Justin Zimmerman & Kumar Ramanathan, Northwestern University
We have all stared into it: the black boxes of indifference as we lecture on the past and present lessons of political science. Virtual teaching and learning can be tedious and dry at times. Even when the subject matter is compelling, students may still be apprehensive to participate in class because of a lack of self-confidence, introversion, or exhaustion from a long pandemic year. These issues are particularly exacerbated when assessments such as tests or exams are on the horizon. We find that one way to combat the exhaustion and anxiety associated with assessments, especially in the context of pandemic-era virtual teaching, is to lean into games. In this blog post, we share our experiences of using games in the classroom.
Bringing Back Games
Many of us remember the thrill of playing jeopardy and quiz bowl to study for the big test or just as an extracurricular activity as children. As teaching assistants, we have drawn on these experiences to develop activities for our discussion sections in two courses: Law in the Political Arena and Introduction to American Politics. These survey courses introduce students to challenging new concepts embedded in numerous readings. We found that students were experiencing anxiety about their midterm or final assessments and lacked confidence in their own understanding of the material. Especially in introductory-level courses that attract first-year students and sophomores, students may carry over test-related anxieties from experiences in high school or other college courses as well.
Games are a useful exercise in this context, because they introduce a low-stakes but engaging way for students to participate and learn from each other.
Using games in this way is a form of active learning, where students are engaged in the learning process. The elements of entertainment and competitiveness particular to games can help relieve students’ anxieties about assessments. While games have a competitive element that are engaging to students, such competition is not attached to any meaningful stakes. This low-stakes activity also enables instructors to encourage reluctant students to participate and to show students that they can learn from each other. We encourage instructors, especially teaching assistants in large survey courses, to design games activities that emphasize these aspects and center around students’ understanding of key course concepts.
Our experiences using “Jeopardy” in virtual and in-person classrooms
Justin: To help solidify the key concepts in preparation for the final, I created a modified version of Jeopardy questions on the key concepts in class. I used PowerPoint to create the slides and asked them to use the hand raise signal from zoom as their buzzer. Obviously, I did not really care who won and I didn’t always call on the first person that “buzzed.” After all, I still wanted to make sure that I diverse group of students were able to participate, not just the individuals with the quickest reflexes. I used the obligatory Jeopardy music to lighten the mood as they pondered the answers to the tougher questions. Additionally, answers for each question were accompanied by pop culture reference. For example, when I asked the students to identify the concept of informal and social control the answer included a picture of Janet Jackson’s Control album. Yes, this reference aged me, but the youth need to know the greatness of Janet Jackson.
Kumar: Similar to Justin’s experience, I used a Jeopardy game to help students review key concepts from the course prior to midterm and final examinations. I did this in a course that took place in-person (prior to the pandemic). I used one of many available free online custom Jeopardy websites to design the game. Using a small budget from the department, I purchased snacks as a reward for the “winning” team. When students arrived in class, I assigned them to teams, roughly making sure to not assign students who usually sit together to the same team. When a team answered correctly, they had to explain their reasoning before I would “reward” them with the points for the question. I approached the activity in this way so that students could practice learning from each other rather than relying on instructor-to-student interactions alone. This setup also encouraged students who are reluctant to speak up during class to participate. I also included some questions (or rather, answers) that were intentionally ambiguous, to highlight concepts and themes from the course that required students to offer their own interpretations and arguments. This was helpful in two ways: (1) it created opportunities for discussion interspersed throughout the game; and (2) it created situations where no one got the “right” answer, avoiding a situation where one team kept gaining points and others became discouraged. At the end of the game, I gave all students the “reward” of the snacks—after all, the point is not for there to be a winner. I had initially been worried that students would find the exercise patronizing, but instead they reported that the game was a welcome change of pace during a grueling part of the semester.
Jeopardy is not the only game that can spur participation and solidify key concepts. Games like Wheel of Fortune, Family Feud, and others can easily be adapted into in-class exercises. Using a little ingenuity and creating interactive components with PowerPoint or even by hand can invigorate an otherwise drained classroom.
Using the setup of a Jeopardy game as an in-class activity allowed us to break down complicated concepts in a simpler and fun way, create opportunities for discussion of the concepts, and encourage students to participate and to learn from each other. The students seemed interested and engaged in the exercise and more confident in their understanding of the material.
Kumar Ramanathan is a doctoral candidate in political science at Northwestern University and a Doctoral Fellow at the American Bar Foundation. His dissertation investigates how liberal politicians in the northern Democratic Party contested and constructed a civil rights legislative agenda during the 1930s-60s, and aims to explain the origins and limitations of racial liberalism as it emerged among these party elites. His research agenda more broadly examines issues in social welfare policy, immigration policy, and urban politics. At Northwestern, Kumar is affiliated with the Chicago Democracy Project, the Comparative Historical Social Sciences Working Group, and the Program in Legal Studies. He received his B.A. in political science and philosophy from Tufts University.
Justin Zimmerman is a fourth-year PhD candidate in political science at Northwestern, studying institutional trust in race-class subjugated communities in Chicago. Justin received a Bachelor of Arts in political science and philosophy in 2009 and a Master of Public Administration with a concentration in organizational management in 2011 from The University of Alabama. For seven years, Justin resided in Washington, D.C., where he supported the Department of Treasury Enterprise Business Solutions (EBS) team as an acquisitions consultant with Octo Consulting Group and served in multiple roles with the Department of State. He currently resides in Chicago with his wife and son.
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