Transformation and Assessment of the Introductory International Relations Course

Scott Erb • University of Maine, Farmington

This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s August 2006 edition.  

On October 4, 2005, Chanda Luker, a survivor of the Cambodian genocide who was four years old when it began, spoke to a group of nearly 300 members of the University of Maine at Farmington community. As she described her experience, how she endured years of living through pure hell and then came with her mother and sister to Maine (she now is a travel agent in Farmington), I like everyone else in the audience was stunned, teary-eyed, and wondering “how could this have happened.” Students in class the next day had an intense discussion about this, and many expressed anger at themselves for not having known about what happened in Cambodia, and a sense that we as a society are ignorant of what really is happening in the world.

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

What struck me was not just the student reaction, but how my own thoughts mirrored theirs; despite decades of studying international relations, I find it hard to understand and make sense of the human reality of the events and conditions I’ve learned to analyze and explain in the abstract. Students came away more motivated than ever to learn about not only what happened, but how international relations operates. It also fed into a project I had already undertaken to transform POS 136, “Introduction to International Relations” into a course that takes seriously new research on teaching and learning, and seeks to engage students more effectively.

John Tagg, in The Learning Paradigm College, challenges educators to question the very nature of higher education in America, which he claims is based on an instructional rather than learning paradigm. At the University of Maine at Farmington every faculty member was provided (if they desired) a copy of Tagg’s book, and the administration invited Professor Tagg to campus to speak with the faculty about institutional transformation. This was done in the context of curricular change from a three-credit system (five courses a semester on average for students) to a four credit system (four courses on average). The goal of the university is to use the change in credit hours as part of a fundamental shift in method, challenging faculty members to creatively re-think their courses and curriculum. Assessment is an integral part of the course transformation project; every assignment and activity is designed around a general assessment plan that will be shared with students, along with the criteria. Moreover, while the assessment goal is to improve student learning, it will also provide data to judge the quality of the course, and contribute to the campus-wide assessment initiative.

The Learning Paradigm

One thing students hate is when they are given an assignment without precise guidelines on the formula for avoiding failure. They want to know the minimum number of pages, of sources, what exactly the professor is “looking for.” College for many is not so much about learning, but about succeeding. College courses reflect hoops to jump through, tasks one needs to accomplish in order to reach the finish line. There are many exceptional students who are driven to learn, of course. But the “mercenary student” who is focused primarily on the grade or the result is very common.

Tagg compares two self-theories of learning: entity and incremental learning. Entity learning theory considers intelligence and ability as an attribute of an individual, fixed and unlikely to change. Thus those who have to work harder are not as bright as those who can figure things out quickly. Incremental learn-ing theory considers intelligence and ability as malleable over time. Tagg notes that our culture, including the way most K-12 schools operate, reinforces a bias towards entity theory. This hinders learning in part because of how students respond to failure. For those believing entity theory, failure means some intrinsic deficiency on the part of the individual. This leads students who fail to withdraw and avoid similar activities or subjects. For incremental theory, failure is simply a sign that a skill has yet to be learned, and people with an incrementalist learning theory will respond to failure by increasing their efforts and trying new approaches. Task one for the transformed course will be to design it so that failure at some tasks is possible but not something to be feared.

But what is learning? Looking at different psychological theories of memory and human development, Tagg notes there is a difference between “surface learning” and “deep learning.” Surface learning is linear, such as memorizing a list of facts, while deep learning involves understanding and the ability to make connections across contexts. Tagg notes a number of attributes of deep learning vs. surface learning: deep learning is active while surface learning is inert, deep learning is holistic while surface learning is atomistic, deep learning reinforces an incremental self-theory on learning while surface learning reinforces entity theory, and perhaps most importantly, deep learning is enjoyable, while surface learning is generally unpleasant.2 Unfortunately, the way we educate students often emphasizes surface rather than deep learning.

Cramming for an exam with study guides, emphasizing particular units and tasks (or even discrete courses), avoiding interdisciplinarity and setting up assignments as primarily evaluative tasks rather than potentially enjoyable activities all support surface learning over deep learning. Task two for the transformed course is to build assignments and a syllabus that encourages deep learning.

Another factor affecting how students learn is the learning environment. Tagg notes that students can be motivated by intrinsic or extrinsic goals. The common extrinsic goal is that of a grade—a student works hard on a paper to get an A. An intrinsic goal would be to learn because it is intrinsically rewarding; students enjoy learning, find it personally fulfilling and work hard not just for the grade, but because of how they themselves are being changed by the process of learning. Clearly, life long learning is only likely if someone sees learning as intrinsically rewarding; otherwise, one will just learn if there is particular external reason necessitating it.

One way to encourage intrinsic goals and support deep student learning is through what Tagg calls a “hot cognitive economy.” This involves a high ratio of feedback to evaluation, strong support within the academic community, and high rewards for high-cost activities.3 Task three for the transformed course is to provide a classroom environment conducive to a hot cognitive economy

Related to this is the fact that students learn best when they perform. “A performance is in a sense autonomous, it is an accomplishment, a piece of work that stands alone to the extent of at least having value not entirely derived from its context.”4 Student activity, collaborating with others and being involved in activities outside the classroom is essential. Task four for the transformed course is to provide opportunities for student performance, with an effort to go outside the traditional boundaries of a discrete college course.

Transforming “Introduction to International Relations”

A quick survey of international relations text books and syllabi (which one can find on line quite easily with a simple search) show various ways the course is taught. Most have a standard survey course, covering international conflict, the international political economy, international law and organization, and basic theories. Some professors put more emphasis on diplomacy and foreign policy and others on history, but in general the topics are fairly standard. However, after the Chanda Luker talk, and discussions in that and other classes, a question emerged: Is there a deficiency in the study of international relations based on the rationalist/scientific approach we take in social science?

In our class discussion we addressed that apparent deficiency— are we missing something in the study of international relations by the way we study it? Are we ignoring the importance of love, ethics and compassion because these don’t fit into the scientific theoretical framework we use to analyze? Or are these just fuzzy emotional concepts that really aren’t useful when it comes to analyzing and understanding why the world works as it does? It quickly became clear that this issue could be a hook into the transformed course: have the course purpose be to investigate and critique the way theories of international relations operate. Rather than teaching students “here is how we study international relations, here are the different perspectives,” it would be, “here is a potential flaw in how we study international relations, let’s think about this as we look at various issues.” This kind of approach should enhance critical thinking, make the course more interesting for students, and perhaps even lead to new insights about the way international relations is studied and understood.

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

The goal is to build a course around this opening hook, to build assignments and a course structure that effectively promote critical reflection, and to address the tasks identified above. At the same time, the course should involve student learning about the content an international relations course needs to cover to meet disciplinary standards.

The course begins and ends with the study of a genocide: the Cambodian case opens the course, with students told not to try yet to analyze it in an academic sense, but just to think about what happened and what it means. The course ends with the Rwandan genocide, though in this case students are required to look at it with the tools they learned during the semester. In be-tween the course is heavy on theory, and covers the issues expected in an introductory course, but does so with a special emphasis on the real experience of the people involved in everything from warfare to third world poverty, including a reflection on whether or not first-world wealth translates into happiness.

Assignments and assessment are dependent on the desired student learning outcomes (SLOs). There are 25 SLOs, grouped into the categories of knowledge, skills and attitudes. All assignments are designed to achieve the SLOs, as well as the tasks identified above. There are explicit criteria both for student assessment and to allow data collection on the efficacy of the course. Assignments include a group web project, group outreach projects (student presentations to the community or campus), student activism (doing something to promote a cause dear to the student), and a variety of reflection papers and small assignments. There are peer and self-review projects as well.

The goals for assessing these tasks are: a) grading students on the basis of whether or not they achieved or made progress towards achieving the desired SLOs; b) determining whether or not particular assignments were effective in helping students achieve SLOs; and c) gleaning data for assessing the overall efficacy of the course, and its contribution towards program and institutional goals. The process of developing assessment tools involved both consideration of some of the assessment literature, discussions on campus, and a web search to identify on line examples from various universities of assessment methods, rubrics and others. These tools will be redesigned and re-evaluated based on the kind of data generated, student reaction(s), and issues of practicality.

