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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Reflections on a prisoner’s dilemma: guest post from Katherine Wright

In this week’s seminars for our first-year module Introduction to Politics: Power and the State, on Rational Choice theory, I ran a prisoner’s dilemma game with the students. Students were told that they had been arrested for a crime along with their accomplice and could not communicate with this partner in crime.

In each of the three seminar groups we played 2 rounds of the game. For the first round I gave them a name of a celebrity (and I settled on Kim Kardashian as someone they MUST have heard of [certainly have here at ALPSBlog]) on a piece of paper. I told them that they were not allowed to show the name they had to anyone else in the class and that if they had their own name to let me know. I wanted to give them the impression that they did not all have the same name and that someone could have their name.

Prisoners dilemma


After the first round I tallied up on the board who had betrayed/stayed silent and asked each student to justify their reasoning.

The second round saw the students given a name of a classmate, someone among the 12 or so students in the class that day.

The students began to see how their perceptions of their classmates influenced their decision to betray them or stay silent. Many in the second round chose to stay silent because they had seen their partner in crime stay silent in the first round, only to find that their partner had completely shifted positions in the second round and they were left feeling betrayed. Perhaps next time I will play the two rounds without the students revealing how they have voted in the first round until after we have played the second round..

Some students spoke about how their conscience would not let them betray their partner, that they had been brought up not to “rat out” someone else or that the their partner in crime  was a friend they trusted. Others were resolutely rational and said that they would not risk 10 years in prison and 5 years was clearly the most rational decision to make.

Surprisingly, among the three seminar groups the first group – just BSc Politics students – was the most rational with the majority choosing to betray their partner in crime. I had expected that the final group – with BSc Politics & Economics students in it – would take the most rational stance, this was far from the case however and in the main they showed a noble sense of camaraderie (along with the second group of BSc Politics & Sociology students)!

For the last two groups, those who took a risk on a longer sentence and acted ‘irrationality’ were rewarded. However, for the first group this was not the case and those who played it safe and acted ‘rationally’ were rewarded. This set the groups up for an interesting discussion on the merits of Rational Choice theory and one in which I think they felt invested – especially given that many of their peers had just betrayed them!


Katharine A. M. Wright is a Doctoral Researcher and Seminar Tutor in the School of Politics, where she holds a Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences Scholarship. Her thesis examines NATO’s implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325.

POL1012 Group 1

POL1012 Group 2

POL1012 Group 3

Posted in Activities, Classroom Behavior, Exercises, Seminars, Simon Usherwood, Teaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Know Your Audience

The message is clear.

The message is clear.

I recently read an article that appeared in a prestigious political science journal. The article contained the findings of some interesting research that had relevance to other academic disciplines. But the article was written in dry, convoluted, mind-numbing prose. The writing was so impenetrable that my colleague in another department, someone who knows the literature on the article’s subject, couldn’t even get past the first page.

This led me to wonder again about the function of writing, but for our profession rather than for our students. We tell our students that clear, concise writing is an important skill for the world of work, yet it’s often a case of do as I say, not as I do. Why? Because we are incentivized by academia to write for an audience of just a few dozen fellow academics who conduct research in the same arcane sub-specialty that we do. Some of us have figured out that writing for a broader audience can be quite rewarding, but this is the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of our work is too badly written to be relevant to policymakers or the general public. We toil away in self-isolation, garnering little attention from the public, so it is no surprise that most students are uninterested in the field. They wouldn’t care or even notice if political science sank back into the primordial slime from which it first emerged.

The team at Information is Beautiful, run by David McCandless, understands that properly-designed information is more easily understood by society at large and is thus more effective than awkward, jargon-laden prose or reams of numeric statistical results. For example, this diagram shows that Ebola is less deadly and less infectious than HIV, but more deadly and more infectious than bubonic plague. Another infographic shows the truth about Twitter. Then there is the classic table of rhetological fallacies, now available in multiple languages.

It would be nice if information design was a standard component of undergraduate and graduate curricula in political science. Until it is standard, I’ll continue to recommend that my students take courses in art, creative writing, psychology, and marketing.

Posted in Academia, APSA, Chad Raymond, Curricula, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Online asynchronous simulations – challenges and opportunities

For the past month I’ve been running my first online, asynchronous simulation, as part of the INOTLES project. We’re now coming into the final stretch of the game, so I’m thinking about how it went.

The game itself has a set of states who have to find a modus vivendi between themselves. They look a lot like the EU, some East European places and Russia, but with various things changed, so we don’t just reproduce those places and their relations. Players are given a state, some basic stats and interests and then are left to it. Weekly cycles require everyone to post positions and/or actions by Friday lunch, and if I need to intervene, then I’ll post on Monday morning.


One option I didn’t model…

The practical experience has been rather salutary for me.

Beforehand, I knew that getting participation was going to be the real issue and so it’s proved. The closest participant is about 200 miles away and the furthest is more like 1000 miles distant: teams for states were deliberately mixed up, so anyone playing has had to invest quite some time, just to get their team active. It would be fair to say that not all teams managed this.

I’ve not pushed very hard on this, partly because I have little scope so to do, but also because I’m running this as part of a training trainers exercise, so I want the players to think about how they are going to handle similar situations themselves. It’s a bit jujitsu, but there’s enough there for it to work.

The second big issue has been the asynchronisity/asynchronousness/not playing all at the same time. A week might make sense from the perspective of busy people trying to sort out positions, but it means that in four weeks we’ve not moved very far, or very fast. That reinforces the problems of engagement and participation: without a pressing problem, who’s going to feel a urgent need to react?

And this feeds into a final issue, the very open-ended nature of the game itself.

I’ve kept away from IR-type games, because it seemed like there was a lot I was less comfortable with, plus the notion of trying to capture all that international actors can do to each other was a bit daunting, especially in a made-up scenario. However, colleagues in the project had expressed interest in a sim about the European neighbourhood, so in I plunged.

The paradox seems to me to be that by saying to players that they can do pretty much anything, they end up doing little. Perhaps if I’d limited it to diplomatic exchanges then that might have focused minds some more, but that doesn’t necessarily help in building understanding of the complex interplay of factors. Indeed, I almost feel like using the real-world case would have generated more buy-in, even if it would come at a price of heightened emotional factors.

In short, it’s not easy, building games, especially when you’re trying something new, regardless of how much you’ve done it before.

Once I finish the sim, I’ll debrief the players and use that to inform some redesigning (which is also why I’ve not posted any materials yet). In addition, I’m also getting my students here at Surrey to play the game, all through to Christmas, so I’ve got some scope to try out a couple of ideas on them.

By treating a sim as being in a state of permanent beta, I can live with the uncertainty, and I can plan for it. In part that’s possible because I’m as interested in the process of negotiation and of sims as I am in the substance of the game itself, but it requires a bit of fore-thought and a willingness to adapt on the hoof.

Posted in Activities, and Simulations, Exercises, International Relations, Online Classes, Role-playing, Simon Usherwood, Skills, Teaching, Technology | Tagged , | 3 Comments

World War Z and Ebola

I use the book World War Z by Max Brooks in my politics of film and fiction course for a number of reasons.  Written as a series of interviews with survivors ten years after the end of the zombie war that are left out of the official UN report, the book serves up a pretty devastating social commentary that creates a great foundation for discussion of a wide range of issues, from the state of nature to nuclear proliferation, the benefits and drawbacks of an isolationist grand strategy, and whether the ends justifies the means in policymaking.

Since Brooks based the book on real-world reactions to infectious diseases, instructors who are looking for interesting ways to bring discussions of the response to Ebola into the classroom could do worse than assigning excerpts from this book.  The section, for example, on the ‘Great Panic’ would be an interesting way of examining the Ebola fear coming from some sectors in the US.  One excerpt has a cooperative society break down as food and other supplies dwindle and a harsh winter sets in; another describes how as one country tries to reduce its exposure to the plague, its inability to communicate effectively with a neighboring state results in the onset of armed conflict. Later in the book, someone proposes a plan that might prevent the epidemic from wiping out the remaining humans, but poses some severe ethical questions. Finally, Brooks himself has said that the international response to Ebola has actually been much better than that he wrote about in regard to the Zombie plague (where denial and lack of communication and cooperation resulted in the epidemic spreading worldwide), allowing some interesting contrasts between the two.

All of these can be promising start-off points for discussions of real-world issues.  Each interview is only a few pages, and thus can be read quickly in class before discussion.  If you have more time, it may be worthwhile to consider assigning larger sections or even the entire book.


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Logic Model Redux

Tree DiagramLast week I had an opportunity to revisit logic models in my course on economic development, where students are working on team projects. I created an exercise designed to show that logic models are a really just a method of mentally organizing answers to the following questions:

  • Why do the project?
  • What does the project involve?
  • How should the project be done?

At the beginning of the semester, I gave students a guide to logic models and had them fill out blank versions in class. Afterward they discussed their thoughts with teammates to identify requirements for the project and create a general game plan for completing it.

In the middle of the semester, students attended a presentation by Mike Behan of Root Capital. Mr. Behan’s presentation serendipitously included an image of a simple logic model, which inspired me to distribute the blank logic model diagram in class once again. I gave students five minutes to write as much as they could in each of the logic model’s boxes, without referring to notes or other resources. After five minutes, students congregated with their teammates to discuss the boxes that they found difficult to complete.

At the end of the exercise, I told students that they needed to have a clear idea of how the different components of their projects fit within the framework of the logic model. If team members found parts of the model too fuzzy and too ill-defined to quickly describe in writing, that was a strong signal that the project would not succeed and that its design needed improvement.


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An Autobiographical Note

A brief follow-up to Justin Rex’s post about student autobiographies:

Burgundy AutobiographyI tried this exercise about two weeks ago in a first-year seminar. It did not go as well as I had hoped in terms of getting students’ mental light bulbs to blink on and generating conversation, probably because I simply ran out of time. The seminar meets in fifty minute sessions. I usually begin class with a discussion of that day’s reading and writing assignment, and that often segues into a team-based activity. When I got to the autobiographies, there were perhaps twenty minutes left.

Something else I didn’t do well: ask students in the room to read verbatim what they wrote for each version of their autobiography instead of letting them give one or two sentence synopses. With the former method, I could have asked the students what they noticed about each other’s stories instead of me identifying key aspects and writing them on the board. I should have let students take more initiative in directing the conversation.

I wasn’t completely surprised that this exercise did not produce fantastic results right out of the box. New techniques fail, sometimes spectacularly, the first few times I try them. But here is the interesting thing: the underlying subject of the exercise — that individual behavior is often constrained by social conditioning and institutions — has come up accidentally in subsequent assignments. So, like Justin, I’ve been able to refer back to the autobiographies.

In sum, I think this exercise is quite useful, but I need at least thirty minutes of class time and to facilitate discussion better to employ it successfully.

Posted in Activities, Chad Raymond, Discussions, Getting Them to Talk, Multicultural-International-Global, Writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

TLC Call For Paper Proposals

TLC 2015A reminder that that October 20 is the deadline for proposals for the 2015 APSA Teaching and Learning Conference (TLC), to be held January 16-18 in Washington, DC. The TLC differs from other conferences. At typical conferences, an attendee gives a brief presentation at one panel and then perhaps visits a few others. There is very little opportunity for feedback or dialogue. The TLC is very different — it follows a workshop format, where participants in a track exchange ideas on each other’s research throughout the conference. For me, the workshop format is far more productive than what I’ve seen at other conferences. For me it has led to several peer-reviewed publications, this blog, and learning from Simon how to rap like David Cameron. Plus there’s been no hurricanes or fires, unlike the APSA’s annual meeting.

Posted in APSA, Chad Raymond, Conferences | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment