Below I offer a description and discussion of a number of the classroom innovations I have developed and implemented while teaching in the Institute of Political Science at Leiden University. I begin with a host of practices I have implemented in my large undergraduate lecture course, "Politics and the Media," and end with a discussion of the "flipped" classroom, an approach I have adopted in two of the masters seminars I teach.
Politics and the Media
Critical Analysis of media texts
I use the work groups for this second-year undergraduate lecture course for a mix of discussion and hands-on activities. The hands-on activities emphasize the analysis of up-to-date media texts, applying the concepts and/or theories we have studied in lecture to those texts. These activities not only help students understand how the ideas presented in readings and lectures apply in the real world; they also aid in critical reflection about these ideas. Frequently, the media materials we analyze only partially conform to the expectations laid out in academic theories, and dissecting these materials often allows students (whether they realize it or not) to improve their understanding of scholarly processes and knowledge production.
For example, following the lecture on objectivity and bias in media reporting, students might be asked to work in small groups to dissect and analyze a story from The Guardian about the closure of the controversial Russian news outlet RT's bank accounts. Having learned about Denis McQuail's (1992) four-part typology of media bias, which divides bias according to whether it is (1) explicit/open or hidden and (2) deliberate or unintended, students are asked to assess whether the article contains "partisan" (deliberate and explicit), "propaganda" (deliberate and hidden), "unwitting" (unintended but explicit/open), and/or "ideological" (unintended and hidden) bias. Students wrestle with how one determines the intent of the journalists and editors responsible for a news story and debate how to use text to detect hidden biases.
real-time media "spot checks"
I frequently take a few minutes during class to conduct real-time media “spot checks.” During the lecture about different forms of media bias, for example, I might visit a few media outlets’ websites to see if the stories on their main pages that day contain some of the biases we are examining. (BBC’s “One Minute World News” is great for this.) I do not look for the materials ahead of time in these exercises. I simply let what we find in the moment guide the discussion. Students respond extremely well to this type of activity, because it does not seem forced or “pre-packaged.”
interactive polls and experiments
Among the most successful techniques I use to promote student engagement during lectures are a series of interactive, online polls and experiments. For example, on the day that we discuss theories about who receives media attention and why, I show students a series of slides with various world leaders and some celebrities (from Mark Rutte, Barack Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to Justin Bieber), and using an online “quiz” platform called Socrative, ask them to provide the name of each person pictured. Answers are free form, and once I’ve received all the answers (online, in real-time), I then create a series of word clouds that shows them how well they did. Of course most everyone can name Obama by sight, but many more know Justin Bieber than the leaders of Liberia or even China.
I use this same online platform to conduct a simple in-class experiment that illustrates the concept of media priming. Students are divided into three groups at the beginning of lecture, and each group receives a series of simple words to unscramble. One group receives words with a positive connotation (e.g., "happy"); one group receives words with a negative connotation (e.g., "sad"), and the final group receives neutral words (e.g., "table). All are then shown a picture of the same well-known politician or political institution (e.g., the United Nations) and asked to record the first five words that come to mind when they see the picture. Results of the experiments are provided to students in their next work group sessions, and the results almost always conform to theoretical expectations—that is, the students who were primed with negative words have negative reactions to the picture; those primed with positive words have more positive reactions, etc.—and typically even demonstrate statistical significance.
Students respond incredibly well to these activities, demonstrated by the level of energy, buzz, and attentiveness that continues throughout the remaining lecture, and they help illustrate that the theories and concepts we are studying apply even to themselves.
"flipping" the classroom
To date, I have “flipped” the classroom in two courses—"Qualitative Research Methods" and "Advanced Academic and Professional Skills." As is typical in a “flipped” classroom environment, I record lectures and post them online, saving classroom time for a series of hands-on activities that give students the opportunity to practice and apply the theories, ideas, and concepts presented in the online lecture. In Qualitative Research Methods, for example, students undertake discourse analysis of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous “Address to Congress Requesting a Declaration of War with Japan.” In another session, they apply process tracing techniques to “solve” Sherlock Holmes-style political science “mysteries,” using materials developed by political scientist David Collier.
From the start, this approach has been a huge success for students and instructors alike. For instructors it saves a great deal of time (since most recorded lectures can be used repeatedly) and allows us to focus on the most rewarding aspects of teaching: direct student interaction and supervision. Students, in turn, understand course materials much better when they are able to practice and apply them in concrete exercises. This is especially important for methodology and other applied courses—courses that students typically find boring, abstract, and difficult to understand. Using class time to undertake these activities also means that instructors are there to supervise, answer questions, and lead discussions of the activities. What is more, students are able to return to the recorded lectures throughout the course, reinforcing the lessons anytime they would like. I have heard from a number of students that they continue watching the lectures even long after the course is complete.