Make Discussion More Inclusive with the Raised Block

Facilitating discussion is one of those teaching tasks that is sneakily quite challenging: you need to have goals (beyond creating noise); keep the discussion on track to achieve those goals in the allotted time; manage the speaking order; address incorrect information or offensive remarks; enforce norms and rules; actively listen to students and capture themes; and encourage students to listen and respond to each other. Increasing inclusion is its own challenge–ensuring that every student has the access, opportunity, and encouragement to actively engage in the discussion and learn by being part of it.

A particular challenge can be the Dominant Derailer: the student(s) who speak up far more than their peers, sometimes on a pet topic that isn’t aligned with the learning goals, and has the result of shutting out other voices. When Dominant Derailers run the discussion, they turn their peers into Silent Spectators, who are no longer actively listening but instead just waiting for the ‘discussion’ to end.

I’ve already written with some tips on addressing or preventing a Dominant Derailer, but today I want to introduce a new tool that can help with this problem and others: the Raised Block.

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More reflections on the “World Climate Simulation”: Class Size Matters

I am following up once again on the World Climate Simulation exercise which I run in my Introduction to International Relations courses. This semester I am teaching two sections of the class, which meet back-to-back three times a week.

My first section is a group of eight students. In my second section I have 27 students. In the past I have only run the exercise in large groups (approx. 27 to 30 students). I was curious as to how the two different sections would play out as I had never applied it to such a small group. Maybe not to anyone’s surprise, there were some stark differences in the way the games played out.

Credit: classsizematters.org

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Talking to Others About Teaching

Inherently, the premise of this blog is to bring like-minded folks together who care about teaching in the social sciences. We share tools, ideas, events, and musings. And I have come to appreciate the people who reach out in comments, mitigating the one-sided way in which this blog-writing largely takes place.

Recently, though, I took my musings into the real world and joined a three-week long pedagogy book club run through my institutions center for teaching and learning. We all (re)read James M. Lang’s “Small Teaching”, and then discussed its parts over three meetings. This post is brief (because not everything has to be a magnus opus), but it is, nonetheless, an appreciation post for 1) talking in real life to others about teaching and 2) going back to the basics.

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Fungalovid-2025: Global Health Politics in IR

Inspired by Daniel Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies as well as too much TV watching, I have designed for my International Relations  and Popular Culture (IRPC) course a game called Fungalovid-2025. The scholarship of IRPC understands the role of popular culture as both a reflection of international politics but also as a learning device that informs our expectations of political crises.  Fungalovid-2025 confronts my students with a global pandemic and demands of them to formulate in country groups a 2-month and a 12-month plan on how their country will proceed with handling the outbreak. Their choices and behaviors are informed by reading World War Z by Max Brooks, by our previous class discussions, living through their own pandemic, and in varying degrees their personal engagement with zombie-themed popular culture goods. This game is not only great for IRPC, probably a niche area for many, but it also works in introductory classes on international relations to illustrate socially constructed realities, international cooperation, and self-interested policymaking.

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Pondering the future of political science education


Guest post by Dr. Jeremy F. G. Moulton at the University of York!

As political scientists, we often teach students not to speculate about the future in their work and that they should, instead, champion critical analysis based on verifiable trends.

However, I have recently been doing a fair amount of speculation. Specifically, I have been wondering about what the future of teaching and learning in political science will look like – a topic that greatly intrigues me and I’m eager to hear others’ thoughts on.

This came about because I have been recently involved in the work of the Faculty of Social Sciences’s ‘Faculty Futures Group’ at York. The group seeks to get away from the short-term reactivity that we can all be guilty of in Higher Education; focusing on the next week, the next semester, maybe, at a push, the next year, but rarely the proper “long term”. The Faculty Futures Group, therefore, has the mission to ‘Scan the horizon to identify important new directions for social science education and research in the medium to long-term (next 5-15 years)’. 

Whilst the project focuses on the Social Sciences as a whole, I have, of course, been thinking of the future of political science. And, as is fitting with this blog, I have been thinking about the future of political science’s approach to teaching and learning. 

There are a few themes that have struck me as particularly pressing and interesting; themes that I can most imagine significant change in the coming years. There are two that are at the forefront of my mind:

The first is assessment. When I undertook my undergraduate degree in Politics, the exam, the coursework essay, and the dissertation were the only assessment formats. This was not an uncommon experience at all, and still today, these feel like the dominant forms of assessment in our field.

However, it seems that there is some significant change happening now and that there is more on the horizon. Experiments with pass/ fail rather than graded assessment, with assessment optionality, with inclusive assessment design are all big themes that I can see really shaping how we assess political science courses in the coming years. 

Course-level innovations, tailored to the subject matter or to hoped-for employment outcomes, could be a path of potential for future innovation. I have also been thinking about what innovations could be made to champion the potential for fun or enjoyment in the assessment process. It probably won’t be a shock to anyone that, as an academic, I quite like the essay format. But I also totally get that many students might not love it and that we could occasionally vary our approaches in a way that makes students more enthused when it comes round to assessment time. For example, for a while now, I have been considering the potential of using creative writing in our classrooms and expanding that to assessment.

