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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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 , | 1 Comment

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

How Simulations Teach you about Real Life: a Tornado as a Teaching Tool

Adaptability.  Quick thinking.  Time management.  We’d all agree, I think, that these skills are essential to running a good simulation.  Often the instructor has to facilitate the action, responding to new ideas that the students bring to the table, making decisions with little time to think them through that may affect the course of the sim or game, and managing time to make sure that you still had a chance to debrief after finishing the entire exercise.

I need to run some more of these, because these skills utterly failed me yesterday in my non-work life.

Its minor news, but yesterday a tornado touched down in a suburb of St. Louis called University City.  This is unusual–we do get twisters in St. Louis, but they usually head north or south of the city, and U City is one of the inner suburbs that form the wider metropolis, and an actual tornado touching down there is fairly rare.  This one came down briefly about 2 miles from my home, causing a little bit of damage (F-0 to F-1) during its brief time on the ground but thankfully no loss of life.

I did not grow up in the Midwest, but over the last 15 years I’ve gotten used to tornados.  If the sirens go off, you turn the TV on, see where the cell is, and only head to a basement if the storm is headed to your area.  Since the warning goes out for the whole county, this is generally sound strategy.  Usually you have a good twenty minutes to prepare between the time that rotation is noticed and when the cell is in the city itself.

Yesterday, however, the text alert and sirens went off only 4 minutes before the tornado touched down at 524am.  By the time I got out of bed and got to the TV (moving at a somewhat leisurely pace; again, usually you have 20 minutes to respond) the storm was on top of us.  At that point I started frantically gathering up pets trying to get them into their carriers for the move to the basement, but I was woefully ill prepared–at some point the cat box moved to the basement, leaving it unavailable for its assigned task.  I stuffed a cat in a shoulder bag, ready to head to the basement, but by the time all this activity finished, and I was ready to get to safety, the storm had passed.  If the tornado had stayed on the ground for awhile, its quite possible it would have hit while I was still trying to coax the cat out from under the bed.

Putting aside the obvious advice (as many have since mentioned: human safety first, then animals, if one has to choose), this experience made me reflect on the attributes that contributed to my failure to respond, and how they relate to using simulations in the classroom.

First, I was simply unprepared.  I did not know that a severe thunderstorm was expected, and thus did not have the carrier ready to go in case a trip to the basement was necessary.  Lack of preparation and anticipation of the unexpected is a big reason why simulations sometimes fail.

Second, I was unable to quickly adapt to my circumstances. I did manage to convert a canvas bag into a cat carrier, but I was unable to get all the pets into the basement by myself.  Despite this, I continued to try to corral them, rather than recognizing that I should simply go. Moreover, even though it was clear from the tv that the storm was much closer than it seemed, I did not immediately go to the basement, but instead took the time to grab shoes and other unnecessary things.  Just because in the past I had had 20 minutes to react did not mean I could act as such now.  Likewise, things come up in simulations that result in lost time, such as rules that need to be more fully explained to one group that others in the past may have understood more quickly.  You need to work within the confines of the time you have, and recognize that some aspects of the game or sim might need to be sacrificed to preserve the whole experience.

Finally, I learned that no matter what happens in my real life, I can somehow always find a way to relate it to my teaching. Never forget the value of life experiences as a teaching tool.



Posted in Amanda Rosen, and Simulations, Classroom Behavior, Feedback & Reflection | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Restless Natives

Dr. Susherwood, man of international intrigue, is now dealing with jet lag and blood rain, so I’ll start off the month . . .

Lord of FliesAs I wrote in my last post on the subject, universities are reluctant to abandon the traditional narrative of higher education. The narrative defines what students should learn and how they should learn it. On one hand faculty and administrators dismiss new modes of learning as not meeting the standards of academe, and on the other they try to shoe horn these new modes into the existing institutional framework. Ultimately, to paraphrase something that Clay Shirky reputedly said, universities want to preserve the problem to which they have been the solution. This strategy will eventually fail for a few interrelated reasons.

First, the population seeking to learn what universities have historically provided has changed significantly. Only a minority of students at the undergraduate level participate in the four-year, full-time, residential college experience. Those who do cost universities more in support services and financial aid, because they come from families with fewer economic resources. So-called adult students — those more than twenty-four years old — are often less interested in learning for learning’s sake than in occupational advancement. They care more about learning only what is just good enough for a bump in salary. Enrollment in online education has exploded, but it often simply replicates the  stale and exclusionary curricula found on physical campuses. In sum, universities are relying on systems developed centuries ago to compete against each other in a shrinking market.

Second, digital technology is changing how readers read and watchers watch, so there is no reason to assume that it won’t affect how learners learn. The once-dominant players in print, audio, and video media industries used to regard online production and distribution as inconsequential to their core businesses. They assumed that few people would buy or read a book that they couldn’t physically hold in their own hands, and that no one would want to watch video on a tiny screen in disjointed five minute segments.

In the decades immediately following World War II, three broadcast networks controlled what people saw on television. In the 1980s, the USA was wired for cable television, and instead of three channels, people could watch hundreds. CNN, HBO, and Fox soon reigned supreme in their respective market segments. Now the country is wired for broadband internet, and the web is a medium in its own right. While legacy media firms can buy audience access, they aren’t designed for the environment that the audience inhabits. Jenna Marbles, with over one billion views on YouTube, can turn on a dime. Paramount can’t. Amazon opens an on-demand e-publishing platform with the slogan “inventory free fulfillment.” Netflix uses a statistical analysis of its customers to design its own content and then stream it back to them. Radio programs like This American Life can skip third-party distribution by contracting independently with radio stations. Or it can bypass the system entirely by streaming directly to subscribers, as World Wrestling Entertainment now does.

Many of the above examples are digitally-native technology companies that produce media, as opposed to media companies using new technology. The former are very lean operations, often with years of experience in doing business online. The latter are trying to graft a new branch onto a very old tree.

Technology companies now also sell learning, but in a fundamentally different manner than universities are using technology. As a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, these education upstarts have quickly figured out how to

“divide the massive higher-education market into segments based on what students want and need, and then create offerings that appeal to only a slice or two of the overall market. Such a lean approach, of not trying to serve everyone, is definitely cheaper, and often better, for meeting student demands.”

Posted in Academia, Chad Raymond, Curricula, Multicultural-International-Global, Online Classes, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment