Information Literacy Exercise

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.

It seems safe to say that political scientists have some concerns these days about information literacy, and information literacy is likely an implicit learning outcome for many of us. This blog has provided a number of good exercises for bringing information literacy into research methods, reading academic research, and headline writing. Inspired by these examples, I attempted to include this skill in my introductory comparative politics class, where democratic (de)consolidation is a major topic. In theory, the class gives students enough background to start keeping up with events around the world—if they choose to do so.

The exercise I tried this year, now available on APSA Educate, forces them to update slightly-out-of-date readings on a country facing democratic backsliding (Poland) by finding out what’s happened there in the four or five years since they were published. Students were assigned to small groups, and each was given a different kind of source to examine during a class session. One group read newspaper articles, another examined democracy indexes, yet another searched Wikipedia, etc. Students then applied what they’d read to course concepts—has democracy gotten weaker or stronger in Poland since these were published? Students then discussed what they trusted or distrusted about each type of source, and the potential merits of each.

I had a few key goals for students:

  • Think about source material for future courses. In an intro course, students not only might be unfamiliar with how research articles work, but also may not have a lot of practice in thinking about online source credibility.
  • Understand that while sources vary in credibility, there are pros and cons to using even the most credible sources. For example, the students who looked at V-Dem, Freedom House, etc., got clear, direct answers to the exercise’s questions, but they also correctly pointed out that they had to accept these organizations’ conceptualizations of democracy. And less credible sources like Wikipedia still had things to offer if used carefully.
  • Bridge the gap between classroom learning and events in the broader world and show how what they’re learning might help them understand the news.

When I ran this exercise in class this year, I budgeted only about 25 minutes for it, when it turned out to need 40 minutes or more to give students enough time to look at multiple sources in their category. We ended up using another 25 minutes the next day but dividing the exercise into two sessions probably led to more shallow searching and a less systematic attempt to make sense of sources.

When running this exercise in the future, I will think more explicitly about the balance between handholding and allowing students to practice seeking things out on their own. Last time I provided a couple of search terms, told them to keep looking outward beyond these, and to keep a record of what they searched for (which as best I could tell no group did). Next time I will probably experiment with either giving students a fully curated list of search terms, so they can observe how this affects their search results, or, conversely, I might give them even more time to “flail” about on their own before offering suggestions.

Statecraft in the International Relations Classroom

Today we have a guest post from Eric Cox, an associate professor at Texas Christian University. He can be contacted at e[dot]cox[at]tcu[dot]edu.

Does the online Statecraft simulation improve student learning when used as a key component of international relations classes? I explored this question in a Journal of Political Science Education article through a controlled comparison of two IR course sections taught during the same semester. One section was randomly chosen to participate in Statecraft, the other was assigned a research paper. The primary finding of the study was that students in both sections performed similarly on exams when controlling for other factors.

Statecraft is a turn-based simulation that divides students into “countries” that they govern. Each country must choose its form of government, economic system, and other attributes. Players also choose whether to focus on domestic spending priorities such as schools, hospitals and railroads, or on military capabilities. They must deal with terrorism, the melting of Ice Mountain, pirates, and rumors. The simulation is, to put it mildly, complex. I have been using it for just over a decade.

To try to put the students doing the research paper on an equal footing with those engaged with Statecraft, I dedicated several days of class to instruction in research writing skills and peer review. The students in this section spent roughly the same amount of time in class on their paper as the students in the Statecraft section did on the simulation. Both groups also wrote about the same amount.

At the end of the semester, I compared class performance on three exams and gave students a brief survey on their experiences. The initial findings were surprising: the research paper class did much better on exams but were less satisfied with the research assignment than the Statecraft students were with the simulation. I obtained access to students’ GPA when entering the course, and re-ran my analysis with GPA, whether students were taking the course for a grade, and whether students were political science majors as controls. Once these controls were introduced, the effect of Statecraft went away. The strongest predictor of course performance was their incoming GPA. Students with high prior GPAs made As, B students made Bs, and so on. Academic performance was independent of the research paper or Statecraft assignment. However, students in the Statecraft section showed a strong preference for the simulation over a traditional research paper, and students in the research paper section indicated they would have rather done Statecraft. Subsequent student evaluations have also demonstrated the relative popularity of Statecraft.

