Five tried and true hacks for interactive learning

Five students working together in a library looking at a computer screen

For many instructors, a key goal is “student engagement” – creating a strong connection between the student and the lectures, readings and activities within the course. I have employed a variety of strategies to enhance student engagement in my political science courses, and I believe they are applicable to many subjects. Five of these are described in my 30-minute webinar: my “acid tests”; the use of music; involving, interactive openers; activities where students actually “do” political science; and creative approaches to testing and evaluation. In this brief blog, I highlight two of these five strategies, involving openers and the use of music.

Interactive learning involving openers

I start every class session with 5-10 minutes on a scenario that encourages the students to assess the options available and to justify their choices. The scenario could be drawn from yesterday’s news or a hypothetical or something from history. For example, the students are the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. They are given some key facts from a 1990 case in which two Native American men were fired from their jobs because they periodically ingested peyote, which they described as part of their religion. In balancing religious freedom against the state’s drug laws, the lower courts had reversed the decision at each level. The students ask further questions about the case, and then some offer arguments in support of one or the other decision. The full class then votes. I briefly explain the Court’s actual decision and this launches our discussion of adjudication, as one of the functions of political institutions.

In another example, when we are considering the politics that occur across (national) state borders, I ask the students to be the Melians, based on an account by Thucydides in The Peloponnesian War. Melos, a small island colony, is in alliance with Sparta. Athenian warships sail into the port and demand “unconditional surrender” from the Melians. There is a series of exchanges between the Melians and the Athenians, as each side attempts to achieve its goals. At each stage, I ask the class what strategies they might pursue and why, and then I indicate what the Melians did and how the Athenians responded. Eventually, the Melians must decide whether to fight or surrender. The discussion always elicits some interesting ideas, some humorous ones, and it effectively raises such issues as the threat and use of political violence, negotiation, alliances, colonialism, altruism, power politics, and so on – themes that are then part of the lecture of the day.

In a small class, these conversations can be more interactive. In a large class, one might have just a few students speak, or break people into small groups for brief discussion, and some form of mobile/clicker technology or just hands-up voting can be used. In my textbook Understanding the Political World: A Comparative Introduction to Political Science (12th edition, Pearson, 2016), I similarly start every chapter with an opening scenario, and I also include a debate in each chapter that elicits student analysis and response.

Music is a great way to build interactive learning

During my webinar, the majority of participants indicated they use music in class at least occasionally. While some might see music as just an attempt to be more hip, I have a more complex strategy. When students arrive for class, the day’s music is playing and the lyrics of the song are projected on the screen. About halfway through class, I project the lyrics up again and ask the students why I selected that song and how it relates to the day’s material. After a few class sessions, when students arrive in class, most of them listen to the music and read the lyrics because they know I’ll ask them later. Thus, instead of checking email or texting or spacing out, most students quickly focus on the day’s topic. My webinar offers more examples of the songs I find useful as well as some other ways in which I utilize music in the course.

When students evaluate my courses, they often mention the opener scenarios and the music as among the most positive aspects of the course. And when I encounter one of my former students years later, they often tell me that what they most remember is one or more of the scenarios in the lecture or in the textbook. I believe these kinds of strategies do encourage students to be more engaged, active learners and to remember key concepts more vividly.



About the Author
James Danziger

James Danziger, Ph.D.

Professor James Danziger is a research professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine. A committed teacher, he has won every UC Irvine award for teaching, including the first-ever Academic Senate Distinguished Faculty Lectureship Award for Teaching and the Alumni Association’s Outstanding Teaching Award. He has been a faculty member on five Semester at Sea voyages, part of his deep interest in travel and other cultures, resulting in experiences in more than 75 countries. He was a Marshall Scholar in Great Britain, a Fulbright awardee in Germany and in England, and a visiting professor at Aarhus University in Denmark.

He has published four books and more than 80 articles, especially focusing on the uses, impacts, and regulation of information and communications technologies on governments and workplaces. He has been Principal Investigator on more than $5 million in research grants. His research has received awards from the American Political Science Association and the American Society for Public Administration. Among other roles on campus, he has served as the campus’ Dean of Undergraduate Education, Chair of the Academic Senate, Associate Dean of the School of Social Sciences, and Chair of the Department of Political Science. His extensive community service resulted in his selection for UCI’s Daniel Aldrich Distinguished University Service Award. In 2009, for Professor Danziger’s career contributions to teaching, research and service, he received UC Irvine’s highest Alumni Association honor, the Extraordinarius Award.