Anyone interested in teaching students how fact check claims should visit the Check, Please! starter course. Check, Please! is a free training course in how to use the SIFT method to evaluate the accuracy of online information:
Investigate the source.
Find trusted coverage.
Trace claims, quotes, and media back to the original context.
Check, Please! was created by the company Notion (which I have no financial interest in) but as stated on the website’s homepage, the content is intended for reuse and revision.
Below is an example of a recent in-class exercise that I used in my comparative politics course, created in collaboration with our crack staff of librarians. The exercise is designed to teach students that the scholarly journal articles they are reading represent an ongoing conversation between experts. I have included the information students were supposed to locate in italics. Feel free to modify the activity to meet your own needs.
Which former president of the American Political Science Association was one of Dr. Raymond’s professors? (Lucian Pye) First person to submit the correct answer before time expires earns 10 points toward their final course grade.
Locate this article: Larry Diamond, “Why Are There No Arab Democracies?” Journal of Democracy 21, 1 (January 2010): 93-112.
In this article, find citations for academic journal articles about democracy in the Arab world. Locate these articles. Write their citations:
Alfred Stepan and Graeme B. Robertson, “An ‘Arab’ More Than a ‘Muslim’ Democracy Gap,” Journal of Democracy 14 (July 2003): 30–44.
Mark Tessler and Eleanor Gao, “Gauging Arab Support for Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 16 (July 2005): 82–97.
Amaney Jamal and Mark Tessler, “The Democracy Barometers: Attitudes in the Arab World,” Journal of Democracy 19 (January 2008): 97–110.
One of the above articles (Jamal and Tessler) contains a citation for an academic journal article written by another former president of the American Political Science Association. Locate this article. Write the citation:
Samuel Huntington, “Will More Countries Become Democratic?” Political Science Quarterly 99, 2 (Summer 1984): 193-218
In the above article, find citations for these two works: the original version of an academic journal article that you have read for this course, and a book that you have read about for this course. What are the citations for the two works?
Seymour Martin Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” American Political Science Review 53 (1959): 75.
Barrington Moore, Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), 418.
How do the ideas contained in the scholarly works listed above relate to the ideas presented by Diamond in the initial article?
Your Own Research
Choose a research topic of interest (does not have to be related to this course). On the back of this paper, track citations of academic journal articles about the topic through time. What do the authors of these articles say about the topic? How do their ideas correspond or differ?
As I mentioned in my first post in this series, my interdisciplinary methods course includes a research proposal assignment consisting of:
An introduction containing a research question, hypothesis, rationale, and context.
A one-paragraph abstract.
Two-page discussion of the design of the proposed research project, the types of data that will be collected, how the data will be analyzed, and how this process will test the hypothesis and provide an answer to the research question.
A bibliography of references.
The proposal is intended to prepare students for an actual research project that they will design, conduct, and report on before graduating. I’ve created three smaller practice assignments that scaffold different aspects of the final proposal. The first uses research on Bolivia; here are the instructions:
Read the rubric.
Read either a chapter from Jim Schultz and Melissa Crane Draper, eds, Dignity and Defiance: Stories from Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization, UC Press, 2008, or Isabel M. Scarborough, “Two Generations of Bolivian Female Vendors,” Ethnology 49, 2 (Spring 2010): 87-104.
An important component of both statistical and information literacy is the ability to recognize the difference between correlation and causation. Teaching this skill is made even more difficult by cognitive biases that lead to errors in probabilistic thinking.* So I decided to hit my students over the head with Chapter 4 from Charles Wheelan’s Naked Statistics and, from Tyler Vigen’s Spurious Correlations website, an image of the 99.26% correlation between the divorce rate in Maine and margarine consumption.
The assignment asked students to submit a written response to this question:
Why are these two variables so highly correlated? Does divorce cause margarine consumption or does margarine consumption cause divorce? Why?
All the students who completed the assignment answered the question correctly: neither one causes the other. In class, students identified several possible intervening variables, including:
People eat margarine and margarine-laced products as an emotional comfort food when relationships end.
Divorce leads to a greater number of households, with each household purchasing its own tub of margarine.
Students’ ideas led in turn to a discussion of how to appropriately measure these variables and construct new hypotheses.
*An excellent overview of this topic is Jack A. Hope and Ivan W. Kelly, “Common Difficulties with Probabilistic Reasoning,” The Mathematics Teacher 76, 8 (November 1983): 565-570.
Links to all posts in this series about information literacy:
Another post about the methods course that I’m now teaching. Chapter 3 of Naked Statistics is about deceptive description. So here is the accompanying assignment . . .
Many high school seniors are interested in attending Southwest America State University for college. Before 2015, applicants to this university had to submit high school transcripts that include average GPA scores, SAT scores, and an essay. In 2015, the application process changed; applicants had to submit high school transcripts with average GPA scores and two essays, while submission of SAT scores became optional. In 2019, the university claimed that the academic quality of its students had increased since 2011 given this pattern in the average SAT score of each year’s incoming class:
One of the joys of being department chair is creating a curriculum map for information literacy learning outcomes — as part of a five-year program review for a department that is only two years old. Since I’m teaching research methods, a requirement for students in all three of the department’s interdisciplinary majors, I decided to make information literacy a focus of the course. I designed several brief assignments based on chapters in Charles Wheelan’s Naked Statistics that pertain to evaluating information sources for authority, reliability, and relevance. These tasks in turn complement, in my mind at least, two larger assignments: Amanda’s Best Breakfast in Town project and writing a research proposal.
