One of the APSA panels I attended was the “Unique Approaches to Teaching Political Science” panel and there were some neat ideas there I wanted to share.
Patrick McGovern of Buffalo State College presented his department’s approach to teaching introduction to political science in “Teaching Res Publica and Individual Rights in the First-Year Political Science Course,” coauthored by Laurie Ann Buonanno. (As an aside, why is it that we never have catchy names for our pedagogy papers?). The standout details on this course were that it was an intro for majors only and is grounded in 3 texts: Joseph Ellis’ American Creation; Anthony Lewis’ Gideon’s Trumpet; and Larry Diamond’s Spirit of Democracy. The premise of the class is the push and pull between individual and community. I liked this idea–my own intro to politics course is an elective aimed at non-majors and focuses on the need for and role of government but uses film and fiction to explore the ideas– and it made me wonder how many departments have a core ‘intro to politics’ class for their majors, and whether this is a desirable thing. Recently I found myself explaining to students about the sub-fields of polisci, and faced a number of blank looks when I explained why American politics is its own field and considered the gateway to the major.
McGovern did give a shout out to IdeaLog, which has a good quiz to help students see where they stand ideologically. I prefer the OK Cupid Politics Test, but that’s because students are alternatively amused and horrified when they find out they share their politics with Darth Vader or Stalin.
The other two papers–“Engaging Students in the Classroom: How Can I Know What I Think Until I See What I Draw” from John Hogan and Paul Donnelly at the Dublin Institute of Technology and “Engaging Student’s Creativity on Exams: Writing Political Science Poetry” by Natalie Jackson of the University of Oklahoma and Elizabeth Wheat of Western Michigan University–dealt with using creative arts to engage students. Hogan and Donnelly start off their first class of the semester with asking students to first draw the answer to the question ‘what is Irish politics?” and afterward, explain their drawing, first in writing, then in groups, and then in wider discussion. The stated goal is to help students master critical self-reflection and create space to examine their existing knowledge and assumptions. The Jackson and Wheat presentation discussed using poetry as an extra credit device on exams, which seems like a neat idea but ultimately I don’t really see the pedagogical value in it. I decided to try it out immediately on a quiz in my US politics class last night and while the entries were amusing, I remain unconvinced that this adds to my student’s learning in any way. If we want to achieve the sociologist goal of ‘diversity of voice’, then it should be in the form of a more extensive project than a simple extra credit assignment.
I have a love and hate relationship with APSA, but one thing I like is that it kicks off the year. I always come home with more energy to work. Tomorrow I’ll be posting about some of the active learning ideas I encountered at panels, but today I’m going to take a time out to talk briefly about a disturbing trends that I saw and would love to discuss in the comments.
Panels are DEPRESSING. Its rare that I leave a panel feeling happy that I attended instead of just downloading the papers on my own time. There are plenty of reasons for this, but I think the most prominent one is that our format for exchanging knowledge at conferences is fundamentally flawed. All the research that we know about how people learn best, and our preferred method is to have a group of individuals talk at the audience and each other for an hour and a half and then (if we are lucky!) allow for questions and dialogue with the audience. I wish I could say that the teaching and learning sections did better, but one of these panels was the worst offender, with only ten minutes left for questions, and most of those more technical ‘how-do-I-do-this’ type questions instead of genuine discussion.
I much prefer the working group model of ECPR’s joint sessions, round-table style conversations, or the track method at TLC. I would love to see us just throw out the rulebook, look up from our own papers, and talk to each other. Perhaps that’s wishful thinking, but I do want to think through some other models that would really allow us to engage with each other and perhaps, even–dare I say it?–teach each other about our findings.
Edited to add: Nina posted about the working group model at APSA which also sounds like a better method and one that could be applied more broadly.
Ninety percent of my incoming students in my introduction to American Politics course cannot pass the US Citizenship test. This may not surprise those of us who teach it, but it sure surprises them, and is therefore one of my favorite exercises to use in class.
On the first day of class, I hand out an ‘Ungraded Pre-test’ of ten questions—of course, unbeknownst to them, this is an actual citizenship test. I tell them it is simply a way for me to know where they stand as the course starts so that I can keep the material at an appropriate level. They turn it in, and we say nothing more about it until the second class. At that point I hand back the test—as a bonus, this is a great chance to practice their names—and we go over it together. I have them raise their hands to indicate who got ten, nine, eight right, noting those who answered six or more correctly, but still say nothing about the actual purpose of the quiz.
I then start a conversation about citizenship, currently by discussing the ongoing Birther movement’s accusations against Barack Obama and the Arizona immigration laws. We talk about who should be allowed to be a citizen, and what the rights and responsibilities of a citizen should be. It is only after they have voiced their existing views that I reveal that most of them (and it is always more than 80%) failed the citizenship test. They are usually some mixture of surprised, horrified, and embarrassed at this revelation, but it promotes very open and self-reflective discussion of immigration and the naturalization process, particularly when we compare US policy to those of countries that require military service of their citizens.
As a bonus, at the end of the semester I give them the test again (with 10 new questions), and usually no more than 10% fail—giving the students a sense of accomplishment, and me some direct evidence of learning.
The official US citizenship test questions can be found at http://www.uscis.gov/USCIS/Office%20of%20Citizenship/Citizenship%20Resource%20Center%20Site/Publications/100q.pdf
One of the most common complaints that instructors have is that students do not complete the readings. No matter how interesting or unique or provocative they are, many students fail to crack their books at all prior to an exam, and some of those who do fail to retain any of the information or arguments. For those of us who use those readings as a foundation for a class session, this behavior can lead anywhere from mild irritation to downright aggravation.
One way to solve this problem in an upper level seminar is to turn the reading from a passive exercise to an active one. Assign the readings by week, rather than by session, and have your students write an analytical response on the readings each week. Each critique must also pose a discussion question at the end. Papers are typically two pages, though that depends on the type and number of readings assigned. They are posted the day before class and shared online in a discussion forum. The discussion questions and different perspectives can then be used as a basis for discussion that week. Scoring is based on a check plus/check/check minus/pass/fail system (which loosely corresponds to A-F) but no comments are made by the instructor after the first week or two.
I tried this in Spring 2011 in my Environmental and Energy Security class, an upper level seminar with ten students, with great success. All of my students came prepared to class having completed and thought about all the readings. In addition, their writing occurred throughout the semester, allowing multiple grading opportunities and a chance to improve their writing. The papers also made prep for class very easy: I facilitated a conversation and provided context, but the students drove the discussion. Quiet students could be drawn in to the conversation without fuss, since their perspective was already public. Finally, grading is minimal. It only took a few moments to read through the critiques and see what level of effort and insight students brought to their papers.
The downside is that students will whine about having to actually do the readings and write every week. But in a class that is really built around the readings, my students came to appreciate being forced to do the readings and to think about them, and they liked that their work was brought so obviously into the class through the discussions. It made them feel like their work was driving the course. I was able to be a true facilitator and participant rather than just their teacher, and the critiques were cited as a positive on my evaluations rather than a negative.
I love games. Card games, role playing games, board games, video games, computer games, online games, etc. When I first started teaching, it was only natural to start scheming on how to bring games into the classroom and share them with my students. What originally started as simply a way to enliven the classroom has developed into a scholarly interest in the role of games in the classroom. Now every time I sit down to play a game I find myself considering the possible classroom applications. I will be sharing my discoveries in this blog.
My current favorite is a game called Zendo by Looney Labs. In this game, a designated ‘Master’ chooses a rule of some kind and then creates two arrangements of plastic pyramid shaped pieces (called Icehouse pieces) that come in four colors and three sizes. One arrangement, or ‘koan’, follows the rule, and is marked with a white stone by the Master. The second koan violates the rule, and is marked with a black stone. Play proceeds with each player (fittingly referred to as ‘Students’) building a koan in an attempt to figure out the Master’s unspoken rule. After building a koan, the Master will judge the koan (marking it with a white or black stone to indicate if the arrangement follows or violates the rule) . Students can earn ‘guessing stones’ in the judging process, and can spend the stones on their turn to guess the rule. An incorrect rule is countered with a new koan from the Master, and play proceeds until a student correctly guesses the rule.
The game has a host of applications for the classroom. It can be used to develop critical thinking skills (as students must puzzle out what the rule is) in any class. Students must also develop their ability to reason inductively and use evidence to support their claims (as they must analyze the existing koans to determine what rules are possible). The game can also teach the importance of understanding culture: one student may look at a series of koans and suspect the rule has something to do with color; another student may not notice color differences but instead focuses on how many pieces are touching the table in the koan. Finally, the crucial role played by the types of koans the master builds can illustrate the importance of experimental design. The same rule can be guessed in one turn or ten, depending on the way the Master presents and builds the koans.
The game is therefore abstract enough to work in a variety of classes but still teaches a number of important skills. It scales well in terms of number of players and difficulty, and the Icehouse pieces are easily acquired in bulk for larger classes. I plan to use it in my Research Methods course next spring. While students eventually can take over the Master role, I highly recommend that any Master play through the game a couple of times first as a student. I can tell you from personal experience that it is rather humiliating to have your rule guessed on the very first student’s turn.
Zendo is currently out of print, but you can easily make your own set, as I did. Looneylabs.com as well as many retail game stores sell the Icehouse Pyramids/Icedice, and you can purchase stones at a craft store (or just use poker chips or some other two color marking device).