Engaging Students Through Extended Simulations

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Nipissing University]On: 05 October 2014, At: 14:57Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Journal of Political Science EducationPublication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/upse20

    Engaging Students Through ExtendedSimulationsSharon Werning Rivera a & Janet Thomas Simons aa Hamilton College ,Published online: 13 Aug 2008.

    To cite this article: Sharon Werning Rivera & Janet Thomas Simons (2008) Engaging StudentsThrough Extended Simulations, Journal of Political Science Education, 4:3, 298-316, DOI:10.1080/15512160802202805

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  • Engaging Students Through Extended Simulations

    SHARON WERNING RIVERAJANET THOMAS SIMONS

    Hamilton College

    This article describes a simulation that fulfills many of the goals of a scholar=apprentice modelone that requires a sustained period of time during which anapprentice practices a set of discipline-specific skills under the guidance of his orher mentor. Such an extended simulation differs from shorter exercises in severalways, such as the necessity of including numerous checkpoints for monitoring stu-dent progress and of utilizing objective and systematic assessment tools. In parti-cular, students must know that they will be assessed on the basis of both groupresults and their individual contributions. The simulation discussed in this articlepays explicit attention to these two issuesthe importance of deliverables andthe need for dual-pronged, objective assessment instrumentsas well as to thedesirability of coordinated college-wide instructional support.

    Keywords assessment, comparative politics, cooperative learning, instructionalsupport, simulation

    In our increasingly interactive world, active learning models are receiving a fair shareof attention. While active learning strategies range the gamut from very simple tohighly complex, many of them are complicated instructional designs that incorporateservice-learning opportunities, in-depth online interactions, or simulations, amongother things. Despite their diversity in form, these models all demand a greater levelof commitment from and interaction with students than solely lecture-based courses.Active learning can promote greater understanding of concepts (Baranowski 2006),higher retention of information (Stice 1987), and the opportunity to apply theknowledge one gains through action (Bray and Chappell 2005).

    One practical goal is to have students master core concepts while simultaneouslypracticing some discipline-related skills. This is essentially a scholar=apprenticemodelone that requires a sustained period of time during which an apprenticepractices a set of discipline-specific skills under the guidance of his or her mentor.Although this model is typical of graduate studies and might also be used in upperlevel undergraduate seminars, it does not seem readily adaptable to large introduc-tory undergraduate courses or to interactions between professors and students

    An earlier version of this article was presented at a Government Department researchcolloquium at Hamilton College. We would like to thank the participants in the seminar,two anonymous reviewers, Mack Mariani, and David Rivera for their comments on a previousdraft. We are grateful to Joshua Meah for his research assistance, to Carl Pfranger for hisassistance with the figures, and to Hamilton College for a Class of 1966 Career DevelopmentAward that provided support for the development of this simulation.

    Address correspondence to Sharon Werning Rivera, Government Department, HamiltonCollege, Clinton, NY 13323. E-mail: srivera@hamilton.edu

    Journal of Political Science Education, 4:298316, 2008Copyright # 2008 Taylor & Francis Group, LLCISSN: 1551-2169 print=1551-2177 onlineDOI: 10.1080/15512160802202805

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  • lasting only a single semester. Yet these introductory courses are precisely the onesthat can generate interest among students who have yet to declare a major and caninstill a sense of disciplinary understanding in a large number of students; thus, thescholar=apprentice model can be a valuable tool even at this level.

    One might even make the case that engaging students as apprentices is parti-cularly important in the field of political science. Presumably the major should equipstudents to think critically about political issues and to explore political questions ontheir own initiative. In this regard, a recent article on critical thinking in introductorycomparative politics courses contends that the most important aspects of criticalthinking in Political Science are that of analytical and methodological skillsthat foster the independence of our students to do their own research, to analyzeothers research, and to come to their own conclusions about political questions(Olsen and Statham 2005, 325). In addition, ideally the major should preparestudents to become engaged in political or associational life as global citizensorat least to understand the complexities involved in political issues. At a recentroundtable on teaching and learning in political science, one participant phrased itthis way:

    Political science and the study of politics is somewhat unique: while thefacts are very important . . .we also want our students to be able toappreciate the conflicts that are inherent in politics and to think in anout of the box way about how to make choices in a democratic society.(Clarke et al. 2002, 225)

    If these are our goals, then we need to craft teaching methods that will enable edu-cators to communicate all of the foundational information, will help students turninformation into knowledge, and will encourage them to convert that knowledgeinto action. As Bray and Chappell argue, Converting knowledge about intohow to knowledge is central to civic competency. Moreover, they contend, weneed to aim beyond mere competenceencouraging our students not only to actupon knowledge but to do it well, for [k]nowing how to do something is not thesame as doing it well (Bray and Chappell 2005, 87).

    To fulfill these purposes, educators in political science have found simulations tobe a useful learning tool (for a few examples, see Kaarbo and Lantis 1997; Kathleneand Choate 1999; Mariani 2007; Newmann and Twigg 2000; Pappas and Peaden2004; Shellman 2001; Stover 2005; Switky 2004; and the review essay by Wheeler2006). However, some might be reticent to incorporate simulations in their coursesbecause such exercises can be time-consuming, difficult to coordinate, andfraught with difficulty. In this article, we make the case that some of the mostcommon problems associated with intensive group workthe free rider problemand the difficulty of assessing student projectscan be overcome with carefulplanning.

    We first discuss the pros and cons of using simulations in an introductory com-parative politics course. Next, we describe the format of the simulation and ways inwhich the delivery of coordinated college-wide instructional support can facilitatethe projects development. We then stress the need for tangible deliverablesthroughout the processjunctures that provide the opportunity for assessmentand interventionto limit the extent of free-riding by group members. Finally, wecall for a dual-pronged evaluation of student work, in which students are graded

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  • by the professor and by their peers, as a means of assessing their performance in anobjective and systematic manner.

    The Use of Simulations: Pros and Cons

    Simulations can be beneficial for several reasons. First, simulations can bring to lifeand facilitate mastery of topics central to a given course. In the case of an introduc-tory comparative politics course, these concepts might include the differences amongelectoral systems, the formation and sustainability of coalition governments, and thepurposes and types of political parties. Students who participated in the simulationdescribed in this article seemed to have found the exercise a useful way of masteringkey concepts. One student comments: I think that the simulation is an excellentlearning tool. Having actively participated in the replication of a European politicalcampaign I dont think theres one person who will leave the class without some ideaof how politics works in England, Germany, etc. Its certainly a more interesting wayto explain than a lecture. Another says the following: Suddenly a large lectureclass became an interactive multi-media learning experience [with] hands on learning.Also a simulation is very practical and realistic in a politics class because we cancompare ourselves to real-world politics.

    Beyond such anecdotal evidence from my class, Baranowski (2006, 41) demon-strates empirically that even a brief, one-class simulation of the U.S. Congress didhave a measurable impact on student understanding of the legislative process. Like-wise, student evaluations of an international relations simulation suggest that theexercise increased their knowledge of the substantive course material, enhanced theircritical thinking and analytical skills, and stimulated their interest in internationalrelations (Shellman and Turan 2006, 2829). Finally, a quasi-experimental researchdesign allowed Frederking (2005, 391) to conclude that American governmentcourses that included a simulation of the U.S. Senate produced higher exam scoresthan very similar courses without the simulation.

    Second, simulations can force students to see the world from new and variousperspectives, both by encouraging them to work with students whom they maynot already know and by allowing them to assume alternative identities for the simu-lation. In one role-playing assignment in an introductory American governmentcourse, Larson argues that in this exercise, students learn about government actors,policies, and people with lives different from their own (Larson 2004, 306). This canalso teach empathy. In a simulation focusing on conflict and diplomacy in theMiddle East, participation seemed to positively affect the students developmentof empathy with ethnonational groups in the region (Stover 2005, 216). Even inthe case of the fictitious West Europa, one student remarked that he=she learnedto respect even those you disagree with because they stand behind their beliefsand put so much work into their election campaigns.

    Third, through simulations, students can engage in cooperative learning andproblem solving. Simulations can promote an understanding that the resolution ofpolitical problems involves analysis of all dimensions of the issue, effective communi-cation (including attentive listening), and negotiation. In some simulations, such asthe one we crafted, students must work in small groups throughout the semester.This appeared to heighten the need for cooperation, communication, and compro-mise. Indeed, when asked what they learned from our simulation, one student said,

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  • to work in a group and communicate, while another answered, to cooperate(with my group and with other groups in forming a coalition government).

    Fourth, simulations can equip students with practical skills that might beuseful in future jobs or internships. Opportunities for students to acquaint them-selves with policy research, political advertising, speechwriting, and media relationsare built into our simulation. As a recent survey of graduates from HamiltonCollege shows, a year after graduation, one-fifth of all government majors wereworking in the government or nonprofit organizations, where such skills will servethem well (Ruth 2005). Moreover, the cooperative skills developed through groupwork will benefit them in their future careers. One author believes that manygraduates in their first jobs have distinctly underdeveloped interactive skills.The interactive vacuum in which most undergraduate education occurs doesnot prepare students for the workplace, where [m]ost of what students willaccomplish as employees will be collaboratively based, in team projects and ininteractions with peers and all layers of an organizational hierarchy (Wilsford1995, 224). In addition, although simulations certainly are not the only way thatstudents can hone their communications skills, they can be effective vehicles fordeveloping written and oral proficiencies.

    Although there are numerous benefits to using simulations in the classroom,concerns can arise about their pedagogical value and practical implementation. First,there is the issue of curricular tradeoffs. In the introductory comparative politicscourse, for example, there is the perennial dilemma of finding an appropriate balancebetween comparative theory, on the one hand, and country case studies, on theother.1 Regardless of the mix one selects, the insertion of a simulation into thecourseparticularly a multifaceted, semester-long exercise such as the one describedin this articlenecessitates reducing coverage of more traditional material. Second,group-focused activity can promote a free-rider problem, in which...