Active Learning and Flipping my Introductory Course in Canadian Politics

In the fall, I’m teaching PO 263: Politics and Government in Canada, enrollment of 125. In the past, I’ve always taught this second year course using the traditional three hour lecture model.

This year, however, I’m reforming the course dramatically, not only in terms of content and assignments, but also in terms of what is going to happen in the classroom.

Step 1 was to establish some learning objectives: what are the big things I want my students to learn by the end of the course? Here are three big themes:

1) understand why institutions and institutional design are important for explaining Canadian politics;

2) understand the dynamics of institutional change in Canada

3) be able to describe the principles that underpin our institutions and comment on whether these principles remain relevant today

After introducing some basic theoretical knowledge about these three topics in the first class, I hope to use these themes to structure all of my lessons on each of the Canadian political institutions we cover.

So how will I achieve these goals in class? Step 1 is to assign readings and ask students to complete an online quiz on those readings before class. The readings I’ve assigned cover the basic nuts and bolts of how the various institutions work. leaving classtime for focusing on the three learning objectives. The quizzes will also tell me what the students understood and didn’t understand from the readings, which I can then briefly cover at the beginning of each class.

During the actual lecture times, I plan to divide the three hours into three 50 minute units: one unit will focus on skill building, and the other two units will be substantive.

To facilitate active learning, I plan to use synchronous assessment software. There are a number of good packages out there but I’ve decided to go with this one:

I’m very excited about this software, which allows you to push a whole range of different question types to the students, direct them to engage in peer-to-peer learning, and then test whether they’ve learned the material.

So, overall, my hope is to leave the nuts and bolts of the various institutions to “homework”, leaving class time to briefly cover any material that they struggled with in the quiz, before using active learning strategies to facilitate better comprehension in class.

When I used the traditional lecture format, I never knew if my students understood the material I was presenting to them until they wrote the midterm and then the final exam.

Now, with this synchronous assessment/learning software, I will be able to see immediately whether my students are “getting” the material, which will allow me to address any gaps in their knowledge through peer-to-peer learning and further explanation.

As you can tell, I’m really excited about the redesign.  But we shall see how it goes.

In a future post, I’ll talk about some changes I’ve made to the assignments in the course, which I hope will provide students with more relevant skills for today’s world.

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