Team Champ

As promised, here is the prompt for the collaborative portion of the forecasting project in my upcoming Middle East course. There are two of these team deliverables — a draft report due after students have submitted the first three of their individual CHAMP assignments, and a final version (shown below) due at the end of the semester. In terms of contribution to course grade, the draft and final versions together are worth only a third of what the five individual assignments are worth. Also, a portion of the course grade will come from teammate evaluations.

Your team is interviewing for a job with Eurasia Group. The interview process requires that your team submit a jointly-written report on your team’s Forecasting Project topic using the CHAMP framework:

  • Comparisons
  • Historical Trends
  • Average Opinion
  • Mathematical Models
  • Predictable Biases

Your team’s final report should apply all five components of the CHAMP framework in a forecast that is no more than five pages of double-spaced 11- or 12-point font text. Do not use quotations of sources in the report. Reference source material using footnotes. See the list of syllabus readings for proper bibliographic format. Footnotes can be in 10-point font. 

Only one member of your team needs to submit the document for this assignment.

Your team’s work will be assessed using the rubric below.

Now I just need to create rubrics for the project’s individual and team assignments . . .

Assign Like a CHAMP

As promised in my last post, here is an example of iterating so that students repeatedly practice the same skills.

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m putting a forecasting project into my fall semester Middle East course. The project’s constituent assignments will be based on the CHAMP system recommended by people like Phil Tetlock. A brief description of CHAMP is at the end of this Financial Times article by the economist Tim Harford.

My prompt for the first CHAMP assignment reads:

You are interviewing for a job with Eurasia Group. The interview process requires that you submit a forecast on your team’s Forecasting Project topic. The forecast needs to use the CHAMP framework:

  • Comparisons
  • Historical Trends
  • Average Opinion
  • Mathematical Models
  • Predictable Biases

In a one-page, double-spaced, 11- or 12-point font document, answer these questions for the Comparisons portion of your forecast:

What other cases are comparable to this situation?
How do they indicate what will happen this time?

My guiding questions for the other CHAMP assignments are:

Historical Trends

What individuals, groups, and institutions played key roles in similar events in the past?
How are these “power players” likely to influence the current situation?

Average Opinion

What are the experts predicting about this situation?
What is the view that lies in the middle of their assessments? 

Mathematical Models

Are there mathematical models or empirical measures that can be used to gain insight into this situation?
What do these models or measures indicate?

Predictable Biases

How has your thinking been affected by emotion and personal preference?
How have you adjusted your analysis to account for these biases?

I’ll talk about the team-based aspects of this project in a future post.

Can Students Predict the Future?

I like each of my undergraduate courses to have at least one authentic skill-based deliverable; for example, historical timelines or ArcGIS storymaps. I’m teaching the Middle East in the fall semester, and, having recently read books like Superforecasting by Tetlock and Noise by Kahneman, Sibony, and Sunstein, I hit upon students trying to predict events in the region.

I’ll have students assign percentage probabilities to a list of potential events and give them opportunities to periodically adjust these probabilities. At the end of the semester, students will earn points if the events have happened and lose points if they haven’t, with point amounts weighted against the associated percentages. My formula:

((Sum of the percentage probabilities student chose for each of his or her correct forecasts) – (Sum of the percentage probabilities student chose for each of his or her incorrect forecasts ))*50.

A hypothetical example:

% ProbabilityEventOutcome
100The sun rises in the eastern skyCorrect
30The capital of Turkey changes from Ankara to IstanbulIncorrect
70Barham Sali remains president of IraqCorrect
50Iran fires an ICBM with a nuclear warhead at Saudi ArabiaIncorrect

The points earned by this student would be: ((1.0 + 0.7) – (0.3 + 0.5)) * 50 = 45.

The negative effect of incorrect predictions should prevent students from trying to game the process by blindly assigning 100% probability to every event on the list. But they won’t actually suffer from incorrect predictions, since the scale for the final course grade tops out at 950 and more than 1,000 points will be available from all assignments, quizzes, and exams. If an event on the list happens before the semester ends, I will simply use each student’s most recent forecast to calculate point values.

Since forecasting accuracy improves when estimates are averaged, I will show the class the aggregate results of students’ forecasts each time they are updated. I’m also going to divide the class into teams, with the members each team taking the lead — through additional research and class presentations — on becoming more expert on one topic from the list. Potential events that I might put on the list:

  • The value of the Turkish lira against the U.S. dollar decreases to less than 22:1.
  • In Iran, the Assembly of Experts names a new Supreme Leader.
  • An anti-government protest in Cairo results in at least twenty demonstrators arrested, injured, and/or killed.
  • The president or prime minister of Lebanon is assassinated.
  • Turkey ends its occupation of Syrian territory.

I’m still working out more of the details on this idea, but I think it could be interesting for me and the students.

Comparing American Foreign Policy Simulations

Today we have a guest post by Charity Butcher, Associate Professor of Political Science at Kennesaw State University. She can be reached at cbutche2[at]kennesaw[dot]edu.

I am always looking for new simulations – particularly ones that are easy to use and require less preparation. For my American foreign policy course, I usually use my own simulation on Iran-US relations. However, the Council of Foreign Relations’ Model Diplomacy simulations, discussed by others here and here, was an opportunity to try something new.

My simulation presents a crisis in Iran-US relations involving nuclear weapons, state support for terrorism, and/or the rivalry between Iran and Israel. In the simulation, students engage deeply with a topic, engage with a large number of state actors, and must deal with the consequences of their decisions. My ability to introduce problems in real-time creates flexibility and makes the simulation more dynamic for the students. However, my simulation requires a lot of preparation, both for me and my students.

Model Diplomacy, on the other hand, offers professors a menu of topics to choose from, and many of the simulations can be completed in a single class period. The simulations come with outstanding background material, so there is little need for students or the instructor to do additional research. However, Model Diplomacy simulations do not move past a predetermined decision point and there are no consequences to participants’ actions. Students sometimes reach a decision very quickly, which might reduce what they learn from the simulation.

I decided to use both my simulation and Model Diplomacy in the last iteration of the foreign policy course, in an attempt to capitalize on the advantages of both. Two one-day Model Diplomacy simulations served as a starting point for a longer three-day simulation. For this longer simulation, students began with the Model Diplomacy Iran Deal Breach scenario, but were provided with additional stimuli during the simulation and were able to interact with other countries. The results were quite positive, and I will continue to use both the short Model Diplomacy simulations along with a longer more interactive simulation in the course.

Simulating the Syrian Civil War

Today we have a guest post from Guy Zohar, an instructor at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. He can be contacted at guyzoharbiu [at] gmail [dot] com.

The Syrian civil war is already one of the bloodiest and most devastating conflicts in the 21st century, and it is far from over. To explore various dimensions of the war, seventy-five people at the recent International Studies Association (ISA) annual convention in Baltimore, Maryland participated in “The Syrian Civil War and the Spread of Terror” simulation.

Participants assumed roles such as Bashar al-Assad, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi and were assigned to teams that represented major actors in the conflict. Team size varied depending on the actor’s complexity and its power status. Each participant was given short and long range goals to accomplish in the face of challenges such as terror attacks. The ultimate long range goal was to agree on a framework for settling the entire conflict. Continue reading “Simulating the Syrian Civil War”

Unconventional Movies As Conventional Pedagogical Tools: The Dark Knight

Gigi GokcekToday we have a guest post from Gigi Gokcek, associate professor of political science at the Dominican University of California. She can be contacted at gigi.gokcek[at]dominican[dot]edu.

Professors have long relied on movies like Dr. Strangelove (1964), Red Dawn (1984), and Thirteen Days (2000) to teach about the dangers of nuclear proliferation and the Cold War. While the active-learning literature validates the effectiveness of using movies like these, today’s college students may relate better to more contemporary movies. Do unconventional movies, from such franchises as Fast and Furious, Star Trek, DC Comics, and Marvel’s X-Men and Avengers, work just as well? My experience suggests that they do. When combined with activities derived from the cognitive domain of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, I find that they are valuable tools for teaching important political science theories and concepts.

Although many students may have seen these movies by the time they enroll in my courses, I often leave this activity until the end of the term so that they have acquired sufficient knowledge of course material. The key to the assignment is that students are not told where the course content is portrayed in the movie. Students have to think more critically while viewing the film, and thereby apply what they have learned to a new setting. They use this worksheet to help make these connections. Continue reading “Unconventional Movies As Conventional Pedagogical Tools: The Dark Knight”

My Test Run of: ISIS Crisis Simulation

A few months ago I downloaded a game simulation from PAXSIMS Rex Brynan…. ISIS Crisis. The download contains the game board and all its pieces which is still under revision and development…but… I decided to give it a go with my summer section of Intro to IR students.

Counters for ISIS Crisis ©
Counters for ISIS Crisis ©

First things first…my students are not gamers and they do not know the conditions on the ground regarding ISIS, Syria, Iraq, etc.. So my purpose in conducting the game was to help them understand the sheer complexity of the situation by making each one of them a player in the system.

The role sheets and directions are pretty good but I STRONGLY recommend that the instructor play through the game once before attempting this in class. Ahem…I did not. ONWARD

Rough Spots

  1. Too many game pieces.. they often got in the way and confused the students. For the simple points I was trying to make, the teeny game pieces could be thinned out or thrown out altogether. Perhaps great for more advanced strategists to make the game more complex, but at the undergraduate civilian level…. not necessary.
  2. I attempted to have students read up and develop a working knowledge of their role before coming to the simulation day. This simply wasn’t enough. (my bad) A much better plan of attack for next time is to have students write a three page personal history in the voice of their role. This way students internalize deeper history in the first person.
  3. Picking methods for game play. The game kit offers several options for turn taking and scoring. Take the simplest one…get a few dice and get on with it! The students got bogged down in more complex systems. Pick the simplest path.

Awesome Spots

  1. By the end of hour 1 of game play it was almost painfully clear to each of the actors in the game that there were no simple answers to “getting rid of ISIS.” Most of this is built into the game through the rule structure which is quite cleverly leveraged to the advantage of ISIS (every time a double is rolled by an actor, ISIS gets to go again…muahahahahaha!…sad but true).
  2. The students were IMMEDIATELY dragged into the game. This, despite the fact that they had only light knowledge of the actual politics going on. (Again, my bad)
  3. The game is definitely in its infancy and will likely evolve to even more robust design. I will absolutely teach with it again. Its core structure seems also to be highly portable to other scenarios which is a triple thumbs up!


Reading for What? And for Whom?

A bit more on what I refer to as the reading problem, inspired by the cultural anthropologist Angela Jenks and a recently-rebroadcast episode of the On Point radio program.

Perhaps reading something else while on Mt. Sinai would be more useful.
Perhaps reading something else while on Mt. Sinai would be more useful.

Reading has been fundamental to learning for the last 5,000 years, but it’s still an activity that a lot of students avoid whenever possible. So we, as teachers, create a variety of carrots and sticks to get students to read and to read in ways that are beneficial. These carrots and sticks include specifications grading systems, plain old rubrics, and even software tools. I personally expend a lot of mental effort on designing writing assignments that I hope help students improve their analytical reading skills.

Wrapping up my annual summer course on the Middle East inspired me to take a step back from assignment design and look at a more basic question: what should students be reading, given who they are and why they have enrolled in the course? My Middle East course is a bit peculiar: it’s online, only seven weeks long, and for graduate students. A large portion of the students have military or government experience; many of them have worked and even fought wars in some of the locations they study in the course. They tend to be working professionals looking for both a deeper understanding of their interests and a credential that will help them advance their careers. They are not future professors or undergraduates fulfilling a general education requirement.

People often choose required readings for a course on the basis of “coverage” — we define Topics 1 through N as essential to the study of Subject Q, and look for readings that we think address 1 to N. For a survey course on the Middle East, these topics — at U.S. universities — are usually:

  • The brief introductory geographic and pre-modern historical overview.
  • A basic understanding of Islam and its supposed sociocultural effects.
  • The decline of the Ottoman and Safavid empires and European imperialism.
  • Post-independence state-building.
  • The Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • Oil and the USA.
  • Something about “political Islam” (whatever that is), terrorism, and ongoing instability.

For my course, I have always used Westview Press’s A History of the Modern Middle East, by Cleveland and Bunton. It’s a brilliant, well-written synthesis of politics and history. However, the text of the newest edition — excluding notes and index — has crept upward to 556 pages. I also like to assign Reza Aslan’s 266-page No God But God for the topic of Islam.

The length of these two books means that I am not able to assign other readings that might be more pertinent to my students’ interests and futures. For example, while I think it is important for people to know some basic information about the Ottoman era, I don’t think it is necessary for these students to read 200 pages about it. They could very well be better served by reading something that will provide them with a better understanding of the politics behind the Arab Spring and its aftermath, like Rage for Order by Robert F. Worth, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux — which itself clocks in at 272 pages. 

All of this means that I’m now thinking about which topics are the most and least important to my students, rather than the topics that I think must be included to “cover” the subject. It also means that Ellen Lust’s 900+ page The Middle East, from CQ Press, is just too big for students in this course. Instead I am looking at shorter histories, such as James Gelvin’s The Modern Middle East (370 pages), or books that focus on the contemporary period, like James Barr’s Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East (359 pages).

If anyone has any recommendations, please comment.

Comparatively Speaking

Cat HeadstandI don’t teach a research methods course and the quantitative approach is not emphasized by my department, so the subject gets sprinkled in bits and pieces across several of the courses I do teach. My typical introduction of methods in comparative politics used to be a lecture in which I defined cross-country comparisons and case studies, and gave an example of each. It was boring for students and boring for me. Now I flip this topic on its head. Here’s an example from last Tuesday’s class.

Continue reading “Comparatively Speaking”

Bridge Repair

Forth BridgeIn my last post about teaching comparative politics, I discussed replacing expository writing assignments with a set of templates for students to use when designing presentations. I thought the templates might be a more effective method of getting students to apply theory to past events. For the spring semester, I have decided to ditch the theoretical content altogether, for these reasons:

Continue reading “Bridge Repair”