Virtual Public Policy Simulation on Tackling Covid-19

Today we have a guest post from Daniela Irrera, associate professor of International Relations and Global Civil Society at the Department of Political and Social Sciences of the University of Catania. She can be reached at dirrera [at] unict [dot] it.

During Italy’s pandemic-induced lockdown, I found myself having to teach an entirely virtual course on European foreign policy, part of the MA programme on Global Politics and Euro-Mediterranean Relations (GLOPEM)  at the University of Catania. I usually include simulations in my courses, and given the policy implications of the Covid-19 outbreak, I decided to create Tackling Covid-19 in a Global Perspective—a simulated emergency G20 meeting in Geneva, called to plan a global strategy for managing the pandemic’s health, political, social, and economic effects. Students represented panels of experts for the following policy areas: public health emergency; economic consequences; infrastructure and human mobility; impact on refugees, migrants and non-nationals; and impact on the conflict in Syria.

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The Brand (and Bias) Challenge

Today we have a guest post from Andre Audette of the Department of Political Science at Monmouth College. He can be contacted at aaudette [at] monmouthcollege [dot] edu.

When the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly pushed my classes online, I had to scramble to find ways to incorporate active learning into my online instruction. A unit on ethnocentrism, racism, and religious intolerance in my Religion and Politics course was particularly challenging—a fraught subject even with careful planning for in-person classes, but potentially even more divisive in our current internet culture. I decided to give students a unique “brand challenge.”

Posing it to my students as a replacement for the cancelled March Madness basketball tournament, I took an empty “Sweet 16” bracket and filled it in with classic brand competitions: Coke vs. Pepsi, Apple vs. Microsoft, Netflix vs. Disney+, etc. I asked students to comment in a discussion forum about which of their preferred brands should advance to the next round and why. I accompanied this with a video of myself in a sports hoodie offering brief commentary on each of the “matches.”

After a few days of discussion, the “Elite 8” round got even more interesting with pairings like Ford vs. Kate Middleton, Taco Bell vs. Google Chrome, and Target vs. Netflix. Student comments started centering on which brands were “more American” or have better values or were most familiar and useful to them.

By the time we got to the theoretical discussion of ethnocentrism, we had a personal, real-life example of how the students in my class divide their consumer choices into in-groups and out-groups. A similar attraction or aversion to consumer brands, I argued, applies to our interactions with other social groups. Over time, we learn to divide the world into different groups of people (“Coke people” vs. “Pepsi people”), psychologically attach ourselves to our chosen groups, and defend those groups, even when our rationale for doing so is limited or based on bias or stereotypes.

From my vantage point, this activity served the dual purpose of engaging students while preparing them for the difficult conversations about tolerance to come. We were then able to have meaningful discussions about why some religious groups are not represented in American politics, how perceived religious threat affects peoples’ choices, and how religious “brands” compete in the religious marketplace. I believe that in important part of preparing students to have these conversations is allowing them to experience some of the psychology and emotions that drive our political and social behaviors.

Early empirical studies in American politics were derived from the disciplines of advertising and marketing. The brand challenge activity draws from this tradition and could work well to teach about a variety of social identities and psychological processes. For example, it may help students think about models of partisanship and how individuals interact with party brands. It could also be a useful activity for encouraging students to think about how politics affects our lifestyle choices and the extent to which politics exists in our everyday lives.

Diversifying the Discussion: The Classic Debate Exercise for Today’s Diverse Youth

Today we have a guest post from Kirstie Lynn Dobbs, lecturer in the political science and public policy department at Merrimack College. She can be reached at dobbsk [at] merrimack [dot] edu.

As Generation Z—born after 1996—emerges as the most racially and ethnically diverse cohort in America’s history, its members are likely to find themselves engaging with people who possess contrasting opinions. Amplifying the classic debate exercise to strategically include students with vastly different backgrounds serves as an opportunity to socialize college students into being receptive of alternative viewpoints. I found this to be true in my introduction to U.S. politics course at Merrimack College.

Two of my U.S. politics courses are with students in the Early College program at Merrimack. These students are predominantly students of color from immigrant communities and tend to identify as strong Democrats with extremely liberal ideals. My full-time Merrimack students are mostly non-Hispanic whites from the New England area. These students identify mostly as Republican and lean moderate to conservative. These two groups have dramatically different perspectives, ideals, and life experiences that shape their political beliefs.

