A great loss to our community

Dr. Danielle Langfield
Dr. Danielle Langfield

This week the ALPS team is mourning the loss of Dr. Danielle Langfield, who passed away of natural causes on September 26, 2016.  Dr. Langfield was a celebrated teacher and scholar at Marist College, where she was an assistant professor of comparative politics, as well as a former VAP at College of Wooster, and an occasional guest contributor to ALPS.  Her work on the use of real-world cases in simulations was published recently in Journal of Political Science Education. She was a passionate teacher and many of her students since her death have called her an inspiration and cited the incredible impact she had on them.  It is a great loss to the entire political science profession and the scholarship of teaching and learning community.

A Simulation in Global Development: Guest Post from Dr. Kevin Pallister

Guest Contributor Dr. Kevin Pallister of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth joins us today to introduce his new negotiation simulation, recently published in PS: Political Science & Politics (April 2015). Dr. Pallister can be reached at kpallister@umassd.edu and is willing to share all of his simulation materials upon request.

Dr. Kevin Pallister — U-Mass, Dartmouth

Teaching undergraduate students about international financial institutions and issues of economic development can be challenging, especially in an introductory political science class with lots of non-polisci majors. Teaching a large (90-student) introductory international relations class a couple of years ago, I thought of how best to help my students learn about economic globalization and development. This led me to develop a negotiation-based simulation to teach students about the conflicts of interest and potential for cooperation on issues of international economic globalization and development. This was the first time I designed a simulation, and only the second time I had run a simulation in the classroom (after earlier in the course running G. Dale Thomas’ excellent “Isle of Ted” simulation).

This simulation is designed to teach students a number of key concepts in the areas of IPE, globalization and development, such as the role of power, collective action problems, bargaining tactics, and naming and shaming efforts of NGOs.

Continue reading “A Simulation in Global Development: Guest Post from Dr. Kevin Pallister”

Engaging Students, Part 3: The Muddiest Point

Transforming students from passive listeners into actively engaged learners need not be a grand task that requires extensive planning. It can start with a simple decision to reserve a short period of class to review and clarify the lessons of the day.  Taking us beyond the relative uselessness of just asking whether anyone has any questions, and seeing none, moving on, the ‘Muddiest Point’ technique requires students to actually think through what they do and do not understand, and forces us as instructors to ensure that comprehension is universal.

Continue reading “Engaging Students, Part 3: The Muddiest Point”

What to do when a class fails

How do we handle the problem of class failure?  Let’s consider a hypothetical situation. Say you have an introductory class that by some metrics is going well–students coming to class, participating in class discussion, telling you they are learning a lot–that come midterms, you are expecting a typical or even above-average performance, compared to prior sections.  Grading arrives…and the performance is abysmal.  Say only 20% of the students pass the exam. The essay questions and exam as a whole reveal a complete lack of understanding of basic concepts and principles discussed extensively in the class.  You start to believe that maybe, in a reverse of the classic dream where a student must take an exam for a class they never took, that you hallucinated actually showing up and teaching this class prior to the exam.

via tayloredlife.com

In such a scenario, our minds first move to blame.  It is easy to view a high failure rate as a problem with the students themselves.  They didn’t read…didn’t study…didn’t meet with us to go over problem areas during office hours…eager to talk in class, but aren’t willing to put in the work necessary to succeed, etc. But reflection is essential here.  Maybe the test as a metric lacked validity as a test of their knowledge and understanding.  Maybe the instructor has become complacent, teaching the same material again and again, and is no longer tuned into whether students are really grasping everything.  Or perhaps this is a case of poor execution of standard instruction techniques, or in some other way a failure on the part of the instructor to check in with their students regarding their understanding of the material.

Understanding the causes certainly help us consider what solutions are at stake.  If it is a case of poorly prepared students, then you can either let them learn the hard the way the result of poor preparation and continue as planned, or try to create incentives to motivate them to put the work in (such as daily quizzes or weekly writing assignments).  If the instructor is at fault, then some self-reflection is in order, potentially in terms of teaching methods or assignment placement.  By the time the midterm arrives, it may be too late for students to withdraw from the class, so an earlier assignment that gives us metrics on how students are understanding the material may be crucial. Maybe reducing lecture and increasing more active-learning elements might help.