The second is AI. To be honest, I am a bit skeptical when anyone is a bit too enthused about AI and the future of education. This piece from Smolansky et al. has solidified my thoughts that some can be too keen on adopting the use of AI in assessments, whilst students might have genuine concerns about “watering down” the education experience. However, it’s nigh on impossible to turn our backs on AI as an important educational development. As this great ALPS piece from Amanda Rosen shows, there is a clear need for academics to engage with AI in our approach to assessment. It’s already apparent that some students are making quite liberal and not exactly productive use of generative AI as a writing resource.  

But should this mean that we welcome AI into our teaching and learning environment? There are already some in Higher Education that are leading the way on this. Auburn University provides a free, self-paced online course for those interested in employing AI in their teaching, for example. But this might be outpacing what contemporary students want from their education.

Recent conversations I have had with students indicate that there is quite strong opposition to AI replacing traditional forms of student-to-academic communication. Where there is enthusiasm is where AI chatbots might be a quick go-to tool for asking the “embarrassing” questions that students might be afraid to ask but are really important to them, e.g. “I know you’ve mentioned it a dozen times but… how long is the essay meant to be?”. 

That these themes are the ones that seem the most pressing and interesting is almost certainly a result of my own pressing teaching concerns and areas of interest. And so, I’d be very interested to hear from anyone else! What do you think the future holds? What are the pressing, interesting themes that we should all actually be worrying about or embracing? And finally, I would love to know if anyone has a crystal ball I can borrow so I can finally get to the bottom of all this ‘future’ business… 

How can you make your online forum flourish?

You’ve got… a mail

I’m guessing that most of you teaching have some kind of online space, where you post materials like the coursework handbook, Powerpoints and the rest.

I’m also guessing you have a forum, quite possibly with a hopeful message from you from Week 1 encouraging students to share thoughts and ideas.

It might well be the only message.

I know it usually was in my modules, when I taught in-person.

Even now, working at a distance-learning institution, our modules are typically desolate wastelands, where maybe a couple of people post once, maybe twice, before shuffling off.

Students aren’t impressed, we’re not impressed, yet we press on.

What to do about it?

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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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How to use Powerpoint in your teaching

Good for wallpaper, maybe less so for British Politics 101

The last few weeks have seen me back at the face-to-face teaching thing, with a number of talks, presentations and briefings.

As someone who mostly sits in his shed in his garden, this is a very positive development, especially since all that face-to-face work is happening in warmer spaces than the shed.

However, it has also reminded me about the importance of getting any Powerpoint usage right.

As Amanda has written before, while it’s easy to dunk on Powerpoint, it is ultimately like any tool we use in the classroom: good for some things, bad for others.

Indeed, that I’m writing this nearly a decade after Amanda’s post suggests that both technology and pedagogical practice change more slowly than we might often think.

So let’s run through the key points once again.

First up, focus on your learning objectives. What are you trying to achieve with your teaching? Who needs to learn what?

If you don’t know the answer to this, then everything else falls apart, because it points you towards optimising the opportunities for your audience to learn the things you want them to learn. And the tools you’ll use.

Hence, I didn’t make a Powerpoint for the ‘in discussion’ session I had one evening recently, even though I was asked to make some structured opening comments: I wanted to reduce the distance with the audience, so we discussed, rather than be the guy who turns up with The Answer.

Secondly, tailor your Powerpoint to your audience.

I vividly remember sitting in a panel presentation, years ago, where a guy opened up his 165 page Powerpoint and then jumped around about 15 of those slides to do the presentation of his paper. I did not feel the love and was mostly interested in what else might be in that huge slide deck.

Make a specific Powerpoint for that specific session. Building on your sense of the learning objectives, recognise that each instance that you teach is different and unique, so your materials will be unique too.

Think about how you might present your paper differently to a departmental seminar, a general conference panel, a workshop or to non-academic audiences: all the same source material, but each with different incentives and interests that feed back into what you offer them.

Thirdly, make your Powerpoint functional.

If you ever have to say “you probably can’t read this” or “this isn’t important”, then you’ve failed on this count.

Anything you put on a slide will be paid attention to, read and considered. It’s why lots of text on a slide results in people not paying attention to you speaking: they’re reading.

So only put in what is necessary and nothing more, remembering that your Powerpoint isn’t the only thing that’s going on when you teach.

Personally, it’s why I switched to mostly images for my slides some years back: students are listening to my explanation/interpretation of those images, plus it gives me a degree of freedom and flexibility to adjust to their needs.

Finally, reflect on your practice.

The only time I’ve ever had to break up fisticuffs was when two colleagues argued (very hard) about the Powerpoint that one of them was about to use in their shared class.

Somehow, the upshot was that I spent the next hour in that class, to give some feedback on the offending article (120 slides for a one hour lecture).

Strangely, and even though it’s totally not how I’d have done it, the colleague made pretty good use of that Powerpoint, because it fitted their style of teaching and the needs of the class. But they’d never really had anyone discuss how that worked (and how it might work better) before.

All of us benefit from thinking back on what we’ve done and from getting input from others, including our students. It’s part of why I’ve writing this post: much as I’d like to say I smashed all those face-to-face sessions I’ve been doing, actually I know there’s still room for improvement, improvement that I can take into my next session (which is this weekend).

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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