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.
Some of you may have heard the news about Marian Court College in Swampscott, Massachusetts: it has closed. Students and faculty were given two weeks’ notice. Marian Court was a tuition-dependent school with a dwindling enrollment and a persistent budget deficit.
In their public statements, administrators and faculty at Marian Court appeared to be hopeful about its future. They were surprised by the college’s closure. They shouldn’t have been.
Undergraduate enrollment is driven by an institution’s academic reputation, its student experience, and cost. For some potential students, the combination of a prestigious reputation and a campus atmosphere that resembles an all-inclusive tourist resort trumps high cost. Others will pay a lower price for a college with a reputation that promises a reasonable return on one’s investment or that delivers immediate gratification in the form of campus-based recreational activities and socializing. Then there is the bargain-bin type of institution that lacks both reputation and student experience but can attract people who want post-secondary educational credentials at a very low price.
Marian Court was not competitive in any of these three market segments. It offered only associate’s degree programs until four years ago and did not have an elite brand. As a commuter school, it had none of the typical U.S. undergraduate campus amenities like dormitories or athletic teams. Marian Court did have a low price — annual full-time day student tuition was $16,500. But there are four community colleges within fifteen miles of Marian Court, with the closest less than four miles away. In-state resident tuition for full-time students at any of these campuses is approximately $6,000 per year. Salem State University, also less than four miles away, offers a wide selection of two- and four-year degree programs, plus dormitories, intercollegiate athletics, and campus activities that come from an undergraduate enrollment of over 7,500 students. Salem State provides both a student experience and an undergraduate education for only $10,400 in tuition and fees.*
Given the increasing need for non-elite colleges and universities to differentiate themselves on the basis of student experience and price, perhaps they should prioritize recruiting students who are the most likely to donate large sums of money as alumni.
*The price ranges from $9,250 with a health insurance waiver to an estimated $11,550 if health insurance is purchased through Salem State University. I split the difference between these two numbers.
Students often perceive history as a series of unique and disconnected events that are irrelevant to the experience of the present. Subsequently abstract principles seem impossibly vague. A recent column in The New York Times is a brilliant demonstration of how to solve this problem:
A nice complement is:
That these two essays were written by a historian and an economist, and published online to a global audience, is perhaps illustrative of how political scientists fail to communicate effectively with students and with the wider world about current events.
Alongside all the other stuff that’s been happening at my university this year, we’re also changing around our organisational structure, moving from four Faculties to three.* That means that from this summer I’ll be doing my current role not only for Politics, Sociology, English Literature, Languages, Film, Theatre, Dance and our conservatoire, but also Economics, Law, Management and our Business School.
[I’ll pause there, as I’m not sure I’ve written out that list in full before and I think I might need a moment.
As you’ll imagine, there’s plenty to deal with on a practical scale, but let’s focus for now on the more cultural aspect of building a sense of a joint venture.
In a such a diverse and large Faculty, there are clearly both barriers and opportunities: part of my work is to overcome the former and exploit the latter.
The barriers are the same that I imagine you all face, particularly the indeterminate position of the Faculty, neither close enough to the individual academic to really generate a sense of belonging nor in control of the institution’s overall direction. While our Faculties have become more meaningful units in recent years, I’d say that most people still look to their department or school as a relevant unit.
Moreover, because we’ll cover the full range of arts, humanities and social sciences, anything we might do at Faculty level might as well be shared with the rest of the university, since we’ll have to operate at a fairly a-disciplinary level in our L&T development work.
But this said, the bringing together of all these subjects does offer a great potential for making something useful for colleagues. The new Faculty team has already been talking about a number of ideas to do this, all framed by a general intent not to just do stuff for the sake of it. This is an important point, because in the longer run, our best bet of building new ties and activities is to have individuals feeling that this is something genuinely useful.
With that in mind, one suggestion is to use our inaugural talk from the Dean (and associated drinks event) to gather ideas from staff. Putting whiteboards at the side of the room, we’d get people to write down what they see as barriers and opportunities for L&T (and research) in the Faculty, which we would then use to shape an agenda of events through the coming year.
