Information Literacy Exercise

Today we have a guest post from Colin Brown, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Political Science at Northeastern University. He can be reached at colin [dot] brown [at] northeastern [dot] edu.

It seems safe to say that political scientists have some concerns these days about information literacy, and information literacy is likely an implicit learning outcome for many of us. This blog has provided a number of good exercises for bringing information literacy into research methods, reading academic research, and headline writing. Inspired by these examples, I attempted to include this skill in my introductory comparative politics class, where democratic (de)consolidation is a major topic. In theory, the class gives students enough background to start keeping up with events around the world—if they choose to do so.

The exercise I tried this year, now available on APSA Educate, forces them to update slightly-out-of-date readings on a country facing democratic backsliding (Poland) by finding out what’s happened there in the four or five years since they were published. Students were assigned to small groups, and each was given a different kind of source to examine during a class session. One group read newspaper articles, another examined democracy indexes, yet another searched Wikipedia, etc. Students then applied what they’d read to course concepts—has democracy gotten weaker or stronger in Poland since these were published? Students then discussed what they trusted or distrusted about each type of source, and the potential merits of each.

I had a few key goals for students:

  • Think about source material for future courses. In an intro course, students not only might be unfamiliar with how research articles work, but also may not have a lot of practice in thinking about online source credibility.
  • Understand that while sources vary in credibility, there are pros and cons to using even the most credible sources. For example, the students who looked at V-Dem, Freedom House, etc., got clear, direct answers to the exercise’s questions, but they also correctly pointed out that they had to accept these organizations’ conceptualizations of democracy. And less credible sources like Wikipedia still had things to offer if used carefully.
  • Bridge the gap between classroom learning and events in the broader world and show how what they’re learning might help them understand the news.

When I ran this exercise in class this year, I budgeted only about 25 minutes for it, when it turned out to need 40 minutes or more to give students enough time to look at multiple sources in their category. We ended up using another 25 minutes the next day but dividing the exercise into two sessions probably led to more shallow searching and a less systematic attempt to make sense of sources.

When running this exercise in the future, I will think more explicitly about the balance between handholding and allowing students to practice seeking things out on their own. Last time I provided a couple of search terms, told them to keep looking outward beyond these, and to keep a record of what they searched for (which as best I could tell no group did). Next time I will probably experiment with either giving students a fully curated list of search terms, so they can observe how this affects their search results, or, conversely, I might give them even more time to “flail” about on their own before offering suggestions.

Comparative Politics 2021: An Additional Post-Mortem

In January and February, I wrote about changes I had made in my annual comparative politics course:

I’ve already written about the problematic results from one assignment and a potential solution, and a way of improving the final exam prompt.

Student output in the collaborative qualitative comparative analyses, an assignment discussed in the Part 4 post linked above, proved disappointing. Despite extensive scaffolding, students did not demonstrate an understanding of how to determine cause and effect. Here is a simplified version of what one team produced; the other team’s QCA was nearly identical:

PhilippinesEgyptVenezuelaHungary
Less Economic GrowthYesYesYesYes
Less Citizen Political ParticipationYesYesYesYes
Higher Disease Mortality YesYesYesYes
Greater AuthoritarianismYesYesYesYes

There is no variation in the values for the independent or dependent variables. Nor are the independent variables likely to be causes, rather than effects, of the dependent variable — the direction of causality is ambiguous. The QCA provides no logical explanation for increased authoritarianism.

So next time around, I will have to specify that 1) variables must vary, and 2) causes can’t be effects.

From my perspective, these kinds of assignments get more prescriptive and less analytical with each tweak I make to them. While I don’t want them to devolve into mindless fill-in-the-blank worksheet exercises, it seems that is where they are headed.

Discord With Gerkhania

In my comparative politics course this past semester, I ran my usual Gerkhania simulation on Discord as an experiment. Discord is a free social media platform that Amanda has discussed previously. It was a positive experience, for the following reasons:

I had never used Discord before, yet it was very easy to figure out. Discord’s design is very intuitive and setting up the simulation was very simple. Students also found Discord easy to learn.

Students interacted more with each other than they did last year when I used Webex, despite a similarly small class. Webex does not allow for spontaneous communication between participants except for one-to-one chat messages. When building the Discord server, I granted students access to different communication channels according to their roles in the simulation. For example, a student representing an ethnic Khan who practiced the Montian religion had access to channels devoted to each group and could automatically message other Khans or Montians at any time. As server host, I could observe and participate in these conversations in real time.

Discord permits text, voice, and video communication. I deliberately chose not to use its videoconferencing capability and none of the students used it either. We communicated with each other solely through text messages. I believe this enhanced rather than degraded the experience in comparison to Webex — no black boxes instead of faces, and no interrupted video or audio because of low-bandwidth internet connections. A user interface that facilitates text communication also means Discord is suitable for running a simulation like Gerkhania asynchronously rather synchronously, something that isn’t realistic with video-based platforms.

My use of Discord also meant that students automatically had a complete record of the simulation’s events that they could reference for the final exam. I did not have to take any additional steps, like create and share a recording, for the class to have a history of what had transpired.

Reality Check

As a response to the situation described in my last post, I created an in-class exercise for my comparative politics course — this worksheet:

1. Write the main thesis of these articles by changing each article’s title into a declarative sentence containing “because,” “causes,” “is caused by,” etc.:

Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, “How Development Leads to Democracy: What We Know About Modernization,” Foreign Affairs 88, 2 (March/April 2009): 33-48.

Alfred Stepan, “Brazil’s Decentralized Federalism: Bringing Government Closer to the Citizens?” Daedalus 129, 2 (Spring 2000): 145-169.

Larry Diamond, “Why Are There No Arab Democracies?” Journal of Democracy 21, 1 (January 2010): 93-112.

Javier Corrales, “Authoritarian Survival: Why Maduro Hasn’t Fallen,” Journal of Democracy 31, 3 (July 2020): 39-53.

Scott Mainwaring, “The Crisis of Representation in the Andes,” Journal of Democracy 17, 3 (July 2006): 13-27.

2. Fill in the blank cells in the table below with information from Larry Diamond, “Why Are There No Arab Democracies?”:

3. Given the above, what causes the value of the dependent variable? How do you know this? Is this a Most Different Systems Design or a Most Similar Systems Design?

I gave students 10 minutes to work on these questions individually, followed by 10 minutes in breakout rooms with teammates to discuss their answers. Afterward, I reviewed the lesson by asking students to state what they wrote for each thesis or blank table cell. This occupied the remaining 30 minutes of class. While I don’t know what students thought of this exercise, it’s something I can use in the future either in the same way or as part of an exam.

Identifying How Assumptions Meet Reality

Four weeks until classes end, and I’m noticing some of the same problems in my comparative politics course that I saw a year ago. First, some students are not able to consistently locate a journal article’s main thesis, even though I simplified the assignment’s format, students discuss their work among themselves when creating presentations about the articles, and I review the organization of each article after the presentations. Second, students aren’t sharing notes about assigned articles despite my adaptation of Helen Brown Coverdale’s study huddle system. Since collaborative notetaking with Google Docs didn’t work, I assumed that students would at least share their completed article analyses with their green or red teammates. Nope. While the analyses are graded as individual assignments, the “sharing” aspect is not, so probably students see no reason to do it.

Seven years ago, I wrote about mistakenly assuming that students knew the meaning of methods in social science research. A similar problem might be occurring with thesis. Although students have probably heard the term since ninth grade English, maybe they still don’t really understand it. Or, even if they do understand, they could be unwilling to make the effort required to identify what and where it is in a text. As a more direct colleague put it, the problem can originate with stupidity, laziness, or a combination of both.

A solution might be to ask students to find where in the body of an article its title has been converted into a cause and effect statement. For example, I recently assigned “Authoritarian Survival: Why Maduro Hasn’t Fallen” by Javier Corrales (Journal of Democracy 31, 3). The thesis is essentially “Maduro hasn’t fallen because . . .”

As for the unwillingness of students to share their ideas about readings via collaborative notetaking, I would not be surprised if this stems from being taught since early childhood that reading is an isolated rather than a social activity. I.e., the ideal reading environment involves a room of one’s own, a blanket, a cup of tea, and possibly a cat, to ponder silently the meaning of what one has just read. This technique works fine for people like ourselves, because academia self-selects for the highly literate. But the average undergraduate student probably doesn’t know really know how to think about what they’re reading while they’re reading it. According to colleagues who know much more about this subject than I do, if reading is instead a public activity, the metacognition that occurs in the truly literate becomes visible and transferable to others. Social interaction facilitates a better understanding of the text.

Luckily we live in an era of digital tools that allow a reader to easily interact with a text and with other readers. One of these tools is Perusall, which a couple of English professors on my campus have been raving about. I have asked our IT support unit to link Perusall to my Canvas account so that I can start experimenting with it, hopefully before the semester ends. If that happens, I’ll report my observations here.

Coalition Governments

Today we have a guest post from Joseph W. Roberts, associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Roger Williams University. He can be contacted at jroberts [at] rwu [dot] edu.

Recently someone on Twitter asked about teaching coalition governments and their formation in an introduction to comparative politics class. I responded to the query with an exercise that I use to demonstrate presidential vs. parliamentary systems and voting systems. The exercise demonstrates why a state might choose one system over another in a way the mirrors the perspective championed by Lijphart (references listed below).

I begin by talking to the students about the size principle and the minimum winning coalition described by Riker and the critiques about whether a minimum winning coalition of two parties with a “margin” of one is actually stable (see Shepsle, Butterworth, or Brown). I explain ways in which party identity/ideology can affect the creation of coalitions, and ask students to think of other factors, such as ethnic identity, that might be part of the process. This subject is usually covered briefly in comparative politics textbooks and I just reinforce some of the basic concepts.

I then use the actual party data from an election available from Wikipedia—usually Israel because it has a lot of elections—but any election where a coalition government is formed will work. I give the students the list of parties that received seats in the election, a rough description of each party’s ideology, and a number line showing where each party fits in the left-right political spectrum, as shown in the table below.

Continue reading “Coalition Governments”

Changing a Comparative Politics Course, Part 4

My previous post explained how students will complete the template that identifies possible causes of either increased democracy or increased authoritarianism in two nation-states from 2000 to 2020. The next step in this project is for students to work in teams to produce qualitative comparative analyses. Here are my instructions for this collaborative assignment:

Continue reading “Changing a Comparative Politics Course, Part 4”

Changing a Comparative Politics Course, Part 3

As promised in my last post, here is Comparison 3, an assignment in which each student chooses independent variables and operationalizes them for the two cases chosen in Comparison 1. The instructions for the assignment:

Using the template that you submitted for Comparison 2, replace “Variable 1” and “Variable 2” with two independent variables that you think have a causal relationship with the dependent variable. Replace “Indicator 1” and “Indicator 2” with indicators of each of the independent variables you have selected — indicators are the means by which you will measure changes in your variables. Enter the data for the indicators for 2000 and ~ 2020 as shown in the template. Enter + or – to show where these measures increased or decreased.

Data on many indicators for independent variables can be found at:

Continue reading “Changing a Comparative Politics Course, Part 3”

Changing a Comparative Politics Course, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed changing my approach to teaching students how to analyze the arguments contained in journal articles. I also think it is important for students to actually do some discipline-related research rather than just read about it. Previously in this course, my students compared two nation-states using either a most similar systems or most different systems design. That assignment never worked very well because of student confusion about the basic nature of cause and effect. I’ve decided to replace this with a scaffolded process culminating in a team-produced qualitative comparative analysis.

There are three individual assignments that I’m calling Comparison 1, 2, and 3. For Comparison 1, each student chooses two nation-states from a list. That’s it. The list comes from Freedom House’s rankings of citizen freedom in countries around the world; I selected a subset of states for which scores differed between 2000 and 2019 — so that students choose cases where the dependent variable varies over time.

For Comparison 2, students calculate a value for the dependent variable. Here are the instructions for the assignment:

Continue reading “Changing a Comparative Politics Course, Part 2”

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:

Continue reading “Changing a Comparative Politics Course”