Tag Archives: pedagogy

Pedagogy: The Future of Higher Education—The United States in Comparative Perspective

The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development last week released its Education at a Glance 2012 report. The annual report included a ranking of the “most educated” countries in the world. The top five were:

  1. Russia (54% of the adult population aged 25 to 64 hold a college degree).
  2. Canada (51%)
  3. Israel (46%)
  4. Japan (45%)
  5. The United States (42%)

Several items stand out about the United States’ rankings. First, while a relatively high proportion of its population has a college degree, the rate of growth in college degrees is relatively slow. The growth rate in post-secondary degree holders in the United States is increasing by about 1.3 percent per year, about 1/3 the OECD average growth rate of 3.7 percent, suggesting other countries could overtake the United States in the near future.

Second, while the United States ranks fifth overall, it falls to 14th if we only consider young adults (aged 24 to 34) with a college degree.

Finally, education remains unevenly distributed in the United States. We know that the likelihood of earning a college degree increases with the education level of the parents. Students whose parents hold a college degree are far more likely to earn a college degree themselves. However, in the United States this pattern is far more pronounced. Indeed, according to the report, the odds that a young person in the United States will be in higher education if his or her parents do not have a college degree is just 29 percent—one of the lowest levels among all OECD countries.

Finally, the OECD report notes that the individual cost of attaining a college degree in the United States is higher than in almost every other OECD country.

All interesting points to consider as we continue to discuss the future of higher education in the United States.

Pedagogy: Facilitating Student Engagement—Making It Relevant

Making international politics relevant to our students presents an interesting challenge for political science instructors. While those teaching American politics face a similar dilemma in fostering student engagement, instructors in the IR and Comparative classrooms have the additional burden of “relevance.” Students intuitively feel that American politics is at least tangentially relevant to their lives. They understand that the taxes they pay support particular programs which reflect the priorities of the current and previous administrations and the ability of particular groups to mobilize in support of them. Getting American students to understanding how the United Nations, the European Union, or the International Monetary Fund relates to their lives, or why they should care about the political structures of Iran, India, Brazil, or Nigeria creates additional challenges.

This challenge is frequently compounded by the lack of international experience. While we teach diverse student bodies, our students have no real frame of reference within which to situate their understanding and analysis of international politics. Consequently, they often have difficulty drawing connections between the abstract theories and cases they are exploring in classroom and the real world of global politics. For the vast majority of our students, the European Union is an abstract political institution they’ve read about in class, not something they’ve experienced in person. The same is true of development, global inequality, war, international trade, and nearly all the other topics considered in the typical introductory course in international and comparative politics.

So how do we make our courses more relevant?

Perhaps the easiest way is by drawing out the connections for your students. Try starting with everyday items or experiences, then connect them to the world of global politics. When I teach the international trade and the WTO, I start with a T-Shirt, working backwards through the global trade system to explain how tariffs, nontariff barriers, relative currency values and exchange rates, and agricultural subsidies all influence global textile productions. (Pietra Rivoli’s Travels of a Global T-Shirt  is an outstanding resource for this discussion). For homework, I often ask students to keep track of where the clothing they wear every day for a week is produced. I then have them map their findings and write a short paper reflecting on how the patterns they see reflect dynamics of globalization and international trade. You could do the same thing with just about anything your students come into contact with in their daily lives: their food choices, their electronics, and so on.

Do you have an effective assignment or way of approaching the topics that connects students’ experiences with the abstract theories of global politics? Leave a comment and share your ideas below.

Pedagogy: Teaching Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

Mark Twain popularized the saying (originally attributed to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli), “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” The use of statistics to manipulate the reader or obfuscate the truth is an old practice. Indeed, as Thomas Carlisle noted in his 1839 book Chartism, “A witty statesman said, you can prove anything by figures.” And HG Wells argued that “Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write.”

The growing availability of data makes basic statistical literacy ever more important. An editorial in the New York Times earlier this year proclaimed that we are now living in the “Age of Big Data,” when the widespread collection and tracking of data necessitates individuals who are capable of making sense of it all. Google searches, Facebook profiles, customer profiling, and the like create mountains of information waiting to be analyzed. Employers want people who are capable of understanding and making sense of these data. The National Association of Colleges and Employers 2012 survey lists both the “ability to analyze quantities data” and the “ability to obtain and process information” among its top skills desired by employers.

Yet a recent story in the British Telegraph concludes that “statistical illiteracy leaves citizens at risk of being duped by politicians and businessmen.” Their alarming conclusion led The Guardian’s Datablog to create a simple quiz that

While political science programs across the country frequently require a methods component, many have not focused on the more basic questions of statistical literacy. It is important for our students to understand the fundamentals of research design. But shouldn’t we also be teaching them about the use (and misuse) of statistics?

A great starting point is Prof. Talithia Williams’ video lecture as part of the Distinctive Voices series at the National Academy of Sciences.

Williams’ video would make an outstanding supplemental “reading” assignment for any political science course concerned with developing data and statistical literacy skills.

How do you teach these skills? Are these skills taught in a specific course or developed throughout the major? What assignments and activities do you use to teach these skills? Share your feedback with us below.

Pedagogy: What Our Students Should Know, Revisited

I blogged last week about the skills that our students develop in the political science major. Subsequently, I read Stephen Walt’s “Top 10 Things That Would-Be Foreign Policy Wonks Should Study” on his blog at Foreign Policy with great interest.

Walt’s list consists of the following items:

  1.  History
  2. Statistics
  3. Foreign Language
  4. Economics
  5. International Law
  6. Geography
  7. Culture
  8. Communication
  9. Science
  10. An Ethical Foundation

Walt’s list seems pretty thorough, and it’s hard for me to disagree with anything he includes. However, I might also add some of the “soft skills” that are often taught in political science but which often remain unspecified or covert. These include networking, team work, and writing and critical thinking.

Networking. Students are often surprised to learn that the vast majority of jobs are not found via the want ads or online, but through personal networks. Teaching our students how to network thus increases their post-graduation job prospects dramatically. Internships provide outstanding opportunities to develop a wide array of soft skills while simultaneously developing individual networks. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that students who have an internship as part of their undergraduate program are far more likely to secure a job upon gradation.

Team Work. A job candidate goes into an interview and says they want a job working with people. The interviewer responses, “That’s great, because all our jobs working with rocks and trees are taken.” It’s hard to imagine any job that doesn’t require working with people. But our students are often unable to articulate this skill in a way that doesn’t come across as contrived. In most political science programs, though, team assignments are common, and opportunities for team-based activities (like Model UN, Mock Trial, etc.) abound. Getting our students to think about the skills that they are developing will help them to be able to clearly articulate their skillset for future employers.

Writing and Critical Thinking. Perhaps more than any other area, this is a skillset developed in the liberal arts. It’s also one in high demand by employers.

Now its your turn. What skills do you think every political science major should have? How do you teach them in your class? Share your thoughts below.

Pedagogy: What Our Students Should Know

There has been considerable debate in recent years over the value of a liberal arts education. This story from The Atlantic  illustrates the general tenor of the debate. On one side, critics are calling for dramatic reform, asserting that we need less liberal arts education and more practical training in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and business fields. On the other side, defenders assert that liberal arts education facilitate both human development  and develop practical skills.

In any economic downturn, students (and their parents) rightly become concerned about post-graduation job prospects. As department chair, I’m regularly asked “What will I/my son/my daughter do with a degree in political science after they graduate? What kind of jobs are there?” Fortunately, my department regularly tracks our graduates, so I can answer those questions. A concrete answer grounded in data provides some reassurance, necessary in light of hostility expressed by some of our elected leaders.

The traditional purpose of a liberal arts degree was to develop the skills essential to taking part in civic life. This includes many of the top skills desired by employers: oral and written communication, teamwork, critical thinking, and so on. Indeed, the National Association of Colleges and Employers annual Job Outlook Survey asks employers to rate the importance of candidate skills and qualifications every year. According to the 2012 results (which have not shifted dramatically in recent years), the top in demand skills are:

  1.  Ability to work in a team structure
  2. Ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization
  3. Ability to make decisions and solve problems
  4. Ability to obtain and process information
  5. Ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work
  6. Ability to analyze quantitative data
  7. Technical knowledge related to the job
  8. Proficiency with computer software programs
  9. Ability to create and/or edit written reports
  10. Ability to sell or influence others

These are precisely the kinds of skills our students are developing in the major. However, they often have a hard time articulating the specific skill set. As political science educators, we should be signaling how we are developing these skills in our students. Our responsibility as educators is to make the development of these skills clearer for our students. When they enter the job market, they should be confident in the skills they have.

Pedagogy: On the Merits of Map Quizzes

As a rule, Americans have an appalling knowledge of basic global geography. Studies by National Geographic and the US Department of Education both present an alarming picture of Americans’ geographic knowledge across a wide range of ages. Among the most dramatic findings were that:

  • Only one-half of Americans 18-34 could find India on a map.
  • Only one-third of Americans could find Iraq on a map.
  • Only 25 percent could find Indonesia on a map.
  • Similarly, only 25 percent could find Iran or Israel on a map.
  • Only 12 percent could find Afghanistan on a map.
  • Twenty percent believed Sudan was in Asia.

Further, their lack of knowledge rarely presents a concern to them. The National Geographic survey found that more young Americans believe it is “not too important” to speak a second language than believe it is “absolutely necessary,” and only 22 percent hold a passport

Hardly surprising then that we wind up struggling to understand and deal with global issues, as Miss South Carolina USA’s now infamous example illustrates.


To combat this alarming trend, I’ve adopted a couple of tactics in my classroom. First, I regularly give map quizzes, which focus students to spend time learning basic geography. There are many online study aids which will help students practice, such as MapQuiz, LizzardPoint, or any of dozens of other sites that offer similar features. At a minimum, students should have some knowledge of state locations, though some instructors may also consider including major cities or other geographic features like lakes, rivers, and mountain ranges.

Second, I regularly include maps illustrating locations in my lectures, and connect our discussion of other issues to geography. Simply requiring students to learn where countries are for a quiz does not encourage them to retain this knowledge for later. By bringing geography into other issues, students come to recognize the importance of geographic literacy. But it all starts with knowing where countries are.

Pedagogy: Using Film to Teach International Relations

Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove

For today’s millennial students, film can provide a powerful way to illustrate key themes in global politics. By getting students to apply the theories and ideas discussed in the classroom to fictional cases, students are encouraged to engage with the material in new ways. We move up Bloom’s taxonomy, away from simple remembering and understanding to higher order applying, analyzing, and evaluating. And importantly, using film can often bring a topic to life in a way that a traditional lecture might never achieve.

Alexander Spencer outlines four ways in which faculty can use film in the classroom: (1) to portray historical events; (2) to debate controversial issues in global politics, like terrorism and genocide; (3) to examine cultural narratives; and (4) to explain and critique IR theories. Each use has value.

The Battle of Algiers

The Battle of Algiers

Selecting the right film is obviously important. There are countless documentaries, but here I’m really interesting in thinking about fictional works. Blogging at Foreign Policy, both Stephen Walt and Daniel Drezner each offer their top ten films on foreign policy. Interestingly, the two scholars share just two films on their top ten lists: Cassablanca, which provides outstanding insights into resistance and colonialism, and Dr. Strangelove, the classic parody of cold war nuclear strategy. Fred Kaplan at Slate Magazine provides a longer list that covers some surprising oversights from Walt and Drezner—films like The Godfather, Burn!, Goodbye Lenin!, and High Noon. And Although somewhat dated now, Robert Gregg’s text International Relations on Film (Lynne Rienner Press, 1998), provides and extensive bibliography of films with IR themes. Collectively, the three lists provide a veritable who’s who of films on IR.

However, knowing which film to show is different from knowing how to show a film. Simply walking into the classroom and starting the movie is rarely an effective way to ensure student engagement. Students may enjoy the movie, but are they learning what you want them to learn? Are they engaging? Are they merely watching, or are they thinking?

Before selecting the film, think about what you are hoping to achieve. Which concepts or ideas are you hoping to illustrate? What learning outcomes are you hoping to achieve? You should also start thinking now about how you will measure those outcomes. How will you know if your students have learned what you hoped they would learn? What activity will you use to measure their understanding and engagement? And how will you integrate the film into the rest of your course content? You should also think about whether or not you need to show the film in its entirety. Can you achieve your goal by selectively utilizing shorter clips from the film(s)?

Before you show the film to your students, you should prepare them. Simply turning the movie on will ensure your students merely watch the movie without engaging with it. Ask your students what they already know about the film, if anything. Explain why you are showing the film. Tell them about the ideas or concepts that will be illustrated in the film. For some films, you may also need to provide some historical background to the events portrayed in the film. The Battle of Algiers is much more engaging (not to mention understandable) if students have some context for French colonialism and the anticolonial movement in Algeria.
You may consider providing a handout to your students, giving them a specific task to complete while watching the film. Perhaps you ask them to follow a specific character, look for examples of a specific theme or theory, or identify a specific event. Providing a handout to your students also signals that this will not merely be a time away from teaching, but that they are expected to follow and engage with the film.

After the film, be sure to have some kind of debriefing. You may want to provide the students with an opportunity to come to terms with their own ideas and understandings before moving to a more general class discussion (think-pair-share is useful for this). Alternatively, if you lack the time to have a debriefing immediately after the film, you could ask them to provide a written reaction to the film by the start of the next class, and then hold a short discussion to start your next class period. If you ask students for a reflection paper, it is important that you provide a response prompt that focuses the paper on the course material you hope to explore. Failing to do so, you will likely receive many papers in which students discuss whether or not they liked the movie.

How do you use films in the IR classroom? What films have you found effective? Please share your experience.