20 Minute Legislature

I’m a big fan of the twenty minute simulation.  One of the big hurdles to using sims in the classroom is the perception that they take a lot of preparation on the part of the professor and a lot of class time to do properly. But sims do not need to be a big production in order to be successful.

Take for example my 20 Minute Legislature, an adaptation of an exercise found in the endlessly useful Instructor’s Manual for Ginsberg, Lowi, and Weir’s We the People.  I should note that I don’t use their text, but this is the best guide I’ve found in terms of suggesting discussion questions and activities.  Its a great go to reference, and deserves its own post.

Basically I give students five categories for spending a $100 billion national budget: Education, Transportation, Health and Welfare, Environmental Protection, and Defense.  They must budget each of these areas, and cannot give equal amounts to each.  They have 2 minutes to do so as individuals, and then based on their ranking of each area, I assign them to ‘committees’ which then have three minutes to come up with a committee budget for the legislature to consider.  Proposed budgets get placed on the board.  The students then have five minutes to persuade others to vote for their budget bill, making whatever promises and exchanges they please.  The final vote is held, and then we debrief for the last 7 minutes or so.

I’ve tried this a couple of times with good success.  I served as the Rules Committee (and the President) and mandated that there were no amendments allowed, that no one could vote for their own bill (in unequally sized groups this was important), and that only one bill could pass.  I also determined the order the bills were discussed.  I have played with the incentives involved, offering extra credit to the winning bill’s team and to the individual who’s personal budget most closely matches the budget that passes.  These rules and incentives do matter–the last time I tried this game, no bills passed.

Ultimately whether someone wins or loses is irrelevant.  The game is a quick and interactive way for students to understand the tradeoffs in budgeting, the role of committees in the legislative process, log rolling, and the influence of self-interest (as the authors predict, education always receives the most money).  Students can see that the process is messy and that what they consider to be good bills still need votes in order to pass. As a bonus, you can also compare their budgets with the actual discretionary budget of the US.

The exercise provides a great reference point throughout discussions of Congress and general discussions of politics as “who gets what, when and how” (as the authors note).  It works particularly well at the start of the lesson on Congress, and while I used it in a class of 25 could be adapted for larger and smaller groups relatively easily.

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.

Best of Both Worlds Model at APSA

We make our students work in groups to learn from each other right?

Michael Brintnall has done amazing things for the APSA conference in a way that few appear to realize. There are, in fact, working groups at APSA, and although I was uncertain what might be helpful about attending one…I quickly learned.

“Understanding Terrorist Change” was the working group to which I assigned myself. At first we stood around, admittedly some of us had other papers written, and were somewhat uncertain as to what exactly we needed to do.

Our moderator treated the first meeting like a social. He told us to go out and listen, talk, and report back on the last day about what we saw and heard. Then we ended the formal part of the meeting. And the magic began…..We began to talk, and talk, and talk. What we found in our first meeting, was a vast spectrum of scholars who had expertise or curiosity for some part of thinking about the title.

In our second meeting we managed to synthesize the panels we all observed and in doing so capitalized on the multiple eyes and ears in the rooms.  Rather than having to pick and choose what I might find interesting, we got to distill what was being presented at all the APSA panels concerning terrorism.

From here we talked more.  We all became excited about the collaboration and contributions each member had to offer. We resolved to create an edited volume of papers that celebrated the interdisciplinarity, the vast array of perspectives, and approaches. Moreover we agreed that our moderator would assign us a set of definitions from which to begin our work. (Please do this, it will help create a cohesive project)

In short, something actually productive, collaborative, and important came out of the APSA working group.

More importantly, also in the room were professors of classes on terrorism, seeking to bring home the insights generated from the working group.  They were tasked with developing syllabi that rest on the forefront of of research, rather than exemplifying the coattails of a dusty old literature.

The working group.  What a novel idea…. It seems that teaching has taught us once again, how to learn from one another and it took Michael Britnall to show us that.

Next year, make a working group, or join one. It will make your APSA worth it.

Putting APSA ideas into practice

One of the APSA panels I attended was the “Unique Approaches to Teaching Political Science” panel and there were some neat ideas there I wanted to share.

Patrick McGovern of Buffalo State College presented his department’s approach to teaching introduction to political science in “Teaching Res Publica and Individual Rights in the First-Year Political Science Course,” coauthored by Laurie Ann Buonanno.  (As an aside, why is it that we never have catchy names for our pedagogy papers?). The standout details on this course were that it was an intro for majors only and is grounded in 3 texts: Joseph Ellis’ American Creation; Anthony Lewis’ Gideon’s Trumpet; and Larry Diamond’s Spirit of Democracy.  The premise of the class is the push and pull between individual and community.  I liked this idea–my own intro to politics course is an elective aimed at non-majors and focuses on the need for and role of government but uses film and fiction to explore the ideas– and it made me wonder how many departments have a core ‘intro to politics’ class for their majors, and whether this is a desirable thing.  Recently I found myself explaining to students about the sub-fields of polisci, and faced a number of blank looks when I explained why American politics is its own field and considered the gateway to the major.

McGovern did give a shout out to IdeaLog, which has a good quiz to help students see where they stand ideologically. I prefer the OK Cupid Politics Test, but that’s because students are alternatively amused and horrified when they find out they share their politics with Darth Vader or Stalin.

The other two papers–“Engaging Students in the Classroom: How Can I Know What I Think Until I See What I Draw” from John Hogan and Paul Donnelly at the Dublin Institute of Technology and “Engaging Student’s Creativity on Exams: Writing Political Science Poetry” by Natalie Jackson of the University of Oklahoma and Elizabeth Wheat of Western Michigan University–dealt with using creative arts to engage students.  Hogan and Donnelly start off their first class of the semester with asking students to first draw the answer to the question ‘what is Irish politics?” and afterward, explain their drawing, first in writing, then in groups, and then in wider discussion.  The stated goal is to help students master critical self-reflection and create space to examine their existing knowledge and assumptions.  The Jackson and Wheat presentation discussed using poetry as an extra credit device on exams, which seems like a neat idea but ultimately I don’t really see the pedagogical value in it.  I decided to try it out immediately on a quiz in my US politics class last night and while the entries were amusing, I remain unconvinced that this adds to my student’s learning in any way.  If we want to achieve the sociologist goal of ‘diversity of voice’, then it should be in the form of a more extensive project than a simple extra credit assignment.

 

APSA Thoughts

I have a love and hate relationship with APSA, but one thing I like is that it kicks off the year. I always come home with more energy to work.  Tomorrow I’ll be posting about some of the active learning ideas I encountered at panels, but today I’m going to take a time out to talk briefly about a disturbing trends that I saw and would love to discuss in the comments.

Panels are DEPRESSING.  Its rare that I leave a panel feeling happy that I attended instead of just downloading the papers on my own time.  There are plenty of reasons for this, but I think the most prominent one is that our format for exchanging knowledge at conferences is fundamentally flawed.  All the research that we know about how people learn best, and our preferred method is to have a group of individuals talk at the audience and each other for an hour and a half and then (if we are lucky!) allow for questions and dialogue with the audience.  I wish I could say that the teaching and learning sections did better, but one of these panels was the worst offender, with only ten minutes left for questions, and most of those more technical ‘how-do-I-do-this’ type questions instead of genuine discussion.

I much prefer the working group model of ECPR’s joint sessions, round-table style conversations, or the track method at TLC.  I would love to see us just throw out the rulebook, look up from our own papers, and talk to each other.  Perhaps that’s wishful thinking, but I do want to think through some other models that would really allow us to engage with each other and perhaps, even–dare I say it?–teach each other about our findings.

Edited to add: Nina posted about the working group model at APSA which also sounds like a better method and one that could be applied more broadly.

 

Floods and Famines

The march of Hurricane Irene up the East Coast reminded me of how difficult it is to get students to connect recent events with abstract concepts, especially when students lack direct experience. In students’ thinking, fate explains all. Floods, famines, and wars “just happen.” Somalia is desperately poor and violent because it’s Somalia. Students will donate money or time to a charity because they think it’s a good thing to do, but they don’t examine the role of economic or political institutions (or the lack thereof) in creating human suffering. So for lack of a better term, here is what I call the Hurricane Game:

Tell students to write down, in the form of a list, everything that they do in a typical day. Then say that a hurricane has blown through the night before while they were asleep. Select a student to begin reciting his or her list. The first item will probably be something like “wake up.” Ask the student “do you usually wake up because of an alarm clock?” If the answer is yes, respond with “there’s no electricity, you’re alarm clock didn’t ring, you’re awake, but you don’t know what time it is. What do you do next?” Go through a few more items in the student’s list in a similar fashion — you can remove heat, piped water, refrigerated food, and electronic financial transactions as needed. Students will rapidly find themselves at a loss for what to do, and at point they can form small groups to strategize if they wish. You may even wish to inject a highly contagious disease or zombies into the equation.

Getting students to realize how much of their lives are on autopilot can lead to discussions of everything from social contract theory to markets to public administration. For example, why are there emergency exits and who mandates them? What happens if this doesn’t happen? Why do some people know how to grow food but others don’t? Why do we assume food we haven’t grown ourselves is safe to eat? Why does that food go from a farm to our kitchen table? What happens if someone tries to take that food and there is no enforceable body of law prohibiting theft?

A good book that gives a real-world example of some of these questions is Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers.

Archaeology

Though I suspect that this activity is applicable much more broadly than an introduction to methods class, next week I will be trying an exercise I call the Archaeologist’s Quandary.

Class size : 10-50 students

Time required: 30 minutes at the end of one class bridging to the beginning of a second class.

Purpose: Ice Breaker that helps students think critically about interpretation and facts.

Break class into several small groups, likely 4-5 groups ( will be trying this next week so I will let you know how it goes).

Supplies: Ideally, a couple sets of markers and one big sheet of paper for each group.

Instructions: Tell each group to create an imaginary civilization, to imagine themselves within it….to think about every aspect of how those people lived and governed.  Then, have them imagine their civilization was wiped out and is being rediscovered in an archaeologist’s dig. Have them draw a map of the dig site and all the artifacts that the researchers will find.  Give the students 20 minutes to plan and develop their dig site. Assign them homework to continue working on the map and the details of each artifact.

At the beginning of the next period, have the students trade their maps for someone else’s map. Now ask each group to study the new map very closely.  Ask them to develop a narrative of what that map represents and what each of those artifacts means.

Each group will present their narrative of the other group’s dig site.  Then the original groups provide their original meanings.

Takeaways: It is my hope that this lesson gets my students thinking carefully about the kinds of ways we try to represent the social world, the ways in which artifacts can be interpreted differently, and discuss ways in which we need to talk to the original society members in order to get clarification.  This is first and foremost a way to get a foot in the door about qualitative methods, but also a way to think about research and interpretation in an exercise that helps the students become familiar with each other while being creative.

Although the exercise may be more fun than functional, its higher points about interpretation should stick with the students as they struggle with methods concepts.

Blog-based Simulations

Two years ago I created a role-play simulation for an undergraduate international relations course. Though the simulation includes an in-class component, much of the action occurs on this blog. Feel free to borrow what I’ve created — just please credit me and my employer in the process. A few thoughts on using simulations like this:

Students are increasingly unfamiliar with blogging. Not only do I need to include a training session in how to use the blog for the simulation, I need to discuss the underlying premise of blogging itself. Though students may be regularly reading blog-style publications, social networking and mobile device apps have eclipsed blogs in their collective unconscious.

A blog should have the capability of delivering real-time updates to students’ preferred means of communication. While I do not necessarily need to know that Zachary replied to Kaitlyn’s latest post with “U rock grrl ha ha,” a torrent of messages appearing on students’ smartphones helps keep the simulation at the top of their screens and at the forefront of their minds outside of class.

The instructor must emphasize to students that any communication conducted outside of the blog will not be graded and, if done in lieu of the blog, will harm a student’s grade. This goes for texting, email, and face-to-face meetings. I tell students that I’ve created the blog to be their online workspace, and it’s their responsibility to use it.

Last item, which applies generally to all team-oriented simulations: individual writing assignments prevent free riders. Student who do a task initially on their own will be less likely to think “group project” when doing the same task later on with others.

The Citizenship Test: Confronting Citizenship in the US Politics Classroom

Ninety percent of my incoming students in my introduction to American Politics course cannot pass the US Citizenship test.  This may not surprise those of us who teach it, but it sure surprises them, and is therefore one of my favorite exercises to use in class.

On the first day of class, I hand out an ‘Ungraded Pre-test’ of ten questions—of course, unbeknownst to them, this is an actual citizenship test. I tell them it is simply a way for me to know where they stand as the course starts so that I can keep the material at an appropriate level. They turn it in, and we say nothing more about it until the second class.  At that point I hand back the test—as a bonus, this is a great chance to practice their names—and we go over it together.  I have them raise their hands to indicate who got ten, nine, eight right, noting those who answered six or more correctly, but still say nothing about the actual purpose of the quiz.

I then start a conversation about citizenship, currently by discussing the ongoing Birther movement’s accusations against Barack Obama and the Arizona immigration laws.  We talk about who should be allowed to be a citizen, and what the rights and responsibilities of a citizen should be.  It is only after they have voiced their existing views that I reveal that most of them (and it is always more than 80%) failed the citizenship test.  They are usually some mixture of surprised, horrified, and embarrassed at this revelation, but it promotes very open and self-reflective discussion of immigration and the naturalization process, particularly when we compare US policy to those of countries that require military service of their citizens.

As a bonus, at the end of the semester I give them the test again (with 10 new questions), and usually no more than 10% fail—giving the students a sense of accomplishment, and me some direct evidence of learning.

The official US citizenship test questions can be found at http://www.uscis.gov/USCIS/Office%20of%20Citizenship/Citizenship%20Resource%20Center%20Site/Publications/100q.pdf

More on Solving the Reading Problem

Many of us are familiar with the think-pair-share exercise in which a class is given a question and, after a short period of time to think about it, students pair up to discuss their answers. Two downsides to think-pair-share: students will state opinions instead of referencing readings unless questions are carefully worded, and students are not writing.

I run an exercise that combines elements of think-pair-share and Amanda’s weekly critique method.  Each reading assignment is accompanied by an argumentative (why rather than what or when) question. Students answer a question before its corresponding reading is due to be covered in class. Answers must incorporate specifics from the reading assignment, are limited to one-half to a full page in length, and contain proper citations. Grading is on a 0 to 2 point basis and is very quick. Online submission of the answers prevents the “my printer didn’t work” excuse. Typically I create a dozen questions sprinkled throughout the semester and students have to answer ten of them for 20-30 percent of their final grade.

In class, I divide students into groups of four. Each student quickly reports to his or her group on the written answer he or she submitted before class. Each group then has a few minutes to reach a consensus that it can present orally to the rest of the class. At the beginning of the semester, I specify different roles for each student in a group — taking notes, keeping time, presenting the consensus — but students learn the routine very quickly. I’ll randomly select a few groups to present answers that often conflict with each other, which launches discussion for the entire class.

Benefits of this method: students are forced to intellectually engage with the readings outside of class, before hearing me lecture, and they have repeated opportunities to practice constructing evidence-based arguments. I get to lecture less, students participate meaningfully, and class is more interesting for everyone.