Teaching American Politics: Small Teaching Exercises – A Library of Learning Tools


Pedagogical Recipe Cards


Anne Gillman (American River College), Brian Harrison (Carleton College), and Brian Alexander (Washington and Lee University)

Like the index cards you might find in a box in your kitchen, this is an eclectic collection of recipes for good teaching – easy to make, even easier to modify.  Like a chef who already knows how to cook, a professor who knows how to teach is sometimes just looking for a new or different idea, or a reminder of an old tried-and-true approach, or ways of mixing things up in the routines of the classroom.  By design, these “pedagogical recipe cards” are meant to be simple to use and quickly adapted to a number of courses and topics, primarily but not limited to American government in political science.  There is no particular order to the entries that follow, rather a reader is encouraged to browse and scan, see what looks good, and give them a try.


Please scroll this page or click on the pedagogical recipe cards buttons below to jump to the corresponding activity. There are 25 five activities within this collection.


The internet has tons of resources on teaching tips – too many, sometimes.  These are a few tried and true resources used by Annie and the Brians, authors of this page, which have proven helpful for additional resources and tips:

Hanstedt, Paul. Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2018.

Houston H. Harte Center for Teaching and Learning.  “Pedagogical Tips.” Lexington, Virginia: Washington and Lee University, 2022.

Lang, James. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2016.

Cocktail Party Mixer (Sans Cocktails)

Materials: Index cards

Topic: Any

Give each student one index card. Have each student write on their index card something from the lesson/reading that they know well enough to teach someone else. You can divide up the class to cover different topics within the lesson/reading: for example, each of my lectures has three key ideas with supporting evidence/details, so I ask students in one section of the room to write down a detail/piece of supporting evidence for key idea #1, students in another section of the room to write down a detail/piece of evidence for key idea #2, etc. After filling in their index card, students walk around the room and teach the information on the index card to one other student. Once that student fully understands the information, they swap index cards. Students then walk around with their NEW index card. After you’ve mixed once or twice you have students sit down. You then call on students to share what they learned from others, and create an outline on the board where you fill in the big categories.

Fill in the Outline/Chart

Materials: Sticky Notes

Topic: Any

Give each student a few sticky notes. On the board create a chart or outline that is missing the details in each category/under each claim. Have students write pieces of supporting evidence, or details on the small stickies that would fit within the chart/outline and put them up on the board. You can also do something where they are identifying evidence for and against a particular idea. For example, when teaching the U.S. Founding, I make three arguments, and I have students fill in sticky notes of details that would support or contest each claim. A modification of this activity is to place poster paper around four walls of the room, with one concept/category on each paper. I do this as a midterm review, writing the topic of each week on a separate page, and having students write on stickies the most important thing they learned about each topic. Then divide the student into groups, assigning each group to one of the papers. Each group organizes the stickies on the paper, identifies any missing information, and then comes up with a few key ideas/sentences/claims that summarize what was learned about that topic. Groups then take a “tour” of the other side of the room (one side of the room stays by their posters while the other side visits, then swap) to share what they reviewed/learned (or you can have each group present).

Stacking Sticky Notes

Materials: Sticky notes

Topic: Agenda Setting, Parties

Give each student three sticky notes. On each sticky, have them write the topic that they think is the biggest/most important focus in politics right now. Have them then walk around the room and find people who have the same topic written – when they find someone, combine sticky notes (doesn’t matter who ends up with them). Continue mingling until there you have a handful of chunks of sticky notes that say the same/similar things. Then have a group discussion: why are these the topics that are garnering the most attention? Why are we walking about abortion, for example, and not overpopulation? What if you wanted to propel a topic to the top of the list – for example, you think preventing traffic fatalities should be the top legislative agenda item. How would you do that? Can also do this activity for party branding [e.g. write on each sticky one motto you associate with Republicans; repeat for Democrats] or other topics.

Calling Your Representative

Materials: Cell Phones / Computer

Topic: Congress

Put your cell phone on speaker and call your Member of Congress in front of your students. Leave a message with the staffer or on the voicemail, as you would (and hopefully do) regularly as a constituent. I deliberately make a kind of dumb sounding simple statement like: “Hi, I’m a constituent, and my zip code is 95818. I think that students have too much debt. I hope you do something about that.” If a staffer answers, I ask them what they are going to do with that information – do they ignore constituent input, or does it actually get recorded somewhere? (It should go into a database if your MOC is worth their salt). If you’re a college that draws from diverse zip codes, you can then also have your students call the MOCs from their hometowns in class (I did this at UCDavis). If students generally come from the same district, have them call their MOCs as an assignment, with an in-class reflection on how it went/how they felt, or have them call their state reps in class (so not everyone is calling the same office at the same time). I teach students with anxiety how to make a “one breath comment” – big inhale, then “Hi, I’m from X zip code, and I think climate change is a problem, thank you bye!” exhale – so they don’t have to worry about their voices shaking. I combine this activity with an assignment where they research their MOC –  committees, voting history, recent press releases – before calling, and I give them a list of things they can ask an MOC to do – co-sponsor leg, sign on to a letter, etc.

Two Truths and a Lie Retweeting Game

Materials: Spare Paper

Topic: Epistemology, media

Have students write down three claims about something that happened in the past – two of which are true, one of which is false. I tend to have students write claims about things that happened to them. Have students pair up, and have each student come up with a fact-checking plan for determining whether or not they would “retweet” the information shared. How would you investigate this claim? At what point would you be satisfied that the claim was true? In the end, have them guess which is true. As a class discussion, categorize the kinds of fact-checking processes that generate credibility: original documents, official reports, multiple eye witness accounts, etc. Compare this to professional fact-checking methods used by Politifact, etc.

Deep Listening Exercise

Materials: Timer

Topic: Political Socialization, Civil Disagreement

After teaching about factors of political socialization, have students do a 3-minute essay reflecting on the factors/lived experiences throughout their lives that have most shaped their political views. Were you raised in a religious community? Were you carried over the border as a child? Etc. Then have students pair up for a deep listening exercise where each student talks for 3 minutes, uninterrupted by the other, about their experiences, then switches. There are many deep listening texts with guidelines to share beforehand with students (e.g. Give visual and verbal cues you are listening, only ask clarifying questions, etc). Also clarify with students that they should only share what they are comfortable with. Use this exercise as the basis for guiding controversial discussions, teaching students to talk from a personal place when sharing opinions: Rather than asserting “Abortion is murder,” say, “I was raised to believe that abortion is murder….” or “I have had experiences in my life that have made me feel that abortion is murder…” Try to then encourage curious, non-judgmental clarifying questions from others: “Where/how were you raised? What were those experiences?”

Student Presentations/Surveys

Materials: Half of students come prepared with posters; surveys/worksheets for other students (then swap)

Topic: Bureaucracy, domestic policy, Congress, budgets

Assign each student a government subagency (I have a list where students are assigned by last name to offices within EPA, HUD, ED, and DHHS) to research ahead of time. What is your mission? What specifically do you do in practice? Which groups/entities in society do you most impact? In class, have half of the students representing their government agencies. Divide this group into four, spread about the room with posters on each of the 4 walls (Each wall can be a policy area: health, education, housing, environment). The other half are Members of Congress walking around to each agency, determining whether to cut/renew/expand the agency budget. Divide this group into 4 as well, with a quarter of these students starting at each wall –  yell out “rotate” every 15 minutes for students to move to the next wall so they talk to all of the “agencies.”

Explain it to a Kindergartner

Materials: N/A

Topic: Any

Pair off students. One student is the teacher, the other is a kindergartener. Take a complex question that is deceptively simple (E.g. You all signed up for a class called “American Government.” You presumably know what you signed up for. What is government?) and have the “teacher” explain it to the “kindergartener” in terms that a kid could understand. As a teacher, you can’t use abstract terms like “representation” and instead need to try to talk in concrete terms with examples. (E.g. To explain public goods: “You know how there is that playground at the park that is way cooler than anything in your own backyard? Well we all give some of our allowance to buy that playground and we share it!”)

Draw It

Materials: Spare Paper / Whiteboard / Virtual Whiteboard

Topic: Any

Have students draw a picture or diagram of something that they learned. This can be in groups, drawing on the board, or individually. For example, in groups, I have them draw a superhero that for each of the three branches of government – what powers would each have? In teaching the Founding, I have them individually draw a four frame comic strip of what they remember about the Founding from high school, GED, using stick figures. I meanwhile draw on the board what I remember learning in high school (Frame 1: George the jerk made the awesome colonists pay too many taxes; Frame 2: Colonists dumped tea in the harbor to show George who is boss; Frame 3: Scrappy colonists beat up the Redcoats; Frame 4: Smart dudes write our founding documents, making us a democratic nation, and we all live happily ever after (side note: Civil War))  We then talk about the actual, complex story of the Founding.

“Gotcha” Simulation

Materials: N/A

Topic: Civil Liberties

Come up with a fake new campus rule that would violate student liberties: for example, if there is a case of cheating detected in a class, administration will be looking at the content of the cell phones of all students in the class to determine who shared the material. You will need to give us your cell phone passwords. See if students react to this, and what they find objectionable about it. Reveal that this is a fake (don’t tell other classmates for next year!) but that the basic reasons behind protections of civil liberties can apply to actual cases. Class discussion about civil liberties.

Student Summarize Last Class

Materials: N/A

Topic: Any

This is a helpful tool of actively repeating material to facilitate learning (avoiding the “one and done” attitude toward topics) as well as a way for students to see connections among different classes and topics.  Open first 5 minutes of class with students summarizing key points, ideas, or controversies from previous class, and explaining where it fits in with the overall arc of the course.  Students can be asked to try to connect where we’ve been with what we are about to cover that day.  This exercise emerged out of course evaluation feedback suggesting my course wasn’t well organized… When I revisited the structure, I found the course was well organized, but the students weren’t seeing it.  So this exercise helps people review what we have learned, what we’re going to learn, and how it all fits together.  It makes the connections among materials more obvious and clearly stated, and allows them to see the overall organization of the class.

Small Writing In-class Exercise

Materials: N/A

Topic: Any

This helps students formulate their thoughts on the topic of a particular class, allowing them to both commit to particular ideas, identify any questions they have, and have something prepared to contribute to discussion – it’s easier to volunteer to talk when you’ve already written something down.  At the beginning of class, ask students to spend 5-minutes writing in response to a prompt or questions pertaining to readings or class topics and/or identify specific questions they may have or wonder about.  Emphasize that the writing is “low-stakes,” in that it will not be collected or graded.  Discuss their answers and thoughts in class-wide discussion.

Student Breakout (groups of 4-5)

Materials: N/A

Topic: Any

This exercise helps students work with and get to know their peers, develop their thoughts on topics without the intimidating glare of the professor or the entire class upon them, and be prepared for broader class-wide discussion.  Take 10-15 minutes at the opening of class, put students into groups of 4/5, and discuss a set of particular prompts or questions among themselves.  Reconvene as a class for group discussion, where students summarize their responses to the prompts/questions.  The professor should be conscientious about finding connections and contradictions among the groups, encouraging students to respond to each other.  It can also be helpful to ask each group to identify any general questions they have for other groups or the professor to respond to when the class reconvenes.

In–class Speed Debates

Materials: Stopwatch or timer on phone

Topic: Any

This in-class exercise helps students work together to do research and formulate positions on given topics, then challenge each other during low-stakes but engaging debate.  Identify particular motion(s) for in-class debate relating to the subject at hand (e.g. “The U.S. presidency is too powerful.” “The free market cannot stave off global warming.” Etc.). Students are broken into pro- and con- teams (small teams (5-9 people) are better, but the exercise can be modified for larger classes).  Groups then discuss the motion, identify main claims and evidence to support their position, and identify speaker(s) to represent their team in the debate. 

For this exercise, I like to allot time the same way they do it in the House of Representatives: give each side a total of 10 minutes to a) express argument, b) respond to the other team, c) make a closing statement.  Speakers alternate like a debate on the House floor, with the professor keeping time for how much total time each side uses.  At the end of each statement, each team says “Yield” to stop the clock, and hand over debate to the other team.  In an hour-long class, you can either allow multiple different debaters in 10-minute blocs, or choose two separate motions.

Fishbowl Exercise

Materials: N/A

Topic: Any

The Fish Bowl exercises places a group of 4-5 students at the center (or in front) of the room to discuss and challenge each other on a topic or set of questions.  These students are the only ones who speak on the topic, with everyone watching them discuss, but they rotate out, allowing other students to come into the fish bowl.  Rotate new people in every 5-7 minutes, asking for volunteers or selecting students at random, and thus giving everyone a chance to participate.  When this exercise goes well, there will be eager volunteers in the audience who what to respond to what they’ve heard others say.  An optional way to provoke challenging questions, is to have one or two students in the fishbowl act as respondents to questions/counterpoints posed by others in fishbowl (e.g. Mary has to respond to questions from Mohammed, Jack, and Sonia). 


Materials: Spare Paper

Topic: Any

Take 3-5 minutes to write, 7-10 minutes to discuss with a partner, and then come back together to discuss our answers to the question.  This exercise builds student engagement from the individual, to small conversation, to whole-class discussion.  Students are prompted with a question or proposition related to a chosen topic of a given class (e.g. “What responsibility does the media play in partisan polarization?”, “Some say lobbyists don’t have as much influence as people often think. Why wold that be?”, “Pick a side: The Equal Rights Amendment should/should not be adopted.” etc.).  After writing to themselves, they are then paired with a nearby classmate for 7-10 minutes to discuss what they wrote – where they agree, disagree, and what facts or information are important to supporting their answers.  The class then reconvenes, where the discussion is opened to the entire group.  It is helpful if the professor has a sense of direction or main points they’d like the conversation to cover, so that the important parts of the lesson can be covered – by the students, ideally, or picked up by the professor.

Student(s) as Professor

Materials: N/A

Topic: Any

Students take 10 minutes to plan a 10 minute discussion – 3 minutes of explaining a key concept back to the class, raise key puzzle, question(s), then lead 7 minutes of guided discussion/Q&A with the whole class.  The need to explain concepts, identify a puzzle/problem, have a set of questions to lead class through ideas.  Rotate among students who is chosen to be professor.  Students not chosen to be professor are prepared to respond and raise questions in the discussion.

Four Corners Exercise

Materials: N/A

Topic: Any

This exercise was brazenly stolen from Katie Z. during our APSA Teaching and Learning presentations on March 19.  It is an excellent way to get students to be active in the classroom, commit to particular positions, and then hash out commonalities and disagreements with each other and the professor alike.  I tried it within days of learning about it for a discussion of gender equality and the Equal Rights Amendment, and it sparked lots of great discussion.

'Last week' writing

Material: Timer

Topic: Last week’s class topics

Give students 3-5 minutes (fewer is better) to summarize, in their own words, what the course was about (a) last week or (b) so far in the term (e.g. pretend a student walked into the class having never been here before. What’s this class about?). Sometimes it works better to tell them they have 3 bullet points to explain to you what the purpose of the course and its readings has been so far. Let them know the point is not detail/information retention but big picture/themes they can identify. It’s ungraded but it gives you their frame of mind during a given point in the semester. I usually do it as an email: open an email on your device, write for 3-5 minutes, and then email it to me. No paper to grade, I can quickly flip through, and I often find students make connections with things that I’ve never thought of!

That was the old me

Material: Timer

Topic: Public opinion change, social groups

Have students brainstorm a political attitude they used to hold but no longer do. In small groups, have them discuss: what was that attitude and why did they hold it then? What was the catalyst for change and what do they think now? Conversations generally take the form of a self-reflection on political socialization but gives students social permission to think something “wrong” before now thinking something “right” (quotation marks are there for a reason!). 

Some think that… others think that…

Material: Timer

Topic: Civil disagreement

Students often have trouble expressing divergent views in a classroom where either there aren’t any or there is social pressure to conform to predominant campus wisdom. If you can cast a discussion in an abstract direction rather than expecting students to express their own views, it can help facilitate a discussion. Ask students to think about a topic/person/situation and explain, in detail, 2-3 divergent views one can have. Note it doesn’t have to be *their* view (nor do they have to express their view) but it is merely one view. After 5-10 minutes, write as many on a board and start to create categories of responses that naturally fall together.

Some think that… others think that… paper edition

Material: N/A

Topic: Civil disagreement, social groups, public opinion

Have students brainstorm a political attitude they used to hold but no longer do. In small groups, have them discuss: what was that attitude and why did they hold it then? What was the catalyst for change and what do they think now? Conversations generally take the form of a self-reflection on political socialization but gives students social permission to think something “wrong” before now thinking something “right” (quotation marks are there for a reason!). 

Urban vs. Rural consciousness

Material: Computer / Phone / Encyclopedia

Topic: Urban/rural divide, social groups, public opinion

Choose one or more political constructs (unemployment, interest rates, zoning laws, classroom sizes, number of police arrests, etc.) and assign teams of 2-3 to research that construct either in a rural area or an urban one. How do these experiences differ for someone in one or the other situations? What do they have interests in common and where do their interests diverge? How can one elected official (a member of Congress, a governor, a Senator) who represent the same areas in one state or district possibly create policy that makes everyone happy?

Divide it up

Material: N/A

Topic: Division, social groups, gerrymandering

Decide what domain you want to use (e.g. a state, a particular district as it exists, the entire country) and brainstorm the major cleavages in that area: urban/rural, formally educated/not as formally educated, race and ethnic divides, etc. If possible, have them find maps online that show some of these differences in geographic terms. Then ask them to draw new districts/states that would improve those divisions. Bring in printed copies of the district/state/the entire country and ask them to figure out how it can be done better in terms of descriptive and substantive representation. The predominant attitude is usually: “I can totally do that... oh wait, no I can’t. Everything I create also creates additional problems.” 

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