Even if the list they produce looks a lot like what we might draw up, the framing is that it comes from them and gives them a sense of ownership. As a Faculty we demonstrate that we both listen and act on our colleagues’ input and we all get something that we asked for, rather than what someone thought we should have.
The parallels to classroom practice should be pretty clear here. By moving from a didactic to a dialogic approach, we’re tying in people to the process, which in turn should improve their engagement.
Whether this works I don’t know. Indeed, I’d hesitate to make any strong conclusion for at least a year. However, as always, I travel hopefully and I’ll do what I can to help matters along.
Deep breath now.
* – we’re talking about the structures, rather than the people, to avoid confusing American speakers.
A continuation of my review of How College Works, this time in the form of advice to students:
College is a place where people matter. The college experience, and the benefits you derive from it, are a function of “who meets whom, and when” (p. 16). But given the constraints of time and space, you won’t be able to meet everyone. You will need to maximize your ability to make the right friends and find the right mentors — the people with the perspectives, interests, and drive that are the most helpful in motivating you to work toward personally-meaningful accomplishments.
Every college and university has established pathways that simplify the process of forming the social relationships that can result in a more rewarding college experience. These pathways can help you to “spend your time with good people” (p. 162). For example, joining an athletic team or a performing arts club introduces you to a number of individuals who spend a significant amount of time together, which will enable you to get to know all of them well. These people can then introduce you to their friends, and so on.
However, choices have consequences, and choosing one path often closes the door on others. The time spent on the field or on the stage is time that you can’t use to interact with other groups of people.
In many cases, students end up on a particular path because of a series of small, seemingly inconsequential or even accidental decisions. You join the swim team, a teammate introduces you to her lab partner in chemistry class, and that person tells you about an internship option that you pursue the following semester. Or you decide to share an off-campus apartment with three buddies who like video games. Your social circle narrows once you move off campus, you hang out more with your roommates, your grades suffer because you’re studying less and playing video games more, and you lose a scholarship.
A personal example: in my sophomore year of college I took a history course on the Vietnam War that partly fulfilled a requirement for graduation. I knew next to nothing about the subject and essentially took the course on a whim. It turned out to be so fascinating that I changed my major in my junior year and got to know some very interesting professors and students. Years later I enrolled in a PhD program, went to Vietnam, learned the language and did research, and had a bunch of experiences that I never would have had otherwise. These decisions, each made in the moment, resulted in a long chain of events that led me to where I am now.
The authors of How College Works list a few simple steps that students can take to improve the odds of finding this type of personally-fulfilling path through college (p. 163):
First, start meeting people early. Each person you meet can introduce you to other people; conversely, limiting yourself to one or two people limits how fast and far one’s social network can expand. The centrally-located freshman dorm where everyone lives with two or three roommates, in the midst of dozens of other students who share the same hallway, leads to much more social interaction than “apartment-style living” on the edge of campus.
Second, choose professors, not topics. Find out who the best ones are. Who attracts the most motivated students? Who do professors say that they would want teaching them if they were students? Ask the instructor of a course for a copy of last semester’s or last year’s syllabus. A syllabus should give you an idea of how learning in the course is supposed to occur in addition to what supposedly will get learned. Given how the course is organized, are you likely to be engaged with the professor, your classmates, and the material?
Third, spend time in physical locations on campus that are convenient to other students. This might be a cafe, the library, a commons area, or a performance space. Placing yourself where you will most frequently encounter others makes it easier to initiate and maintain social connections.
Fourth, regularly collaborating with people whose mental and physical energy is focused on a shared interest pays big dividends — in motivation, learning, and ability. Swim practice five mornings per week creates self-discipline and builds time management skills. The group ethnographic research project in that anthropology course coming up next semester offers training in interpersonal communication and public speaking.
Fifth, minimize the risk of getting stuck on what might turn out to be the wrong path by keeping some options open. Stay alert for ways to make new friends, get out of your comfort zone, and challenge yourself. Look for chances to learn practical problem-solving skills, gain leadership experience in a competitive environment, and work closely with professors and classmates.
You will see only the parts of college that you actually use (p. 161), none of the above matters if you are unwilling to seize any of the available opportunities. If, for whatever reason, this is your situation, don’t go to college. Wait. Admission to college doesn’t necessarily mean you are ready to enroll.
My teaching appointment is in a small, residential academic community (the Women’s Leadership Program or WLP). The students live together and take two classes together both semesters of their freshman year. The program is selective and the classes are small (about 20 students). For the past five years, I’ve included group debates in the two courses I teach in the program: Introduction to Comparative Politics and Introduction to International Politics. As an activity, these have been quite successful. The students select a debate topic related to course material and, through a short briefing paper and the debate itself, apply course materials to a contemporary politics question (e.g. free trade, intervention in Syria, prospects of democracy in Iran). Over the years, I have been impressed with how well the students do this, showing a fluency with the course material that is particularly impressive for first year students.
Building on the success of the debate assignment in these classes, I decided to include it in the other course I teach: an upper-level elective course open to all students. I modified the assignment by dropping the written debrief. The assignment was not nearly as effective and, by some measures, was a complete bust.
This leaves me thinking, what accounts for the difference? Is the written briefing paper critical? Perhaps. It ensures that the students at least think about their argument before standing up in front of the class. It forces them to put an argument in writing, cite sources, and plan ahead. I suspect it is a crucial accountability tool and I was remiss to drop this aspect of the assignment.
I also wonder how much the structure of the class matters. Students in the WLP classes live together, making group work as easy as knocking on your neighbor’s door and walking down the hall to the common room. They know each other well and are generally high achievers; my impression is that the proportion of free riders is lower in this population than in the general university population. This suggests that group work, in general, would be more successful in these classes.
The experience left me thinking about the conditions under which the same teaching tool can be more or less effective.
I’m back in the office after a fabulous week of learning & teaching-related events. OK, maybe the exam board I went to wasn’t fabulous, but it was certainly instructive.
However, the big thing was going out to Chisinau in Moldova – the world’s second-least visited country – for a workshop of INOTLES, to discuss how we implement all our fine work in the partner institutions.
As workshops go, it went well: sensible amounts of time of different activities, a healthy mix of presentation and discussion, all facilitated by a positive environment and (ahem) local produce.
But, as is usual in such situations, I got me thinking about how we run such meetings of academics, but least because I was also having conversations about the next European Teaching & Learning Conference (see my posts from the last one).
Asking for ideas about how to be more engaging, I came up with a bunch of very radical stuff. However, it lately transpired that I had been drinking and that very little of it was actually workable, so it was back to the drawing board on the plane home.
The one idea that did seem to have something to it was the notion of a ‘flipped conference presentation’.
Basically, you’d ask people to produce a paper (as usual), but to then record a podcast of their presentation to post online, so that people could watch before the conference, and then use the panel time for discussion.
This would obviate the situation we all know, of a panel that runs out of time for questions. It would also be a learning experience for many, so they could see how simple recording yourself can be, which they could then take into the classroom. They win, we win, lovely.
It’s something I’ve not heard of before, but a quick google search suggests that I’ve far from the first to have the idea – try Jack Yensen, for example, or this example from Michael Seery. And props to Daniel Lambach for the link to Rom’s piece in PS that I’d missed.
Of course, this is not without its challenges. Just as people don’t always read papers before a conference, they might not watch all the podcasts and then they have little to go on when they turn up to the panel. Lots of signposting beforehand might help, as might a panel structure where the chair ‘interviews’ the panellists on common themes in a first section of time, before opening up to questions from the floor.
Technical issues might also pop up. If it’s ‘something not working’ then a conference helpdesk would resolve it. If it’s ‘this is stupid’ then either you have to be flexible, or you could offer another way out.
However, my thought of a way out might not strike you as very desirable.
So, something to think about.
As you’ll note from the two examples of others doing this, it’s not a PoliSci thing, nor even a social science thing, but a pedagogy thing. Another good reason to cast your net widely.