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Assessing "Low-Intensity" Active Learning
Unformatted Document Text:  Assessing “Low-Intensity” Active Learning Patrick Van Inwegen Introduction The overarching theme of this study is to test the effects of various types of active learning on content retention and engagement. Active learning “refers to techniques where students do more than simply listen to a lecture. Students are DOING something including discovering, processing, and applying information” (McKinney 2008). Given this definition, there is much that can be considered active learning. In political science, simulations are one of the primary ways that students are actively engaged in the learning process. While there is a significant range in terms of depth and content, most simulations involve students acting as if they were someone else, interacting with others doing the same. Typically in courses on international relations, students may be involved in a simulation structured around the European Union or United Nations. The Model U.N. program is just one extension of this type of activity, but represents what most simulations embody. Similarly, in courses on American politics or constitutional law, students will often engage in a mock Congress or mock trial. The point of the simulation is to give a more in depth understanding of the institution as well as the topic being discussed by having the students engage in the debate with each other. A strong simulation should encourage learning about the institution, about actors within the institution, and about the topic under discussion. For example, a U.N. Security Council simulation where students represent the various states on the Security Council should give them a better understanding of the institution (the rules, structure, purpose, and process of decision-making) as well as the perspective of each of the members on the Security Council. This perspective is often one of the attractive aspects of a simulation; the student must adopt a perspective other than their own. For example, an American student would have to represent France on the Security Council. To do so well, they must learn about the French position on the topic under debate and then be able to support it. Finally, students should have a better understanding of the complexity of the topic under debate. The Security Council simulation could be on the actions of the military junta in Myanmar or the Iranian nuclear program. To effectively debate the issue, students must have some in depth knowledge of the topic. The strength of the simulation is also one of its deficits, the depth acquired requires expending significant time and effort on the topic. Most simulations involve multiple days of class. But there are some “low-intensity” alternatives that seek to engage students in the learning process without committing to a longer simulations. By low-intensity, I mean activities that can be done within the space of one class period and do not require significant out-of-class preparation by students. They are the types of activities that a student who is prepared to attend a lecture / discussion could easily step into. Literature Review There is widespread consensus, outside of the field of political science, that engaging students in alternative ways is a significant learning aid. Pascarella and Terenzini’s (2005) comprehensive review of research on best teaching practices suggests that, among other things, the most effective teaching and learning require active student involvement and participation. The best approach is to use a variety of approaches, “from teachers teaching students to students teaching and learning from other students, and students ‘constructing’ rather than receiving knowledge, with information technology and service experiences added to the mix….The 2

Authors: Van Inwegen, Patrick.
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Assessing “Low-Intensity” Active Learning
Patrick Van Inwegen
Introduction
The overarching theme of this study is to test the effects of various types of active
learning on content retention and engagement. Active learning “refers to techniques where
students do more than simply listen to a lecture. Students are DOING something including
discovering, processing, and applying information” (McKinney 2008). Given this definition,
there is much that can be considered active learning. In political science, simulations are one of
the primary ways that students are actively engaged in the learning process. While there is a
significant range in terms of depth and content, most simulations involve students acting as if
they were someone else, interacting with others doing the same. Typically in courses on
international relations, students may be involved in a simulation structured around the European
Union or United Nations. The Model U.N. program is just one extension of this type of activity,
but represents what most simulations embody. Similarly, in courses on American politics or
constitutional law, students will often engage in a mock Congress or mock trial. The point of the
simulation is to give a more in depth understanding of the institution as well as the topic being
discussed by having the students engage in the debate with each other.
A strong simulation should encourage learning about the institution, about actors within
the institution, and about the topic under discussion. For example, a U.N. Security Council
simulation where students represent the various states on the Security Council should give them
a better understanding of the institution (the rules, structure, purpose, and process of decision-
making) as well as the perspective of each of the members on the Security Council. This
perspective is often one of the attractive aspects of a simulation; the student must adopt a
perspective other than their own. For example, an American student would have to represent
France on the Security Council. To do so well, they must learn about the French position on the
topic under debate and then be able to support it. Finally, students should have a better
understanding of the complexity of the topic under debate. The Security Council simulation
could be on the actions of the military junta in Myanmar or the Iranian nuclear program. To
effectively debate the issue, students must have some in depth knowledge of the topic.
The strength of the simulation is also one of its deficits, the depth acquired requires
expending significant time and effort on the topic. Most simulations involve multiple days of
class. But there are some “low-intensity” alternatives that seek to engage students in the learning
process without committing to a longer simulations. By low-intensity, I mean activities that can
be done within the space of one class period and do not require significant out-of-class
preparation by students. They are the types of activities that a student who is prepared to attend
a lecture / discussion could easily step into.
Literature Review
There is widespread consensus, outside of the field of political science, that engaging
students in alternative ways is a significant learning aid. Pascarella and Terenzini’s (2005)
comprehensive review of research on best teaching practices suggests that, among other things,
the most effective teaching and learning require active student involvement and participation.
The best approach is to use a variety of approaches, “from teachers teaching students to students
teaching and learning from other students, and students ‘constructing’ rather than receiving
knowledge, with information technology and service experiences added to the mix….The
2


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