Student: “Please guide me to all of knowledge”

In a recent post, I spoke about my intention this semester to mandate an office hour visit from all of my students. We are now in Week 3 of the semester, and I am pleased to say that students are fulfilling this requirement already – and even coming back for more conversations. However, a recurring theme is emerging, which I thought I’d seek input for amongst this community. My students are anxious that they don’t know enough. And they want to point me to the magical Google Doc folder we all share as professors, where we store all necessary knowledge about the world and life.

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A Crowdsourced IR Playlist

A new guest post by Dr. Summer Marion from Bentley University, Waltham, MA:

Since Fall 2022, I have taught ten sections of Internationals Relations at Bentley University. Each semester, I experiment with integrating music into my curriculum as a means of both encouraging my students to apply abstract concepts in their everyday lives, and better understanding what IR means to them. Inspired by others’ impressive IR playlists, I take a slightly different approach from faculty who have curated their own lists to share with students in class. I challenge students to: 1) expand and improve my taste in music, and more importantly 2) contribute to making IR more relevant to their generation by proposing songs of their own for a small amount of extra credit on the final exam. Students brainstorm songs that they enjoy listening to and find relevant to a topic covered in class over the course of the semester. They then share their songs alongside a brief explanation in our class discussion forum. I encourage students to submit songs as we cover each topic, but final submissions are not due until the end of the semester. I occasionally play a student submission to kick off a new topic at the beginning of class, inviting students to discuss and share their thinking.

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Spring 2024: The Midterm Check-in

I enjoyed Cathy’s post from last week, in which she presented UCL’s approach to engage in student dialogue rather than receive “consumer feedback” at the end of the semester – aka the classic student evaluations. Earlier check-ins regarding our teaching are more useful than reviewing the game tapes over winter break. Our future students will benefit from it, but our past students just had to sit with it. As the new semester approaches rapidly (at least for me, Monday is rapidly approaching), and as I looked over my feedback from last semester, I can’t help to add even more things to my list of new semester resolutions: a midterm check-in with my students on what is working and what is not.

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How to handle Student Evaluations

Happy New Year! As we all slowly make our way back from the holiday coma, I thought I‘d briefly speak about student evaluations, which I am assuming most of us receive at the end of each semester. There are varying schools of thought that speak to the necessity of these evaluations. I am staying out of this debate.

It‘s hard to separate yourself from these evaluations much – at least that‘s the case for me as an ECR. After all, if you care about how you teach and you put effort in it, then it is a personal thing – to a degree. But it should not be something we measure our entire self-worth by. During my graduate student days our Center for Teaching and Learning held a session on how to handle these evaluations. 

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Course Planning for Spring 2024: A Mandatory Office Hour Visit

On a recent episode of Teaching in Higher Education, “The Ones Too Often Left Behind”, Todd Zakrajsek, PhD, author of many pedagogy books, spoke about his journey uncovering the many different obstacles and challenges students encounter in their learning that make succeeding in class – not because of lack of trying – harder than their peers.

Having taught at various types of higher education institutions, this resonated with me immensely. None of us are omniscient and all-powerful to anticipate all the things, and so when trying our hardest we still encounter each year plenty of unknown unknowns about our students, their lives, and their learning. Here is another attempt of mine to adjust my syllabus accordingly.

This past week, my campus had its finals week, including one review day on which I decided to offer an additional office hour session, providing my students one last opportunity to check in with me face-to-face regarding the final paper that was due at the end of this week. I had a steady flow of students coming and going.  But I realized after that they were my steady “customers”, who had come in frequently throughout the semester. Approximating, I would say they account for maybe 20 – 25% of my students. Where have three quarters of mine students been this semester?

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Podcasting in Class: Course planning for Spring 2024

As the semester winds down and final grading is in progress, I am looking ahead towards the Spring 2024 semester, when I will be teaching International Relations & Popular Culture for the first time. It is both a nerdy interest niche of mine, but I also think that field of popular culture is expanding, gaining more grounds, and operating as something relatable to our students. So, I guess – be prepared to see more of that type of content in the new year.

