Learning by Doing: Using Simulations to Teach Political Science

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by David Radwin, Political Science

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2004

At one time or another, all university teaching requires the instructor to talk and the students to listen. The traditional method of “chalk and talk” lecturing may have its merits, but it often fails to engage students in the first place, to sustain their attention over time, or to meaningfully convey the point of the subject material. To get students involved as active participants in the learning process, I find it useful to introduce them to simulations whenever possible.

Learning by doing has a long history in educational theory, even if it is uncommon in practice. John Dewey, experiential education’s most forceful advocate, argues that “there is no such thing as genuine knowledge and fruitful understanding except as the offspring of doing. The analysis and rearrangement of facts which is indispensable to the growth of knowledge and power of explanation and right classification cannot be attained purely mentally — just inside the head. Men have to do something to the things when they wish to find out something….”[1] Knowledge is not a product to be passively received but a goal to actively seek out. The challenge for undergraduate education is how to create activities, within the constraints of the university setting, that challenge students to discover answers on their own.

Simulations are an especially effective way to teach complex phenomena and concepts to students while maintaining their focus. For example, last year for Political Science 103 (Congress) I developed a simulation of how redistricting influences the partisan and ethnic balance of a state’s congressional representation. Each cell in the hypothetical state (reproduced in miniature at right) represents a Democrat (D) or Republican (R) who is African-Americans or white. Students drew district lines under several competing scenarios, including maximizing African-American representation, maximizing Democratic representation, and maximizing Republican representation. In so doing, they discover how different forms of partisan or racial gerrymandering lead to different and often contradictory results, and they see in vivid detail how Supreme Court decisions requiring equal populations across districts can substantially alter the partisan balance of individual states and therefore of Congress. Simulations like this one lend themselves equally well to work in small groups, by individuals, or even involving the entire class at once. Moreover, unlike other forms of experiential education (such as internships or laboratory experimentation), such simulations are easily adapted to the classroom and are simple for students to “re-run” for extra practice afterward.

Other topics demand different simulations, but the same logic applies. For example, in Introduction to American Politics I have students vote in a hypothetical election to demonstrate how agenda control, like the Speaker of the House’s prerogative to schedule votes on legislation, can determine the outcome of decisions. In the introductory research methods class students draw samples of m&m candies and calculate appropriate statistics estimating the degree of precision of the sample results. While I cannot take credit for inventing any given simulation from scratch, I did adapt the existing idea to the appropriate concept and formalized it in a lesson plan or handout.

Given their obvious utility, it is surprising that simulations are not used more often in teaching Political Science. Mathematical and spatial concepts, such as those above, are particularly intimidating to many Political Science students, perhaps due to phobias of or inexperience with quantitative reasoning. At the same time these very concepts are especially well-suited to learning by doing both because simulations tend to overcome such anxieties and because the subject matter can be readily abstracted. In my experience, judging from personal observation and from written comments on student evaluations of my teaching, students have enthusiastically embraced learning by simulation as both educationally valuable and enjoyable. Many students single out the simulations for praise. When I shared the redistricting exercise with another GSI, he reported that students in one of his sections nearly refused to stop working on it when he tried to change topics! Simulations have a significant untapped potential to foster interest, engagement, understanding.

[1] Dewey, John. 1944 [1916]. Democracy and Education. New York: Free Press, p. 275.