doing something often means explaining how IR theory developed over time. Show that to them…and it will deepen their understanding of scholarship and demystify the nature of “knowledge creation.” It also makes scholarship inclusive rather than infantalizing by assuming they are smart enough to take part in the dialogue.

At a minimum, revealing the pedagogical purpose behind a reading, activity, or article makes the swallowing of a bitter pill more pleasant and helps students understand more about the nature of their own intellectual development.

Methamphetamine in my Pedagogy: Breaking Bad and International Relations

There’s nothing quite like a quick-start to helping our students wrap their minds around perspectives in IR. This tip comes to me by way of Soomo Publishing (educational dynamos who have their heads on a swivel looking for new ways to connect with our students…and music video rock stars). So… Thanks Z!

This link will take you to a series of slides assembled by Dr. Peter LaVenia.


Mental exercises like this are great fun for instructors and students alike. You take the multiple perspectives of the literature and hunt for them in contemporary culture. The classroom applications are multiple. I like to provide students with a common pop text and then ask them to look for the similarities and differences between the thought patterns of IR theorists and the pop reference.

BUT!!!!!   My favorite application of these kinds of exercises is to make students write exam essays in this format.

  • Explain the security dilemma in terms of the Hunger Games (short essay)
  • Of the key characters in the Dark Knight, who would Machiavelli see as the best leader? Explain and defend your choices using quotes from the original text.
  • What might each of the major schools of thought have to contribute to understanding Neo in the Matrix?

Personally, nothing makes grading take-home essays more rewarding than really pushing your students to reach for creative readings of the pop text. It also significantly thins out the grounds for plagiarism.

Throw one of these questions into your next exam and find yourself smiling at observations like: “The hunger games arena is really nothing more than a mirror of the panopticism of the Capital’s relationship to the districts. But in the game realm the notion of survival is reduced to zero sum calculations. Cooperation is futile.”

Also… you can always try Zombies as a generic notion….



Michelle Catalano, NSA, & Googling: Hidden Assumptions

I love using contemporary examples to teach my students the art of good research and argumentation.

A few days ago Michelle Catalano (freelance writer) detailed an experience she had with a group of policemen she thought were part of a joint terrorism task force. She suggests that they arrived at her house because her family had been on their computer searching for the words “pressure cooker, and backpack.”

She goes on to write the story which she has since updated and clarified.

For the purposes of my teaching activity I will cut and past only those sections revealed on the first day. Her story is titled “Pressure cookers, Backpacks and Quinoa Oh My!”

In the story she provides a series of details that read like a really good conspiracy novel.

excerpt: “What happened was this: At about 9:00 am, my husband, who happened to be home yesterday, was sitting in the living room with our two dogs when he heard a couple of cars pull up outside. He looked out the window and saw three black SUVs in front of our house; two at the curb in front and one pulled up behind my husband’s Jeep in the driveway, as if to block him from leaving.”

She ends the story with.

“Mostly I felt a great sense of anxiety. This is where we are at. Where you have no expectation of privacy. Where trying to learn how to cook some lentils could possibly land you on a watch list. Where you have to watch every little thing you do because someone else is watching every little thing you do.

All I know is if I’m going to buy a pressure cooker in the near future, I’m not doing it online. I’m scared. And not of the right things.”

It is well-written and fun to read….and gorgeously but accidentally misleading. Perfect for teaching. 

Step 1:Take the text from the start all the way to the last line quoted above and provide it in a handout.

Step 2:Give your students about 10 minutes to read and discuss in small groups, asking anyone who has read this story before to hold their tongue.

And then…..

Step 3:Ask them to map her argument and the facts supporting it, leaving the website URL prominent. Ask them to raise questions regarding the story if they have any.

Step 4:Then, provide them with a follow-up story done with all the information.

Step 5:Now open the room to discussion about what the connections are between this exercise and writing for college.

Benefits of the Exercise:These real world examples can provide additional motivation for students to think deeply about: 1. the need to provide arguments and counter arguments; 2. to reveal all the information for and against a thesis; 3. to be perfectly clear about what the stated thesis/argument is.

The Power of the Real Versus Fiction:
In keeping the example linked to real events in the world it can also teach students that the art of skeptical and detailed inquiry isn’t just for scholars. It is the key to being a discerning reader.


Four Lions & Boston Marathon: Breaking the Frame

Orson Welles called it “breaking the frame.” Also known as the fourth wall.…the breaking of a narrative….like when an actor in a movie pauses to speak directly to the audience. Teaching is a performance space too. It is removed from reality. When we are in this space we are allowed to “bracket” many things in order to make our pedagogical performances work…..i.e. narrow the real world down to just us, our space, our thinking. And once in a while the frame breaks….. without your permission. These are the events and their notes.

March, 20-ish 2013
Mid-morning: IR class topic: Terrorism

Readings: Kydd & Walter, Kilcullen, …etc etc.
Discussion point: critical analysis of the film Four Lions. A film about a group of British males who plot to attack their home country.

Notes:Compelling, awkward, funny….Were we supposed to laugh? When the seemingly mentally impaired activist accidentally blows himself up….were we supposed to laugh?

A new perspective on terrorists. They are disaffected, second and first generation young males. They manage to bomb a marathon. No real coordination, just a bunch of dudes acting like asses who also managed to make explosives.

April 15th, 2013–no class day–

Boston bombing suspects
… a couple of young males, disaffected by their lives in the United States… bomb a marathon. The Boston Marathon. Their logic, unclear, seemingly accidental….. no real coordination…. just a couple of dudes ….

April 17th, 2013
Mid-Morning: IR Class Topic: ??????

What? What?    No Seriously…..what?

There are awful coincidences that come along when you teach. A marriage of random events, and fiction.

The real world, it crashes into your classroom, makes a mockery of your safe space. …and you know very well that what happens next just might teach them something…..teach me something.

….or we can collectively run away.

Step 1: Establish a distance between the very shocking thing that had happened and the thing we had just been exploring from an intellectual perspective.

Step 2: No wait…back up…. have a good long look at the event. Maybe we spent the hour talking over the finer points of analysis, guessing from the color of the smoke, the location, the time of day….all the suppositions.

Step 3: Predict and analyze. How would Kydd and Walter understand this? What does this mean for Kilcullen’s hypothesis?

Step 4: Gracefully declare the class productive.

Notes: BULL$!!@% Spackle that damned hole shut again! 
A class assignment accidentally became inextricably fused to a real world event. I hated it….hated it….

I used those articles like a crow bar:…. to pry myself clear, to pry us all clear from the feel of that event. We intellectualized it….. we walked through it, stared at it, shook our heads…..and we giggled. Not at the pain, but the incredulity…. the gross coincidence. And we laughed at the uneasy way we desperately and willingly returned to seeing world through the end of a straw. At least we could memorize that and understand it, mock it sometimes. 

Narcissism. There’s no way to speak to this without inviting that claim. But there’s also no way to talk about struggle in a classroom in the shadow of big events when they break the frame. I felt sick and fortunate at the same time. I didn’t have any answers.

Nothing clever….just a really wicked reminder that no matter how you teach, it is a performance space….

also… apologies for any misuse of the 4th wall concept. I entirely recognize that I’m playing fast and loose with the concept.