Today we have a guest post from Matthew Wilson, assistant professor of political science at West Virginia University and a visiting researcher at the University of Gothenburg as part of the Varieties of Democracy Project. He can be reached at matthew[dot]wilson1[at]mail[dot]wvu[dot]edu.
Sometimes, existing teaching materials can be too narrow or too broad. This was the problem that I encountered when designing a lower-level undergraduate course on Latin American Politics. Many textbooks on Latin American politics are organized around conceptual issues with specific chapters on topics such as economic inequality or race. However, I wanted students to also learn about the unique paths by which countries in the region developed, without limiting the discussion or using a handful of countries to characterize the rest. Rather than cobbling together different materials myself, I saw this as an opportunity for active learning.
My idea was to create teams of students with each team seeking out information on a different country outside of class. This approach drew on distributed learning, which aims to decouple learning from the classroom constraints of time and place, by creating a learning objective outside of class that differs from but contributes to what students learn in class. The approach also reflected crowd-sourcing, where a good is produced by many people performing relatively small tasks. The assignment therefore had to involve a large number of students.
Students listed their top three preferences for countries and I matched them up as best I could. I aimed to control the quality of sources and focus of the assignment, while at the same time encouraging students to teach themselves by conducting independent research. I personally vetted the content that students used by selecting five books that covered each of the roughly twenty countries—for a total of 100 books—and placed them on hold in the university library. I also required each student to submit a list of ten additional online sources for my approval.
The assignment had two parts, for which students received separate grades. First, students had one month to consult the source materials and document major events that occurred in their respective countries. I created a spreadsheet with four tabs that corresponded to heads of state, conflicts, laws, and important documents. For each, students had to skim the respective material and fill in basic information about the event, denoted by column headings:
- The year in which an event occurred (when)
- The event (what)
- The actors involved (who)
- The source(s) consulted
I discouraged students from providing any sort of explanation. Moreover, I was purposely vague about what constituted an event to encourage them to seriously consider what mattered. I graded students’ spreadsheets in terms of thoroughness; in large part, this was determined by comparing the spreadsheets of students who were assigned the same country.
In the second step, I grouped students into teams according to the country they had researched, and each team created a combined, revised timeline that described in only a few sentences each event that had been included. I checked the accuracy of the content in the timelines with the help of graduate research assistants, and each team received a grade on its combined timeline. At the end of the course, I consolidated students’ timelines into a single manuscript, added public domain images, and handed the final product back to them.
The results of this assignment were quite positive. It enabled me to complement the country-specific knowledge students were acquiring outside of class with lectures on more general themes. Each student became a “country expert” and therefore almost always had something to contribute to in-class discussions, which in turn improved their essay responses. Students were motivated to work on a project that was not the standard research paper. Overall, the distributed learning, self-instruction, and collaboration with teammates enhanced students’ performance in the course. I will definitely use this technique in the future. Additional details can be found in my article about the assignment in the Journal of Political Science Education.