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).

Student-Designed Review Games

As final exams approach, I thought I would share an excellent way to get your students to review for their exams.

Its not uncommon to use review games like jeopardy or trivial pursuit as a way of helping students in introductory courses to prepare for their exams.  A colleague of mine takes it to the next level though, and has the students design the review games themselves.  She puts them into small groups and gives them a class period of 1h20 to design the games.  Each group is assigned a chapter or two from the text and the associated material, and is told to design a 20 minute game for the class to play to review that material.  The group with the most creative game is awarded extra credit on the exam.

Some examples of the games they have played include:

-A musical chairs style game, where a rubber chicken in a bikini is thrown around while the music plays, and the person holding the chicken when the music stops has to answer a review question.

-‘Pin the UN on the Geneva”-students blindly try to pin a small model of the United Nations on a map of Europe; the country they land on (if not Switzerland, which presumably earns them a pass) determines the category of question they are asked.

-The Fly Swatter game–answers are posted on post its on the board; the class is divided into teams with a representative from each team at the board with a fly swatter.  When the question is asked, the first person to swat the correct answer wins the points.

-“Soaking Cotton Balls”–this messy game involved wet cotton balls that would be thrown at a dartboard, which determined the number of points awarded for a correct answer.

Variations on standards such as jeopardy, candyland, and trivial pursuit are also common, but the above examples show the creativity the students demonstrate.

There are lots of advantages to this system.  First, it makes the students responsible for their own review.  In preparing their game and the questions for it, they will in fact be studying for the exam.  Second, it makes the learning and reviewing process itself fun, which means that students will be more engaged in the review process during the games themselves. It ends the term (or provides a nice breather midway through) on a fun note. Finally, it saves a lot of work for the instructor, who might otherwise be preparing for and leading the review.

The Pedagogical Utility of Half Credit

I structure most of my courses around what I call reading responses — short writing assignments on journal articles that students complete outside of class. These assignments fulfill several objectives:

  • Students read, think, and write outside of class, making them better able to actively engage with ideas during class. As a consequence, I don’t have to lecture as much and the dynamic of the class moves away from me delivering facts while students try to memorize them.
  • Students are able to exercise a limited degree of choice, which increases their sense of ownership and investment in the course (I typically have about fifteen assignments but students are only expected to complete ten of them).
  • Students have repeated opportunities to practice constructing written arguments that contain evidence from “experts in the field.”

It’s easy for students to earn full credit on these assignments. They must be:

  • turned in on time (before class, via course management software),
  • present an argument that addresses the question,
  • contain specific, properly cited references to the assigned reading.

I do not allow rewrites on these assignments because the requirements are very simple and the responses are the basis for class discussion on the days that they are due. Invariably there are some students who cease including cited references to readings in their responses about three-quarters of the way through the semester. I suppose the practice of completing these assignments becomes so routine to them that they get lazy about how they construct their arguments. In these cases the students automatically earn half credit. Receiving a score of 50 percent on an assignment usually wakes them up and gets them back on track fairly quickly.

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.

Making the EU (a bit) simpler

A very recurrent comment from our students is that “the European Union is so complicated to understand”: and certainly, my impression is that colleagues across the sector rarely try to dispell this.  My opinion is simply that telling people something is complicated only puts up barriers to their understanding, so trying to develop a discourse about the ease of it all can only help.

With this in mind, I offer a small game that mimics many of the dynamics of Qualified Majority voting, as used in the Council of Ministers.  There are only ten players (although more can observe) and two issues, defined solely by numerical values.  However, the game does expose the various dimensions of power and the tension between individual and collective gains.  Playing it yesterday with students, we discussed how it was affected by their past behaviour in negotiations and about how the game would have run differently if there were several iterations and/or more opportunities for pay-offs (both of which would be simple to model in this set-up).  Certainly, it was rewarding to see how they managed to develop a negotiating framework that went well beyond the numbers on the sheet.

The game was purposed originally as a demonstration of the role of power in negotiations, but I’m going to be taking into my Intro to EU module in the spring, because I think it offers a different way into the subject and one that will help the students warm to it all, rather than shrink back in fear.

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 Many Rewards of Teaching

First, my apologies for my absence from ALPS.  A month of trips, administrative deadlines, illness, and conference preparation took their toll.  But fear not! I’m back and ready to talk teaching once again.

I was going to comment on a conversation I had with two groups of students regarding when they do and do not read their assigned texts; I also want to chat about the simulation Statecraft, using games like Diplomacy in IR, a conversation about teaching methods from ISA-MW, and course-long class projects.  So many blog posts, all of which justify my continued avoidance of grading papers!

But all of those ideas have to take a backseat to something wonderful that happened yesterday, just as I was questioning whether the onslaught of work was worth it.

I was just thinking about packing up and heading home when a student in my current class poked her head in and asked if she could talk to me.  I invited her in, assuming she had a question about the material for our class.  Instead, she says that she stopped by to say thank you.  She wanted to express her appreciation for me as a teacher–that she valued my style of teaching, the way I care about my students..and she gave me lovely card–a CARD!–with further thanks. How neat is that?!?!

In the research world, we get direct measures of our impact: through conference presentations, publishing, awards, and citation counts.  But in teaching, you may never know if you had an impact on a student.  They might take more classes with you, or they may switch their major, but how often do we get direct feedback that we made a difference in the life of a student?

It’s rare–or it has been for me–but I can tell you that this conversation yesterday is worth 10 APSR articles in my book.  It may not get me tenure, but it sure was life affirming.  Its 730 and I’ll be at work for hours yet, but the answer is certainly clear: Its definitely worth it.




Promoting reflection

One of the more interesting aspects that has emerged from this year’s running of my module on negotiating politics has been the problematic nature of reflection on the part of students.

At one level, reflection is front and centre for them, since their assessment is based entirely on a reflective piece they produce at the end of the module, on their experiences in class and its relation to theory and academic literature.  To bolster this, I have given them opportunities for formative work, and I discuss this aspect with them every single week.

And yet, at the end of each session I end up having discussions with students about what they are doing and why.  Yesterday’s class was structured around a disarmament game that I use to explore trust in negotiations: teams represent a provisional government, the national army and three factions.  The game also has a faction-of-a-faction, who were left at one side of the room and other teams could decide what to do with them, if anything.  For 90 minutes, this team just sat and watched, with only one team even trying to talk to them.  At the end of the game-play, we discussed what had happened and I pointed out that this team would have attacked everyone else if the agreement everyone else had reached was followed through.

I suggested to the students that simulations tend to be rather predictable, in that they usually only include what they need to, so if an ‘extra’ group appears, then it has a purpose, so non-engagement is probably not a good idea.  Likewise, when I had asked them some weeks ago to set up Twitter accounts for the session on communication, no one had apparently thought through why I might have asked them to do this.

I left them with the observation that next week’s game, on power, will last exactly 30 minutes: as we’ll see, in this case it’s almost impossible to work out why that information is important, but I hope someone will come and talk to me about it.  And if they don’t, then perhaps we’ll have another learning moment.

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.