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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Innovation? What Innovation?

Something of a response to Simon’s post about teaching innovations:

Rube GoldbergSimon is one of those rare people in a position of authority who, when he’s not plotting to become the next king of Scotland, asks what people have been doing in the classroom and how they’ve been doing it. Many of us don’t get asked, and many of us don’t bother changing how we do things, partly because steps taken to improve one’s teaching don’t directly factor into tenure and promotion decisions. This assumes, of course, that the possibility of promotion exists, which it does not for most college-level instructors in the USA. Given the current political economy on many university campuses,  pedagogical experimentation gone awry can lead to unemployment for the instructor.

The end result is that many of us have structural incentives to play it safe and replicate the classroom environments that our graduate school professors experienced when they were undergraduates. Or we tinker away in self- and institutionally-imposed isolation. The folks here at ALPS have a different approach, of course, but I remain surprised by the lack of institutional mechanisms at many universities for faculty members to share their classroom innovations with each other. In my case, the problem is exemplified by the fact that I can share ideas with people working at universities hundreds or thousands of kilometers away more easily than I can with people on my own small campus.

If these mechanisms did exist, we wouldn’t see expensive outside speakers brought in to tell us about “new” teaching methods that some of us have already made part of our repertoires. Nor would we be expected to shove square technological pegs into round holes of instruction in the name of innovation. Instead faculty would be communicating regularly and directly with each other.

It is somewhat perverse that Daphne Koller, co-founder and president of Coursera, is more attuned (beginning at 14:50) to what good teaching is and how to foster it than many of the people running traditional universities. Academia has had decades to implement systems that identify and reward good teaching, but at many institutions of higher education this opportunity was and continues to be squandered.

Posted in Academia, Chad Raymond, Teaching, Technology | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Combining Classes for a Simulation: Things to Consider, Part 2

Last week, Dr. Danielle Langfield of Marist College discussed her experience in team-running a simulation. Here’s part two of the series:

Part 2: Challenges of Coordination
In the last post I talked about why and how a colleague and I ran a 2.5-hour simulation jointly with her Human Rights course and my Democratization course. We learned some lessons in combining two courses for one simulation, and have some wrinkles to iron out for future iterations:

•Align the preparation and background given to each class carefully: While my lecture on South Africa and the written materials provided were duplicated for each class, the preparation required of each class was different. The Human Rights class read background materials with the benefit of guiding questions. The Democratization class did the same, and was required to write a short, bullet-pointed memo outlining their assigned role’s starting negotiation positions. As it turned out, this gave the Democratization students an advantage over the students from the other course in the negotiations. The effect may have been increased further by the fact that the Human Rights course was at the 200-level (there were students who had taken only one or no political science courses before) while Democratization was at the 300-level; the Human Rights students’ general discipline-specific background and college-level skill sets were, reasonably, thinner. My suggestion is to require the same kind of preparatory assignments in pursuit of more similar engagement prior to the simulation, even if some of the specific content differs in accordance with the different topics of the courses.
• Be prepared for complaints about the other class: Related to the previous point, in the debriefing conversation in our next class, my Democratization students brought up the disparate preparation. They felt the simulation suffered because of what they perceived as a lack of peer preparation and, with those peers removed from the room, they weren’t socially constrained from expressing this view. However, I used these comments to launch a good discussion of the importance of skilled negotiators, that underfunded states and groups might find themselves at a disadvantage in negotiations without good representation, that ‘negotiator’ is a potential career path, and that organizations exist that train negotiators precisely because it is such an important skill.

•Consider how to avoid double-dipping on assignments, for students taking both courses: We did think of this early enough to avoid it, but it remains important to bear in mind. Two students were enrolled in both classes simultaneously, and two more had taken Democratization in a previous semester. Addressing the latter group was easy in this simulation: I made sure their assigned role was very different from the one they were assigned in the past. For the former group (those taking both classes simultaneously), we don’t have a clear solution yet; if we do change the assignments in order to align them more and provide more similar preparation, we have to do so in a way that isn’t too aligned.

