What students need to know and do
Students need to appreciate the importance of the different concepts, models and theories they can apply to their factual knowledge of Politics and IR. At first year they should learn that the concepts, models and theories are essential tools of analysis, helping students identify different approaches to politics and patterns of political behaviour.
What are the student barriers to learning?
Some students misunderstand the role of theory. They adopt a taxi rank kind of analysis, a mode of engagement that confronts issues only at a linear and superficial level: one thing at a time with no explanations and connections (Niven, 2013). Students are often reluctant to recognise the important role theory plays in understanding political phenomena.
Often these theory-phobic students will argue that we should “just look at the facts”, without recognising that the selection and interpretation of data is strongly shaped by underlying theoretical assumptions, whether or not these assumptions are consciously recognised. This fact-fetishism and theory-phobia may be because these students still find it difficult to think in the abstract, assuming that Politics and IR is “out there”, ready to be tripped over and “found”. That said, there are also some theory-focussed students who may be reluctant to connect theoretical knowledge to the “real world”.
Our teaching strategies
The teacher needs to invite, and/or model arguments and counter-arguments, and to generate discussion about how a particular Politics and IR phenomenon might be explained by different theories. They should show how theories and facts/evidence are combined in things the students are reading. Students must be given opportunities to “observe and practice these ‘strange’ new ways of speaking, reading arguing or writing” (Niven, 2013, 48).
Academics need to discuss explicitly the conventions and expectations of the discipline. This may mean explicitly modelling examples of good practice in the structure and logic of a Politics and IR essay (Josefson, 2005).
Simulations work well: the role play and modelling of real-life situations requires students to deploy both theoretical understanding and empirical evidence (Asal & Kratovill, 2013). Small group activities where each of the members takes on the role of a particular stakeholder can also help them to look at the context of a situation through the eyes of the different stakeholders.
Asal, V. & Kratoville, J. (2013). Constructing international relations simulations: Examining the pedagogy of IR simulations through a constructivist learning theory lens. Journal of Political Science Education, 9(2), 132-143.
Josefson, J. (2005). Don’t argue, reflect! Reflections on introducing reflective writing into political science courses. PS: Political Science and Politics, 38(4).
Niven, P. (2013). Teaching political science to first-year students: challenging ‘taxi-rank analysis’. Perspectives in Education, 31(1), 40-48.