What students need to know and do
First year students should be introduced to the ways in which scholars of Politics and IR make judgements about sources. They need to understand the work of interpretation in guiding fact selection, and the ways in which interpretation relates to factual evidence.
What are the student barriers to learning?
Students with strong political views and partisan allegiances may find it difficult to critically evaluate different interpretations of political phenomena (Marks, 2008). These students tend to view politics as matters of conviction. This can discourage them from engaging in critical analysis because they think that political disagreements simply reflect unresolvable differences of opinion. Such students have a tendency to automatically endorse material that supports their own views, and to automatically reject material that goes against them, resulting in a superficial engagement with the literature. Many students’ experience of family life, neighbourhood and schooling may not have exposed them to diverse environments, let alone diverse political and international perspectives. These students can mistake the reassuring and the familiar for conviction.
Researchers in Adelaide have shown recently that students of Politics and IR expect that their classes will train them in critical thinking but the students are still unclear about what this involves (Beasley & Cao, 2011).
Our teaching strategies
Students often just collect facts when they start advanced studies. They need training to help them see the work of interpretation guiding fact selection, and the ways interpretations relate to factual evidence. When beginning to analyse information about Politics and IR, students should be encouraged to undertake a careful reading of the texts and to discuss their sources, agendas and historical contexts. The key knowledge and skill is simply trying to move the student beyond reading simply for comprehension towards a critical reading.
The academic must encourage students to engage with views other than their own: perhaps by drawing upon compulsory readings that disagree. The Adelaide data (Beasley & Cao, 2011) suggests that academics in Politics and IR need to model explicitly in class how to reconcile and distinguish between contradictory and contrasting evidence and points of view. This means modelling how to ‘do’ political science rather than simply reading passively about politics and IR (Marks, 2008). Too many students are left to accomplish all this on their own.
The use of current events as a springboard to discussion and debate is a common one and is often successful in engaging students. The pitfall of this approach, however, is that the immediacy of current controversial issues increases the likelihood of students having an existing conviction from which it is difficult to develop objective analysis. Historical or hypothetical simulation exercises can circumvent this pitfall. Using historical events still allows students to apply their political knowledge and skills to a real-world context, but with less of a temptation to fall back on existing beliefs and convictions. Studies conducted by Marks (2008) acknowledge that across all sub-disciplines of Politics and IR, the investigation of current, empirical events and debates is necessary and cannot be avoided by the use of historical and hypothetical situations (Olsen & Statham, 2005). Political philosophy can also provide another starting point for such discussions, minimising student reliance on existing assumptions.
Beasley, C. & Cao, B. (2011). Transforming first year university politics students into critical thinkers. Ergo: Journal of Education Research Group Adelaide, 2(3).
Marks, M.P. (2008). Fostering academic discussion and critical thinking in the political science classroom. PS: Journal of Political Science Education 4(2), 205-224.
Olsen, J. & Statham, A. (2005). Critical thinking in political science: Evidence from the introductory comparative politics course. Journal of Political Science Education 1(3).