I thought I’d post some of those assignments here on the blog along with an assessment of how well students did on them. First topic on the list is hypothesis construction:
Given the availability of mobile phone coverage in Ghana, Nigeria, and Tanzania, how can we infer which country is the most violent? Why? (Generate a hypothesis about a relationship between mobile phone coverage and violence.)
Students did a good job thinking of possible causal relationships between mobile phone use and violence. Class discussion included ways to operationalize the concepts of violence, wealth, and happiness, which we did with some quick internet research. Students did not find an association between homicide rate and the amounts of mobile phone coverage in Ghana, Nigeria, and Tanzania, which then led to the topic of sample size. The assignment seemed to work as I had intended.
The effects of too much time spent sitting in front of a computer put me in the market for a standing desk converter — one of those table-top contraptions that are adjustable in height, enabling the user to work sitting down or standing up. Like me, you’ve probably been seeing them increasingly frequently in your travels and have wistfully wondered, “Do I deserve to enter the ranks of the office equipment elite?” Luckily our crack library staff came to my rescue. They permitted me to test drive one and take this inexpensive Ikea hack back to my office for my own use.
I then researched various commercially-available models to get something for my home. I was drawn to products made by Varidesk, Eureka Ergonomics, and FlexiSpot. My search narrowed my options to one model from each company. One was priced at US$400 and two were priced at US$300. I scrutinized the design of each to gauge durability and convenience. I read comparative analyses written by professional reviewers.
Then serendipity struck: a standing desk unit sold by Staples, the office supply retailer, looked remarkably familiar. I compared dimensions and appearance, and yes, it was an exact match to one of the previously-described models, but priced at only US$200. So I bought the thing and am now using it to type this post.
It occurred to me that the process I used to make my decision is the same type of analytical thinking that we want our students to become proficient at — cast a wide net to gather the best information one can find, evaluate it according to context, and render a judgment. It’s one of the skills that we say students will develop if they take political science courses. So now I’m trying to figure out how to turn my experience into an assignment, to make the connection between what gets learned in an academic setting and the ability to apply it elsewhere more obvious to students.
Becoming a competent consumer of political science scholarship is almost always an objective of my courses, especially general education courses intended to expose students to the social scientific way of thinking. To support this objective, a long ways back I wrote a document called “Reading and Understanding Political Science,” which is an undergraduate’s guide to types of scholarship in political science, the parts of an empirical article, and questions to ask oneself while reading quantitative, qualitative, and formal modeling publications. We typically read this for the second day of class, when most are still struggling to obtain textbooks in this new order-by-mail world. After a brief review of the typology and parts, we engage in The Great Article Sort.
To begin, we brainstorm a list of key words and other ways to tell what type of article an item is. Then I pair students off, have them introduce themselves, and distribute 2-3 articles from a pile that I’ve prepared to each pair. Their task is to classify as many articles as they can in 5-8 minutes; extras (and ones that pairs have finished) go in a stack up front for recirculation. The pair with the most correct classifications at the end gets 2 bonus points, so they make two copies of their findings – one to turn in at the conclusion of the sort period, and one to keep for discussion. At the conclusion of the work period, I collect a copy from each group and we review their responses as a class – both what they decided and how they knew. The whole activity, including debrief, takes about 20-25 minutes, depending on how many items they want to discuss.
Preparation for this activity took about 45 minutes and consisted mostly of using JSTOR and the internet to access publications where I knew I could find articles of various types (literature reviews, empirical, op-eds, modeling and other theoretical pieces, etc.) across the various subfields of political science. For longer items, usually I printed only the first 4 pages; printing two pages to a sheet and both sides of the paper meant that they’re still only one piece of paper in the stack. Sometimes I was able to reuse items I had in my personal collection that I no longer needed (e.g., spare copies from something distributed in a previous term). I had about 25 items labeled with letters, and usually two copies of each so that we had enough to go around. This wasn’t enough for a 35-person class. If I were prepping this activity again, I’d aim for 40 items and number them, and be very selective in the debrief discussion.
Our latest guest post is from Colin M. Brown, PhD, a Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard University. He shares with us a great tool for teaching students how to critically engage with texts in a meaningful way.
Active learning has shown effectiveness in teaching concepts, but what about in instructing college students how to read effectively? One unavoidable problem in political science remains teaching students how to read actual works of social science. We expose students to original research and “great books” in our field as a way of simultaneously teaching the course content and also teaching how to read a particular style of social science argument.
This is well and good, and like writing, reading is a skill where students will learn mostly by doing. But are there things we can do to assist the process of learning how to read analytically?
I’ve got an odd problem this week: too much information.
My class is on Britain and the EU and my students are drowning in material. As well as all the usual reading lists that exist, there’s also a mountain of stuff for non-specialist audiences, because of the looming referendum here in the UK.