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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The Real Thing II

Moxie Real Thing 2For my international relations course this fall, I’m introducing a series of brief simulations — two class periods each. I’ve created a preparatory writing assignment that I call the “briefing memo” for each simulation. Here are the instructions:

You are employed by the Humanitarian Information Unit at the U.S. Department of State (HIU). A new President has been inaugurated, and the President’s senior foreign policy advisors want to identify potential areas of conflict around the world. The HIU has been assigned the task of providing these advisors with its assessment of locations that have a history of political and economic instability. Your job is to write a briefing memo for your superiors that does the following:

♦  Analyzes and references the information that is contained in the articles and reports that have been provided to you by HIU staff.
♦  Identifies reasons why conflict might occur in this location.
♦  Explain what form the conflict is likely to take if it does occur.
♦  Recommends in one sentence what the U.S. government’s response should be if conflict does occur.

Your superiors are extremely busy and want information that is concise, detailed, and easy to read. The memo must be in single-spaced paragraphs with a blank line between each paragraph, 11 or 12 point font, and no longer than two pages. Sources should be cited within the text rather than with footnotes or endnotes—for example, “(Eggers, 87)”. The body of the memo should include sub-headings of “Overview” (one paragraph), “Conflict Scenario” (at least one paragraph), and “Recommendation” (one sentence).

I’ve linked these instructions with a sample memo on the course’s website.

Posted in and Simulations, Assignments, Chad Raymond, Multicultural-International-Global, Role-playing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Here comes APSA TLC 2015!


My first attempt at a group selfie back in NM didn’t quite work…

This blog was born out of a slightly-drunken conversation at the American Political Science Association’s Teaching and Learning Conference in Albuquerque, back in 2011. As such, TLC has a special place in the hearts of ALPSblog members, especially because the professors among us are so generous with buying us a fancy dinner [cough].

With all this in mind, it is with a happy heart that we note TLC 2015 is finally announced for 16-18 January in the fair city of Washington DC.

All of us have found the format a particularly useful one for properly discussing our work and building networks. By spending three days with the same stream of colleagues, there is a lot of opportunity to really get into the fine detail and to reflect on the linkages between papers.

Because we’re us, we haven’t yet sorted out if we can all go, but then again the call for papers isn’t open yet either, so let’s say we’re appropriately positioned. However, if you can join us, then we’d love to meet more of our readership, especially me, so do pencil it into your diaries now.

Posted in Academia, Amanda Rosen, APSA, Chad Raymond, Conferences, Getting Them to Talk, Group Collaboration, Nina Kollars, Simon Usherwood, Victor Asal | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Real Thing

Coke Real ThingAs I’ve said before, the best writing assignments present students with a contextualized problem — a task — that immediately gives them a role to fulfill, an audience to communicate with, and a format to follow. Role, audience, and format should reflect the types of tasks students might encounter outside of college; for example, a letter to the editor or a policy proposal that presents an evidence-based recommendation on a specific issue. The traditional research paper, with an audience of only the course instructor and a format that is not recognized outside of academia, lacks the authenticity that will lead to improvements in students’ writing.

Doctoral programs in political science typically don’t train people in how to write* or how to teach writing to others, and I’ve only recently begun to better incorporate the principles of role, audience, and format into my own teaching. Here is one example, referenced in my last post on project-based learning.

Last semester’s instructions for a project on tourism, for which a team of students wrote a report and delivered a class presentation:

Choose a location outside the USA and design an international volunteer- or eco-tourism experience in which both the participants and the host community derive long term benefit. Make sure you define “benefit” and be aware that it’s possible to have more than one. Also make sure to include a process that measures who benefits and why to determine if the program’s goals are achieved.

These instructions are okay but not great. This semester’s instructions are better:

Your team of hospitality industry consultants has been hired by Hilton Worldwide to complete a study on the feasibility of an international (meaning outside the USA) volunteer- or eco-tourism experience in which both the guests and the host community derive long term benefits. You team needs to report on the following:

♦  The best international location and type of experience for this venture, with an explanation of why the location and experience is the “best.”
♦  An explanation of the “benefits” that guests and the host community will acquire.
♦  A process that measures who benefits and why to determine if the venture’s goals are being achieved.

I have another example in which audience, purpose, and format might be even more obvious; I’ll write about that in my next post.

*one reason for the stilted jargon-laden prose of many political scientists
Posted in Assignments, Chad Raymond, Multicultural-International-Global, Political Economy and Development, Projects, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Helping Students Make Mistakes

A few years ago, I picked up a handful of dry erase boards and colored markers at the dollar store. I use these for easy, impromptu group activities. For example, when discussing Fearon’s 1993 Rationalist Theories of War paper, I have the students get into groups and draw out the bargaining range and other key parts of the theory.dry erase

When introducing game trees, the dry erase boards are perfect canvases for the students to work through different scenarios and try to develop their own. Using the dry erase boards allow the students to feel comfortable making mistakes, as they are easily erased.

When circulating between the groups, it is easier to see the progress when the group task – creating something on the dry erase board – is visible. You can easily create some inter-group competition, having groups write answers or solutions on their boards and revealing them all at once. As a tool, it provides elements of tactile and visual learning to material that is often conceptual or abstract. The ability to make mistakes and start all over gives students space to try out different solutions.  It seems to enhance collaboration, as students pass around the board and each can work out different parts of the problem.  I find it’s a nice departure from traditional group work.

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Smells Like Team Spirit

Nirvana CheerleadersI was recently directed to the Team-Based Learning™ Collaborative (TBLC).* Membership in the TBLC costs money, but its website contains a lot of useful information. There are five components of Team-Based Learning™:

First, an instructor organizes students into permanent teams, with the goal of making each team as diverse as possible according to a set of instructor-selected criteria. I disagree with the idea of keeping students in the same teams for an entire semester, but I can understand the rationale behind it. I do recommend whether teams last for some or all of a course that the majority of the individual student’s final grade not be dependent upon team performance.

Second, students engage in pre-class preparation to gain the background knowledge that they will need to begin solving problems in class. Preparation occurs outside of the classroom, through reading and answering reading-related questions.

Third, students are tested individually and as teams during class, to ensure that everyone has acquired the necessary background knowledge. If necessary, the instructor can clarify particular topics with a mini-lecture.

Fourth, teams discuss problem-based questions and engage in collective decision making. This phase can include writing exercises if the instructor chooses. Teams simultaneously report their decisions using flash cards, which leads to discussion across teams and with the instructor.

The final stage is peer evaluation.

The TBLC also emphasizes backwards design, where learning outcomes are identified first and activities that are likely to help students attain them second.

*I have no financial interest in this trademarked product.
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Critical thinking and reading of contemporary events


“ask me a question…”

For any Politics student, critical thinking is a central skill that they need to acquire and develop. Without it, it is impossible to engage in a meaningful way with the world around them or to have a sense of how their own ideas work and cohere.

I’m always a bit hesitant about taking relativistic views to an extreme, but certainly contemporary politics requires us to have an appreciation of the way in which we are manipulated – consciously or unconsciously – by political actors and by the media.

With this in mind, recent weeks have been very instructive for me, as I follow events in two conflicts – Ukraine and Gaza.

I’m not a specialist in either region, and their impacts on my own field of research is relatively small, but I am interested in what’s happening.

In both cases, we have multiple actors, each of whom uses a wide range of strategies to communicate their position and interests to a wider public, including me. As such, I find particular interest in the way that news is framed and the way in we encounter Lukes’ three faces of power.

This week has seen a couple of pieces that have made me think some more about these issues and which might be of interest to students when discussing either media effects or the cases themselves.

On Ukraine, The Guardian has a good debate on western media coverage, which opens up some useful questions.

On Gaza, a friend pointed me towards a piece by Ottomansandzionists that made me consider several aspects of what’s happening.

In both cases, it has been the process of reflection that I’ve appreciated, getting me to question what I hear, read or watch. And without questions, we don’t get to answers.

PS – as I finish writing this, I also notice a piece by Simon Jenkins (a man with whom I usually disagree vehemently), which also makes me reflect some more about how we commemorate the First World War.  As with the other articles, it’s somewhat provocative and might stimulate some discussion and debate.

Posted in Academia, critical thinking, Getting Them to Read, Getting Them to Talk, Simon Usherwood, Teaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Moving On Up Again to the Projects

Project DemolitionTwo months ago, I described the worksheets that I used for project-based learning in two of my spring courses as a mixed experience. In the spirit of experimentation, I’ve reformulated three worksheets for use in a fall course.

The first worksheet asks each student to identify what skills he or she thinks are important in collaborating with others. The student then rates all team members individually and the team as a whole on these skills with a three-point scale.

The second worksheet asks each student to diagnose whether his or her team is is functioning effectively and write down what he or she can personally do to solve any problems.

In the third worksheet, students rate themselves and their teammates according to criteria I’ve established:

  • writing quality;
  • creativity, problem solving ability, and leadership;
  • responsibility and willingness to overcome challenges.

Each student then reviews what he or she has written for these categories and assigns an average score for each team member. Each score must be a different number.

In contrast to the worksheets from last semester, these worksheets are assignments students do outside of class. Each satisfactorily completed worksheet will add one percent to the student’s final grade. Also I will compute an average score each student from the scores he or she receives on the third worksheet from everyone on his or her team; this score is worth up to three percent of the final grade. So the worksheets’ stakes are low, but I’m hoping high enough to induce students to complete them. My main goal in assigning them is for students to engage in some self-reflection that will improve their collaboration skills.

I’ve also made some changes to the projects themselves, to more clearly communicate role, audience, and format in each project’s final product. I’ll write a separate post about that in the near future.

Posted in Assignments, Chad Raymond, Exercises & Projects, Feedback & Reflection, Group Collaboration, Projects, Skills | Tagged , , | Leave a comment