I developed an exercise in which the Early College and full-time Merrimack students came together to research, form an argument, and debate a political issue. First, students participated in a pre-debate reflection on their perceptions of Democrats/liberals, Republicans/ conservatives, students at Lawrence Highschool (where Early College students are enrolled), and full-time Merrimack students. Next, the full-time Merrimack students joined my Early College courses. These extra classroom hours counted as experiential learning credit. I distributed students from both groups into teams and randomly assigned teams to a pro or con side of their chosen issue (such as legalizing marijuana, abortion, and immigration). Students had two classroom periods to research and form their argument and a third classroom period to debate.

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Teaching Foreign Policy (Online) With Model Diplomacy

Today we have a guest post by Vincent Druliolle, assistant profesor in the Department of International Relations, Universidad de Deusto, Bilbao, Spain. He can be contacted at vincent [dot] druliolle [at] deusto [dot] es.

Last September I joined a different university, which led to teaching two new modules. This past term I taught foreign policy for the first time and used Model Diplomacy by the Council of Foreign Relations. I had to shift from my initial plan of running Model Diplomacy in class because of Covid-19, but this did not overly worry me, and I was further encouraged by Charity Butcher’s recent post. Like her, I chose the ‘basic’ version of the simulation with a view to devoting only one two-hour class to the activity. I allocated each role to groups of four students, with each group writing a position memo, but I ran the simulation twice with half the class participating each time, so that I could divide each group into pairs. Four students per role is too much for an in-class simulation, and I thought that splitting each group into two was even more necessary for the online format.

I used Google Meet as a platform for the simulation without any technical glitches. Because each role was played by two students, I told the class to connect with their partners through Whatsapp or some other medium so that they could exchange opinions about the proposals put forward by the other actors. I also warned them that I wanted to listen to both members of each pair during the simulation. This worked well and participation was good overall. It was entertaining to see students on various parts of my screen using their mobile phones to debate with their partners while their classmates were speaking. At one point a student was caught speaking on an open mic, which is probably an important lesson to be learned.

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Challenges in Using Policy Briefs for Assessment

Today we have a guest post from Simon Lightfoot, Professor of Politics and the Faculty of Social Science’s Pro-Dean for Student Education, University of Leeds. He can be contacted at S [dot] J [dot] Lightfoot [at] leeds [dot] ac [dot] uk.

In recent article I reflected on my use of policy briefs as an assessment task on a final year module Politics of Aid. What surprised me as I was writing the article was how many expected and unexpected challenges arose because of decisions I had made in the design of the module.

I expected there to be some student concern about a relatively novel assessment task introduced in the final year. To counter that I encouraged at first and then made obligatory the submission of a draft. The unexpected challenge was that many students were unsure as to how the deal with drafts. There were always calls for more generic advice despite the fact that each student was able to get tailored individual feedback on their draft.

I thought that students would welcome individual feedback but overlooked the fact that personalised feedback can be specific and very personal. Just as academics bemoan the infamous reviewer 2 (who turns out to have a twitter feed dedicated to their special brand of reviews), students receive feedback in the same personalised way we do. It became clear that we need to ensure that students know how to use feedback if drafts are to be beneficial, and that students need to understand that revision of one’s writing is a central part of the research process.

The drafting/redrafting issue has grown in significance now that the policy brief is 100% of the module assessment. Though intended to reduce the assessment burden on students, the change just raised the stakes—it became a one strike assessment task, which caused some students to feel more pressured. At 1,500 words, the policy brief is very short compared to many other assessment tasks, yet it must demonstrate a high level of research, synthesis, and structure, which requires time. Convincing students to dedicate enough time to their writing proved to be another challenge. As Chagas-Bastos and Burges (2018) found, ‘it is consequently necessary to continuously emphasize the importance of revising and editing, actively encouraging students to deliberately think in terms of drafts’ if they are to produce good policy briefs.

Rethinking Remote Teaching for an Uncertain Fall

Today we have a guest post by Martin S. Edwards, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University. He can be reached at Martin [dot] Edwards [at] shu [dot] edu.

Faculty have certainly earned their down time this Summer, and that is certainly crucial. But the sad fact is for many of us, preparing for the Fall now becomes a heavier lift. We face the challenge of a semester that might start in person but revert to remote learning, or one that may be taught entirely remotely. The good news is that unlike the Spring, we now have ample lead time to get ready. It is important, then, to reflect on the lessons of the Great Remote Learning Experiment of Spring 2020.  Below are four thoughts to consider in preparing for a semester that may be marked by continued improvisation more than a return to normal.

Adding asynchronous learning. Some faculty tried to keep the number of changes to their spring classes down, running in-person sessions synchronously. The downside of this minimal course overhaul is that it can be a sure recipe for Zoom fatigue. It might be worth thinking about how to use asynchronous learning – like discussion boards – to the repertoire. This format extends class discussion outside of class time. In this manner, it can not only enliven the seminar format, but it also ensure that everyone has a chance to participate. 

Working with technology (and not against it). Some of my colleagues chose not to use Microsoft Teams, which the university supported, and used Zoom instead, which my university does not support. Test-driving different systems and finding one that that works organically with how you teach is essential. Take the extra time to make sure that the platform you use helps you do your best work. Take the time to get extra comfortable with it, just in case.

Accept that things won’t be the same (and that’s fine). One of my biggest challenges was realizing that I was not covering all the material in depth as in previous semesters, and that this was okay. I relied on news articles to jumpstart our conversations into the course material. Over the weeks, I realized this was an important way to demonstrate that our class work had real value in helping students make connections to what was going on in the world, and that if it meant that our coverage of the readings was more shallow, that was fine. The benefits of getting them engaged, and keeping them talking, as well as helping them to see the intrinsic value in their learning, far outweighed the costs.

Focus on student contact. Faculty faced a two-fold challenge this Spring. Not only did we need to learn a new technological toolkit, but we also had to deal with the traumas of having our students scattered and their lives disrupted. In the worst case (a continuation of remote learning into the fall) the challenge will be to build rapport with students we will not see in person. This will place a premium on making personal connections on the first day of class. The use of meta-cognitive reflections can be a useful tool to build these ties, and the attendance features in online meeting software can be used to reach out when students are missing class for additional follow-ups.

Game of Peace: A Conflict Resolution Simulation

Today we have a guest post from Daniela Irrera, associate professor of International Relations and Global Civil Society at the Department of Political and Social Sciences of the University of Catania. She can be reached at dirrera [at] unict [dot] it.

Teaching international relations is a very difficult task. Although I love interacting with my students, convincing them that theories and concepts are necessary for understanding current international events is not easy. To address this problem, I’ve been using a simulation on conflict resolution that I developed called Game of Peace. The outcome of this simulation is the creation of a sustainable peace plan, based on a power-sharing agreement and responses to side effects, like refugee management, human rights and minorities protection. I use this simulation in my Global Civil Society course, part of the MA programme on Global Politics and Euro-mediterranean Relations (GLOPEM), at the University of Catania.

Game of Peace is a face-to-face, theory-driven, role-based simulation that requires participants to settle a civil conflict through negotiations at a peace conference. It consists of several phases. One week prior the simulation, students receive a political scenario and detailed instructions, and are assigned specific roles. The conflicts are real and intractable, like Syria, the Donbass, Afghanistan, and Darfur. I split students into groups, corresponding to real political actors. They are asked to study the scenario, to get familiar with their groups and, in conformity with their assigned roles, identify a policy plan. One of the groups is a diplomatic mediator, the United Nations or the European Union representative, who is expected to facilitate contacts among political actors and promote their agreement.

After this preparatory period, the simulation itself last two rounds, distributed over two days. The first one is based on informal interactions among groups. Political actors can use all diplomatic tools, including secret diplomacy, whereas the mediator can use sanctions or conditionality to convince parties to identify common positions. Students are expected to play according to their roles.

The second round is a formal peace conference chaired by the mediator, usually lasting two hours, during which all political actors submit their positions. It ideally ends with the signature of an agreement (not necessarily sustainable, but in any case, showing some kind of commitment on the part of political actors involved in the conflict). I then hold a debriefing session.

In my experience, Game of Peace allows my students to learn how political concepts apply to real problems. The simulation also provides them with the opportunity to develop soft skills in persuasion and negotiation.

Institutional Design Exercise using Slack

Today we have a guest post from Keith A. Preble, Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Albany, SUNY. He can be reached at kpreble [at] albany [dot] edu.


Instructor should create a Slack workspace (or something comparable). The exercise below can work with a class/lecture of any size and requires minimal instructor involvement. I suggest dividing your class/lecture into groups of 6-8 students by creating private channels for each group on Slack. Instructors can review the interactions on Slack for grading, too.

Preparatory Work

None required. Students should have some understanding of international institutions/organizations.

Premise for Students

While the World Health Organization is charged with addressing public health emergencies and issues, member states, medical interest groups, the press, pundits, commentators, and ordinary citizens believe that the organization lacks agility and authority to address pandemics like COVID-19.

Imagine that your group is has been charged with designing a new international institution. Your goal is to develop a new international institution that deals not only with COVID-19 but also future pandemics.

Political scientists often debate how international institutions should be designed. Koremenos et al. (2001) have argued that “states use international institutions to further their own goals, and they design institutions accordingly” (762).

Whether international institutions are “false promises,” simply reflect state power, help regulate cheating and cooperation, or are independent is a matter for debate. With these ideas in mind, each group should think about how you might design an international institution to deal with a transboundary problem (like a pandemic/COVID-19).

Group Instructions

Each group should elect a facilitator/team leader to lead the discussion questions below. Team leader should send a short debriefing email to the instructor at the end of the exercise outlining the name of the institution they developed, some key provisions, and an assessment on the effectiveness of the exercise.

Discussion Questions

Each group should discuss and debate each of the questions below:

1.      What are the membership rules for your organization – who can/will be a member? Think carefully about asymmetries among the member states.

2.      How will states and other actors who are a part of your institution deal with assessing the various outcomes and choosing the best outcome?

3.      What issues will your international institution deal with? Will you restrict your international institution to simply responding to pandemics or do you think there are other issues that your institutions?

4.      Do you envision creating a regime? An IGO? A mix? Something ad hoc? Defend your choice.

5.      Will there be a headquarters? Where will tasks be centralized? Will states create their own domestic institutions that will liaison with other states through this organization/regime/etc.? Remember that of all the questions you address, this question is the most political. Think about why the answer to this question is problematic.

6.      How will collective decisions be made? Think about who will run the organization? How will this person be selected? Will membership be universal or more restricted? Will there be a body akin to the General Assembly or other fora for debates? What role will experts or other nonstate actors play (if any)?

7.      Pandemics can be “new circumstances.” What happens to the institution if something happens that hasn’t been thought of? How will your institution adapt?

8.      How will you enforce the rules of your organization? In other words, if a state fails to adapt the necessary public health protocols, what can/will your organization/institution be able to do?

9.      How will your organization cope with uncertainty about other members in the organization? Is there a way an institution can be designed to help deal with these problems?

Thoughts on Thought Experiments

Today we have a guest post from Adam Irish, an assistant professor of political science at California State University, Chico. He can be contacted through his faculty webpage at

During graduate school I worked at the University of Illinois’ Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning. Fresh from Teach For America and surrounded by EdD’s, I internalized the pedagogical research that supports active learning. As I sifted through the variety of techniques – each promising a marginal gain – I began to fill my lessons with more and more learning activities. Initially, this strategy of accumulation worked. It differentiated me from other TA’s, won me teaching awards, landed me a teaching post-doc, and then a tenure-track job at a teaching-focused university.

Yet designing and teaching classes that leap from activity to activity can be exhausting – start with a quick write, then a mini-lecture, next a think-pair-share, now group discussions, back to whole class review and on and on. Lately I find myself asking: does including more learning activities equal better teaching?

My suspicion is that, in many cases, less may be more.

Consider the humble thought experiment. A student imagines a given scenario and reasons. Popular among ancient Greek philosophers and turn of the century physicists alike, thought experiments persist in today’s classrooms. For example, Harvard professor Michael Sandel begins his popular course – Justice – with the Trolley Problem. You are aboard a runaway trolley, standing at the controls. You could turn the trolley down a sidetrack and kill one lone worker or allow the trolley to barrel into five workers straight ahead. What is the right thing to do? Every semester in a packed lecture hall, hundreds take hold of the trolley controls, reasoning about justice – no trolley required.

But could a well-crafted thought experiment generate enough discussion for an entire political science class? I have found Peter Singer’s “drowning child” experiment pairs well with foreign aid and John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” drapes easily over discussions of welfare state politics. Beyond borrowing from philosophers, we can create our own thought experiments: Imagine you awoke this morning to find that five years had passed and the U.S. is no longer a democracy. What events do you suspect caused US democracy to collapse? In this authoritarian U.S., how might your life be different?

I recently designed a thought experiment to encourage thinking like a multi-national corporation (MNC) – a perennial difficult perspective for my students.

“Imagine that you just had a striking insight. You figured out something the world desperately needs. Fast forward through time. See the montage of days and nights spent building up your business, hiring and firing people, spending your first million dollars. Who bought a massive house? How about a nice car? Chartered jets for vacations abroad? Where did you go? Good.

But wait, the global economy is highly competitive. Earnings statements are due every quarter. Your company has taken on shareholders. They want more profit, more growth – so you opened offices and factories abroad. Still your competitors are circling, threatening to steal customers or that next big contract. The media is digging into your business practices. If you want to keep your job as CEO, you have beat your competitors. Can you see yourself sitting at that gleaming conference table, leading this month’s global strategy meeting?”

In the hour-long discussion that follows I ask what sort of business empires my students imagined building. From there we explore the overlapping and conflicting interests of MNCs and host states. Repeatedly, we return to their imagined Facebook-like successes to analyze the fraught international relations of MNCs.  Beyond examples from the reading, this activity lures student into the position of a CEO – one perhaps willing to fight against environmental or labor regulations. 

In my experience, doing more with less via thought experiments slows down the classroom. Students need time to create a rich narrative to draw from, whether they are steering a trolley, wandering an authoritarian U.S., or running their own MNC. Likewise, professors must spend time crafting and then presenting robust narrative structures that students can inhabit.  For example, see how Sandel builds tension in the trolley problem.

What if the next time you sat down to plan a lesson – a coffee cup steaming beside your keyboard, notes and books scattered about – you tried building that lesson around a single activity? Imagine that.

Modeling “Good” Writing

Today we have a guest post from Colin Brown, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Political Science at Northeastern University. He can be reached at colin [dot] brown (at) northeastern [dot] edu.

A few weeks ago, Shana Gadarian made a point on Twitter about explicitly teaching writing that I strongly endorsed. Getting our students to write better will, at minimum, make our job easier. If we’re lucky, it might actually promote better thinking.

For upper-level students, very open-ended prompts sometimes lead to really creative and insightful thinking—and a dissertation is of course the vaguest prompt of all. But our expectations often rest on implicit assumptions about what we think of as “good” political science. Amanda Rosen has written about this in the context of transparency. As she points out, telling students “write a five-page essay” doesn’t acknowledge that essay means different things in different fields, and many of our students will not yet know what this even means in political science.

Clarity is critical for essay prompts, especially for introductory students. While long, detailed instructions might help point students toward what they should think about, students new to a field often don’t have the context to know what is most important in a long prompt. To them, any sentence with a question mark might appear to be equally important—causing them to focus on what we thought was a minor point and producing a disconnect between what we want to assess and what we actually assess when our implicit expectations aren’t met.

Here are what I think were a failed and a relatively successful attempt to do this in my past semester’s intro comparative politics class. Students told me that while the instructions were explicit in the first, it was hard to know where to start and which parts to emphasize. With the latter prompt, they said it was not only clear what to do but why they were doing it.

One question I’ve found to be a bit polarizing in talking with colleagues is whether to provide model papers or templates. Is it a better way to make our aims clear, or does it cause students to just parrot back the template? I’ve always found myself on the side of providing models. Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say, I Say has solidified my thinking for why. They identify common rhetorical devices that mirror the most common academic ways of thinking, which they into templates that, for example, force students to write down the most obvious counterarguments. Experienced writers have read enough in the field to be able to pick up on these techniques implicitly, but beginners by definition have not. Graff and Birkenstein argue, and I think rightly, that this goes beyond rhetoric to actually learning the ways of thinking. Some students may not learn how to think about the flaws in their own argument, or even that they need to, until they are forced to write them with this kind of template.

In my own teaching, I’ve found it hard to explain in an abstract sense the need for clear writing over “beautiful” writing—and what students think is “beautiful” writing often feels cluttered and verbose to us. But when students see each other’s models and observe how much they actually understand from clear writing versus what they think is “good” writing, they start to self-diagnose their own excessive prose.

One challenge is that writing for politics requires some discipline-specific skills that might be more or less amenable to templates. Sarah James, George Soroka and I have a forthcoming JPSE piece on adapting tools from K-12 and composition studies for political science writing. But defining what we actually want from “good” political science writing seems often more folk wisdom than clearly defined—Ian Anson’s 2017 article on meaning-making is a notable and valuable exception—so as part of showing students what we want, there’s room for us to make this clearer to ourselves.

 Sarah, George and I will be leading a workshop at APSA TLC 2020 on implementing rubrics to improve student writing—Friday Feb. 7 @ 4:15 pm.