Monthly Archives: February 2015

What’s so innovative about that? On Scaffolding Learning and Assessments

Greetings from ISA2015 in New Orleans!  I’ve now finished my two pedagogy and two research panels (phew) and am taking a wee break to blog about it all.  My pedagogy panels were excellent in terms of engagement and support from my fellow panelists.  Attendance was, well, lacking– perhaps a function of the 60+ panels that run simultaneously, but likely also a reflection of how teaching is (or is not) always valued in higher education.  For me, I think this is largely a function of the ‘publish or peril’ foundations of this profession.  Most (though not all!) academics do enjoy teaching and of course want to do a great job at everything they do, but ISA is a huge networking event for research and publications, and not all of us have the ‘luxury’ to dedicate too much time to our pedagogy.  For me this is one of the joys of being on the ‘teaching tenure track’–  it allows me the relative freedom to spend time reflecting on the practice and ethics of my teaching….The audience members we did have were fabulous– thank you for your engagement! Below is a quick reflection on a couple (non-techy) forms of innovation I tried to use last semester…..

Scaffolding:  It all pays off in the end (but it is a lot of work and lots more to consider!)

Since starting my new post last year, I have been introduced to the idea of ‘scaffolding’ as approach to teaching and assessment (for a good review of the literature on this see Boblet, 2012).   Whilst not claiming to have applied this approach holistically to my pedagogy,  I did try to integrate this to a great degree in this particular course.  Defined here as a ‘process that enables a  child or novice to solve a problem, carry out a task or achieve a goal which would be beyond his unassisted efforts’ (Wood, Buner and Ross, 1976: 90)  the lectures, activities and writing assignments that preceded this activity were essential to the success of the activity.

I am confident (though I would need to run a more controlled experiment) that had this been a stand-alone lecture, the activity would have been an absolute failure.  Instead what I found was first year students, who had not taken any other politics courses and for whom English is not their first language, completing tasks in a completely unexpected way.  At the end of the lecture my TAs and I stood and looked at each other in bit of  a ‘did that just happen?’ kind of way.    Not only were the students able to identify the different theoretical perspectives contained within  the tidbits of data they were provided, they were able to match these to specific aspects or ‘sub-concepts’ related with each of these theories.  For example under ‘Constructivism’ they then had to decide if the data fit ‘best’ with  Ideational vs Material Forces, The Social Construction of Knowledge and Truth, Changes to Norms and Values over Time.  What was really impressive though was their ability to justify to the class and teaching staff why they had placed their data there.  In several cases students placed data under categories that teaching staff were not initially convinced by, but after hearing student explanations, data was left where it was!

The scaffolding that had led to this success is summarized below.  Here it is worth noting that getting students to this stage was not easy.  The tasks described below were difficult intellectually, and emotionally in some cases, for the teaching staff (and perhaps for the students). We certainly did not end every lecture with feelings of success and pride. At many stages the teaching staff felt like this wasn’t working—we weren’t seeing the leaps in ability we had wanted,  but this perhaps masked some of the growth that was happening—as evidenced in this session.  Still, in future years it would useful to think about how there could be better ‘checks’ on learning at the earlier stages to prevent loss of morale and frustration for all involved.


  1. Reinforcement and repetition of material in different contexts: Some ideas (such as liberalism, feminism and post modernism) had been addressed in several lectures prior to week 11
  2. Ongoing support in structured argumentation: In previous weeks, students had been given more guided/supported ‘mini tasks’ which aimed to get them thinking about how to link data to particular concepts in a meaningful way.  This was done in an attempt to get them to internalize what ‘analysis’ and ‘justification of answers’ really looks like, so that it starts to become more automatic for them when faced with new ideas and data.  This set them up for doing this activity on their own with very little support from instructors.
  3. Modes of assessment, assisted performance, and differentiated learning. The written assignments for this module started with an article summary on a predetermined topic (to measure students’ basic comprehension and writing skills)  followed by a piece where they had to compare two new articles on the same topic (an attempt to get them to recognize that the same issue can be analyzed from different perspectives and to be able to communicate this to the reader).  The final assessment then asked them to use the three articles they read to a) come up with an ‘answerable’ question on the topic and b) formulate a structured academic argument to answer their question.  They were working on this final assignment at the time this lecture was given.  Whilst there were specific due dates for each of these, a small handful of students who were not able to successfully complete an assignment then went on an alternative deadlines schedule. This is not to say any students who failed were allowed to repeat—the standard was more along the lines of ‘did they even understand what they were supposed to have done’.  This was admittedly an imperfect measurement and something I need to rethink for future years.  These students  would work with the lecturer and TAs to complete one assignment properly before being allowed to progress to the next stage—integrating the differentiated learning approach  (see Ernst and Enrst, 2005).


Boblet, N (2012) ‘Scaffoldng:  Defining the Metaphor’ Columbia University Working Papers in TESOL & Applied Linguistics, 12(2), 1-16.

Ernst, H and Ernst T (2005)  ‘The Promise and Pitfalls for Differentiated Instruction for Undergraduate Political Science Courses:  Student and Instructor Impressions of and Unconventional Teaching Stragegy’ Journal of Political Science Education,  1: 39-59.

Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976) ‘The rold of tutoring in problem solving’ Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, , 17, 89-100.


Let’s get specific: Reflections on an actual lesson plan

In the first of a series of 4 posts I will share one of my actual lesson plans.  In doing so, you will see the process I go through in planning my lectures including some of the logic behind decisions I make in pedagogy.  I’d love to say that all of my lesson plans are this well thought out, but I’ll admit it– sometimes things are more ‘on the fly’ than I’d like them to be, and that has made me reflect a lot on what is actually achievable, where the best use of my time is, and of course, my good old time-management skills (or, ahem, lack thereof).

Over the course of my next three posts  I will reflect on this lesson plan in terms of some of the innovative pedagogies I have tried to incorporate, my reflections on trying to ‘globalize IR’ and teach beyond the (western?) orthodoxy, canon, or ‘basics’ in an intro level course and some general reflections on the constraints to being successful in all of this!*

Analyzing Global Security Issues

Introduction to Politics (Poli 100) Lecture 11 of 13

Class Size: Two cohorts of 40 students

Time Frame: 3 Hours

Teaching Support:  2 TAs in class



This lecture was the fourth lecture where students would have been working with some the theories and ideologies explored:  Ideology as a concept was covered in week 4 along with an introduction to various ideologies and challenges to them such as liberalism, nationalism, feminism etc (as part of the ‘key terms’ block); in week 6 on political economy (comparative politics block); and in week 10 where we discussed orthodox IR theories, why they are considered orthodox and why challenges to the orthodoxy emerged (during the IR block).  This particular class was taught to a first year, entirely international-student cohort.

Learning outcomes for session

  • To build upon previous learning about ideology
  • To expose students early on in their social science degrees to alternative/critical/non-orthodox approaches to knowledge
  • To ensure students are able to recognize and identify different theoretical approaches
  • To provide students with hands on opportunities to ‘use’ this new-found knowledge in a less abstract way with the aim of increasing knowledge retention
  • To provide students with analytical skills that will allow them to succeed in formal written assignments by teaching them how to match abstract concepts with data and think about how an academic argument could then be structured

Lesson Plan

Lesson consists of 3 parts

  • One hour lecture
  • Activity 1: 30 minute individual pre-task
  • Activity 2: 5 hour group activity (including break and debrief)

One hour lecture on ‘Alternative IR Theories’

The guiding principles and emphasis of lecture are described below.

Scaffolding/Reinforcement: Whenever possible, students are reminded of other times in the semester where we have covered these ideas so as to reinforce that these are not new (ie scary) ideas and also to get students used to the idea that concepts and theories can be used across topics and even disciplines (UBC’s Vantage Arts curriculum is coordinated, so as much as possible we also try to link our topics to what they are studying in Geography, Psychology and Writing/Discourse Studies).

Lecture is participatory: Students are asked to recall what they remember from previous weeks as they relate to the above.  They are also asked at least one ‘pair share’ question for each of the in-depth slides.  For example—for the slide on feminism I would ask a very broad question such as ‘what differences do you notice between these three images’ or ‘What questions to you have about these images’.

Answering the ‘so what’ question: Before we engage in the activities I spend some time (slide 7) talking to students about why we learn theory/why we engage in the ‘tough conceptual work’.  I try to do this in all my lectures to reinforce the idea that we are not just getting them to memorize things for the sake of it, but that these ideas actually serve a concrete purpose.  This leads nicely into the next stage of the session.

Activity 1: Individual Pre Task:  Recognizing Perspectives–Dealing with Global Terrorism

Students given handout with activity aims, summary of ‘global terror threat’ , and instructions for activity.

Students are asked to read the initial blurb on global terrorism and identify parts of the text which seem to ‘fit’ with some of the theories or analytical approaches discussed.  After completing the task individually, students are called upon share their answers with the class.  Important here is getting students to clarify exactly why they highlighted parts of the text as ‘liberalism, realism, feminism etc’ to encourage them increase the level of specificity in their answers. This task also gives me a good ‘reading’ on where students are at; if they are getting it and ready to move onto the next task great—if not we go back to some of the lecture slides!

Activity 2:  Group Activity:  Working with Data—Dealing with Global Terrorism

Activity is described in detail in student handout– approximately 30 pieces of data of various types, from various sources, and related to 4 analytical approaches are provided to groups of students.   The activity is described below.

Posters will be placed around the room (one for each theory) with accompanying concepts/arguments of theory  (ie under the liberalism poster there will be sub-posters with terms such as ‘human nature as inherently good or ‘focus on interdependence and cooperation’ whereas for constructivism there would be sub-posters with headings such a ‘focus on ideational aspects’ or  ‘threats socially constructed’) .

In groups, students will slowly be given different types of data (quotations from political speeches, statistics, images, quotations from academic sources) and they will have to try and match their bit of data to both the theory/approach as well as one of the specific concepts.

Teaching staff circulate to help students as needed and to ask them why they are posting their data under specific concepts.  After the first ‘round’ of data, the TAs take the students on a ‘gallery walk’ of the posters and get students to explain to their colleagues why they posted the data under the concept.  If the student can’t provide a good reason, it is opened up to the class for discussion (where students have the option of moving it elsewhere).  Students go through the next 3 rounds of data and then take a break.  More advanced students who place their data quickly are asked by the teaching staff to find any ‘placements’ they think might be incorrect or questionable and to explain why.

During the break, the teaching staff inspect each poster, choosing one or two bits of data that we would like to discuss with the entire class (including bits of data that we think are ‘wrong’ and should likely be moved—unless the students can provide a good explanation that we had not ourselves considered, which happened a few times).    After the break we do another ‘gallery walk’ and again, the onus is on students to justify their choices or justify why they would move a piece of data to another poster.

Activity ends with a debrief where we talk about what was achieved.  Here, there is a focus on the analytical skills and their new-found ability to organize data/structure an answer.

* this series of posts reflect a paper to be presented on an innovative Panel at the 2015 ISA Annual Convention titled  Globalizing and Diversifying International Studies Pedagogies:  Innovative Lesson Planning for a Changing Discipline– a panel co-organized by the formidable Dr Kathryn Fisher.