Reaching Students, Setting Limits

At political science meeting, professors share ideas about making their classrooms more engaging, and the tradeoffs involved.
September 9, 2009

TORONTO – Practicality was a major theme at teaching sessions here at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. Many professors expressed dissatisfaction with traditional teaching methods – and also discussed the need to find alternatives that don’t either take so much time that they can’t do their research or hijack the syllabus away from the material they would like to cover.

There was a general consensus that there are ways to better engage political science students -- but also that these methods take much more time and, in some cases, cost more money. Many of the ideas discussed here were attempts to challenge the traditional lecture format “without ruining your life,” in the half-joking phrase that was part of the title of one of the papers presented.

That paper, by Rebecca Glazier, assistant professor of political science at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, examined the use of simulations in courses. Some experts have promoted these simulations – in which students are assigned a role in some large global conflict on which they will then negotiate. But Glazier noted that these large simulations are very difficult for professors who don’t have armies of research assistants, since the students need assignments on their roles to play, coaching on key issues, and feedback.

Her solution is to use the simulation approach on a much smaller scale. She has a cast of five characters -- rather than hundreds -- and in a class of 25, she will have 5 simulations going on simultaneously. She can then give detailed “position papers” to the participants playing the various roles in a way she couldn’t with a larger simulation. A recent simulation was based on the Juba round of negotiations over the Ugandan conflict, and each group of five students included one student representing the government, one the main rebel group, one the United Nations, one an international non-governmental organization, and one a local NGO.

“We had all kinds of creative results,” she said, with interesting approaches to such key issues as whether there should be amnesty or war crimes trials, and what the political solutions should be.

Catherine Weaver, an assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, described an experiment she started with an introductory course at the University of Kansas (from which she moved recently), searching for a way to improve students’ writing and research skills.

Weaver said she noticed that many students enrolling in junior- or senior-level courses had next to no experience writing or doing research in a meaningful way. She said she suspected a relationship between this reality and the way introductory courses are taught at many large universities, with large lectures (a few hundred perhaps) and multiple choice tests for grading.

The experiment involves taking one section of the introductory course and teaching students -- amid the other assignments -- to analyze an op-ed, teaching skills about identifying authors, audiences, ideas and evidence, and then to write an op-ed themselves. It’s a kind of writing most students know little about, in terms of either analyzing or creating, Weaver said.

With only a few teaching assistants, this led to a significant increase in grading hours, Weaver said. Students were required to use Blackboard for papers, and that eased the process, but it was still a burden when the various drafts came in. (And a key part of the writing assignments was to require, and provide feedback on, multiple drafts.)

Judging from the ways students’ drafts changed, Weaver said that she believes that the new assignments added in a real way to students’ writing and critical thinking skills. Kansas will be testing this theory by looking at the performance of these students when they become seniors, and comparing them to a control group of students who didn’t take the enhanced intro course.

Theresa Reidy, who teaches government at University College Cork, in Ireland, described an experiment with political economy courses -- a subset of political science that doesn't typically attract undergraduates in droves. The introductory course was taught in a "very traditional" way, focused on lectures, and many students didn't seem that interested.

Her first experiment was to add to the course a major project of having students analyze poverty in the nations of southern Africa. The assignment was an example of "problem based" learning, she said. Students had to write a memo to the Irish foreign affairs department, outlining various ideas about poverty, how foreign aid (in particular Ireland's) could make a difference, and other issues.

Student reaction was largely positive, but students wanted projects where their involvement could be more direct. So the next year, she had students write papers on the relationship between trade and environmental policy -- and they had to organize an actual conference on the topic, selecting and inviting speakers. This "task-based learning" appealed to students even more. There were some missteps, such as when students just e-mailed the foreign affairs minister with a note saying "Hey are you free to attend..., " and that led Reidy to be more "interventionist" and to watch how the students organized the conference.

The event came off well, she said, and student enthusiasm was high. Her concerns are the time and expense, plus the fact that much of the material covered in the introductory course "seemed to go out the window" as there wasn't time for it anymore.

Quentin Kidd, the respondent for the panel and a political scientist at Christopher Newport University, had a similar concern about many projects to promote engagement. He said he was impressed with the commitment of all of the scholars to engaging students. But he also expressed a caution: "Even if the students are more engaged," he asked, "are they learning more?"


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