My recommendation? Talk to the students about what happened. Ask them about their preparation, and about where their troubles are coming from.  It may be that they are overwhelmed with other courses or life issues and aren’t making this course a priority.  Maybe they haven’t been taking good notes during the class discussions.  Or maybe you are speeding through the material and they feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of it and are having trouble making sense of the connections.  There can be any number of reasons, and only by asking will you get a more complete picture of what is going on.

Reflection, ultimately, is a two-way street, and we cannot move forward with potential solutions without having a clear sense of the data.  While it is crucial that we do not simply blame our students and absolve ourselves of responsibility for poor performance, we must also recognize that without their input, we are only operating with half the available information. In addition, having them go through a process of reflection may help mitigate some of the student-side issues that may be affecting their coursework.  It may also lead to a discussion of potential solutions that everyone can agree will be helpful, so that by the time of the final, both students and instructors have invested more heavily in seeing a higher rate of success in the class.

Picture It! A learn-the-campus game for new students

As we gear up for the start of term, its time to think about how to handle that first class session with a new group of students.  Here’s a game that teaches students where to find key locations on campus and how to create a customizable map via Google Maps.  Its great for the first day for a class of first-years, particularly if you are teaching a first-year seminar or other mixed group class.  It was created by my colleague, Ralph Olliges, after he attended an ALPS team seminar on simulation and game design.  Feel free to customize to fit your needs, and as always, hit the comments to share your experience if you use this!

Screenshot 2014-07-29 14.39.34
An example of a customizable map. Clicking on a location icon will bring up the associated photo.




Picture It!




Number of students: 3 on a team.

Learning Goals:

  • Discover the location of available resources on campus
  • Find value in cooperation of others.
  • Learn how to create a customizable map of campus locations and other digital skills.*

Game Description: Groups scan an instructor-created QR code (free at a site like this one) and find the locations of where they need to go on campus. At each location, following the directions below, they take a group photo and upload it into a google maps location they create.  Teams then share their customizable maps with each other and the instructor, earning points for the # of locations found in the given time and the speed and efficiency of their map creation process.


  • You have one hour to find as many locations as you can and then share your map.
  • One person in the group needs a smart phone with a QR code reader app on it. Scan the QR code to find the list of locations on  campus where each team must assemble and take a photo.
  • Assign each member of the team a letter: A, B, or C. Before you start, person C texts or emails the instructor the list of the team members and their assigned letter.
  • Go to each location on campus. One person takes a picture of the other students in the group. No selfies allowed except for the last one. A different person must take the picture each time. You may use one camera. See the list of locations to see the person assigned to take each photo; this is to ensure that groups stay together. The pictures may be taken in any order. The students in the photo must have a sign with the letter of the person taking the picture.
  • The group then creates a customizable google map with all locations, using these directions.  In Step 9, each group must attach their photos to the appropriate location.
  • Once all locations are found, or as many as can be in the time allotted, groups must share their Google Map with the instructor and their classmates.
  • Points earned as follows:
    1. The team that shares their map 1st = 25 points; 2nd = 20 points; 3rd = 15 points; 4th = 10 points; and 5th = 5 points.
    2. Team(s) with the highest level administrator in the selfie with them earns the following points: 1st = 25 points; 2nd = 20 points; 3rd = 15 points; 4th = 10 points; and 5th = 5 points. (Order of administrators: President; Provost; Vice-President; Dean; Program Director or Coordinator);

Sample Location list:

  • Library reference desk. Person A takes the picture.
  • Academic Resource Center. Person B takes the picture.
  • Fitness Center. Person C takes the picture.
  • Business Office. Person A takes the picture.
  • Student Government offices. Person B takes the picture.
  • Health Services center. Person C takes the picture.
  • Cafeteria. Person A takes the picture.
  • Campus landmark (flagpole, statue, etc). Person B takes the picture.
  • Faculty member office. Person C takes the picture.
  • A picture with a University Administrator . This is the only selfie picture allowed, as the whole group must be in the photo.

*The original version of this game has students simply email the photos to the instructor, rather than creating a map.  If you are less interested in the create-a-map portion of the activity, that can be easily dropped in favor of the email method.

Midterm Review Game: Trivial Pursuit

As midterms approach, its a good time to think about how we help our students prepare for their exams.  Approaches vary widely: some professors design study guides and hold extra review sessions; others are more of the ‘cut the apron strings’ mode and leave students to study completely on their own.  I’m agnostic toward the method, as long as the intention behind it is sound; as with most things in teaching, the tool (say lecture, or simulations, or using a study guide) should be chosen because its the best fit for a specific task and a specific group of students, not because we are in love with the tool itself.

In my introductory courses in international relations and American politics (the only times I employ a midterm), I am a fan of the review game. My exams rarely focus on definition of terms, so I find a traditional study guide completely counterproductive: students focus on learning a list of terms, rather than thinking about application, analysis, or synthesis.  A review game like Trivial Pursuit can put the onus of preparation on the students themselves (where it belongs!), and forces them to think about questions, rather than just answers.  It also makes the process of review way more fun than a standard review session. This works great for a final exam review, too–and if you do it twice, you may find that the students produce even better questions the second time around.

Here’s a how to:

  • Equipment needed: any version of trivial pursuit–just the board, die, and game pieces. A typical board is pictured above
  • Two weeks before the exam, divide the material on the exam into 5 or 6 categories.  For my intro IR class, these are: conceptual foundations (levels of analysis, states v. nations, sovereignty, etc); historical context of IR; Realism and Power Politics; Idealism and Neo-Liberalism; Constructivism and other ISMS (Marxism, Feminism, etc); and Current Issues (which covers class discussions and assignments).  For American politics, these are usually Popular Culture and Citizenship; The founding and the Constitution; federalism; civil liberties; civil rights; and current issues.  Your categories will certainly differ, and can always include a ‘wild card’ option.  The game would work just as well for comparative politics or any other course.
  • Pass out or post a one page description of the review game that also serves as a ‘midterm reminder’ guide.  Mine usually just notes what the exam will cover, the format of the exam, some brief tips on how to study, a few sample questions, and info about the review game.  Contact me if you’d like to get a copy of mine as a guide.
  • Assign students to each category (randomly is best), and tell them they are each responsible for producing a certain of questions (with answers) on that category.  Depending on the number of students, I’ll ask for between 5-10 questions.  You can decide whether a certain number have to be multiple choice (mine tend to go for short answer).  They also have to provide the answer.  Note down who is assigned to what category.
  • The questions are their ticket to the review.  Students who do not turn in questions cannot participate in the review. Added incentives can include extra credit for the winning team, and I will tell them that particularly good questions may show up on the exam itself (i always try to use at least one, sometimes with some minor edits).
  • Questions can be submitted in a variety of ways.  The easiest for the instructor is to have students write them on index cards–category at the top, question on one side, answer on the other.  They can bring them in the day of the review.  I usually have them submit them online a day or two early so I can organize the questions, and if I’m feeling charitable, post them for everyone to see after the review.  It is VERY important that you know who submitted which questions.
  • On the day of the review or sometime before, divide the students into two (or more if you have a large class; 10 people per team is a good maximum) teams making sure that there is someone from each category on each team.  Then make sure that you organize the questions (whether on note cards or electronic) so that teams do not get asked the questions they wrote.  This is really important, otherwise people just answer the questions they wrote without anyone having to think about the question.  I like to assign teams in advance, and make adjustments last minute if someone doesn’t show up.
  • Bring additional questions. Many of the questions the students write will overlap, and so its great to have some of your own to use in a crunch.  This is where those textbook test banks come in really handy.
  • Ask each team to choose a die roller and a spokesperson.  This minimizes down time during the review, and makes clear who is communicating the ‘final answer’ to the instructor, who asks all the questions.
  • Arrange the seats in the classroom around a central table so everyone can see the game board.
  • Assign each category a color. Put it on the board so everyone can see.
  • The basic rules of trivial pursuit apply.  Students roll the die and move their pieces, and answer questions corresponding to the color they land on.  Correct answers allow them to go again; incorrect answers give the next team a turn. The large spaces at the end of the spokes of the wheel earn correct answers a little colored wedge; the goal of the game is to collect one wedge of each color and then answer a question correctly after moving to the center of the board.  The only additional rule I use is that after either three correct answers or earning a wedge, the next team gets to go.  Otherwise you can have a team go on a spree, which can lead to students on other teams checking out of the game.

That’s it!  It involves very little preparation on the part of the professor, and instead puts the burden on the students, which is great for us but also for them, as the process of writing questions and then working together to answer them can really help them retain information.  I’ve seen the average on the midterm improve since using this review game, although the usual limits on a such a claim apply since I do not have pretests or true control groups.

Try it out, and as always, report back here on how it goes.

Poverty Games, Part 5: Inequality Monopoly

Some of my sociologist friends turned me onto a common game they use in their field to teach about social class and inequality: Inequality Monopoly (also called Modified Monopoly, Development Monopoly, or Stratified Monopoly).

The basic idea is to have students play a classic game of Monopoly (8 students to a board, multiple boards as needed) but with a twist: starting resources, salary, jail, and other effects of the game change based on which ‘social class’ you are randomly assigned at the beginning. So the upper class player may start with $2500 and a couple of hotels they can place on the first property they land on, while the middle class starts with $1500 and a house, the working class $1000 and lower class $500.  Salaries change too; only the upper class gets the full $200 for passing Go.  You can also put limits on who can purchase utilities or railroads, make it easier for the wealthy to get of jail quickly, and institute a lottery system that costs 5 or 10% of your income to play.

You can also speed up the game by simply distributing property in advance; some of the rule sets below have ideas on ways to do this.

My colleagues who use this game find it a very effective way to dig into problems of poverty, social class, income inequality, and the challenges of ‘equality of opportunity’. I haven’t tried it myself, but its worth importing to our field and seeing what happens.

Resources to Play the Game:

  • The best resource available is this cite: Fisher, E.M. (July 2008). USA Stratified Monopoly: A Simulation Game about Social Class Stratification. Teaching Sociology 36(3): 272-282.

That article contains everything you need–learning objectives, instructions for the instructor, a great rules chart for each player, timeline (broken down for classes of 50, 70, and 100 minutes), discussion questions, related written assignments, and assessment.

  • This document is a great resource that’s easy accessible.  It has a set of rules, instructors for the instructor, worksheets for the students, debriefing questions and essay questions.
  • Here’s another document with very similar rules.
  • This is a wonderful set of powerpoint slides that detail several different rule sets, have notes on important concepts, and discussion questions.
  • Richard Harvey at Saint Louis University comments here on the rule set he uses and his assessment of the game.
  • Here is an interesting piece on the use of Monopoly to study institutionalized racism.
  • This video made the social media rounds a month or two ago, and is about a series of studies on the unethical behavior of the rich.  One study involved a game of monopoly with ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ players–poor players getting half the starting money, half the Go salary, and only getting to use one die (thus not being able to roll doubles and take an extra turn)–and showed that the randomly determined rich players at the end of the game believed that they deserved to win the game due to good gameplay–not luck of the draw.

See earlier entries in the Poverty Games series:

Poverty Games Pt 1: Ayiti the Cost of Life

Poverty Games Pt 2: Third World Farmer

Poverty Games Pt 3: Free Rice

Poverty Games Pt 4: Spent

Poverty Games Pt. 4: Spent

Spent is a fantastic interactive simulation for teaching about poverty in the US.  The premise of the game is that you are a recently unemployed and homeless single parent, down to your last $1000.  You have to find an apartment and a job and handle all kinds of life events–from illness to car trouble to choosing between working overtime or seeing your kid’s school play–and make it through the month without running out of money.


Your first decisions are your job and your apartment.  For the former, you choose between a restaurant server, a warehouse worker, or an office temp, although you have to pass an actual typing test to take the temp job.  You find out your weekly take home pay, minus taxes, and then choose whether to opt in to a health insurance plan (which costs about 1/4 of your monthly income).  Then you choose where to live, with the cost based on proximity to work and transportation costs.  For the rest of the month, all kinds of problems arise–some with costs, and many with statistics attached to tell you why some people choose to play the lottery, go to work sick, or start smoking.  Several events allow you to ‘ask a friend for help’ and then open up a facebook status page for you to do just that.

Even if you play extremely frugally, the best result is to make it to the end of the month with some cash–but with rent due the following day. A ‘big spender’–someone who pays their mom’s doctor’s bills, buys presents for their child, attends family weddings and funerals, or pays all their own bills on time–is very likely to run out of money before the end of the month.

I wouldn’t say that the game is ‘fun’–depressing is a better term–but it does force players to be actively engaged in living on a minimal income, and can be quite useful in helping students understand the challenges of poverty and why ‘working harder’ is not really a solution.

The game can work both as an individual homework assignment or a collective exercise in class with students voting on what they want to do, as for each event there are only two or three possible options. At the end of the game there is an option to donate money to the game sponsors, Urban Ministry of Durham, in their fight against poverty and hunger.

Fun: 1/4–while well designed, the game is more depressing than fun.

Ease of use: 4/4 highly interactive and very easy to use, no instructions required.

Polisci Class Applicability: 3/4, although better for American politics than IR or comparative.