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.

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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.

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.