Each assignment will have a rubric. Each rubric states the criteria to be considered in assessing the work and the expectations for superlative work. Each grade for each section of the rubric will be determined by relative closeness to the ideal; I will compare comments and grades as the process continues, both while grading one assignment and while comparing assignments.

Moreover, I will assign Assessment Control Point (ACP) scores. This will be a subjective measure of where the paper stands in relation to the ideal, 0 being failing completely and 20 being full achievement of the ideal. These will not be used in determining grades, but as an assessment tool (to compare ACP scores over courses and assignments), and as a check on subjective errors that may develop in grading. ACP scores will obviously be closely related to grades, but depending on the difficulty of an assignment or the course level they may vary (an ACP of 15 on a writing assignment in a 100 level course may be an A; it could be a B or B- in a 300 level course). The ACP is a subjective measure to compare assignments across times and courses (especially on skills such as presentation and writing). In that sense it is much like how doctors ask patients to give their level of pain a number; the number may be subjective, but presumably the patient is relatively consistent in how that number is applied, meaning that it is valid to track relative changes in a patient’s pain level.

The data on ACP scores, peer and self reviews, report on time spent on the course on various activities and as much data as possible will be saved, as well as copies of the grade sheets from the portfolios (with names removed). The goal at this stage is to try to generate data; glean what is useful and what is not; and continue working to develop a long-term assessment strategy that over time can become less labor-intensive, and more easily transferred to other classes.

Please contact me ( if you would like more information on the SLOs, specific assignments, rubrics, forms for self- and peer review, and the structure of the course.


As rational post-enlightenment thinkers, we focus on the cognitive aside over the affective side of how humans function. Emotion is misleading at best, and delusional at worst. How often does a professor get annoyed by the sense of some students that if they “feel” something it must be valid and somehow deserves respect? Yet if one strikes a proper balance between affective or emotional engagement versus cognitive or reasoned attempts at understanding, this effort is more likely to yield deep learning.

The course is designed to be an intellectually challenging course, heavy on theory, with an emphasis on the human side of world affairs. This should engage students, help them understand the meaning of the issues at hand, motivate them to want to know more, and make it more likely that they will question exist-ing conventional wisdoms and be active in trying to use their knowledge to make a difference. The course engages students not because it tricks them into dealing with a question already solved at advanced levels of the field, but because they are dealing with an issue that remains a quandary in the study of international relations.

It is important that the assessment process be implemented, re-vised as needed, and continued long term in order to determine if this course works, or if assignments and approaches need to be altered. Is is unnecessary to know ahead of time exactly how the evidence will be analyzed and interpreted. Just as Ty-cho Brahe had to gather extensive data before Johannes Kepler could determine the elliptical orbit of planets and Isaac Newton could develop a theory to explain why that data has the form it has, gathering data is always the first step. Too often assessment strategies attempt to put Newton first: figure out the theory of gravity, then measure how and if it works by looking at the orbit of the planets. The planets are the SLOs, which we can identify. Only by ‘tracking their orbits’ and gathering data can we take the first step to effective assessment in our courses.

Chanda Luker’s talk about her experiences in Cambodia made it impossible for students to marginalize the human reality in international relations. That spread to other issues such as global poverty and warfare. This “made it real” to the students, and encouraged deep learning, engagement and moral/ethical reflection. Moreover, it reminded me that we are not just dealing with social science theory, methods, and analysis. Our desire to be objective and analytical may be blinding us to insights from the experiences of the powerless and the victims.

Scott D. Erb is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine at Farmington. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and M.A. from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is the author of one book Ger-man Foreign Policy: Navigating a New Era, and teaches courses on International Relations, Foreign Policy, and European Politics. Erb won university teaching awards in 2002 and 2005, and is involved in a number of team-taught interdisciplinary courses.


1John Tagg, The Learning Paradigm College, Anker Publishing, Boston, MA, 2003, pp. 55-60

2Tagg, 68-81.

 3 Tagg, 94-125

4 Tagg, p. 155

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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