Meena Bose, Executive Dean, Public Policy and Public Service Programs and Director, Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency, Hofstra University,
This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s Summer 2019 issue.
Small-group projects advance learning for both students and instructors, and they develop student skills and confidence in speaking, research, and writing. They require student initiative, with instructor guidance, to select a specialized topic that builds upon the course curriculum. In this process, instructor knowledge of the subject often expands through student selection of case studies that may not be in the instructor’s immediate scholarly expertise.
Small-group projects also promote peer engagement, as students prepare and organize presentations, and share findings with the class (Bose, 2004) They additionally develop critical thinking abilities, an essential area of development in an advanced liberal arts course (Archer and Miller, 2011; Marks, 2008; Phillips, 2005; Pollock et al, 2011). Through small-group projects, students may identify specialized areas of interest in a discipline as well as interdisciplinary approaches to study. Furthermore, students hone communication and collaboration skills that are essential in the twenty-first century workforce.
ACTIVE LEARNING IN POLITICAL SCIENCE
The importance of student participation in learning is grounded in the twentieth-century progressive movement in education. >John Dewey discussed the necessity of education for an informed citizenry to guide politics and policy making (1916). This was in sharp contrast to earlier views of education as one-way instruction, in which expert teachers
impart knowledge to disciplined pupils (Freire, 1970; Farrar-Myers, 2007). Dewey maintained that for democracy to thrive the public must be educated, not just to elect officials; but, more importantly, for the public to engage in political discourse and influence public decisions.
Dewey’s argument applies to all levels of education and illustrates well why active learning projects are essential for undergraduates. Students who major in political science in college use their degree in many fields, including law, education, politics, and journalism. Each of these professions requires engagement with others to develop and achieve goals, and create products (APSA, “Career Sectors for Political Science”). Building those skills in undergraduate courses assists with professional development and often demonstrates the applicability of classroom learning to decision making in the work force (Pennock, 2011).
INCORPORATING SMALL-GROUP EXERCISES IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY CLASSROOM
In the past two academic years, I have used two versions of a group exercise, one for an elective on the American presidency and one for an introductory public policy course. For the American presidency course, the group project is part of a larger individual research paper assignment, and it allows students to present their work in progress in conjunction with peers working on similar topics. For the public policy course, the group project is a stand-alone graded assignment with a group presentation and an individual policy memo.
In my Spring 2018 American Presidency course, students participated in small-group presentations about the modern presidency, focusing on their research for a term paper about a president’s leadership and policy making. Students selected paper topics in the first few weeks of the semester and then were assigned to groups of 4-6 to give presentations. Multiple presentations on one presidency were permitted, so long as they focused on different topics – for example, four students studied FDR, examining his campaign strategies, 100 Days leadership, creation of Social Security, and foreign-policy leadership in World War II.
Every student selected 2-3 short reading links for the class in preparation for the presentation, as well as 4-6 PowerPoint slides to accompany the presentation. One student (either a student completing an honors option in the course, or a volunteer) served as group coordinator, sending me the consolidated reading links to post on Blackboard one class period in advance, and sending the consolidated slides on the presentation morning to post on Blackboard. Each student had about 5-6 minutes to present research and findings to date, and then the group addressed class questions for about 10 minutes. In the next class, I gave each student a one-page evaluation sheet with comments, which was required to be returned with the completed research paper. The presentation was thus incorporated into the research paper, but not graded separately.
Having students present their work in progress helped them greatly with their research and analysis. Identifying their proposed argument about presidential leadership required them to compile their research, make preliminary findings, and identify areas for further analysis. Peer feedback within small groups and from the rest of the class also was instructive and informed the research papers.
In my Fall 2017 and Spring 2019 Introduction to Public Policy and Public Service courses, small-group student presentations were an integral component to classroom instruction. In the second week of the semester, I asked students to identify a national policy area of interest, such as education, environmental policy, health care, immigration, military intervention, or refugee policy. Based on their topic, students were assigned to small groups, usually 3-5 people, to develop a presentation that examined three policy options and made a group recommendation. To ensure sufficient time for collaboration, presentation work began during class time, so students could work together on initial ideas, make individual assignments, and raise group questions directly with me. Outside classroom work was required for research and preparation, and one student was responsible for each group’s coordination.
