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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Gateway objects to help learning


Yeah, that should cover ‘multi-level governance’ AND ‘historical institutionalism’

I’m really lucky to be living in a country with an excellent state broadcaster, that adheres to being politically impartial, and with an public service remit to inform and educate. And you’re really lucky that I do, because it also means I can share a particular radio programme with you.

This week saw the start of a new series, “Germany: Memories of a Nation“, presented by the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor. This is the guy who did ‘A History of the World‘ a couple of years ago, and the new programme follows a similar approach.

Instead of trying to be systematic and canonical, MacGregor selects objects that open up gateways into understanding bigger questions. These objects offer multiple ideas and interpretations, and the stories and ideas that emerge criss-cross with each other. Couple that to a lovely presentational style and you have a winner.

It’s a technique that I am very sympathetic to, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it sidesteps the daunting task of trying to produce a typology of analysis of the thing under consideration. MacGregor was very careful to call it A History of the World, just as he is now not to try and create a history of Germany. Likewise, in our teaching there is often the sense that vast areas must be covered, often with little or no good explanation of why that must be so. By working out from material objects, we can ground students’ study from the start and promote a curiosity about why things are the way they are.

Secondly, such an approach lets us become much more responsive to student understanding. MacGregor doesn’t get this, because he’s making a radio show that he’s pre-recorded. But we can get this in the classroom, especially if we ask students to start telling the stories and illuminating the perspectives, and then we can work around them, rather than the other way around.

Of course, this presupposes that we are comfortable doing this: entering a classroom with only a rough idea of what might come up, and being willing to roll with that. In extreme cases, that means co-creation of knowledge and understanding, which might create some tricky conversations about the implicit hierarchy of the classroom, not to mention assessment tasks (“I don’t know about this, but tell me what you’ve learnt, and I’ll grade it”).

If you’ve had your critical turn, then this is probably not a problem in any case. If you’ve not, then this is also probably not a problem, because the margins of what is discussed can be roughly mapped out in advance and some direction imposed.

For example, let’s imagine you run a series of sessions, each with an object to talk around. You know what you’d like to cover, so you pick objects that might reasonably lead to those things being discussed. If you find something is getting missed, you can prompt with questions, or talk about directly: you could even change a later object to something more likely to trigger the appropriate thought to match your learning objectives.

This is all something that I want to explore in my teaching this year. With two courses with my Liberal Arts and Sciences, I’ve got a group with a very mixed background and diverse study interests, so there’s lots of scope for creative debate: that the number of people in the group is small will also facilitate interaction (I hope). In some cases, I’m using objects; in others, I’ve got tasks that will challenge their conceptualisations.

In the meantime, why not sit back and enjoy 15 minutes of a man talking about a ceremonial arch, and thinking about what objects you might chose to discuss with your students.

Posted in Activities, Classroom Behavior, critical thinking, Discussions, Exercises, Getting Them to Talk, Simon Usherwood, Skills, Teaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

When Hobbes Turned Liberal Institutionalist….

This week I returned to my roots to replay another version of Victor Asal’s Hobbes game. One of my favorite things about the Hobbes game is that it can always be slightly altered to introduce new kinds of interaction in the game.

In order to do this you really do need to play Victor’s original game first.

Then, a week or two later…. hand out the cards again. I wanted Wednesday’s interaction to be more akin to the picture of the international system represented by liberal institutional models of interaction. Specifically, I wanted to introduce variation, not simply in terms of individual power levels, but types of potential cooperation.

Tell them, today, the kind of card you get matters. (watch them peer at the front of their card anxiously….see how the people holding aces and kings begin to smile)

Project an image of the hierarchy of poker hands on the board and explain which kinds of hands are better than others. (you will get confused looks from people who have never played cards…don’t linger on this …. just smile and say…. everything will be alright)

The text and images below are from the website pokerstars.com but you can find the image anywhere really.

Straight Flush & Royal Flush


Four of a Kind:

Four of a Kind

Full House:

Full House





Three of a kind:

Three of a Kind

Two pair

Two Pair

One pair

One Pair

High card

High Card

Now… tell them that individual cards can challenge each other. In that case, the higher value card wins, takes the other card, and then the loser sits down.

BUT… they are also free to create pairs, triples, and even complete 5 card poker hands. (I limited them to five…. continue to ignore the people who don’t know cards)

Then…. say…. go!

Observations by Students in Debrief:

1. MASSIVE VARIATION in behavior from the original game….. some team up and produce collective security others go it alone.

2. Students who had initially powerful cards (Aces) felt more assured than those who had low number cards. But everyone had an opportunity to collaborate to build a good poker hand in order to feel safer.

