What students need to know and do
The goal in first year is to develop the students’ intellectual maturity. The capacity to cope with positions other than your own, and to appreciate the way context shapes and limits policy solutions is a sign of intellectual maturity in the study of Politics and IR.
What are the student barriers to learning?
Immature students tend to settle on the first “solution” which conforms to their preconceptions and priorities. Empathy and imagination is involved, but this does not necessarily mean engagement with the literature, with competing perspectives, or the difficult political context in which a problem arises.
Taking the facts at face value
Students often have difficulties understanding structural constraints on political actors. Their notions of the political are often deeply personalized. Students are less likely to begin an inquiry by attending to the constraints of structures, media or cultural heritages. As a consequence, some students tend to propose unrealistic solutions to problems. For example, they might propose that a powerful state threaten to use nuclear weapons as a means of advancing its objectives in a trade dispute..
Our teaching strategies
As well as the more standard evidentiary and clarity questions of “how do we know?” and “what do we know?” academics need to focus student discussion on questions exploring domains of constraint like “how could it be done?” Exploration of domains of constraint and complexity amounts to deeper and higher learning in Politics and IR. These kinds of learning will also depend on whether the academics’ goal for the discussion of “solutions” is a forensic exercise in critical thinking (the typical agenda of a Politics class) or a practical and prescriptive study of outcomes and consequences of a particular policy (IR tends more toward this civic agenda, understood even in an international sense).
Hypotheticals, debates and simulations work well in Politics and IR settings, provided attention is also focussed on the resources available to the different actors and on their cultural, political and environmental contexts. Studies of simulation activities in Politics and IR, even in the very first year of study, conclude that they are effective in engaging passive learners and prompting students to consider ideological and experiential positions other than their own (Raymond & Usherwood, 2013). One pitfall with simulations, however, is that students may still not connect the activity and the underlying theory. This pitfall means that academics should also try to articulate clear theory-based goals for the simulations, and students should be encouraged to apply theory before, during and after the exercise (Asal & Kratoville, 2013). Academics teaching through simulations also need to take into account the potential challenges posed by student non-participation and by scheduling/time management issues (Wedig, 2010). Other active learning techniques emphasising problem-based and team-based learning can also elicit similar outcomes (Ishiyama, 2013).
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.
Bernstein, J. (2013). Plowing through the bottlenecks in political science: Experts and novices at work. In K. McKinney (Ed.), The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in and across the Disciplines (pp. 74-92). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Ishiyama, J. (2013). Frequently used active learning techniques and their impact: A critical review of existing journal literature in the united states. European Political Science 12(1), 116–126.
Raymond, C. & Usherwood, S. (2013). Assessment in simulations. Journal of Political Science Education, 9, 157-167.
Wedig, T. (2010). Getting the most from classroom simulations: Strategies for maximizing learning outcomes. PS: Political Science & Politics, 43(03), 547-555. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S104909651000079