The coming fall semester marks the second iteration of my “new” course on economic development and environmental politics. In the spirit of continuous improvement, I am making more changes. The complete original series of posts on how I built the course is here.
I am reducing my learning objectives slightly by eliminating an assignment on market externalities. I might return to the topic in the future, but last year I was not able to do it justice. Given the overall architecture of the course, it fell into the category of “what students don’t absolutely need.” I can keep it in my back pocket as something I can always lecture about at an appropriate time.
I am keeping the meta-prompts for assignments because, in my opinion, they serve as cues to students about the learning objectives. I don’t have any direct evidence that the meta-prompts actually register in students’ minds, but they might help.
As previously discussed, in-class quizzes did not work well. Students performed poorly on them, they consumed an excessive amount of classroom time, and they were a pain for me to grade. This time the quizzes will be timed at ten minutes, reside on our Canvas LMS, and consist of machine-graded multiple choice questions. I’ll have immediate feedback on students’ understanding and will be able to revisit subjects as needed. Each quiz is scheduled for the class after the corresponding learning objective has concluded.
In my next post, I’ll discuss changes to the design thinking aspect of the course.
Today we have a
guest post from Susan Allen, associate professor of political science at the
University of Mississippi. She can be contacted at shallen [at] olemiss [dot] edu.
This semester I
am teaching a course on gender and international politics for the first time. The
first half of the course examines gender and representation, while the second
half explores gender in international politics. I aimed to bridge these two
sections with a simulation that I created on child marriage—something currently
on the agenda of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and a
likely topic at the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against
Women (CEDAW) this summer.
Students have been working in groups by regions of
the world to expand their knowledge base beyond
their own experiences. For the simulation, they became spokespersons for
their designated regions. As additional preparation, students read about CEDAW and
an excerpt from Women, Politics, and Power by Paxton and Hughes. I did
not inform them beforehand of the particular issue that would be discussed as
part of the simulation, other than to say that the activity would resemble a communication from CEDAW.
During the simulation’s first class session, students met in their
regional groups to research child marriage, making use of GirlsNotBrides.org.
Each group formulated a regional proposal for what it would
like the full class to discuss in the next two sessions. During these classes, a graduate student and I questioned students about
their proposals to ensure they remained faithful to their roles. The
ultimate objective was to collectively produce a single proposal to be
presented at the upcoming CEDAW.
Based on post-simulation debriefing papers, students had mixed feelings
about how little official private information was they
received prior to negotiations and how much they had to rely on their own
research to formulate a regional proposal. Perhaps as a result, discussion on
the first day was a little slow to develop and their proposals were not as well
fleshed out as I expected. On the second day, the majority of the students participated
enthusiastically (and perhaps chaotically).
One of the most interesting things about this experience for the students
was that they failed to come to an agreement in the time
allotted. Many of them were concerned that they had “failed” the activity. When
we debriefed the following week in class after they had written their papers, many
of the students offered interesting insights about the difficulty of creating a
proposal on something that they as American
college students thought was an “easy” issue. The experience highlighted some
of the practical challenges of creating laws that codify gender
Next time, I might provide students with slightly more structured
guidelines, but I don’t think I’ll do anything to make it easier
for the students to create a unified proposal. I think the challenge and
failure were essential parts of the value of the activity.
Today we have a guest post by Matteo Perlini. He can be contacted at matteoperlini [at] gmail [dot] com.
In a post from August of last year, Nathan Alexander Sears wrote about a simple game he designed that teaches students about IR theory. Based on Sears’s idea, I created “Perpetual Anarchy,” a two-player game where the goal is to maximize the wealth of one’s state. Unlike Sears’s game, mine does not eliminate players or involve diplomacy.
Each state must choose an action every turn: defense, attack or
production. The choice of attack starts a war with the other state. Defense
allows a player to better resist an attack by the opposing player. Production
is an entirely peaceful action that helps increase wealth. The game has weak
intransitive preference orderings: it is usually preferred (but not always!) to
play defense against attack, attack against production, production against
Defense vs. attack: as in the real world, defending is easier than
attacking, so the defender has a bonus in the war (higher probability to win
the war), but attacker must pay reputation costs for her belligerence.
Attack vs. production: attacker has a bonus in the war (higher
probability to win the war) but she must pay reputation costs for her
belligerence. By contrast, if the producer wins, she earns points without reputation
Production vs. defense: both states score, but only the defending state
has reputation costs, so the producer generally scores more.
The game is not strictly intransitive because the final outcome depends
also on the second strategic level.
Second Strategic Level
States must choose how to allocate their budget across two dimensions: war/peace and long-term/short-term. A player must decide whether to give more prominence to one of the following strategies:
Short-term war: armament allocation helps the player win an urgent war,
but the player will not use this allocation in the future.
Short-term peace: wealth allocation helps a player score points during
Long-term war: military technology allocation does not increase the
likelihood of winning an actual war, but increases marginally the player’s military
Long-term peace: civilian technology allocation does not increase the actual
points scored by a player, but increases marginally the player’s production efficacy
As an example, a player who chooses a short-term war strategy will be more likely to win if a war occurs and will also prevent the opponent from capitalizing on long-term strategies, because the opponent loses any technology allocations in that turn.
Today we have a guest post by Lt Col James “Pigeon” Fielder, USAF, Associate Professor of Political Science at The U.S. Air Force Academy. He can be reached at http://www.jdfielder.com.
Interested in designing a classroom game, but have no idea where to start? Being a fan of classroom games, I developed this checklist to help me think through my own designs. The only checklist items that I think are absolutely necessary are the objective and win conditions, as both are crucial for identifying the concepts you are measuring and providing students with clear and achievable goals. Other checklist items are dependent on your design. For example, if your game is not map-based, then a map and scale are not required, but a game with many pieces likely needs a detailed inventory. Game on!
Win Conditions: how the game ends. Can be competitive (zero-sum) or cooperative (non-zero sum). Games in which all teams can win are still challenging.
Objective: what is the specific goal of your game?
Number of Players: helps the designer conceptualize the game size and boundaries.
Level of Detail: abstract to elaborate setting. Increased detail improves conceptual accuracy, but requires significantly more time to develop and play. Not that abstract games are necessarily easier to design!
Inventory: all required pieces and parts to play the game. Be exhaustive, even down to number of spare rulebooks and pencils.
Map or Board: visual display of the gameplay area.
Scale: if the game requires length and volume measurement. Example: each hex or square equals 1/6 of a mile.
Course of Play: every step for running a game from start to finish. This will be the most detailed portion of the game.
Combat Resolution: determining outcome of players cooperating or conflicting during the course of play.
Rewards and Punishments: mechanisms for players to advance or regress based on performance.
Measurement: scoring the game. Can be qualitative (e.g. area of controlled space) or quantitative (number of points).
Arbitration: handling rule and player disputes.
Feedback: discussing game outcomes and recommended game improvements.
Glossary: define key terms.
Asal, Victor. “Playing Games with International Relations,” International Studies Perspectives, Vol. 6, No. 3 (2006): 359-373.
Dunnigan, James. Wargames Handbook, Third Edition: How to Play and Design Commercial and Professional Wargames. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2000.
Macklin, Colleen, and John Sharp. Games, Design and Play: A Detailed Approach to Iterative Game Design. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley Professional, 2016.
Sabin, Philip. Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games. New York, Continuum, 2012.
More final thoughts on my heavily-revised course on development from last semester: as explained in Parts 4 through 6 below, I included a scaffolded series of assignments on design thinking through SCAMPER, a method for creative problem-solving. In a debriefing discussion on the last day of class, one student expressed frustration that the game she and her team had built was not graded. I only graded how well students had written their evaluations of other teams’ games.
I thought this was a fair point, and said so. But my past use of peer review of student-designed games had proven to be useless — teams simply gave other teams’ games full marks regardless of the games’ actual quality. And I really did not want to get involved in the minutiae of assessing the quality of all the games that students had created.
Then I thought of applying the last phase of design thinking — experimentation and iteration — to the problem at hand, and this plan came to mind:
Compress teaching about design thinking and the related preparatory assignments into a shorter period of time (e.g., first half of the semester).
Teams of student design games.
Each team plays and evaluates a game created by another team.
I provide the evaluations of each game to its creators.
Each team then uses the evaluations as feedback to improve the design of its game.
There is a second, final round of game play. This time each team scores the other team’s game against a rubric. The rubric focuses on how well the second version of the game incorporated the feedback on the initial design.
This sequence might satisfy students’ expectation that everything they do must be graded.
Links to the original series on redesigning this course:
A few years ago, I had a student who kept walking out of class.
He did this because he’d decided that, in several of the various negotiation scenarios into which I had placed him, his optimal strategy was to literally walk away from the table.
During the semester, he did this about four times, usually to snippy comments from his classmates.
We talked about it a fair bit, as a group, because I felt it was really useful to unpack the merits and demerits of this approach, which I’d not seen before (or since, for that matter).
I was remembering this case the other day, as my current group of negotiation students once again decided to hold a closed door meeting of principals, kicking out most of the class to the corridor outside.
As one student noted in the debrief: “why does this keep happening? Every time it does, it just really alienates people and makes it harder to reach an agreement”.
And that’s my question here: how and why do cohorts get stuck in patterns of behaviour?
This post was inspired by a story in The New York Times: a U.S. Marine discovered his daughters reading a “choose your own adventure” book with a chapter about a battle in Afghanistan in which he actually fought. He thought the book presented a superficial view of war and wrote an editorial on the subject. The book’s publisher decided to stop selling it and halt production of four other similar titles.
