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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World War Z and Ebola

I use the book World War Z by Max Brooks in my politics of film and fiction course for a number of reasons.  Written as a series of interviews with survivors ten years after the end of the zombie war that are left out of the official UN report, the book serves up a pretty devastating social commentary that creates a great foundation for discussion of a wide range of issues, from the state of nature to nuclear proliferation, the benefits and drawbacks of an isolationist grand strategy, and whether the ends justifies the means in policymaking.

Since Brooks based the book on real-world reactions to infectious diseases, instructors who are looking for interesting ways to bring discussions of the response to Ebola into the classroom could do worse than assigning excerpts from this book.  The section, for example, on the ‘Great Panic’ would be an interesting way of examining the Ebola fear coming from some sectors in the US.  One excerpt has a cooperative society break down as food and other supplies dwindle and a harsh winter sets in; another describes how as one country tries to reduce its exposure to the plague, its inability to communicate effectively with a neighboring state results in the onset of armed conflict. Later in the book, someone proposes a plan that might prevent the epidemic from wiping out the remaining humans, but poses some severe ethical questions. Finally, Brooks himself has said that the international response to Ebola has actually been much better than that he wrote about in regard to the Zombie plague (where denial and lack of communication and cooperation resulted in the epidemic spreading worldwide), allowing some interesting contrasts between the two.

All of these can be promising start-off points for discussions of real-world issues.  Each interview is only a few pages, and thus can be read quickly in class before discussion.  If you have more time, it may be worthwhile to consider assigning larger sections or even the entire book.


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Logic Model Redux

Tree DiagramLast week I had an opportunity to revisit logic models in my course on economic development, where students are working on team projects. I created an exercise designed to show that logic models are a really just a method of mentally organizing answers to the following questions:

  • Why do the project?
  • What does the project involve?
  • How should the project be done?

At the beginning of the semester, I gave students a guide to logic models and had them fill out blank versions in class. Afterward they discussed their thoughts with teammates to identify requirements for the project and create a general game plan for completing it.

In the middle of the semester, students attended a presentation by Mike Behan of Root Capital. Mr. Behan’s presentation serendipitously included an image of a simple logic model, which inspired me to distribute the blank logic model diagram in class once again. I gave students five minutes to write as much as they could in each of the logic model’s boxes, without referring to notes or other resources. After five minutes, students congregated with their teammates to discuss the boxes that they found difficult to complete.

At the end of the exercise, I told students that they needed to have a clear idea of how the different components of their projects fit within the framework of the logic model. If team members found parts of the model too fuzzy and too ill-defined to quickly describe in writing, that was a strong signal that the project would not succeed and that its design needed improvement.


Posted in Chad Raymond, Exercises, Projects | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

An Autobiographical Note

A brief follow-up to Justin Rex’s post about student autobiographies:

Burgundy AutobiographyI tried this exercise about two weeks ago in a first-year seminar. It did not go as well as I had hoped in terms of getting students’ mental light bulbs to blink on and generating conversation, probably because I simply ran out of time. The seminar meets in fifty minute sessions. I usually begin class with a discussion of that day’s reading and writing assignment, and that often segues into a team-based activity. When I got to the autobiographies, there were perhaps twenty minutes left.

Something else I didn’t do well: ask students in the room to read verbatim what they wrote for each version of their autobiography instead of letting them give one or two sentence synopses. With the former method, I could have asked the students what they noticed about each other’s stories instead of me identifying key aspects and writing them on the board. I should have let students take more initiative in directing the conversation.

I wasn’t completely surprised that this exercise did not produce fantastic results right out of the box. New techniques fail, sometimes spectacularly, the first few times I try them. But here is the interesting thing: the underlying subject of the exercise — that individual behavior is often constrained by social conditioning and institutions — has come up accidentally in subsequent assignments. So, like Justin, I’ve been able to refer back to the autobiographies.

In sum, I think this exercise is quite useful, but I need at least thirty minutes of class time and to facilitate discussion better to employ it successfully.

Posted in Activities, Chad Raymond, Discussions, Getting Them to Talk, Multicultural-International-Global, Writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

TLC Call For Paper Proposals

TLC 2015A reminder that that October 20 is the deadline for proposals for the 2015 APSA Teaching and Learning Conference (TLC), to be held January 16-18 in Washington, DC. The TLC differs from other conferences. At typical conferences, an attendee gives a brief presentation at one panel and then perhaps visits a few others. There is very little opportunity for feedback or dialogue. The TLC is very different — it follows a workshop format, where participants in a track exchange ideas on each other’s research throughout the conference. For me, the workshop format is far more productive than what I’ve seen at other conferences. For me it has led to several peer-reviewed publications, this blog, and learning from Simon how to rap like David Cameron. Plus there’s been no hurricanes or fires, unlike the APSA’s annual meeting.

Posted in APSA, Chad Raymond, Conferences | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Using students’ creativity to create debate

I’ve written several times about using Lego in the classroom of late (here, here, here and (rather differently) here): let’s pretend it’s some kind of mid-life crisis, but one with some useful lessons. In the most recent of those posts, I was preparing for the use of Lego Serious Play with my Liberal Arts & Sciences group. I’ve now done that and I’m keen to report back.

One of the recurring themes that I encounter in L&T circles is that we need to lay solid foundations for students, before then letting them run more freely, using more unconventional pedagogies. That makes some intuitive sense, especially if we take a more canonical view of ‘what must be learnt’.

Free-spirited type that I am, I’ve always had some hesitation about this, since surely we want to introduce the breadth of possibilities early on, both to help hook in students and to valourise their role as learners. My trip to see Problem-Based Learning in Maastricht earlier this year reinforced that idea, and so it was that last week, in almost the very first class of the degree, I got my students playing with a pile of Lego.

I put students into small groups of 3 and gave them 5 minutes to build a model of “A researcher, in their research environment”: they could pick up whatever they wanted from the pile and I gave no further cues to them.

When they were done – initial scepticism having quickly disappeared – they presented their models to everyone else. I followed this up by asking them for ideas that this had triggered, be that in terms of the underlying assumptions they’d made, or the things they’d thought important.

I’d expected perhaps a short list of things to come out of that last discussion, but 20 minutes later, we were still at it, with students making points that went well beyond what I could have hoped for them to achieve at such an early stage, not least because of their willingness to talk about how things interacted with each other.IMAG2107

This kind of extended abstract thinking has really impressed me, not least because it was triggered by a very quick and simple exercise. The temptation to use it much more than I’d originally planned is rather strong.

Of course, I would want to make some notes of caution too.

Firstly, I clearly don’t have enough data to justify sweeping conclusions: my group was relatively small, with a mix of backgrounds that might have been conducive to the exercise. Having said that, everyone (without exception) contributed to the tasks for me, which suggests that there was some disinhibitory effect of playing with Lego bricks. Nonetheless, I might discover that they are always like this.

Secondly, I’m also not sure about the impact of diminishing returns with such an exercise, certainly if we ran it in exactly the same format. The surprise when I produced the box of Lego was noticeable (even though I’d said we would be doing it), but I won’t have that again: likewise, there weren’t so many pieces in the box, so there’s a risk of just recycling ideas. Hence my inclination to take this in reserve for now, until we reach a point where it fits more obviously.

However, taken together, I’ve been really happy with this as a trial: I got students talking and leading debate, I hope I have broken up the usual dynamic of the class and I have flagged that we are going to tackle our subject material in some different ways. All good stuff, as far as I’m concerned, even if I am going to try and lay off the Lego for a while.

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

More Word Karma

Karma DogmaAnother example of the effect of one’s words: some of you might be familiar with the recent snafu between the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and Steven Salaita. After Salaita made comments on social media that drew the ire of certain UIUC trustees and donors, the chancellor of UIUC, Phyllis Wise, revoked his job offer. The whole sequence of events stinks, but I do not wish to discuss free speech, breach of contract, or other implications of the case here. These details have already been explored admirably by others; for example, in this post by The Good Enough Professor, which happens to be listed in the blog roll at the lower right of the screen you are now staring at.

Here is what I do want to discuss: given Chancellor Wise’s pivotal role in dismissing Salaita as someone too disreputable — in words, if not in deeds — to be worthy of working at UIUC, it was highly likely that her own history would come under scrutiny. Sure enough, it has, and it appears she has passed off duplicate publications as original research. Two journal articles have been identified so far at Retraction Watch and PubPeer in which text was used verbatim from earlier articles, without proper citation. Original co-authors also were not listed.

It is ironic that the top administrator at a public university campus, having decided that a new hire is too unprofessional, has now been found to have violated some of the most basic professional norms of scientific research.

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Word Karma

Endless KnotRegular readers might remember my post in July about Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s terrible writing skills on display in a publicly-released company memo. We can now extend my argument that poor writing reflects poor thinking to speaking. At the recent Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, Nadella said that women should not ask for raises but should rely on karma instead. He has since apologized for his statement, but given the wide availability of data on the gender gap in workplace compensation, his position as a CEO in an industry with numerous gender disparities, and the venue at which he was speaking, it was a really dumb thing to say. His words reflect badly on him. More evidence for our students that communication skills matter.

Posted in Chad Raymond, Skills, Women | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment