POLSCI 101: Innovative Teaching Tools
A collection of materials by CRLT on the evaluation of teaching effectiveness prompted Mika Lavaque-Manty in Political Science to add a completely new interactive teaching component to his large introductory class.
- A comprehensive survey on student expectations, background, learning and studying styles once before the term began and right after. The post-survey also included questions on what the students thought they had learned.
- Weekly electronic survey of how they had understood the material and how difficult they felt the readings were.
- A midterm student feedback visit conducted by a CRLT consultant.
- A comparison of grades across all iterations of my course.
POLSCI 101: Introduction to Political Theory
Assoc. Prof. Mika Lavaque-Manty Fall 2001
This course serves as an introduction to political theory, one of the subfields of political science. Political theory traditionally focuses on questions of how to manage our lives together. It concerns itself with questions of how we should live, as individuals and communities, what counts as valuable human life, what justice is, what just and fair institutions look like, and how to deal with the problems human communities face.
This course is organized around a set of problems we face. Who that “we” is is one of the questions we’ll pay attention to. But it certainly includes the students in this course, who will have a say in our choice of themes. This is why you don’t see any readings in the course calendar yet. They will depend on which themes we choose. We’ll tackle four themes during the semester. Each theme will include readings from so-called canonical political theory, which means key texts in Western political thought, beginning in the Greek antiquity and reaching the twenty-first century. But there will be other texts, to supplement the canon and its academic and Western focus.
Much of what we’ll do in this course is unconventional, whether you compare it to your high school experience or other courses in college. It will reward initiative, flexibility, and collaboration.
The following objectives are in an increasing order of importance. That is, the second one is more important than the first one, and so on.
- Be familiar with the texts we have read and the kinds of arguments you have encountered during the course.
- Have an understanding of what political theory is and have at least a general comprehension of major concepts and ideas in political theory (e.g., you should know what a social contract is, you know the different meanings of “liberalism” and “conservatism,” you should understand the collective action problem).
- Be able to read other similar texts and analyze other political arguments. In other words, you should be able to engage in inquiry into political arguments.
- Be able to make your own arguments, and express those arguments verbally, in writing, and using other “new” media.
- Be able to solve problems, both intellectual and social, using the skills and knowledge you’ve acquired in this course in conjunction with other skills and knowledge you might have from elsewhere. This includes being able to collaborate with others.
- Be familiar with your own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to learning, and be able to adjust your approaches to learning.
Notice that the last point has nothing to do with political theory, or even political science. It has a lot to do with succeeding in college, and -- you might not know this yet -- it has everything to do about succeeding in life, whatever you end up doing.
You’ll want to know what all this means in terms of grades. It’s relatively basic: Put in the effort and go through the motions, and you’ll be guaranteed a B range grade. Put in the effort, focus on your learning, try hard on improving your skills, and you’re in the running for an A range grade. Do less, and you quickly risk a low grade. Note one important principle: some things do not get graded, but they are necessary, anyway. For example, if you do not complete the syllabus review survey, you cannot do any further work in the course, or if you do not complete the midterm self-evaluation, you will not have access to assignments in the second half of the semester. Below is how the different graded components in the course will count toward your final course grade.
by Kaustuv Basu
The players have a set of choices as they go about achieving their objectives. They could choose to go down different paths, and build confidence along the way.
This description could be used to describe players in an online role-playing game, or students in Mika LaVaque-Manty’s Introduction to Political Theory class at the University of Michigan.
LaVaque-Manty, an associate professor of political science, is letting students choose the kinds of assignments – be it posting on a class blog or commenting on blog posts, a group project or a conventional essay – on which they want to be graded for 60 percent of their grades. Students not only choose two of three optional components, they also decide on how these components will be weighted. For example, a student could assign 40 percent of the grade to blogging and 20 percent to a group project.
The rest of the grade is made up of what LaVaque-Manty calls “going through the motions” – attendance, participation in class discussions and keeping up with reading material.
Professors are constantly griping about grading, and some (like LaVaque-Manty) propose creative alternatives to traditional grading. About three years ago, Cathy Davidson, a Duke University professor of English, attracted nationwide attention from educators after she proposed a grading plan based on a points system -- students could do a certain amount of work for the class and aim for an A, or they could do less and aim for a B. Other students in the class would determine if the work was being to satisfaction. LaVaque-Manty's approach, like Davidson's, gives students much more control than is the norm. But he remains the grader.
Some experts call his approach an example of “gamification”: use of game-like elements to increase student motivation or engagement.
"It is the use of game mechanics to make courses more engaging,” said Matt Kaplan, managing director at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan. “Students will have to think, ‘How do I learn in this class, or where should I spend my effort?’ And they have to do it very carefully,” he said. Since the course is self-regulated, students have to take responsibility in building the coursework. And they have to have explicit goals early on and then take steps to achieve those goals.
According to a paper on “Gamification in Education” by Joey Lee and Jessica Hammer of Teachers College, Columbia University, the use of these elements in classrooms can not only excite and motivate students, but also provide teachers a way to help and reward students. “It can show them the ways that education can be a joyful experience, and the blurring of boundaries between informal and formal learning can inspire students to learn in life-wide, lifelong, and life-deep ways,” the authors wrote.
On the flip side, Lee and Hammer caution that “gamification” can be a drain on teacher resources. And just structuring a course like a game might not make it a game. “By making play mandatory, gamification might create rule-bases experiences that feel just like school,” the authors said. “Instead of chocolate and peanut butter, such projects are more like chocolate-covered broccoli.”
LaVaque-Manty, who is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor -- an award given to faculty members for outstanding contribution to undergraduate education -- tried this grading system last fall. Buoyed by what he sees as increased student engagement, he will continue with it when he offers the political theory class again this fall. The professor, who has been at the University of Michigan since 2001, said his goal is to increase student autonomy and get them thinking about the learning process. “I am trying to get them to exercise their own judgment,” he said. “At worst it is an intriguing idea; at best it is cool.”
The idea developed, LaVaque-Manty said, as he talked with graduate students and played around with ideas the last few years. “More people liked it than not,” he said. “Whether students seem to like the grading scheme or not seemed to be the best predictor of how they would do in the class. How you grade can motivate students.”
Two hundred ninety-seven students took the introductory political theory class last fall, of which 55 percent were sophomores and the rest were freshmen. Some of the freshmen struggled with the idea of choosing their own grading components. “They are fresh out of high school, where they are used to being given marching orders. Suddenly they can choose and they are wondering how to do it,” LaVaque-Manty said. As a result, for the class that will be offered this fall, students who do not choose the grading components will be given a default allocation.
Students did well in the assignments they weighted heavily, but they did not seem to make a major commitment to those to which they did not give a lot of weight. The average grade in the class, which used to be B to B-plus, is now closer to A-minus, LaVaque-Manty said. And though there is no compelling evidence showing that the students learned more, the professor said that students told him that they learned more because of the way the class was structured.
Steve Dougherty, a student in the class last fall, said he liked the class because “it allowed me to focus on the assignments I felt passionate about, could learn from, and on which I could do well.” Another student, Madeline Dunn, who nominated the professor for a provost's teaching innovation prize, said: "This class pushed me to perform at the best of my abilities. I knew that at the end of the year I could not blame a poor grade on my learning styles clashing with the teacher, or any other excuse, for that matter."
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