The story got me thinking about my own teaching. I often place students in simulated environments that in real life are horrendous — such as genocide, civil war, and natural disasters.* I do this because I believe it does a better job than just reading a text at getting students invested in the subject and developing a less-biased understanding of others. In the past these simulations have even included the digital version of choose your own adventure books.
Yet I probably don’t pay enough attention to the risk that these exercises can come across as trite games completely divorced from reality. On the one hand, I teach undergraduates who in many cases have lived a materially comfortable life within a psychologically-comfortable bubble. Their world is diametrically opposed to the one that I am hoping they are learning about, and that probably gives them far less of an ability to empathize than I would like. On the other hand, my graduate courses are filled with active and former military personnel. Many of them have direct experience thinking through situations that my simulations attempt to artificially replicate.
Perhaps I should be asking students “Did this simulation respect reality in a way that contributed to your learning?”
*Inside Disaster: Haiti, the death of which I reported in 2015, has apparently been resurrected via subscription-only access. While its history demonstrates the inherent problems of online simulations, I strongly recommend this product.
I’m doing some training on negotiation in Belgium this week, building on what the organisers imagine is my expertise in this subject and Brexit.
Of course, when I said ‘yes’ to the offer six months ago, I had to hedge against making too many promises that reality might break all too obviously.
What I’d not banked on was finding myself just a day or two beforehand still not being sure what might happen by the time I found myself in front of the group.
With that in mind, I made a little negotiation exercise that tackles Brexit, but at a distance, to protect against the vagueries of it all. The text of the scenario is below and you’re welcome to comment on, and use, it as you see fit.
After last week’s class discussion about participation, I decided to run an exercise that made it really easy to show the marginal benefit of preparation.
I told students to prepare for a meeting about putting together an agenda for another negotiation, and gave them all specific roles, plus some rules of procedure.
(For those who are looking for Brexit sims, this was a Council working group, putting together an agenda for the Commission to take to the UK to discuss the Political Declaration).
Because it was about formulating an agenda, I hoped that students would see they didn’t need to get too deeply into substantive positions, as long as they could frame the general areas to be covered.
Plus, but giving clear roles and rules, I incentivised everyone to push out their own draft agendas prior to the meeting. In so doing, I hoped they’d see that even a small amount of preparation could have big effects.
(for those benighted souls unfamiliar with Eurovision, the title’s from a song, so it’s fine. Really)
I ran into a bit of roadblock yesterday in class.
The students had been undertaking a negotiation on drawing up a joint statement by a number of groups and we were talking through some of the debriefing points.
I suggested that they’d taken things much as they came, whereas if they’d come with an agenda, or some text, had pushed to become chair or rapporteur, or generally had been more forceful, then they’d have been much more successful in securing what they wanted to achieve.
This produced, well if not quite uproar then at least debate.
Various individuals argued that given the dynamic of the group, anyone who came in with A Plan would risk marginalising themselves for the rest of the module, as others would be resentful to them.
It was pointed out that they’d managed to produce a text, so why do things differently?
And they also highlighted that they had other modules to study for, so there was a limit to how much time they would or could put into preparing, not least because of the way I assess.
That assessment is based on self-reflective writing, so I’m not judging their ‘success’ in negotiating per se,
The discussion was a useful one, at least for me.
The root of it all largely appeared to come down to students taking my comments as a striving for perfection, rather than as a relativistic statement.
As we continued to talk, I tried to underline that I wasn’t asking that everyone did everything, but rather that doing a bit more than others would produce much of the same effect.
To take the example from the session, one student became the effective chair because they’d happened to say something at the outset of the session. It required no additional preparation, and because that individual also offered to write up the statement, they gained huge influence over the outcome.
Just a little bit
And this is perhaps the point for the rest of us.
There’s a tension in what we teach our students between the notional perfection of How Things Should Be and How To Do Better Than We Are Now.
That’s probably most pronounced in questions of methodology: how systematically and perfectly should one pursue a methodological approach and where can one cut corners (and to what cost)?
But it’s true of all our work. I’ve seen enough theory to know that there are almost endless levels of refinement of theoretical positions to know that perfection is never truly possible in a practical setting.
With that in mind, perhaps we have to ask ourselves how we tackle this tension in our classes. To counsel perfection is one thing, but do we not then set up students for some level of failure? But if we don’t strive to do the best we can, do we risk not helping students to maximise their potential and their practice?
The answers to these questions will vary from place to place, but a starting point has to be an understanding of what we aim to achieve with our students.
In my case, I’m going into the coming sessions with some new ideas to help draw students more into the kind of logic that I discussed with them, to see if that addresses the dilemma.
And if it does, then we’ll move onto the next line of the song: “A little bit more”.