I have decided to incorporate a semester-long podcasting project as the students’ main research project, in which they will produce a public-facing piece of research. I imagine this is the first time most of my students will be engaging with such a project. But this is also a new assignment for me, and I am both excited and wondering what hurdles I haven’t thought of yet. I am building this on a previous guest post by John McMahon (2021) and his APSA Educate resource. Below, I have outlined the overall premise. What wisdom do you have to turn this project into something that can rival Joe Rogan’s podcasting dominance?

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Reflecting on the “World Climate Simulation”: Extra Credit? Bueller? Bueller?

I am following up on an exercise I introduced a few weeks ago (see this post from Nov 3, 2023). Strangely enough, for the first time ever, it did not go entirely as I thought it would. To remind you, I provide two incentives for the classroom while they try to stop climate warming and get it below a 2-degree temperature increase by the year 2100.

  1. If the whole class manages to get below the desired temperature increase, everybody receives an extra credit point.
  2. The group with the least amount of commitments receives an additional extra credit point.

Based on prior experiences, what usually happens is that students are initially confused by the exercise, the numbers, and the task at hand. Through two rounds of thinking, talking to their teammates, and then later negotiating with the other countries’ team members, they eventually manage to figure out a way to slow down climate warming. Largely, this happens because they realize that if they do not manage to find some compromise and agreement, no one will receive an extra credit point. They eventually accept that not everybody can commit the least, and they are willing to take that hit in exchange for everyone at least receiving one extra credit point on their final grade.

Image: Media for Literacy Blog, Reggie Grant

Not this time. Although after two rounds of negotiations, my students were stating that an agreement had been reached, when the first group provided their new commitments on carbon emission, deforestation, and afforestation they apparently provided not the numbers that had been agreed upon. This in turn prompted ALL the other groups to renege on their climate commitments, and the class did not manage to decrease climate warming below the desired temperature point. And this outcome genuinely surprised me.

Granted, simulations are never guaranteed to provide a desired outcome. I operate in a realm of unpredictable actors (aka my students) who do not live in my head and know what is “best”. I know that when I provide these two types of incentives, I pour fuel in the fire. But I incorporate them to simulate more clearly the need to overcome a collective action problem. In the case of “solving” climate warming, the countries represented harbor historical, economic, and cultural tensions that require taking the high road to address this transnational problem, which will ultimately affect all countries around the world.

I was comforted in the past by the students’ realization that the breaking of the fourth wall in the simulation was necessary (overcoming their obstacles and motivations to receive all the extra credit points) to receive at least some of the carrot that I was dangling in front of them. One extra credit point –in the past – was better than no extra credit point.  This semester, though, that realization never materialized. This is truly strange to me. A debrief after the exercise showed that the students did not consider the fact that they would not get any extra credit at all. They were largely motivated by the second additional extra credit point, without realizing that they came together. There was just a lot of frustration going around on how the first team reneged on the initial agreement. It surely was an interesting lesson in the trust component in international agreements.

Although I want to continue this exercise next semester, I wonder if this was a fluke, a fault in the set-up, or a changing understanding of what it means to cooperate transnationally.

Project Citizen: Building Citizenship Skills in an Introductory American Government Course

Today’s guest post comes from Dr. Brooklyn Walker at Hutchinson Community College, Kansas!


This semester, on the first day of class, I asked my introductory American Government class to generate a list, in teams, of how they come across American government and politics. They couldn’t think of a single example. I concluded that many of my students haven’t thought about themselves in terms of politics. They lack political efficacy. They are turned off by polarization and negative affect. And they don’t notice the role government and politics play in their everyday lives. 

But years after they graduate, I want my students to be aware of their political environment and equipped to engage it. I wasn’t convinced that exposing students to interesting information or ideas would address the problems I was seeing. Instead, I wanted to help my students learn about themselves as citizens, develop citizenship skills, and see government in action. I developed Project Citizen to advance these three goals, and to create a bridge for my students between the classroom and the ‘real world.  

Project Citizen is the overarching title for a set of five assignments distributed throughout the semester. It comprises approximately a third of the semester’s total points, signaling that that civic engagement is a priority in the class.

Students begin the semester by writing a brief introductory essay (400-500 words). This essay reflects on a class reading making the case for civic engagement, and they describe what an ideal citizen does and knows. Then they detail their own civic engagement and the hurdles they face in becoming the ideal citizen they described. This essay forms the foundation for the remainder of the projects and marks the baseline of each student’s civic engagement.

Students then select three projects from a menu, each of which results in a 500-word essay. Each prompt is linked to a topic we cover in class, and the prompts are intended to advance the three main goals. Giving students choices is a core feature of Project Citizen. Some of the prompts may be triggering for students. For example, a Black male in my class asked if he had to talk to a law enforcement officer, and another student with social anxiety was worried about contacting a local civil rights group. Project Citizen encourages students to choose prompts that take them out of their comfort zone but gives students space to avoid prompts that they feel could be harmful. Finally, choice promotes equity. Many students, especially those with lower socioeconomic statuses, do not have easy access to someone who’s running for office or reliable transportation to civic meeting spaces.

ProblemGoalRelevant Prompts (course topic in parentheses)
“Don’t know who they are as citizens” Learn about self as citizenTake a survey to identify your party identification and ideology (Public Opinion); Make your voting plan (Participation); Develop a media diet plan after comparing news articles (Media)
“No efficacy, intimidated by polarization”Practice political skills, including political  discussionsTalk to a police officer about the role of civil liberties in their work (Civil Liberties);Talk to a local civil rights group about their work (Civil Rights); Interview someone who’s run for office about the role of money in politics (Elections); Complete an action recommended by an interest group (Interest Groups); Contact a member of Congress (Congress)
“Don’t know how government actually pops up in their lives”See politics / government in actionAttend a local meeting (Constitution and Federalism); Identify party linkage strategies via party communications (Political Parties); Analyze presidential communications via inaugural addresses (Presidency); Observe a courtroom (Judiciary);Evaluate bureaucracies after speaking with a recipient of state or federal services (Bureaucracy)

Finally, at the end of the semester, students revisit their initial essay. They annotate that essay with 8 comments, reflecting on what they learned from class readings, lecture, discussion, and their projects. Their comments can introduce new information or examples to support or refute their initial points, reflect on how they have changed through the semester, or describe their next steps for developing their citizenship skills.

While most of the students’ Project Citizen work occurs independently, projects are woven into class periods. I mention project prompts during lectures, pointing out information that may be relevant or questions the project may help them answer. Students learn from each other during a peer review session (for which they also earn Project Citizen points). I print copies of the assignment rubric and students provide feedback on two peers’ essays, using the rubric as a framework. After projects are submitted, we dedicate class time to discussing student experiences and connecting those experiences to course material.  

Some semesters I’ve integrated badges, which are essentially extra credit opportunities, into Project Citizen. Badges encourage students to take more ownership of their learning experience. Some of the badges I’d used include:

  • Jack-of-all-Trades Badge: complete one project for each of the three goals 
  • Design Your Own Adventure Badge: create your own project prompt (in consultation with me)
  • 10,000 Foot View Badge: complete a meta-learning worksheet about a project
  • Second Chances Badge: revise and resubmit a project
  • Collaborator Badge: complete a Project Learning prompt with a co-author

Ultimately, students have reported positive experiences with Project Citizen. One student said that Project Citizen “let me build up my ideas about who I am and about my beliefs. I got to explore what my point of view is and I learned things about myself I never knew.” Another appreciated seeing the government in action. After attending a local meeting, they commented that, “Normally people wouldn’t go out of their way, but Project Citizen gave me exposure to see how my community is run.” 

Project Citizen is constantly evolving, so I look forward to your reflections and comments.  

Using the “World Climate Simulation” in Class

When teaching International Relations, the issue of climate change is unavoidable. I found myself a couple of semesters ago in a position where I got frustrated about my stale lecture on this issue. Climate change is man-made, the world is one fire, and our students are experiencing it daily. How can I add to this in class without just shouting “look at the data”?

The internet came to the rescue: I found the “World Climate Simulation”, a role-playing game from Climate Interactive (MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative; UMass Lowell Climate Change Initiative). I will forego, explaining the simulation in detail, because the simulation’s website is exhaustive enough, and I would end up simply copying what they already explain. Instead, I will briefly go through some key points and considerations that I have, after conducting the simulation now three times in different learning environments.

C-Roads Interactive Climate Change Simulation Dashboard

  1. The purpose of the simulation is that country and region representatives (i.e., the United States or Other Developing Nations) come to an agreement to lower and slow down the warming of the globe. The simulation illustrates that if all countries around the world won’t change any of their behavior by 2100, the global temperature will increase by 3.3 C, which will have detrimental and irreversible effects on human existence and the global biodiversity. Negotiations and discussions between the global players aim to bring the rate to below 2 C.
    1. The simulation provides character sheets for each country/region. They are adaptable to class size (I use six; but that is not necessary).Students must make decisions on when their country/region will reach peak emission rates, when/if they will reduce emission levels, by how much, and whether they will support afforestation and prevent deforestation (and at what rate).
    1. The simulation also provides great slides that allow you, as the educator, to set the scene.
  2. I pair the simulation with two readings/media:
    1. Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons”An episode of the New York Times Daily Podcast (“Who pays the bill for climate change?”, 2022).
    1. With both of these, students are exposed to both the ideas of free riding, collective action, and inherent conflicts regarding the responsibility to tackle climate change.
      1. Based on these readings, I add two specific incentives for the students throughout the simulation:
        1. If they can change the trajectory of climate warming by 2100 to below 2 C, the entire class gets 1 Extra Credit Point.
        1. The group that commits the least will get an additional Extra Credit Point.
  3. Depending on how long your class sessions are, you can easily adapt and change the simulation to your needs.
    1. My broad structure is:
      1. I email character sheets out prior to meeting, urging them not to share their sheets with others.Class begins with a first initial meeting within the groups to establish who they are, what their country is doing, and what is feasible in terms of their own commitments to slow down climate change.As a group we collect in the interactive dashboard (see picture above) all of our countries/regions initial commitments, assessing by how much/if at all we were able to change the trajectory of climate warming.Then, the student groups briefly strategize, and then they disperse to speak to other groups to move the needle in any direction.
        1. Depending on how much time you have, you can do multiple negotiation rounds.
        After the negotiations, we collect again in the dashboard feasible commitments, and evaluate where we are.
      1. We debrief. This includes asking questions about how they felt getting the initial tasks, how the negotiations went, and discussing why it is difficult to make any global agreements on climate change.
  4. Thoughts on how the simulations have gone so far:
    1. The more time you can dedicate to it the better. I have played around with different structures anywhere between 60 minutes to 2 hours, and obviously, the longer session had better discussions/negotiations.
    1. In most cases, students will find that balancing national interests vs. global commitments is quite difficult. Countries tend to be selfish, and no one wants to make the biggest contributions right away. The debrief is key here, because it allows you to combine the students’ experiences with the readings and illustrate the thinking/obstacles that exist in global politics to overcome transnational problems.
    1. Take the time to walk around while the students are negotiating. They take it seriously, and the things they say to one another are both profound and amusing at times!

Tools for Discussion: An Interpersonal Growth Toolkit

Today’s guest post is from Dr. Allison Anoll at Vanderbilt University!

Classroom discussion is a common pedagogical tool, but many instructors and students alike find themselves lost with the lack of structure.  Equally problematic, standard approaches to grading participation that simply count how often students speak can (re)produce racial and gender disparities.

How can we, as instructors, lead effective discussions? How can we help students grow in their interpersonal skills while also ensuring classrooms are inclusive spaces?

In my small, seminar classes I use a tool for structuring and assessing participation I call the Interpersonal Growth Toolkit.This tool relies heavily on a framework developed by Stephen Brookfield in The Skillful Teacher, where he argues that classroom discussion skills need to be taught just like any other learning goal. The Interpersonal Growth Toolkit provides students with learning goals for classroom discussion, tools for achieving these goals, and regular sources of feedback from the instructor about progress.

Here’s how it works. I start by identifying skills I want students to learn and practice in the discussion setting. In my classes, that’s: 1) humility; 2) confidence; and 3) social science thinking. I provide students with a detailed list of tools for how they can practice each of these themes. For instance, to practice humility, students can,

  • Provide credit to classmates for ideas and inspiration by using their name in comments.
  • Ask the group for a moment of silence to slow the pace of discussion and allow you (and others) time to gather your thoughts.
  • Find a way to express appreciation for what is new, interesting, or challenging in the discussion. Be specific about what has helped you understand something new.
  • Make a comment or ask questions that encourages others to elaborate on their ideas.

I then ask my students to identify which of the three areas—humility, confidence, or social science thinking— they are weakest in as a discussion participant.  My students then develop an individualized growth plan by identifying 2-3 skills in their area of weakness they want to try out in class. They write these skills on an index card that I hand back to them at the beginning of each class for the first two weeks. At mid-term, they write a brief reflection on how they think they are doing in their area of growth and what they want to work on for the rest of the semester. In combination with my own notes, I prepare mid-term feedback for each student about their performance in the three areas and tools to try in the second half of the semester. Students receive a final grade for their participation based on their growth and performance in each of the three areas.

This approach increases the quality of classroom discussions immensely. Not only do students and the instructor have a clear sense of what people are supposed to be doing during discussion time, but students themselves can become advocates of inclusivity in the classroom. Students who lean towards dominating a discussion are asked to think about how they can use their skills to draw others in; students who are nervous speaking up are provided with skills for finding their space and ways into a discussion. Using this technique, I have seen students grow immensely over the course of a semester with quieter students getting bolder and more dominant students using their skills to build bridges between other’s ideas. In my seminar courses, it is the norm to hear from every student multiple times over the course of a discussion.

This approach and assessment are well-suited for relatively small classes (less than 20 students). In larger classes, it is more difficult to build a community of trust that fosters vulnerability and to find enough time for all the students to practice their skills. However, this tool is suitable for any level of instruction: I use it with freshman, seniors, and even new graduate students. Instructors should feel empowered to adapt the skills they want students to learn in the discussion as long as they also provide specific tools to complement these skills. Want students to practice intellectual curiosity as a core skill instead of humility? Develop a list of tools that students can practice in a discussion to build this skill. You can look at chapter 8 of Brookfield’s The Skillful Teacher for more tools to consider.

To implement this assessment, remember to include a learning objective in your syllabus that highlights interpersonal growth as a key goal of the course.  I use, “By the end of the course, you will be able to:demonstrate growth in discussion techniques including close listening, speaking with evidence, challenging with respect, and summarizing others’ contributions.’’

Keeping track of student contributions and how they fit into each assessment category can be difficult to do on your own while also leading the discussion. When I use this tool, I hire an advanced undergraduate or graduate student to sit in class with me and keep track of student contributions. I use these notes to develop feedback and grades for my students.

You can find details about The Interpersonal Growth Tool Kit here. The document also includes a rubric. (In general, I’m a big fan of rubrics, but that’s a topic for another day.) Happy discussing!