Finding Ways that Everyone can Contribute, Creatively: Using Visual Learning Techniques and Small Group Exercises to Promote Cooperative Learning

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Kenneth Haig, Political Science

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2006

PS 143B is a class on politics and policymaking in Japan with two aims: 1) to provide enough background on the history and context of modern Japanese politics so that students can read media accounts of Japan with a critical eye; and 2) for students to be able to use the lessons learned in the case of Japan to analyze politics and policymaking in other contexts. Thus, over the course of the semester, students not only need to quickly familiarize themselves with the history of modern Japanese political institutions; they also need to become familiar with various general concepts and theories from the field of comparative politics.

Partly because of the popularity of the professor, Steven Vogel, the course draws many students, all with different motivations and interests. Typically, about a half of the students are non-political science majors with some prior interest in Japan. The other half are political science majors who may or may not be familiar with Japan , but who come with an interest in comparative politics. I taught as a GSI for this class twice, and both times the most difficult problem I faced was how to teach both the Japan-specific and broad theoretical aims of the course to students who were at best familiar with only one part or the other. Moreover, since my teaching style is such that I try to lead students to raise and answer their own questions through group discussion, it was important to me to find a way for my students to draw on their different strengths and experiences to add to class discussions.

The solution I settled on was to try to find applications for visual learning techniques and small group discussions wherever I could. That is, I tried to find ways for students to use graphical means to quickly process, organize, and prioritize a lot of unfamiliar information — such as 200 years of history, or the complex details of policymaking processes in different issue areas — but in settings that allowed students with various backgrounds to join in and help each other.

During the first part of the course, when we were reading through lots of history, I created charts for my students to complete in small groups in section. For example, one such worksheet had boxes separating Japan’s pre- and post-World War II constitutions, with prompts such as proponents/opponents, the role of the state, individual rights, religion, the military, etc. Students with a background in Japanese history typically took the lead in putting together their group’s tables. But later when I asked everyone to present their work to the whole class, each group showed a sense of shared ownership over the work they had done together, as they tended to do so by pointing out the merit of their conclusions versus those of other groups. I had not originally intended to start a competition, but it comforted me to see that not only had my students learned the relevant historical material through this exercise, they were then quickly able to analyze and make arguments as to which historical factors provided lasting institutional legacies.

Later, as the class focused on different theoretical models of the role of politicians versus bureaucrats, state versus societal influences, and actors versus institutions in modern Japanese policymaking, I asked my students to develop diagrams of the patterns, interrelationships, and interdependencies of these various factors in small groups. This time it was the political scientists and the usually shy but graphically-inclined students who took the lead, but with the same result: each group took pride in its own work. We later used each group’s models as the basis for a discussion of the myriad ways in which the politics of a given policymaking process can be interpreted, and this exercise in turn set the tone for analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the various policymaking models we encountered in our readings over the rest of the semester.

In the examples above, it was obvious to me from the enthusiasm with which each group developed their own set of interpretations that graphical exercises used in small groups provided an immediate and relatively easy way for all students to get involved and work with each other, despite their varied backgrounds and prior levels of familiarity with the course material. For some, the group exercises provided such an effective bond that they formed study groups from the same groups they had worked with in section while preparing for the mid-term and final exams. What led me to conclude that the visual learning techniques I had introduced had really provided an effective means for processing and organizing course material (aside from the fact that they were frequently highlighted in students’ evaluations) was that they later seemed to take on a life of their own. My students would often pull out their diagrams when trying to make a point in class, draw them on the board, and try to adapt them to the different policy areas we covered over the course of the semester. Students who came to see me in office hours often brought their charts and diagrams with them to use when asking questions. I was overjoyed to see my students thus continue to use the tools I gave them to aid each other’s learning throughout the semester.