That said, my use of Statecraft has evolved, something I discuss in detail in my chapter of Teaching International Relations. Foremost, I dedicate class time to the simulation, and draw examples from the simulation when discussing IR theory, issue areas, and current events. Students have indicated that the simulation gives them a greater appreciation for the complexity of international relations and the challenges leaders face. 

Editor’s note: previous posts on Statecraft can be found here.

Write Your Own Headlines Activity

This post comes from Chelsea Kaufman, assistant professor of political science at Wingate University. She can be contacted at c[dot]kaufman[at]wingate[dot]edu.

In teaching undergraduate research methods, I often find that the students are intimidated by the subject matter and don’t see its relevance to their lives. I have increasingly emphasized to students that it prepares them to be savvy consumers of political information wherever they might encounter it. This approach introduces an additional challenge, however: students often lack the information literacy skills to evaluate the sources that they access. If I want students to have the skills to evaluate the political information they encounter, I obviously need to teach them these skills. How exactly can this be accomplished? 

It is not enough to tell students which sources are acceptable, because people tend to trust information that aligns with their political predispositions. Simply lecturing to students about the dangers of misinformation can reinforce false beliefs and increase their distrust of reliable sources. 

To avoid this conundrum, I have students write their own headlines based on public opinion poll data. I first find a poll with results covered in several media outlets. I then send students a link to (or print out) the results of the poll, without providing them any context as to how it was covered in the media. After writing the headlines, students share them and compare theirs with those of their classmates and with published headlines about the data. Students learn to interpret data and evaluate whether it was given accurate coverage in the media. As the final part of the lesson, I then ask them to evaluate the polling methods used to obtain the data, by, for example, considering how a question’s wording might have impacted the responses. 

You can view detailed instructions for the activity on APSA Educate. You can also read more about this topic and find examples of additional activities in my article Civic Education in a Fake News Era: Lessons for the Methods Classroom or my chapter in The Palgrave Handbook of Political Research Pedagogy

The Challenge Game

Elia Elisa Cia Alves

Today we have a guest post from Elia Elisa Cia Alves, Federal University of Paraíba (UFPB), and Ana Paula Maielo Silva and Gabriela Gonçalves Barbosa, State University of Paraíba (UEPB), of Brazil. Elia Elisa Cia Alves can be contacted at eliacia [at] gmail [dot] com.

The Challenge Game was developed by a group of professors at the State University of Paraiba and the Mettrica Lab in Brazil. It is suitable for teaching concepts in international relations theory, such as state survival within an anarchic system, the security dilemma, alliances and the balance of power, and hegemony.

Ana Paula Maielo

To play this game in the classroom, you will need 1) approximately 8 to 50 students who can play either individually or in teams, depending on the purpose to which the game is put, 2) candy, points, or some other reward that can be distributed, and 3) a method of determining the winner of a challenge between two parties, such as dice (high roll wins), rock-paper-scissors, or an online random number generator. Also, the rules of the game should be visible to students during the game.

The game is played in four rounds of approximately ten minutes each. A challenge is a one-candy bet (a loss results in one piece of candy being taken away) with a 50% probability of winning. Any individual or team that is challenged must participate in the challenge. Only one challenge should occur at a time so that the instructor can note what happens. A student or team that ends up with zero candy can no longer issue challenges; they are “dead” for the remainder of the round.

Round 1: Each student starts with one piece of candy. The winner of a challenge takes one piece of candy from the loser and can then challenge someone else. Any student who loses all of his or her candy is out of the game for the round. Depending on class size, the instructor may want to limit each student to a maximum number of challenges.

Round 2: Candy is distributed unequally among students. Most students should have 1-2 candies, a few students should have 3, and only a couple of students should have 4. The instructor may want to allow students to form alliances, in which case students can borrow candies from each other if needed. However, the loan is optional.

Round 3: Group students into teams. Distribute candy unequally among teams as in Round 2. Each team represents a nation-state. Students within a team decide, using any decision making method they choose, whether the team challenges any other team. As in Round 2, the instructor might allow teams to form alliances.

Round 4: Group students into teams and distribute candy as in Round 3. The professor grants special rules to only teams that have the greatest number of candies, such as altering their odds of winning a challenge. After the game, the professor should debrief the class to link theoretical international relations concepts to students’ experiences of the game. In our JPSE article, we suggest several questions that can be used as part of the debriefing.

Developing a Podcast Assignment

Today we have a guest post from John McMahon, Assistant Professor of Political Science at SUNY Plattsburgh. He can be contacted at jmcma004 [at] plattsburgh [dot] edu.

Podcast assignments make students the creators of political knowledge, allow them to actively research subjects of interest, and offer them the opportunity to improve their writing, listening, and speaking abilities. The format is more interesting and authentic to students than that of traditional assignments, in part because of the popularity of podcasts among people under the age of thirty-five.

In my experience, there are two especially salient components of podcast assignment design. First, it is necessary to be intentional and clear with oneself and one’s students about the assignment’s required elements. A podcast’s political content, length, required sound elements (clips, effects, music, etc.), type of interview subjects (if any), how its creation is scaffolded—all require careful consideration. The requirements of the assignment need to match course learning objectives.

Second, do not worry too much about the technology. Instructional technology and library staff usually can provide support and resources, from workshops to USB microphones to campus recording studios. If needed, students can simply use their phones to record audio. Audio editing tools like Audacity and GarageBand are easy for students to learn, and instructional videos on podcast creation abound online. In my experience, students have also found Spotify’s Anchor to be an easy platform to use.

Podcast assignments are adaptable to a range of courses. I have used them successfully when teaching political theory and American politics at the 100-, 200-, and 300-level. Crucially, as we enter another pandemic academic term, this kind of assignment is suitable for online, hybrid, and in-person courses, including those that change modality in the middle of the term.

Instructions for one of my podcast assignments are available on APSA Educate, and I have published an article on student podcasting in the Journal of Political Science Education.

Exam Essays that Develop Research Skills: A Second Look at Zotero

Today we have a guest post from Adam Irish, an assistant professor of political science at California State University, Chico.

Like many professors, I change my teaching to fit the class or, in the past year, the Zoom discussion I am leading. My lower division, survey courses focus on building a scholarly vocabulary and an understanding of concepts; upper division courses dive deeper into issues so that students can wade into the intellectual fray. However, this past year of online teaching revealed a potential for overlap for this dichotomy: the development of research citation skills through the incorporation of Zotero.

Continue reading “Exam Essays that Develop Research Skills: A Second Look at Zotero”

Coalition Governments

Today we have a guest post from Joseph W. Roberts, associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Roger Williams University. He can be contacted at jroberts [at] rwu [dot] edu.

Recently someone on Twitter asked about teaching coalition governments and their formation in an introduction to comparative politics class. I responded to the query with an exercise that I use to demonstrate presidential vs. parliamentary systems and voting systems. The exercise demonstrates why a state might choose one system over another in a way the mirrors the perspective championed by Lijphart (references listed below).

I begin by talking to the students about the size principle and the minimum winning coalition described by Riker and the critiques about whether a minimum winning coalition of two parties with a “margin” of one is actually stable (see Shepsle, Butterworth, or Brown). I explain ways in which party identity/ideology can affect the creation of coalitions, and ask students to think of other factors, such as ethnic identity, that might be part of the process. This subject is usually covered briefly in comparative politics textbooks and I just reinforce some of the basic concepts.

I then use the actual party data from an election available from Wikipedia—usually Israel because it has a lot of elections—but any election where a coalition government is formed will work. I give the students the list of parties that received seats in the election, a rough description of each party’s ideology, and a number line showing where each party fits in the left-right political spectrum, as shown in the table below.

Continue reading “Coalition Governments”

Benefits of Student Reflection

Today we have a guest post from Colin Brown, assistant teaching professor, and Jennifer Ostojski, Ph.D. candidate, from the political science department at Northeastern University. They can be contacted at  colin [dot] brown [at] northeastern [dot] edu and ostojski [dot] j [at] northeastern [dot] edu.

This year we have had to adapt the short, focused simulations for reinforcing material that we like to use in the classroom to the virtual environment. This adaptation has caused us to think more about the value of independent student reflection in relation to group debriefings.

Colin had previously developed a simulation of coalition-building in Germany (available here at APSA Educate) for introductory comparative politics, which had two main learning objectives: (1) gain familiarity with German political parties as an example of multipartism, and (2) understand that big, centrist parties can still exert a lot of agenda-setting power in sometimes-chaotic multiparty systems. A key part of the exercise is the bargaining that occurs as students walk around the physical classroom.

In Spring 2020, we switched to online teaching two weeks before Colin had scheduled the simulation in his course. He made it an optional extra-credit online exercise, in which about one-third of the class participated. In lieu of a debriefing, students submitted ungraded answers to three questions:

1. What did you find hardest about reaching a coalition agreement?

2. What new perspective does this give you on the German case in particular?

3. What might be some of the strengths and weaknesses of coalition governments, and how did those play out here?

We used slightly different online versions of the simulation in Fall 2020. In Colin’s course, students stayed muted/invisible and used the private chat function to communicate during simulation sessions. Jennifer’s larger class used breakout rooms with students communicating with one another behind the scenes via Zoom chat, a classroom Slack channel, and social media (which more directly simulated the more intentionally chaotic in-person discussions). Colin assigned students to parties right as the simulation began while Jennifer provided students with party roles beforehand.

Based on the written responses and discussions, students in our courses learned the central lessons of the simulation equally well, and equal to the in-person format in prior years, despite the difference in communication methods and the timing of role assignments. However, Colin’s Spring cohort seemed to demonstrate better knowledge of both the specifics of the German system and broader concepts about multipartism, whereas the students in our Fall courses displayed more learning of broad concepts than of specific details. We found it interesting that the Spring students seemed to pick up more details from the simulation despite it being, well, March 2020. Our hunch is that writing responses to the reflection questions caused students to spend some minimal amount of time and effort checking whether they were correctly using relevant concepts. Although it is hard to rule out selection effects, engaging in independent reflection might benefit students’ learning whether the simulation is online or in-person, even if it is not the most memorable or visible part of the exercise.

Study Buddies and Study Huddles

Today we have a guest post from Helen Brown Coverdale, a lecturer in political theory at University College London. She can be contacted at h [dot] coverdale [at] ucl [dot] ac [dot] uk.

The biggest challenge of moving my contemporary political philosophy courses online for the pandemic has been peer learning. How do I create opportunities for students to interact, especially when they are in different time zones?

For the last three years, I have paired postgraduate students with complementary skill sets at the start of the course. As part of this buddy system, I divide required readings into three categories: everyone, Team Red, and Team Blue. Within each pair, one student is part of Team Red and the other is part of Team Blue. I let the students in each pair decide who joins which team. Students exchange notes on readings with their study buddies. The practice is intended to be supportive, not onerous. I tell students that the notes they share need to identify a reading’s key thesis, the arguments it makes, and a strength or weakness, all in no more than half a page.

Because Red and Blue texts differ, study buddies are exposed to different perspectives on the same topic, but the volume of texts becomes more manageable—allowing students to engage in more close reading and less skimming. While students may lose some breadth, they gain a deeper understanding of what they have read by teaching their peers about it, and I have found that generally they do better academically.

However, there are always a few students for whom the study buddy arrangement is not as effective. To address this, and the inability to serendipitously form study groups during the pandemic, I have paired up the pairs. Two pairs of study buddies equal one study huddle.

I use huddles for breakout discussions, peer marking exercises, and engaging with asynchronous lecture content. Red and blue teams are perfect for in-class debates.

The feedback I have received from students about this system has been very positive: they feel supported. The huddles give them a more resilient method of getting through a course or module. With two members of each team in each huddle, there is always someone to discuss readings with or get notes from if one person gets sick. It’s also harder to be the one apathetic person in a group of four, especially since students learn about the wrongs of free riding early in the term.

Video Tutorial: Taking Simulations Online

Today we have a guest post, actually a guest video, from Sarah Federman, assistant professor in negotiations and conflict management for the College of Public Affairs, University of Baltimore. She can be contacted at sfederman [at] ubalt [dot] edu. 

Sarah has created this brief video tutorial on taking simulations online, especially those that involve negotiation and conflict. The video has much food for thought. For example, one should not necessarily assume that the online environment lessens the simulation experience for students. Online allows interaction between students who attend different universities and can also facilitate the ability of students to design their own simulations — resulting in less work for the instructor.