Constitutional Engineers: Using Problem Based Learning in Comparative Politics

John Ishiyama • Truman State University

This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s April 2007 edition.

  “Active learning” is a buzzword in higher education. There is good reason to believe that it promotes student learning better than “passive” approaches (Shellman and Turan, 2006). Active learning leads to deeper learning of abstract concepts. Brock and Cameron (1999) argue that it is necessary for students to apply their “book knowledge” to real world situations in order to better understand abstract concepts. Smith and Boyer (1996, 690) contend that active learning approaches such as simulations “recreate complex, dynamic political processes in the classroom, allowing students to examine the motivations, behavioral constraints, resources and interactions among institutional actors.” As Stephen Shellman (2001, 827) notes, active learning approaches “permit students to experience institutional processes in ways that reading textbooks and listening to lectures may not allow.”

More recently instructors of comparative politics have begun to embrace the concept of active learning. Indeed there have been several simulations designed for comparative government (such as model EU, Model OAS etc) and there has been at least one recent textbook that has embraced the idea of “doing” comparative politics (see for example Lim 2005). By and large, active learning has been equated with simulations. Although simulations are of great benefit, they often require a great deal of preparatory work and monitoring by the instructor (Austin, McDowell and Sacko, 2006; Shaw, 2006).

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

Another active learning approach that has less following in political science is the Problem Based Learning (PBL) approach. PBL is an instructional method that challenges students to “learn to learn,” by working cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real world problems. These problems are used to engage students’ curiosity and initiate learning the subject matter. PBL prepares students to think critically and analytically, and to find and use appropriate resources (Duch et al 2001; Burch 2000). In this essay, I illustrate how I use a variation of PBL in my Principles of Comparative Politics course (POL 315).

Restructuring My Comparative Politics Course

The way I currently structure my comparative politics course is very different from the past. Originally, the course was like any other lecture-based course. It focused on (among other things) the factors that impact upon the development of democracy (such as the level of economic development, ethnic and religious heterogeneity, constitutional designs etc). The first half of the course was spent on illustrating the basic principles of comparative politics, focusing on “grand theories,” like systems theory and structural functionalism, as well as modernization theory, neo-Marxist dependency approaches, and the “new statism.” In addition, I covered political culture, new institutional approaches, political economy and the like. In the second half of the course I focused on cases, mainly western (Europe and Japan), with some reference to Russia and at least one “developing country.”

However, something changed for me in the Fall of 2002. At that time the debate over the invasion of Iraq was in full swing. By the end of the term it appeared that the invasion was inevitable (and that Iraq would be quickly defeated) so that many analysts were discussing various political scenarios and the future of democracy in a Post-Saddam Iraq. What a wonderful “teachable” moment! Near the end of the term I posed a question to the class – if they were to design a constitution for Iraq, what would they suggest?

Much to my chagrin, the class discussion quickly degenerated into accusations of “treachery” lobbed at “liberals,” or claims that the President was “lying” about Iraq. In other words, students relied solely on their preconceived political notions, arguing from the basis of ideology as opposed to evidence. The students were not connecting the class material to a real-world problem.

Frankly, I was at first shocked. After the class was over I reflected on what had happened. Perhaps it was because the emotionally charged nature of the topic prevented students from applying the principles they had learned to analyze the situation (which is tantamount to blaming the students for not learning). I considered in the future avoiding controversial topics—but what would that accomplish? The world is full of controversy and students are going to have to deal with these issues.

In short, I had failed to help the students learn. All of the material I “covered” merely went into an unused bucket, full of relatively useless facts. They simply did not see how what we covered in class was useful to them. They were quite good at regurgitating information for the exam, but were not using the knowledge they acquired and apply it to real world problems. I needed to get students to take ownership of their own learning.

I made changes and adopted a PBL approach to organizing the course. The course is now focused on a single problem—how to build democracy in countries that are not currently democratic. During the first part of the term I not only introduce students to theories of democracy, but also identify the variables in the literature most cited as impacting upon democratic development (economic, social, cultural, institutional, etc). The course involves students working together in groups to design a constitution that would help build democracy given social, economic, cultural and political constraints. The purpose of this exercise is not to suggest that democracy is the only political system that is appropriate for all national contexts, but to help the student realize the challenges facing democratizing states.

The structure of the course is designed to facilitate the problem solving exercise by providing the students with the basic analytical tools to “solve” the problem. In the first two weeks of the course we deal with the evolution of comparative politics, beginning with systems theory and structural functionalism. This is followed by modernization theory, and critiques of modernization theory in the form of dependency theory and new statism. Subsequently, we lay out the features of the “context”—approaches regarding political culture and ethnic politics, civil society and the impact of previous regimes on democratization processes. Then we focus on the literature that relates to the design features of a constitution—the relative merits of presidentialism versus parliamentarism; federalism and unitary systems; the impact of the electoral system; and finally the judicial system. The remaining three weeks of the course are devoted to the panel/group presentations. Typically the course has 35-40 students.

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

In the real world, people collaborate to solve problems— collaboration is a skill. To promote active student collaboration, I have the students work together in this collaborative research exercise and formulate a “plan” regarding the democratization of one of five countries (each team is made up of around 7 people). We then form groups in which students are asked to imagine they were “testifying” as experts on constitutional design. Students research the topic and formulate proposals regarding the structure of the executive branch, the electoral system, federalism, the legislature and the courts which they believe would be most appropriate for their country. These

constitutional designs are presented to the rest of the class during five class sessions. Since 2003, I have varied the exercise a bit every year. In 2003 the course focused on Iraq; now I randomly select the five countries by drawing names of non-democratic states out of a hat on the first day of class.


Judging from the evaluations and student comments, as well as from their final reports, this redesigned course was far more successful in getting students to apply principles they learned in class to the real world when compared with the past. In terms of student evaluations of the course, Figure 1 reports changes in student evaluations from 2000-2005 in response to three questions (these questions were derived from the standard evaluation form that I have used for the past decade).

  • How would you rate the instructor’s style in presenting the course material?
  • How would you rate the organization of the course?
  • How would you rate this course on an overall scale?

In Figure 1, there was slight increase across all three questions following 2002 (or when I began using a PBL approach in my course). This might suggest that students view the overall organization of the course more positively than before the implementation of the PBL approach. Further, there were improved scores in student estimations of the instructor’s presentation of the material.

More telling are the comments that were offered by the students. Interestingly, prior to 2003, only about 40-45% of the students offered comments in the open-ended section of the evaluation. Since 2003, typically over 80% of the students offered comments on the course. Students were more motivated to comment on the course, and this may have reflected their greater sense of involvement.

The types of comments offered are also telling. Prior to 2003, the typical comment was generally quite positive, but very short. Often students would say things like “this was a great course” “or the instructor was enthusiastic”— usually quite short without much in the way of suggestion for improvement. After 2003, the comments were much longer, and often included suggestions for improving the project, such as “better integrating all assignments including the examinations with the group project” or “allowing students to select countries they are interested in” (I generally randomly assign students to groups, so students will be compelled to work with someone they may not know, and on a country that is not necessarily in their area of expertise).

Perhaps most interesting about the student comments is that they often communicate frustration in not being able to come up with the “perfect” constitution. Students come away from the assignment now quite sensitized to the difficulties involved in designing a constitution. They realize that constitutions designed in places like Iraq or Liberia are often imperfect designs implemented for the sake of political expediency. This for many students is quite a revelation.

In addition, what I have observed over the past three years is that the students are much more engaged in the material than before. Of particular interest to me is how the students grilled each other following the group presentations. The presenting students soon became aware that they would have to defend their group’s position in the face of withering criticism from their peers. The level of familiarity with the assigned readings and the quality of class discussion (and debate) increased dramatically.


In sum, the adoption of a PBL based approach in my comparative politics class has worked very well in getting students to apply “book learning” to “solving” real world problems in a collaborative way. There are at least four advantages to using the PBL approach. Like other active learning approaches (such as simulations) this approach enables students to retain more information and give students a “deeper level of insight into the political process,” as compared to traditional note taking and listening exercises (Smith and Boyer 1996). Second, this approach provides a break for ordinary lectures and it allows students to apply their knowledge from lecture to solving real problems. Third, it promotes collaborative work (which is not always present in simulations) that better mirrors circumstances in the “real world.” Fourth, it has helped increase interest in comparative politics among our majors. My course has been substantially over-subscribed for the past three years. Overall, changes that I have made in my course incorporating more PBL aspects have provided an enjoyable and stimulating environment for the students.


Austin, W. Chadwick, Todd McDowell, David H. Sacko. 2006. “Synergy Across the Curriculum: Simulating the Institution of Postwar Iraqi Government” Journal of Political Science Education 2: 89 – 112.

Brock, Kathy L., and Beverly J. Cameron. 1999. “Enlivening Science Courses with Kolb’s Learning Preference Model.” PS: Political Science and Politics 32:251–56

Burch, Kurt. 2000. “A Primer on Problem Based Learning for International Relations Courses” International Studies Perspective, 1:1 31-32

Duch, Barbara J., Susan E. Groh, Deborah E. Allen eds. 2001. The Power of Problem-Based Learning A Practical “How To” for Teaching Undergraduate Courses in Any Discipline, Sterling VA: Stylus Publishers.

Lim, Timothy. 2005. Doing Comparative Politics. Boulder: Lynne Rienner.

Shaw, Carolyn M. 2006. “Simulating Negotiations in a Three-Way Civil War” Journal of Political Science Education 2: 51 – 71.

Shellman, Stephen . 2001. “Active Learning in Comparative Politics: A Mock German Election and Coalition-Formation Simulation” PS: Political Science and Politics 34: 827-834

Shellman, Stephen M. and Kürad Turan. 2006. “Do Simulations Enhance Student Learning? An Empirical Evaluation of an IR Simulation” Journal of Political Science Education 2: 19 – 32.

Smith, Elizabeth T., and Mark A. Boyer. 1996. “Designing In-Class Simulations.” PS: Political Science and Politics 29: 690–94.

A version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the APSA Philadelphia Marriott, Philadelphia, PA, 31 August- 3 September 2006.

Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List presents select PSE articles from the previous 15 years. APSA Educate is please to announce it will feature all future Political Science Educator‘s issues.


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