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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Building networks: we’re on Facebook now!

download (1)As a mark of our desire to build the community of users/readers that we already have here at ALPS, we’ve finally decided (a mere three years in) to set up a Facebook page.

The page will have all the latest blog posts linked in [sic - we'll do that one another time], plus we hope we can get more of you to chip in with links, comments and ideas.

Do remember we also have our Twitter feed, so you really have no excuse for missing anything we do.

The ALPS team

Posted in Activities, Amanda Rosen, Chad Raymond, Information Literacy, Nina Kollars, Simon Usherwood, Technology, Victor Asal | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Handling feedback

At the end of last week, I got my first ever bit of listener feedback (family members not included).


Hello? Hello?

From time to time, I get asked to opine on the local BBC radio station on matters of local and national importance. It’s a good way to engage with our community and a good opportunity for me to practise speaking off-the-cuff, since we don’t rehearse the questions beforehand.

Any how, this time I was being asked about a change in policy by the leadership of the County Council on personal allowances. This followed a bit of a campaign by local media, which I’d noticed at the time, but not fully explored, as it’s not particularly relevant to my research or teaching.

So on I went, talked about how I saw it all and what was at work here (media pressure, internal party dissent, etc.). The presenter seemed happy, so job done.

But when I arrived at the office, there was a voicemail waiting for me.

The caller introduced herself as the mother of someone thinking of coming to study with us, and said she was concerned by my ‘simplistic’ analysis of the case. She knew someone involved, who had told her that there was some personal politics to the whole situation and that this was the main driver of the change in policy. She was concerned that all our teaching might suffer from such over-simplification. Her sign-off was “that’s just something I wanted to say, so thank you.”

I found this really frustrating, on a number of levels.

Firstly, while I was happy to accept that I had simplified matters, especially as I was ignorant of the factor she mentioned, I did feel that not to have mentioned something that is not in the public domain (and I checked) was a bit harsh. Highly popular as I am, I don’t have contacts in the local Tory party, so I was being judged by a yardstick that I would struggle to attain.

Secondly, the linkage between what I said in a radio interview of 3 minutes and what I might say in a module with 22 contact hours, assorted online work and other activities seems tenuous. Sadly, I’ve now done enough media to know that interviewers are looking for brevity and conciseness, rather than endless nuance. Likewise, I’ve certainly done enough teaching to know how to use the time available to maximise student reflection and criticality, so that anything I contribute is dealt with in a considered manner.

And thirdly, the lady didn’t leave me any good option for talking with her about it. She’d expressed an opinion, I would like to respond to it, but unless I can get the radio station to broadcast an appeal for her to phone me back, I’m left with writing this post instead. If we’d been able to talk, then I might have been able to talk it through: that would be partly to reassure her about her daughter’s education with us, but more to talk through her understanding of the original story.

All of this clearly relates back to how we deal with students. Do we evaluate students on an equitable basis? Do we extrapolate unfairly from individual incidents? And do we provide means to continue the dialogue with the student?

Each of these questions needs to be considered when giving feedback, so it’s worth spending some time reflecting on it. Addressing them isn’t that difficult, but it’s also easy for us to forget that often we will have access to privileged information that’s not generally known, or that we often see the feedback form as the end of matters, rather than a beginning.

Ultimately then, the feedback I got has been of use, because it’s helped me share the wider point with you. I’d still like to talk with the caller, though.

Posted in Activities, Feedback & Reflection, Simon Usherwood | 3 Comments

Grokking Nutella Worldview Synergies

ClippyMy wife is the first person who told me that writing is a way of thinking and therefore also a way of learning. If she’s correct, Microsoft faces trouble ahead, and I’m not referring to just the thousands of employees who are losing their jobs. A few days ago the Chronicle of Higher Education published this excellent commentary on the turgid and vapid prose the company’s new CEO, Satya Nadella. The style in which the memo is written sends a very bad message about corporate culture at Microsoft, and it’s a good demonstration of why writing skills matter in the post-college world.

Posted in Chad Raymond, Writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Response to Teaching Women

In reference to Mallendo’s post about gender in the discipline and in the classroom, I run into the same problem. Approximately 65 percent of the students on my campus are female and my classes mirror this gender ratio. I don’t specifically address gender in my comparative politics course but I do make an effort to include literature written by people who are not Caucasian males with U.S. nationality. In terms of female authors, this has included:

In the past I have also assigned some of Elinor Ostrom’s work in a graduate course. But in general, it’s been difficult finding high-quality literature relevant to my course written by women in a field that is dominated by men.

Posted in Chad Raymond, Comparative Politics | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Teaching Women: Gender in the discipline and in the classroom

Two of the courses that I teach annually are in a live-and-learn leadership program for freshman women (wlp.gwu.edu).  The two courses (Introduction to Comparative Politics in the fall and Introduction to International Politics in the spring) have about 20 students, all women who live together and take an additional course together.  In the four years I’ve taught in the program, I have started to pay more attention to ways that gender matters in teaching political science.  This manifests itself in a few ways that I think are worthwhile for others who don’t teach in a similar environment but are interested in questions of gender equality.  

First, I noticed that it is not standard for comparative politics textbooks to discuss gender in any depth.  For the upcoming semester, I found a textbook that has a chapter on race and gender, which is a good start.  I will supplement it, as I’ve done in the past, with a few scholarly articles.  I tend to focus on institutional questions, mainly the variation in women’s representation across countries.  One of the group debates this semester (a regular assignment in this class) will be on the use of gender quotas.  In an introductory course, I can only scratch the surface (further limited by the fact that this is not my area of expertise), but it gives the students a foundation for thinking about gender as a comparative politics topic.

Another conscious change that I’ve made in my teaching is to strive for more balance in the authors I assign.  There was recently a great deal of blogging about the gender gap in the scholarship of political science (in particular, the excellent Monkey Cage symposium).  One suggestion that came out of this discussion was to include more women scholars on our syllabi, particularly in graduate courses.  I don’t teach graduate courses, but I think it’s valuable to present undergraduates with women scholars on equal footing with the men on the syllabus.  I am still amazed at how many of my students will still default to “he” when discussing an author’s work in class.  I hope repeated exposure to women scholars changes this default.

No doubt these are small changes (and there are many other issues related to gender in teaching and in the discipline), but if I’m teaching a group of women in a leadership program, the least I can do is expose them to issues of gender in political science and give them some tools to analyze these issues.  I’ve carried this over into other courses I teach.  I’d love to hear how others incorporate gender into their courses. 

Posted in Teaching, Women | 1 Comment

This Is Your Brain On Learning

Fried EggsI’ve written before about the need for educators to know something about the cognitive basis for learning. Otherwise our students learn a lot less than they otherwise could. I recently stumbled upon this excellent editorial on the subject written by Arthur Graesser, a psychology professor at the University of Memphis. The editorial presents principles of learning that come from two reports that are worth reading. One of these is Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning, a list of recommended instructional practices along with the degree of evidence that exists in support of each practice. The other is 25 Principles to Guide Pedagogy and the Design of Learning Environments.

Here are a few of the learning principles they mention:

  • Space learning over time.
  • Help students learn how to effectively manage the time they spend studying.
  • Testing enhances learning, particularly when the tests are aligned with important content.
  • Stories and example cases are typically remembered better than facts and abstract principles — information should be embedded within a narrative.
  • Motivation to learn is higher when content and skills are anchored in real world problems that matter to the student.
  • Deep learning is stimulated by problems that create cognitive disequilibrium, such as obstacles to goals, contradictions, conflict, and anomalies.

Mars Attacks


Posted in Chad Raymond, Cognitive Science and Psychology, Learning, Teaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A funny thing happened on the way to the classroom…

This weekend, I got buttonholed by my father-in-law, with one of those questions one dreads: “have you got a joke I can use for a talk I’m doing?”

Needless to say, I didn’t and an awkward silence ensued, especially once I’d announced that “I don’t really do jokes.” I leave that for you to judge for yourselves.

Once the conversation had moved on, I got to thinking about how we use humour in our teaching, mainly because it raised an interesting point, but also partly because it allowed me to theorise my way out of an embarrassing situation.

Politics is an area that appears to lend itself to humour: you only have to turn on the TV to see stand-ups do just that every night. But that’s primarily at the level of “aren’t politicians rubbish?”, which isn’t really very insightful, except in highlighting that politicians are people too.

But in terms of engaging with more fundamental concepts, humour doesn’t get us so very far. Either we do the IR thing of fantastical worlds (that maybe be humorous or tongue-in-cheek) or we try to enliven our classes with funny examples (e.g. political ideologies using cows). Neither feels terribly satisfactory.

That’s not to say that humour doesn’t have a place in the classroom, but that its value lies in engaging students with the material. The more we can build an affective layer to our work with them, the more likely it is that we can get students to internalise and operationalise what they are presented with.

To take one pertinent – to me, at least – example, the reason my research focuses on euroscepticism is that I found it highly amusing that individuals could hold such beliefs, often within wild world-views, and I wanted to know more about that. These days, I don’t find it amusing in the same way, but I do still find it engaging and interesting.

Humour, then, is just one part of a wider strategy of engagement. When I look at some of the games we’ve talked about on this blog, they engender feelings of frustration, confusion or humour as pathways into learning. The key question then becomes not “how can I get my students to laugh?”, but “can I get my students to think about why they laugh?”

Jokes qua jokes aren’t the way to do that, their volume notwithstanding. Instead, we might do better to acknowledge humour when we find it, as part of a wider strategy of opening up a topic for students to get stuck in.

And that’s why I’ll never get to use my hilarious joke about the new eurosceptic group in the European Parliament.

Posted in Academia, Activities, critical thinking | Tagged , | 2 Comments