Each student had four responsibilities for the assignment: 1-2 class readings, which were posted on Blackboard a few days before the presentation; preparation of slides for the presentation; participation in the presentation; and a short individual writing assignment based on the student’s part of the presentation. Each group’s presentation slides were posted on Blackboard, so peers had time to review, ask questions, and provide commentary. Students worked together to develop slides and commentary, and they were graded individually on their contributions. As with the American Presidency course, an evaluation sheet for the presentation and writing assignment was included in the course syllabus, so the requirements were clear from the start of the semester.
This assignment required more substantive small-group work than the one in the American Presidency course. Students had to organize the presentation and develop a policy recommendation (which could be one of the three options presented or a combination). Consequently, in-class time was needed to ensure that students discussed directly and electronically. Given that the course aims to prepare students for actual policy work, attention to time constraints for the presentation and word-count limit for the policy memo were especially important as well.
PROSPECTS FOR SMALL-GROUP PROJECTS IN PSC COURSES
These case studies illustrate both academic and professional development from small-group projects in political science courses. Having students work together on a presentation in small groups develops organizational, critical thinking, interpersonal, and communication skills. Connecting the presentation to individual writing assignments produces advanced independent work in the field of study as well. These results are connected in part to small class size (usually 20-25 students) in a course directed by one instructor. With sufficient resources (student assistants, weekly section meetings), the small-group activity model discussed here could be applied to larger courses with multiple instructors as well.
Generalizing recommendations for group projects in political science courses is difficult without other case studies. One option is for faculty at several schools to develop, conduct, and evaluate a similar group exercise, examining faculty experiences as well as student evaluations. Another option that is less scientific, but perhaps more feasible and readily informative for instructors, is for faculty to develop their own exercises and then share experiences and recommendations at events such as the TLC at APSA conference. As liberal arts programs face heightened expectations for demonstrating students’ career prospects, identifying classroom activities that make this connection is especially instructive and important.
A SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
American Political Science Association (APSA), “Career Sectors for Political Science.” Available at https://www.apsanet.org/CAREERS/Careers-In-Political-Science/Careers-Sectors-for-Political-Science .
Archer, Candace C., and Melissa K. Miller. “Prioritizing Active Learning: An Exploration of Gateway Courses in Political Science.” PS: Political Science and Politics 44, no. 2 (April 2011): 429-34.
Bose, Meena. “Teaching Students to Learn From Each Other: The Promises and Pitfalls of Student Classes on the American Presidency.” Presidency Research Group Report (Spring 2004): 7-10. [Newsletter of the Presidency Research Group in the American Political Science Association.]
Dewey, John A. Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan, 1916. (Available online through Project Gutenberg at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/852/852-h/852-h.htm#link2HCH0007 .)
Farrar-Myers, Victoria A. “Promoting Active Learning Through Simulations in Presidency Classes.” Presidency Research Group Newsletter (Fall 2007): 10-13.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum Press, 1970.
Marks, Michael P. “Fostering Scholarly Discussion and Critical Thinking in the Political Science Classroom.” Journal of Political Science Education 4, no. 2 (2008): 205-224.
Pennock, Andrew. “The Case for Using Policy Writing in Undergraduate Political Science Courses.” PS: Political Science and Politics 44, no. 1 (January 2011): 141-46.
Phillips, Rob. “Challenging the Primacy of Lectures: The Dissonance Between Theory and Practice in University Teaching.” Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice 2, no. 1 (2005): 1-12.
Pollock, Philip H., Kerstin Hamann, and Bruce M. Wilson. “Comparing the Benefits of Small-Group and Large-Class Discussions.” Journal of Political Science Education 7, no. 1 (2011): 48-64.
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