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Collaborative Learning in Course Simulations
Unformatted Document Text:  Van Vechten, 10 STUDENT RESPONSES: DRAWBACKS, COMPLAINTS, and SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENTS As noted above, workload was high. My expectations were also high but realistic (one student commented, “Awesome professor; expects a little too much out of us.”). In fact there was a great deal of work: a considerable reading load, two major exams, written assignments, and the busy work of attending to constituents and their legislative duties. The occupation could be all-encompassing if a student allowed it to become so. However, the consensus was that the work was “do-able,” and that the structure of the simulation helped them stay focused and on-track (the rest was up to them). It was clear in my conversations with several students that they managed to get A’s in my course without shirking their other classes. “She wanted to make this class fun and interesting for us, which motivated me to work harder,” noted one respondent. Although there was an added layer of duties in Semester 2, there seemed to be no measurable differences in the perceptions of students about their respective workloads between Semesters 1 and 2. A practical consideration in structuring the simulation has to do with how much “reality” that the students are supposed to bring to the simulation. We intend to replicate current power configurations such as partisan balances (In Fall 2005 the Republicans were the majority; in Spring 2007 the Democrats were in charge) and actual characters in charge (the Speaker is Nancy Pelosi, who might be a male or female student), but students manipulate other aspects of the simulation, such as whom to elect as committee chairs or their party leaders – leaders who must be drawn from their own group, but may not be “realistic” choices (for example, Rep. Sensenbrenner ended up NOT being the ranking chair, because another student was naturally more persuasive that he be put in charge of Judiciary). Such nonessential differences provide useful talking points, but also might lead some students to question the utility of the exercise if the choices and resulting decisions become too “fantastic” to be believed. 8 Allocating enough time to allow the simulation to blossom and also to discuss readings is a continual struggle. All the students in the focus group thought that the class needed to be longer to accomplish all the objectives of the course and to give everyone a good chance of practicing and learning their roles; they suggested offering the simulation as a “lab” in conjunction with the course. They also recommended that a separate Senate course be taught – possibly as a two-unit simulation the semester following the Congress course (where students assume the role of House members). Certain aspects of politics are difficult to replicate in the classroom. Money, the mother’s milk of politics, remains an untapped resource. The next iteration will involve making campaign or PAC donations available through lobbyists. WHAT LASTED? REFLECTIONS on the Experience, and LESSONS LEARNED From the perspective of teaching and learning about representation, deliberation, and the political 8 Leadership choices can supply other useful lessons. One energetic student assumed the role of a freshman legislator and lobbied hard to be majority leader in spite of his backbencher status. His fellow caucus members were adamantly opposed to a freshman taking on that role, and the result was a sense of real frustration that he carried around throughout the semester something that others later talked about as being a good example of how very personal considerations affect that process.

Authors: Van Vechten, Renee.
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Van Vechten, 10
STUDENT RESPONSES: DRAWBACKS, COMPLAINTS, and SUGGESTIONS FOR
IMPROVEMENTS
As noted above, workload was high. My expectations were also high but realistic (one student
commented, “Awesome professor; expects a little too much out of us.”). In fact there was a great
deal of work: a considerable reading load, two major exams, written assignments, and the busy
work of attending to constituents and their legislative duties. The occupation could be all-
encompassing if a student allowed it to become so. However, the consensus was that the work
was “do-able,” and that the structure of the simulation helped them stay focused and on-track
(the rest was up to them). It was clear in my conversations with several students that they
managed to get A’s in my course without shirking their other classes. “She wanted to make this
class fun and interesting for us, which motivated me to work harder,” noted one respondent.
Although there was an added layer of duties in Semester 2, there seemed to be no measurable
differences in the perceptions of students about their respective workloads between Semesters 1
and 2.
A practical consideration in structuring the simulation has to do with how much “reality” that the
students are supposed to bring to the simulation. We intend to replicate current power
configurations such as partisan balances (In Fall 2005 the Republicans were the majority; in
Spring 2007 the Democrats were in charge) and actual characters in charge (the Speaker is
Nancy Pelosi, who might be a male or female student), but students manipulate other aspects of
the simulation, such as whom to elect as committee chairs or their party leaders – leaders who
must be drawn from their own group, but may not be “realistic” choices (for example, Rep.
Sensenbrenner ended up NOT being the ranking chair, because another student was naturally
more persuasive that he be put in charge of Judiciary). Such nonessential differences provide
useful talking points, but also might lead some students to question the utility of the exercise if
the choices and resulting decisions become too “fantastic” to be believed.
Allocating enough time to allow the simulation to blossom and also to discuss readings is a
continual struggle. All the students in the focus group thought that the class needed to be longer
to accomplish all the objectives of the course and to give everyone a good chance of practicing
and learning their roles; they suggested offering the simulation as a “lab” in conjunction with the
course. They also recommended that a separate Senate course be taught – possibly as a two-unit
simulation the semester following the Congress course (where students assume the role of
House members).
Certain aspects of politics are difficult to replicate in the classroom. Money, the mother’s milk
of politics, remains an untapped resource. The next iteration will involve making campaign or
PAC donations available through lobbyists.
WHAT LASTED? REFLECTIONS on the Experience, and LESSONS LEARNED
From the perspective of teaching and learning about representation, deliberation, and the political
8
Leadership choices can supply other useful lessons. One energetic student assumed the role of a freshman
legislator and lobbied hard to be majority leader in spite of his backbencher status. His fellow caucus members
were adamantly opposed to a freshman taking on that role, and the result was a sense of real frustration that he
carried around throughout the semester something that others later talked about as being a good example of how
very personal considerations affect that process.


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