•Schedule time for instructors to work together on assigning roles to students: Because this simulation did not begin life as a joint endeavor, we defaulted to it being “my show.” For the most part that worked fine. One part on which we should have worked more collaboratively was on role assignments. I have always done role assignments only semi-randomly. Not knowing about half of the students in JoAnne’s class made this difficult; I only belatedly realized this and hurriedly asked for her input. For her part, having now seen the simulation from start to finish, JoAnne will have a clearer sense of how best to do this too.

In conclusion, we would do this again. JoAnne liked that the way the simulation is structured, giving each student an individual role, does not allow for freeriders, which is a complaint in many small group projects. She found that her often-disengaged students perked up with this active learning exercise, and I was able to run my simulation that I consider a vital component in my course.

Posted in Activities, and Simulations, Comparative Politics, Feedback & Reflection, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Innovation for innovation’s sake?

I’ve been meeting new colleagues in recent weeks, as new contracts begin and as I get geared up for the start of the academic year. Couple that to interviewing people for new posts and I’m getting to talk to a good range of people about their teaching.images

One of the things I’m always interested in is what people do. Everyone’s got something that’s a bit different and I certainly don’t presume to know it all, so I ask. A student-led pedagogy here, a piece of group work there: all interesting stuff.

This is by way of a prelude to a recent discussion, where I was asking someone about how they’ve innovated their teaching. Their reply was that they ‘don’t innovate, actually.’

This rather disarmed me, especially as it transpired they were doing some great things with feedback (maybe to discuss in another post), but it raised an important question: do we innovate for innovation’s sake sometimes?

Here at the ALPS blog, we love talking about new stuff. That’s partly because it offers new ways to engage students, partly because it gives us new material to write about, and partly because… well, because it’s new and different.

At the same time, I think we also recognise that new-ness isn’t, in of itself, a sufficient reason to use a particular technique. Our primary interest is in doing things as well as possible. That might mean trying out something new, because we don’t know if it works, but it also means not throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

To take the obvious example, lectures are not the unambiguous evil that they sometimes get painted as. As a method of presenting a package of ideas to the audience, with some capacity for real-time interaction, they are great. They let you tailor your content in a way that you can’t do in a flipped classroom and, when they are done well, they can be a thing of joy to be part of.

The difficulty comes – as so often – in the stickiness of practice. We do the thing we did before, because we don’t have time to change, or because we have no incentive to change, or because it’s ‘good enough.’ I’m just as guilty of it as the next person.

Seen as such, it’s not so much a lack of innovation that’s the problem, as it is inertia.

Perhaps the answer here is to do a bit of the old jujitsu and use the problem to find a way to deal with it. Rather than asking ourselves: “what can I do that’s new?”, we should be saying “what can I tweak to improve?” Rather than working from a clear sheet each time, we can build incrementally on existing practice to make something a bit better. For most people, most of the time, such a gradual approach is both lower in cost and likely to produce useful outcomes.

Of course, for some, more radical solutions are needed, but if there is a culture of tweaking and refinement, then that will be accompanied by a culture of (self-)reflection and an awareness of the limits to any one approach.

The real challenge here is to build that culture and to then support it. It needs buy-in from all teaching staff and a habit of sharing ideas and problems. That’s certainly not easy but it looks more manageable than asking for permanent revolution.

So then: Brit argues for pragmatic approach. Not so surprising, is it?

Posted in Activities, Simon Usherwood, Academia, Learning, critical thinking, Teaching | Tagged | 1 Comment

Can we do all our learning & teaching using Lego?

Off the back of the great response to my post last week on The Lego Movie (apologies again to Borja Garcia for ruining his enjoyment of said film), I have obviously returned to the subject, albeit in a slightly different way.

