Soomo’s Supplements

Soomo Publishing has some neat online tools that can supplement courses in international relations and American politics.  They have a US Politics textbook, and then for both fields that have a neat set of supplementary exercises that are worth considering for intro classes.  For IR, they have ‘Between Nations’, a collection of video- and primary source-based assignments that can be mapped to a number of leading textbooks.  Each assignment includes a video clip or two or an excerpt (from the Leviathan, or the Melian Dialogue, etc) relevant to a major concept or issue in international relations.  The students then answer questions about the assignment–either multiple choice or short answer.  There is a gradebook that records their answers.  The assignments are also fully customizable and you can add your own into the system.  It costs $25 for students.

I’m trying it out for the first time in in my introductory class.  Each week the students have to complete one or two of them prior to class, and my hope is that the exercises will help familiarize them with the concepts so that class discussion is richer.  While in general I think that the short answer questions are better, I’ve chosen to use the multiple choice questions because they are automatically graded with no effort from me.  I’ve assigned 15 of these throughout the semester, but included a few extra that students can do for extra credit if they wish.

My hope is that, as a supplement to simply reading about IR, these exercises will result in a better learning process for the students in addition to enriching class discussion, but I will report back in a few weeks on whether my expectations are met or not.

The Results Are In

As I’ve discussed here and here, this past semester I ran a role-playing simulation for undergraduates on international relations in Europe on the eve of World War I. Previously I had tested for the simulation’s possible effects on student learning by comparing essay exam grades from a “regular” class that participated in the simulation to grades from an honors class that had not. Grades from the honors class were higher, and in most cases the differences were statistically significant, but the possibility existed that the higher scores were due to the honors students supposed better academic ability.

This semester I finally was able to teach an honors class again and do a more valid comparison. Some preliminary data crunching indicates that the simulation had no effect on essay assignments and exams, not what I’d expected. However, in a 2009 study, Stroessner,  Beckerman, and Whittaker found that students’ “writing ability, at least extemporaneous writing, was not affected” by Barnard’s Reacting to the Past role-playing simulations.* This makes me wonder what can be changed about history-based role-playing simulations so that students become better able to connect their simulation experiences to course content and demonstrate that connection through their writing.

I know someone reading this is thinking “it’s quite possible that your assignments and exams aren’t measuring what you think they are measuring.” Yes, possible, but logic dictates that if (a) we think it’s important for students to learn how to use theory to create a coherent and persuasive written explanation of an event, and (b) a question asks, for example, “did the international system in Europe prior to World War I best reflect liberal or realist IR theory, and why?” then (c) assignments and exams indicate how well students can accomplish (a). In other words, I’m testing for what I think students should know, and the simulation that I’ve been using doesn’t seem to have any effect on how much knowledge students acquire over a semester.

I will be presenting on this subject at the APSA Teaching and Learning Conference (TLC) in February. I’ve been attending the TLC  since 2007 and it’s been remarkably rewarding — lots of interesting and pedagogically practical information. I encourage you to attend.

*Stroessner, Steven J, Laurie Susser Beckerman, and Alexis Whittaker (2009) “All the World’s a Stage? Consequences of a Role-Playing Pedagogy on Psychological Factors and Writing and Rhetorical Skill in College Undergraduates,” Journal of Educational Psychology 101(3):605-620.

Connections Exercise

This is the last week of classes, and I’m trying to get students to think about how what has happened inside the classroom can be used to understand a world of which they remain mostly ignorant. So I’ve come up with the following small group exercise, which I’ll probably give them about twenty minutes to complete:

Write a short narrative (not a bulleted list) that explains the connection between the following people, places, and things:

Free Trade Area of the Americas
Foreign Assistance Act Of 1961

 Correctly connecting eight of the above items earns one point toward your final grade for each person in your group. For nine, two points. For all of them, three points.

Since my students might find this post on Google, I’m not going to post the answer until later this week (please don’t reveal the answer if you know it).

Getting some help in

Yesterday evening after class I had a long discussion with a student about the validity of different people’s opinions: the student felt that my opinion was worth more than that of his peers, because I was the teacher and “had more experience.”  This led into a rather “post-modern” (to quote my wife) discussion about the lack of objective truth and the value of all opinions.

I mention this because last week I took a group up to London to play a European Parliament simulation, at the EP’s UK office.  This is a development of a game I’ve played with students in Brussels, all organised by the EP.  Over the past years, I’ve found this has been an excellent opportunity to relate my class-based work to a more applied and specific context.  In addition, it has highlighted the value of expertise: Gergely Polner at the EP has been able to bring his extensive institutional knowledge to bear on the design of the game and its subject material.  Moreover, his network of contacts meant we were able to get a jury that included both EP officials and representatives from political groups, to give an insight that goes far beyond that which I personally could provide.  Coupled to some of the insights that the students gave into how particular issues might play out, everyone learnt something from the event.

The suggestion here is not that you beat a path to your local EP representation (helpful though they are), but to consider getting institutional buy-in from the organisations you might simulate: press offices abound; you or your colleagues have contacts.  It’s a relatively low-cost way for everyone to gain something useful (expertise, profile) and it underlines my ‘post-modern’ point about the value that different people can bring to the table.

Statecraft: A Simulation for International Relations

I’ve been meaning to write about Statecraft for some time. I was an alpha tester for the simulation last year and thus am very familiar with the team at Digital World Construction, the sim, and the development process.

Statecraft is “an immersive simulation that allows students to experience the challenges, opportunities, and complexities of international relations in a very vivid, intense, and personal way.”  Its based on a long standing pen-and-paper sim run by Dr. Jonathan Keller of James Madison University.

If you haven’t heard about it, check out the link above.  Basically students will play as teams representing fictional countries on a set map.  They have to manage their resources and wealth as well as various political factions in their countries, international organizations, military and diplomatic incursions from other countries, and natural disasters.  Its great fun for the students, and active learning at its best.  There’s a grading system incorporated into the sim, so the burden on the instructor is minimal (beyond, of course, providing the context via the concepts and theories of IR).  There is a fee of $25/student/course for the game, but if you consider the game as a ‘text’, that’s actually quite cheap compared to mainstream textbooks and readers. The sim can be used for classes as small as 7 or as large as needed.

If you’ve been thinking about using a sim in your class and don’t know how to go about creating one of your own, this would be a great choice.  My students loved it when they played, and that was before the onslaught of new changes which have really streamlined the gameplay and made the entire game more user-friendly.  If you are teaching intro IR in the spring, consider adding this to your syllabus.

Kim Kardashian’s Prisoner’s Dilemma

I ran a prisoner’s dilemma exercise in my 28-student undergraduate class last week. Each student received a piece of paper with the name of their putative partner in crime on it. Students were told that they could not reveal the name of their partner to their classmates and, per the rules of prisoner’s dilemma, could not communicate with their partner. Unbeknownst to the class, each slip of paper had one of only three names written on it. Twelve students discovered that they had been arrested with Kim Kardashian. Eight  received the name of one female student in the class; the remaining eight received the name of a male student in the class. A greater proportion of students who were paired with Kim Kardashian decided to confess than did the students who were paired with classmates.

When I asked students from the first group why they had decided to confess, they said they didn’t trust Kim Kardashian to be smart or loyal enough to keep silent, which led to a discussion of trust and cooperation among family members, gangs, and, of course, nation-states.

The Revolution Will Not Be Twittered

Last Friday in class a student asked me to explain the causes of the current global economic recession. It happened to be the same student who said the week before that I was turning her into a Marxist (to which I responded “it’s good to be a Marxist while you’re young, because when you’re older you won’t be able to afford it”).

So off I went on a twenty-five minute tangent on the inflationary real estate bubble in the USA, the securitization and outsourcing of bad debt, Greece’s economic collapse, and Ponzi schemes. Although I find such topics to be a lot more interesting than offensive and defensive realism, I was a little perturbed at the time at the unexpected derailment of my lesson plan for the day. I have not yet learned to embrace uncertainty when it comes to class preparation.

But since then I’ve read this piece about campus police beating students at Berkeley.

And this one by a Penn State alum and Iraq war veteran who has completely lost faith in the leadership of his parents’ generation.

I’ve emailed both to my students in the hopes that the articles will get them thinking and talking about something more important that the latest international relations theory.

More on Changing the Environment

Last week I was discussing the international system in my introduction to international relations course. I had run through various examples of systems (airplane, farm, family, religion) in the previous class, and was attempting to explain how a change in the international environment can change the behavior of the nation-states within it. I could tell from students’ facial expressions that they weren’t making the connection. So I took the students outside to a parking lot and played a second round of Victor Asal’s survive or die card game.

In contrast to the first round, played inside the confines of the classroom, students quickly dispersed to avoid being challenged. We then reconvened indoors and I asked the students to explain why round two differed from round one. In addition to seeing the effect of the changed environment, they also picked up on the fact that repeated interactions can enable political actors to learn how to predict one another’s behavior.

From the mouths of babies (story books)…

Having finally been forced out of our Greek property so it can be sold off to help sort out the whole debt crisis thing, I’m back in the UK, enjoying the fine weather here.

As part of the long trip back, I had the pleasure of listening to a small number of children’s stories as audio books.  Being a good academic, always on the look-out for new ideas, my pleasure was only increased by thinking about these tales as learning resources.  The format has a number of advantages: they are relatively short and engagingly written; they set up open questions, rather than impose closed solutions; and they are easily shared among learners (pace copyright, of course).

The idea here is simply to use such stories as starting points for seminar discussions, as another way into some key political and philosophical questions. In my experience, beign stuck in a car for some hours listening to the same story several times over is an excellent way to start one’s own grappling with such points.

To take a couple of examples:

  • Is Fantatastic Mr Fox a fascist or a communist? At first glance, he’s neither, with his heroic deeds and putting one over the nasty farmers.  But his final gambit is to have all the creatures live under his rules and within his power: this collapsing of individual freedom under the guise of collective liberty speaks precisely to the heart of totalitarian regimes and offers students much scope to consider such ideas as the propaganda of the deed and othering.
  • What does the Reluctant Dragon tell us about the nature of rules in the International system?  Here we see a number of characters adopting social norms via a logic of approriateness to guide their actions, despite their unwillingness so to do, but it also suggests a higher set of objective values that must be complied with.  As such, it opens up a whole literature about constructionism and realism, as well as the more obvious aspect of hegemony and power.

I won’t pretend this holds good for all such stories (there’s very little to be drawn from Sandra Boyton’s excellent Belly Button Book, for example), but as a more accessible way into political theory and philosophy, it’s well worth a try.

PS: The kids’ birthdays have occasioned the purchase of more titles, which again (although I should stress, coincidentally) underline the idea here.  Treasure Island is an excellent description of the Logic of Collective Action, while Doctor Dolittle has some useful ideas about the importance of empathy and the perils of socialisation.

More on a Blog-based Simulation

This semester marks the second time I’m running my Europe1914 simulation in an introductory international relations course. I first taught this course to honors students in Fall 2008. In Fall 2009, I ran the simulation, but in a non-honors section. I had hoped that the simulation would be associated with better student performance on exams, but the data didn’t bear this out, probably because of the difference in academic abilities among students in the two groups.

In 2009, I asked students to rate themselves on how confident they were about being able to meet their goals at four different points in the simulation, before and after simulation sessions in class. Students’ confidence dropped markedly between the first and second assessments and then rebounded somewhat in the third and fourth assessments. The before and after ratings converged at the last assessment:

Student Confidence Over Time

I also asked how much control students thought they had over their success in the simulation (possible responses ranged from “I control my destiny in the simulation” to “I do not control my destiny in the simulation at all”). The results were similar – a sharp decline between the first and second assessments, followed by a rebound and convergence between the before and after scores.

My findings from the 2008/2009 comparison will appear in a 2012 issue of Journal of Political Science Education. If you’d like a copy of the Teaching and Learning Conference paper that the article is based on, please contact me.

This semester I’m teaching an honors section again, so I’m hoping to be avoid the apples-oranges problem by comparing exam scores from this semester with those from Fall 2008.

Even if my current students enjoy the simulation as much as the Fall 2009 students did, I’m questioning whether the exercise is worth the time and effort. In addition to the in-class time that the simulation eats up, I have to monitor the blogs (my inbox explodes), and students have technical problems that I can’t solve. It would be a lot more convenient if web apps like “Angry Birds” existed for instructional simulations.

If exam scores and other indicators show that the simulation has a beneficial effect on student performance, then I might continue to use this simulation. If there’s no demonstrable benefit, then I probably will not.