Welcome to the Active Learning in Political Science © blog.  Our goal is to provide resources and ideas for using active learning techniques in the political science classroom and to promote general discussion about innovative teaching methods.

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Micro-teaching European integration: a very short project (potentially)

Today is the start of EU Twitter Fight Club, in which I – as the (14) seed (of 23 players) – will endeavour to win deathless fame by being good at said New Social Media. The American organisers of the original #TFC14 finally noticed us last week and we’ve taken their lack of legal action as a blessing on our venture.


Simon needed to work more on his ‘funny GIF’ making technique

My previous take on TFC was that it offered something in the way of developing online community. In the weeks since then, as the build-up has, well, built up, I can still see that, even as I can also see the potential for much unhappiness (especially I get as far as Thursday, only to be knocked out by a hand-puppet with a tasting for gin).

Such sniping aside [you can beat the hand-puppet, Simon, you can], there’s another aspect that has emerged, which I’m keen to pursue, certainly as long as I’m in the competition.

Twitter is rubbish for many things, as my students will know, but it is great at brevity. So why not try to use that? As a colleague noted to me some time ago, keeping it short means you have to focus on what’s important, rather than on the academic dressing-up thatgoes around it.

TFC doesn’t seem to have many rules, except not being a twerp, and I know well enough that my humour isn’t going to swing matters, so I’m going to pay the ‘being useful’ line, not least since it’s served me well enough so far in my time on Twitter.

Given the pan-European nature of the competitors and the coming European elections, it’s also a good time to think about how to communicate public education messages on the European Union.

So my plan is this: to create brief, useful tweets about the EU, to help other users and (possibly) impress the judges/voters*. That might be key ideas in writing, or producing other media to clarify points. But whatever it is, keeping it brief.

I have no idea if it’ll come to anything, but if I can get through the first round then I’m prepared to apply some ex-post rationalisation to say this was important, and I’ll keep exploring. In the highly-unlikely event I can get to next week’s final rounds, then I’ll have to come up with more specific ideas for what these things might be, but we/I can cross that bridge when we/I get to it.

Doubtless, I’ll be back before too long with an update on this.

* – voting. Yes, very important. Because we Europeans care about democracy so much, the decision-making system for TFC is a bit involved. Judges make a choice between pairs of competitors, but the general public (including you) get to vote on it too, with your decision getting equal weight to the judges’. So if you want more posts about this, then remember to vote for me (somewhere here). And if I win the whole thing, then I’d have to retire from the competition and you’ll never about it again. Win-win, perhaps?

Posted in Academia, Activities, Discussions, Information Literacy, Projects, Simon Usherwood, Social Networking/Media, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Devil’s Workshop

BoschIf idle hands are the Devil’s workshop, then idle minds are even worse. I expected my comparative politics students to be mentally absent on the day before Easter vacation, so I surprised them with a rocket pitch competition based on a discussion that occurred the previous week. Students had twenty-five minutes to design a presentation with their teammates. The presentations had to identify the causes of a political process through a comparison of three cases — each team’s choice of two nation-states plus the fictional state of Gerkhania, which I will write about in a future post. Teams were free to select the two or three variables — which I referred to as factors — they thought were most relevant to their team’s analysis. Visually the presentations looked something like:

Comparative Table

At the beginning of the semester, students read articles by comparativists like Charles Tilly, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Theda Skocpol. I was pleased to see them using arguments from these articles to frame their presentations. For example, one team chose the causes of democratization in Latin America as its process; Guatemala and Mexico as cases; and level of economic development, dominant religion, and colonial influence as factors.

Overall I was pleased with the outcome. Students were clearly thinking hard about what and how to compare during the twenty-five minute design phase, and they had to respond to their classmates’ questions when they delivered their presentations. One presentation led to a brief discussion about the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. Variables varied across cases; however, teams ignored whether the variables could be measured  – probably because I forgot to stress the importance of this beforehand. The problem might be easily remedied by adding another column to the table for teams to pinpoint how their variables should be operationalized.

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How much should we plan what we say?

A short one, since it’s Easter and all of us should be spending more time with our families (or, at least, less time at work).

Yesterday, I made a day-trip up to Manchester to the Political Studies Association (PSA) annual conference. I was part of a roundtable and we’d agreed before to keep things quite fluid. So I took the approach that I’d see what the others said and then say something different, but related (I was last on the roster).

My colleagues took different approaches. One pulled out a full text and used it to speak to his PowerPoint presentation, while the other also used a PowerPoint, but used them to structure his talk.

After the panel, several people commented that we’d all gone it rather differently and one very good colleague of mine spent much of the train journey back down to London to marvel that I would just stand up and talk, without notes, for 15 minutes in a manner that made sense and spoke to the topic. Indeed, I believe his exact words on this were: “you stood up, with no notes, and I thought – oh no, it’s all going to go wrong.”

We’re still talking, by the way.

However, it does raise the wider point that there is much variation in how we present, be that in conferences or the classroom. My personal tendency has been to cut back ever more what I explicitly prepare (especially in PowerPoint), so that I can work with the people I’m talking to. Yesterday was an extreme example (and probably not one I would have tried at the end of a three-day conference), but it highlights another path we might consider.

At the same time, I am very aware that this is not for everyone, nor for every situation. What ultimately matters is how comfortable we feel about using a particular method: we have to minimise the friction between our intention and our practice, so that those listening/learning can access more readily what we are trying to share.

This notwithstanding, we do also need to remember one of the key lessons of any good pedagogy: it has to work for the listeners. The more we scaffold and fix our output, the less we can tack in the specific environment into which that output is put. In this case, I had an opportunity to work around colleagues whom said more or less what I thought they would, plus it was a subject on which I felt very comfortable (not least because of all the blogging I’ve done, with its emphasis on relatively terse point-making) and the room was amenable to following peoples’ responses.

By contrast, in June I’m off to speak on a roundtable in Montreal on the results of the European elections. It’ll be with people I don’t really know and includes some high-powered names, in a setting that might well number hundreds, rather than tens of people.

Plus it’s in French.

You can bet I’ll have notes for that.

Posted in Academia, Classroom Behavior, Conferences, Getting Them to Talk, Presentations, Simon Usherwood, Teaching | Tagged | 2 Comments

The Personal Touch

Personal TouchTwo recent news items argue that how professors teach matters more than what they teach. First, the New York Times has profiled ten wildly popular courses at different universities around the USA, including one on cultural anthropology where students participate in an interesting simulation. Enrollment in these courses ranges from a dozen to over a thousand students, pointing out that classes don’t have to be small to be effective — they just have to be taught in a way that gets students interested in learning.

Second, Inside Higher Ed discusses the research of Christopher G. Takacs and Daniel F. Chambliss. Their work suggests that an inspiring professor in an introductory course influences a student’s choice of major more than disciplinary content.

If only doctoral programs and the tenure process took the above processes into account . . .

Posted in Chad Raymond, Curricula, Experiential, Large Classes, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mechanics of Text Analysis II

MechanicIn my previous post I introduced a process that students can use to learn how to analyze texts. Here is a specific example. The text is Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The questions I’ve previously prepared on this text in italics; they walk the students through the different parts of the Wilson’s argument. A hypothetical student’s answer is next to each question. To easily find the answer, the student first identifies clue words in the text; these are shown in bold font. To complete the exercise, the student creates a hypothesis by joining a question with his or her answer to it, and then provides two pieces of evidence in support of the hypothesis that are drawn from the text.

Why should the Fourteen Points be implemented?

    • To establish peace among all nations

“. . . that the world . . . be made safe for every peace-loving nation . . . All the peoples of the world are in effect partners in this interest . . . unless justice be done to others it will not be done to us.  The program of the world’s peace, therefore, is our program; and that program, the only possible program . . .”

How should colonized peoples be treated?

    • Colonized peoples must be allowed to pursue sovereignty (independence)

“based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.

Should diplomacy be conducted in secret? 

    • No

“. . . the only possible program . . . is this . . . Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.”


    • If the Fourteen Points had been implemented, peace would have been established between all nation-states


1.  Disputes between states over colonial claims, and between colonized nations and the imperial states that ruled them, would have been resolved peacefully through an impartial process of negotiation.

2.  Trade between states would have been encouraged by the removal of trade barriers and by establishing freedom of the seas for the transport of goods; states engaged in free and open trade have less of an incentive to launch aggressive wars against each other.

 The main advantage of this exercise is that it demonstrates to students in a step-by-step fashion how they can engage with a text more deeply. Professors have practiced this skill so much that we do it almost unconsciously; students haven’t had the practice and this is a way for them to start getting it.

Posted in Assignments, Chad Raymond, critical thinking, Exercises, Reading | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Twitter as community: building the utility of new social media

Now that the jet-lag has gone (and been replaced by the hangover from my birthday celebrations), it’s time to think about the practicalities of life, rather than the wide-eyed dreaming of conference-time.

One of the side activities that poked its head around up at ISA was the use of new social media. I attended a very interesting panel with various glitterati of the IR Twitter world, which confirmed my latent ideas about how academics use Twitter and how we can use it with others, be they students, colleagues or practitioners.

Rather than rehash that panel (and thanks to Felix for the Storifying), I just want to briefly consider how we can get the most out of Twitter as a resource.

One of the most intriguing ideas/practices from the panel was Twitter Fight Club (see #TFC14 for a flavour). Essentially, this pairs people up for a day-long contest of ‘who’s best at Twitter’, broadly defined by the quality of their information and comment, their humour and general good value. Winners are chosen by a jury and the public, and go through to the next round. In short, it’s a way for the IR crowd to use all those GIFs they like so much and feel it has a broader value.

Coincidentally, at ISA, I was contacted by a fellow EU Tweep, Matthew Shearman, who wants to run a European version this month, and who now claims that I’ve put him up to it, which I haven’t.

Assuming that we’re not going to be too American about it all, the idea is one that tickles me, as a stimulus to stop simply retweeting stuff and start actually producing more useful content. Even if I have a well-developed sense that I will get my backside handed to me on a plate in the first round, it’s still something that might help to keep on make the most of the medium.

And that’s the more general point. In any communication medium, we find our zone of comfort and stick to it, by and large. If we get opportunities to do new stuff, then we should try it. That’s partly because it’s more engaging for us and we’re likely to give more to it, but it’s also partly because it opens our eyes to new possibilities, that might change our practice for the better in the long-run.

In short, sometimes it’s better to do something that makes you a bit uncomfortable in the short-term, because it might be good in the longer-term.

Now… how to fit that into a tweet.

Posted in Academia, Activities, Ice Breakers, International Relations, Simon Usherwood, Technology | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Mechanics of Text Analysis

DetectiveIn the past I’ve used some very specific exercises to train students how to analyze journal articles and other texts. Here is one of them:

Select a representative text and either distribute copies or require that students print it out. Prepare a few simple questions about the text that relate to the argument it contains.

Each student then . . .

  1. Circles or otherwise identifies words and phrases in the article that provide clues to the structure of the author’s argument. These “clue words” are:
    • Main, primary, only
    • Not, cannot, no, never, seldom, rarely
    • None, neither, nor
    • All, any, entire, most, each
    • Must, always, generally, often, will
    • But (especially if combined with “only” or “must”)
    • However, although, in contrast, contrary, instead, unless, despite
    • False, incorrect, contradict, fail
    • True, correct
    • Should, ought, shall
    • Cause, effect, reason, depends, because, imply
    • Assumes, assumption
    • Claim, argument, argue, contend
    • Proof, prove, evidence, empirical
    • In fact, thus, therefore, of course, thereby, similarly
    • Tend, tendency
    • Conclude, conclusion, result
  2. Writes answers to the assigned questions.
  3. Demonstrates how the clue words in the text indicated answers to the questions.
  4. Reformulates one of the question-answer pairs into a hypothesis and provides one or more pieces of evidence from the text to support the hypothesis.

Students then discuss or do formal presentations of their results in class.

I’ll provide an example of how this works in my next post.

Posted in Activities, Assignments, Chad Raymond, critical thinking, Getting Them to Read, Information Literacy, Presentations | Tagged , , | 1 Comment