While searching for the official movie website, I stumbled across Lego Serious Play. ‘Stumbled’ here should of course be understood as ‘spent ages browsing the online shop, buying a kit, then browsing some more.’ That box has now arrived, so the next step of my investigation continues.


Of course I have even more Lego on my desk. Don’t you?

Essentially, LSP is a system for promoting team interaction and creativity, using the bricks to allow people to visualise and manifest their ideas in a way that lets them explore new ideas. That’s the website’s take on it, anyway.

I’ll freely admit I’m not so sure about this, not least because I’ve still to see it in practice, but I’m willing to have a bash at it.

As readers with long memories might recall, I’ve been using Lego in the classroom for a long time. Some years ago, I made a video explaining different voting systems, using Lego squares, because it made it all much easier to visualise. Similarly, my negotiating class get to use Lego to explore the difficulties of communication, because it allows for very subtle usage.

Whether and how LSP might fit into all this is still unclear to me. The core development attribute seems to be about creativity, which does not easily fit into an applied module in a degree programme. That is actually rather a surprise to me – and probably a topic for another day – but it’s meant in the sense that creativity is a cross-cutting skill, so probably belongs in an early phase of a programme. Moreover, students rarely remain with the same group for any problem beyond one module/course, so even if team skills are developed, then some of them are lost as the group breaks up.

But even as I write this, I recall that I do have one group of students who will be together for a long period and – additionally – will be able to work as a single group: the first cohort of our Liberal Arts and Sciences programme, of which I am director and teacher for the first compulsory element.

My plan then is to use LSP to trigger a discussion about disciplines and about their relationship with each other. I’m not going to get into details just yet, since I’d like to try it out on them first, but essentially I’m using the Lego as a way into the subject, to distract them for the weightiness of it all.

Distracting students is something I really like doing, albeit with care not to get too distracted. Whether it works remains to be seen, but I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy the journey.

To come back to the question in the title, obviously we shouldn’t do ALL our teaching using Lego, but if we can recognise the value of multiple paths to learning and scope for using everyday objects to create an environment for problematising and challenging students, then that can open our eyes to large new areas of pedagogic practice. In essence, Lego is a means, not an end, and we should never lose sight of that.

Posted in Activities, Classroom Behavior, Discussions, Exercises, Experiential, Getting Them to Talk, Group Collaboration, Problem solving, Seminars, Simon Usherwood, Skills, Small Classes, Technology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Student Autobiographies

Today we have a guest post from Justin Rex, Senior Lecturer, Irvin D. Reid Honors College, Wayne State University:

One fundamental question that underlies many political debates is the extent to which individuals are in control of their status in life. To what extent are individuals a product of their own choices and to what extent are they influenced or controlled by larger forces like political parties, corporations, class, race, or gender? One’s answer to this question goes a long way toward explaining one’s position on welfare, immigration, healthcare access, and many other issues.

Justin Bieber BioStudents are often unaware of their own answer to this question. Frequently, their attitude is a reflexive, uncritical one and they struggle to view the world from a perspective different than the one already deeply ingrained. The problem is then how we as educators can get students to more explicitly acknowledge their own perspectives and to learn to see from alternative ones so they can make a more informed decision about their core values and political preferences.

One solution I created for my Introduction to American Government class is to have students write two versions of their autobiography. These can be short, 1-2 paragraph assignments completed at home or in class early in the semester. The first autobiography is written from the perspective of individualism. This version is the Horatio Alger story of their life, focusing on the good choices and hard work that led them to where they are today. Next, they write a structural autobiography. What factors outside their control helped them get where they are, such as their family, school, and socioeconomic status? Once students have completed their autobiographies, I ask them to share brief versions in class. As more students share, we begin to list commonalities. This list serves as a good introduction for these contrasting ways of seeing the social world. A good way to get students to think about their own values is to ask them which autobiography best explains their life.