3. Students reported feeling less concerned about relative gains and more interested in absolute gains as they searched for other potential allies.

4. All the students agreed that the structure of the game more closely aligned with what they imagined the international system to be like: more opportunities for cooperation in many different ways, but still anarchic and fraught with distrust and fear for survival.

5. Students who had no idea about poker hands were sometimes preyed upon, but most often, were assisted by colleagues with similar cards.

Prior to this exercise the students were unconvinced by the Kupchans‘ work on collective security and the institutionalist perspective. They preferred the ‘pragmatism’ of Mearsheimer and Waltz. After the exercise, the students reported understanding, more clearly, what the Kupchans’ were getting at. I’ll definitely do this again in tandem with the original form of the Hobbes game.

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A Simulation for the Flipped IR Classroom

Today we have a guest post from Tricia Stapleton:

FlipI recently joined the Social Science and Policy Studies Department at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), a science- and engineering-focused school. The curriculum is heavily-focused on project-based learning and to facilitate at least three major projects over a student’s WPI career, semesters are split in two. That means I have one 7-week term (approximately 25 contact hours) to teach a full course. For new classes, prep isn’t as difficult because I’m building the course from the ground up. But for my Topics in International Politics course, which I’ve taught about a dozen times in a traditional format, I struggled to cut the course material down. At WPI, there were a couple of workshops about the flipped  classroom, and I considered implementing it as a way to maximize my contact hours with students.

We’ve written before about the inverted or flipped classroom pedagogy (for example: here, here, and here, so I won’t rehash the details of how to do it. But I will follow up on Chad’s post about finding useful activities for students to complete during class time.

I used a simulation for the second half of the term to get students more engaged with the material – Brock Tessman’s International Relations in Action: A World Politics Simulation. A brief review of the game can be found on the PaxSims blog. I selected this simulation because even though it was already well-developed in terms of structure it also left room for tweaking. In addition, it worked well with the intro textbook I use for the course, Goldstein and Pevehouse’s International Relations. Students had to complete individual and group background reports on their objectives and strategies for the game. During the game, each team completed an assessment sheet at the end of each round, which linked the session’s work with the course reading and IR theories and concepts. At the end of the simulation, students had to complete an individual report, assessing their own strategies and accomplishments, and a group report and presentation that assessed their work as a team.

Overall, the students loved it! Over 97 percent of the students recommended that I keep the simulation in the course on the evaluation instrument that I created. The majority of the students selected “interesting,” “worthwhile,” and “fun” when given a choice among positive and negative descriptors of the game. On my end, I found the student reports to be insightful, and they displayed unprompted links between game play and course content. However, I’m currently in the process of developing different assessments to determine levels of student learning. At the moment, the strongest benefit of flipping half of my class is that students were very engaged with IRiA. I also had a lot of time in class to work with students in small groups on any issues they were having with the content, so that goal of the flip was accomplished.

Posted in and Simulations, Assessment, International Relations, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Panel Report: Teaching Politics After the Digital Revolution

RobotHere is a brief report on one of last month’s APSA annual meeting panels, Teaching Politics After the Digital Revolution. The report comes from Dave Bridge, the panel’s organizer and chair.

Dave presented on the advantages gained by using Microsoft Excel’s random number generator to create a new breed of political simulations.  Using the example of Rousseau’s stag hunt, he showed how the computer program can deepen students’ knowledge of political philosophy.

Chad Raymond showed the impact of using simulations upon teaching evaluations.  Demonstrating that the use of the Statecraft simulation increased certain evaluation scores, he concluded that the simulation can impact students’ perception of learning—which itself can positively affect their actual learning.

Kerstin Hamann, Hutch Pollock, Bruce Wilson, and Gary Smith reviewed the state of the literature regarding the digital revolution and the scholarship of teaching and learning.  With a content analysis of the three of political science’s most prominent publication outlets for teaching and learning scholarship (PS: Political Science and Politics, Journal of Political Science Education, and International Studies Perspectives), the authors cataloged articles regarding technology and the classroom.

Finally, Nicolas de Zamaroczy introduced results from a pilot study on the effects of computer games and on different attitudes toward global politics.  Surveying those who do and do not play games with global politics implications (e.g., Civilization), he found no significant different between gamers and non-gamers.

Victor Asal and Steven Jackson graciously agreed to be the co-discussants of the panel, and they provided insightful comments on all the papers.

If any of the above information sounds remotely interesting, consider participating in APSA’s Teaching and Learning Conference (TLC). The TLC for January 2015 is themed Innovations and Expectations for Teaching in the Digital Era.

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

MOOCing an Epidemic Simulation

Walking ZombiesIn case anyone is looking to add a public health policy component to a course running right now, instructors at Pennsylvania State University are collaborating again with Coursera* to offer a MOOC on epidemics and the dynamics of infectious disease. The MOOC begins on Monday, September 29, and includes the Moocdemic, a massive virtual epidemic in which students use social media to track the spread of a disease and measure the effectiveness of efforts to control it. The subject is definitely pertinent to current events given what’s happening with Ebola in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

*I have no financial association with Coursera.
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That Which Came Unto Me at Antioch

Today’s post is an interview with author and professor Jennifer McClanaghan. Her book of poetry, River Legs, is now available from Kore Press. Her poem “Born Again” appeared in the September 15th issue of the The New Yorker.

Did anything in your undergraduate university experience prepare you to do the writing you’ve done after graduation, or to teach writing?

Jen McCI first studied writing at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, a liberal oasis in southwestern Ohio. Antioch had big ideas—shared governance, a strict (often parodied) sexual offense policy. There was always one issue a semester that we debated endlessly. There was an attentiveness and energy that’s necessary for writing. I also remember reading Richard Brautigan for the first time and something—Revenge of the Lawn—clicked for me. I can’t tell you how many poems I’ve written since with lawns in them.

What is the mechanical process that you use when teaching prose and poetry writing? What are students doing in your courses that you can point to and say “that’s effective”?

When teaching poetry, I emphasize craft while also underscoring the importance of originality, imagination, and the “big picture” of a single poem. I’ve discovered that students like a lot of rules when writing. Rules seem to make them relax and allow for more imaginative thinking. Frost said that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net. The net, the white lines, the scorekeeping, once that’s established, the writing often goes to interesting places. So, for instance, my students write free verse, but I use an exercise by Jim Simmerman called “Twenty Little Poetry Projects” from The Practice of Poetry. This is a list of directives, for example the last four: “17. Make a declarative assertion that sounds convincing but that finally makes no sense; 18. Use a phrase from a language other than English; 19. Make a nonhuman object say or do something human (personification); 20. Close the poem with a vivid image that makes no statement, but that echoes an image from earlier in the poem.” The poems from this exercise are always wonderfully strange and full of movement. Students love exercises, and they love to read each other’s work. My classes are loud and talkative and make room for the banal to become the sublime.

How do students get feedback about their writing? What do you think is the most effective way to do this, if you think it’s an important part of learning about writing?

I write extensively all over my students’ stories and poems. I want to show them my engagement with the piece and the time I spend honoring their work. I also type up a note that summarizes some ideas for revision. I give each piece a good portion of classroom time to be discussed out loud, which is helpful to the writer but almost more helpful for the other students to articulate their understanding of the craft. I’m always negotiating my own silence v. input, trying to strike the right balance so the writer feels attended to while the other students feel like they’ve shaped the critique.

Let’s take a hypothetical undergraduate student at a university where the tuition is $40,000 per year. We’ll assume that the university’s discount rate is 50 percent, so the student actually pays only $20,000 per year and is taking five courses a semester. That means the student pays $2,000 per course per year. Outside of college, I see writing instruction – workshops, etc. – offered for less than $500 to people who are quite serious about learning how to write better. In contrast, we often see college students who are emotionally and intellectually uninvested in learning about writing despite paying much more money. Why is that? What’s the solution, if you think it’s a problem?

River LegsI know you’ve simplified the math for the sake of the question, but it’s too simple and doesn’t account for the whole college experience. Undergraduates are learning how to become citizens of the world: articulating their politics, their sense of justice, compassion, their extracurricular pursuits—what they like apart from or in addition to how they grew up. The classroom is a small part of their education, and some of what they learn from us professors takes on meaning years later. My creative writing students are ever experimenting with fictions and personas as they determine who they are and how they want to spend their lives. This requires time and space, which is part of the price tag.

As for online education generally, which is increasingly more interesting because of free courses, I think of an article I read about MIT’s Building 20—the odd assortment of departments housed there, and the innovations born out of chance encounters and conversations between people in different fields. Writing classes thrive on the surprises yielded by the present moment: the tangential anecdotes and serendipitous remarks that lead one down new rabbit holes. This sort of thing can only really happen in person.

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

APSA TLC 2015 Call for papers now open

ALPS was born of the APSA Teaching and Learning Conference, so it has a special place in our hearts (and livers too).

The call for proposals for the 2015 conference in Washington DC on 16-18 January is now open, so if you’d like to join us/protest against our heterodox ways/buy us a drink/etc, then you need to get your ideas in by 20 October.

Looking forward to meeting you there!

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