Avid readers of my blog (I know there are a few of you!) will have heard me mention my funded research project on active learning that I’ve been working on this past semester. The final assignment related to this component of the course was to complete a written reflection on the in-class activity that ‘has most shaped/influenced [their] understanding of the political world’. Now that the semester is over, my RA and I are diving into the data (including these final reflections, focus group transcripts and my own journaling) to explore where the ‘value added’ is in terms of active learning and what forms of active learning resonate most with students.
To get us warmed up, I decided on a very simple quantitative approach—we went through the 120 final reflections and tallied up the exercises that students themselves have chosen as the activities that impacted them as learners the most.* In the next few blogs I’ll describe the ‘winning activities’ and discuss what students got out of these in terms of the learning aims of the course (and beyond!).
The (shocking) third place winner!
In third place was actually my least favorite activity of the year that I put together for the lecture on my least favorite topic of the course. I was somewhat shocked to see this making the top three, but was also comforted by the fact that my own bias/lack of enthusiasm towards the topic didn’t seem to impact the students. Note: there is nothing wrong with the topic or lecture—it’s just not a theme that gets me going as much as the others in the syllabus.
This activity is classed as a ‘simulation’, or a ‘problem based learning’ exercise. Undertaken in a class of around 100, students were provided with a worksheet that began with the following:
- The goal of this exercise is to understand what direct democracy could look like in a world where we are more used to indirect democracy and to consider the strengths and weaknesses of both.
- The Totally Fictional Scenario: The year is 2030 and it is clear that the Canadian government’s environmental policies have failed. Canada’s forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, the ice caps are melting leading to increased flooding in coastal areas, and a lack of regulation on the oil and gas industries has led to many examples of polluted waterways. Parliament and our elected officials have let us down, and they admit it. With a loss of faith in our elected officials and the institutions in which they work there has been a call for a more direct form of democracy which would see Canadian citizens become more directly engaged in environmental planning and policy. Canada has turned to you—emerging experts in political science—for advice on how to move towards direct democracy.
Students were then asked a series of questions that they were to discuss with the students around them that helped them explore the feasibility, strengths and weaknesses of direct democracy (if you would like a copy of the full activity sheet, please email me). Following their discussion in small groups, I brought their attention back to the front of the room where I led a debrief and discussion of the answers they had come up with in their small groups.
Value added? What students gain from this activity—critical thinking skills and reflection on their role as citizens
I’ve not the space here to analyze all of the findings from this activity, however, I have noticed two dominant themes in the reflective pieces. The first of these, the development of critical thinking skills, was indeed and aim of the activity (phew, it worked). I had several students note how before the activity they ‘hated’ the very idea of direct democracy (yes, they used the word ‘hate’!). They noted that while their overall assessment of the value of direct democracy had not changed, their reaction to it was less an emotional reaction or based purely on what they had memorized from a reading, but rather their ability to think through and defend their position rationally, using examples. This was evidenced in the learning logs with students offering detailed explanations (drawing on the scenario) to explain the strengths and weaknesses of direct democracy. What excited me most, however, is that several noted that the activity forced them to reconsider preconceived ideas of what they had learned in the textbook and in other classes. One student noted how it made them realize they should not take anything they read in a textbook at face value. Another reflection that I found quite striking in this regard was a student who noted that
‘it helped me understand the evolution of my own beliefs’
The other, more unexpected, thing I heard had to do with students reflecting on their own personal political stance and role as a citizen (Canadian or global). Several students noted how this activity made them realize how often they ‘take Canadian democracy for granted’. One student noted that they certainly valued Canadian democracy, but weren’t sure why and were now really trying to think this through. Others noted that it made them think twice about the ‘superiority’ they felt regarding their own system in comparison to others. In this vein, it was questioned how democratic we really were (how much does the representative form of government really give them ‘power’ within our system).
Some also reflected on what the activity meant for them in terms of their actions as citizens outside the classroom walls, with one student noting ‘
‘A core idea that I really took away from this week was that there is really no space for political absolutism in this world. In order to make changes and better the world, we have to understand the value of adaptability and diversity’
Things that need fixing: making it more accessible to non-Canadian students
Looking back I now see that this activity allowed fuller participation of my Canadian students, and that (my not insignificant) proportion of international students perhaps did not feel that they could participate at the same level as they lacked a basic understanding of Canadian political-culture, environmental issues and regional issues (which came up very strongly in the final debrief). I do like the element of ‘grounding’ simulations with real case studies for obvious reasons. Though, I also use fictional case studies in other simulations—in an attempt to allow students to all be on a level playing field—everyone has the same level of information/background knowledge. The downside to this, I’ve found, is that students often become obsessed with trying to figure out what country I’ve based the scenario on, which detracts from the task at hand. So, in the future, I think I will give a short reading ahead of time for the students to complete before coming to class that grounds everyone in the case study to a better degree so that everyone feels more capable of engaging. This means sacrificing some of the ‘topic’ reading for case study reading.