This assignment is not a solution in isolation. To be useful, I refer back to it often. For example, when we discuss political ideologies, I ask students to draw connections between various ideologies and their autobiographical perspective. Through discussion, we are able to make the connection between classical liberalism and their individualist autobiographies the connection between socialist ideologies and their structural autobiographies. My students also complete a semester-long service learning project on a public problem of their choice. As students reflect on the causes of a problem like poverty, it is useful to have them consider the extent to which individuals, social structures, or some combination thereof are the cause. Their answers helps shape the solutions they ultimately recommend. Also, the assignment helps them think critically about individual and group efficacy for changing the social structures that contribute to the problem.

Justin can be contacted about the above assignment at justin.rex[at]wayne.edu.

Posted in American Politics, Feedback & Reflection, Multicultural-International-Global, Problem solving, Writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Combining Classes for a Simulation: Things to Consider. A guest post by Dr. Danielle Langfield

This week we feature part 1 of a two-post series on how to run a simulation in a low-enrolled course by teaming up with another professor. The author, Dr. Danielle Langfield, is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Marist College.

Part 1: Facilitating Conditions

This past semester, I faced a challenge: an insufficient number of students enrolled in my advanced undergraduate Democratization course to run a simulation negotiating the end of apartheid in South Africa. I have included this simulation in the past eight iterations of the course, as it serves to teach a relatively abstract set of arguments about elite interests and their interactions in determining regime outcomes. Before I created the simulation, students struggled with this material mightily, but having students adopt the roles of those elites has helped them master the theoretical and historical material. Only last semester I did not have the minimum of 12 students needed for all the necessary roles. What to do?

My department chair, JoAnne Myers, was teaching Politics of Human Rights at the intermediate undergraduate level and offered her students for the simulation. With the two classes, we had 28 students in total, more than enough to run the simulation. It worked well enough that we have talked about needing to offer the two courses in the same semester in the future so that we can do it again. But that does not mean there were not some lessons to be learned and considerations to take into account when two courses share a simulation.

First, we benefitted from specific circumstances that made it easier to combine classes logistically:

•The topics worked together: This is an obvious prerequisite for a joint activity, but it bears noting. My caution would be to not underestimate the difficulty of finding synergy between two courses, especially if you are extending an existing activity to a second course rather than creating something new for both. JoAnne had to think about how the readings and topics of the simulation could serve the different subject and emphases of her course. Reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography was appropriate for a class looking beyond the theory of human rights to its application. Adding the simulation near the end of the semester allowed for the politics of negotiating human rights to come to the fore.

•Course syllabi were new and/or easy to change: JoAnne was teaching Human Rights for the first time, so there was no issue in rearranging an old syllabus to ‘make space’ for the simulation.

•Time slots of the two courses were compatible: Democratization was offered in two 75-minute sessions each week during the day, but Human Rights was a two-and-a-half-hour class one evening a week. I taught half of one Human Rights class, to provide background on the South African case and to explain the simulation. Two weeks later, the classes met jointly during the Human Rights evening slot for the simulation itself. Having one of the classes held in one large block of time, at a relatively unusual time of day, meant everyone was available.

•The composition of our student body meant everyone was available: Our student body is mostly traditionally-aged and have more flexible work and family schedules, on average, than do many student bodies. Students in the Democratization course were told on the syllabus and on the first day of class in January that their attendance was required one evening in April. Apparently all were able to make appropriate arrangements to attend the simulation. That would not be possible everywhere. (I also cancelled class when I attended a conference in April, to ‘make up’ the time to my students.)

None of these issues are necessarily insurmountable if your circumstances are different than ours, but they do need to be considered.

In the next post, I discuss the problems we discovered while conducting a joint simulation.

Posted in and Simulations | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Political readings of ‘The Lego Movie’

As I return from my annual break on the sun-kissed shores of Cornwall, I worry that I have almost singularly failed to think about learning, teaching or any other aspect of my work. Moreover, by foregoing the opportunity to attend UACES’ annual conference in Cork I’ve also missed out on some great L&T papers that I could have discussed here. I’ve even missed out on the whole #APSAonFire thing (which sounded wild, BTW).


Of course I have Lego in my office. Don’t you?

But have no fear, but I now realise that you while can take the senior lecturer out of the university, you can’t take the etc., etc.

One of the joys of spending more time with the kids over the summer has been the excuse to watch more family-oriented movies (when the sun isn’t kissing the shores, obviously), and this year’s big hit chez nous has been the Lego Movie. It’s got jokes, 1980s references, double-decker couches and – as I remarked the first time I watched it – a great representation of fascism and challenges to authoritarian rule.

So, in the spirit of my Game of Thrones post, here are some further thoughts on how you might use the Lego Movie in the classroom to stimulate discussion. And yes, that is something I’m seriously considering doing.

First Reading: Power

The easiest way into the politics of the Lego Movie is its depiction of unlimited power. Lord Business is ‘ruler of the world’ and the whole movie concerns his plot to make everything conform to his ideal (spoiler: he fails). Through his co-option of the police (with their arbitrary justice), any nominal competitive electoral system (there are voting machines (which he makes) and he’s President), the media (which is awesome (a good discussion here)) and the economy (everyone seems to work for his Octan corporation), Business is able to shape and control society through all three of Lukes’ faces of power: imposing preferences (e.g. the Micromanagers), controlling agendas (Taco Tuesday) and shaping desires (the instructions).

Moreover, Business highlights the fragility of authoritarian rule, which is strongly personalised and brittle, and so unable to adapt and change (rather literally in this case, given his plot). This echoes the argument of Runciman in The Confidence Trap (which was part of my summer reading and certainly worth a go), namely that while democracies are sub-optimal, they at least have no sense of when to fail completely and so can bounce back from threats.

There is also an implicit sense that the penetration of power is rather thin. Emmet, the hero of the (Lego) piece [you see what I did there? Ha!], is portrayed as being utterly compliant at the start of the film, but Bad Cop is incredulous that he, Emmet, thinks Business is a ‘great guy’. This suggests that the wider social compact is more tenuous than it immediately appears: certainly, when the revolution comes, it takes very little indeed to make it happen (‘you don’t know me, but I’m on TV, so you can trust me’ is the key line here). Plenty of room here for a discussion about how much people actually pay to their political lives.

Second Reading: The Liberal Ideal?

As the film progresses, we discover that Bricksburg – Emmet’s home – is merely one of many ‘worlds‘. Wyldstyle explains (‘Proper name. Placename. Backstory’) that originally the Lego world was one, until Business got confused about the pieces getting mixed up, so divided them up, to make each one a more pure (my word) place.

While this doesn’t lead to conflict between worlds, it does speak to the benefits of free exchange in stimulating creativity (cf. La-La Land) and reducing tension: consider the volume of resources put into policing the boundaries and chasing down the Master Builders.

If you’re feeling ambitious, you might want to get into notions of social homogenisation and conformity (‘get rid of anything weird-looking’), but this really goes to the edge of what could be grounded in the film itself.

Third Reading: Meta, meta, META!

The core message of the film is that we should not be bound by the instructions, but rather need to believe in ourselves and our ideas. That means not ‘buying over-priced coffee’ or being told what to do more generally. And yet, the film is itself a commercial product, that you are invited to consume, together with various Lego kits from the film.

I leave you to work out how you have a discussion about whether the explicit message is compromised by the manner of its delivery.


So there you go: everything is politics, as they don’t say. Would love to hear your views on this, if only to reassure me that I’m not the only one who does this with kids films.

Posted in Activities, APSA, critical thinking, Exercises, Films and Fiction, Getting Them to Talk, International Relations, Simon Usherwood | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment