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Collaborative Learning in Course Simulations
Unformatted Document Text:  Van Vechten, 11 process, this simulation left deep impressions on the Congress students who were asked to reflect on their experiences for a focus group. Furthermore, all agreed that participants “got out of it what they put into it.” In terms of substantive lessons, the consensus was that interaction helped “bring home” practical considerations that enter the decision-making process, like party pressures and personal relationships or grudges – sometimes to the point of eclipsing more important considerations like “the public interest.” Mayhew’s reelection incentive became internalized, particularly in Semester 2 when Congress members were looking forward to a semester-end re-election vote. “We didn’t know if we were representing Democrats or Republicans,” noted one former Congress student, “so you had to appeal to everyone, in newsletters or in updates.” Another agreed, saying, “I liked the constituency update; it held me more accountable, to care about reelection. You couldn t really send them an email saying I haven t really done anything. Key points about the importance of institutional aspects were also driven home: the strength of partisan divisions matters; majorities matter, and it’s no fun being in the minority party. They were confronted by gridlock and understood some of the reasons for it; they better understood the formalities and informalities of committee decisions and floor votes. Further, students appreciated the introduction to using government and other sources, from Thomas.gov to Capitol news sites to opensecrets.org, which they have variously consulted in the semesters since. One student boasted that as a self-professed C-SPAN junkie, she understands what she’s watching now. Most of the students also are more alert to real-time Congressional activities; they profess to have a better appreciation of the news about Congress (on bills in process and so forth), and of course they are connected through their portrayals of certain members who might appear on the national scene. Overall among the focus group, the most appreciated lesson was that of internalizing lessons/providing a foundation for greater understanding of American Politics: decision-making, partisanship, etc. All seven participants ranked it first as the lesson that the simulation promoted well. Learning the process was the consensus vote for the second most important lesson; the third was reinforcing lessons learned in the literature/scholarly work. The group split on two other types of goals: socialization with peers (getting to know people in class, on campus, as a community), and knowing how to do research. Feedback from the American Politics classes was inadequate because I did not supplement the standard U of R evaluation form with my own. However, several students volunteered responses about the simulation on that form, and the overall responses were positive. Out of 42 course evaluations, 12 volunteered affirmative comments about the simulation exercises, and additional comments by others supported the structure of the course (or indirect support for the exercises). These positive comments were found among responses to three separate questions: (1) “What aspects of this instructors’ teaching were most important in helping you learn?” (2) “How did the professor affect your attitude toward the subject matter during this course?” and (3) What aspects of this course were most important in helping you learn?” For example, one student wrote that [s/he] learned through the “outside activities with Congress class,” and another reported, “[The professor] has plenty of hands on exercises. My favorite one was having to lobby a member of Congress for the passage of a bill.” Indirect support for the simulation’s effectiveness might be found in other comments such as: “[She] made it fun to learn and easy to follow and become engaged in.”

Authors: Van Vechten, Renee.
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Van Vechten, 11
process, this simulation left deep impressions on the Congress students who were asked to
reflect on their experiences for a focus group. Furthermore, all agreed that participants “got out
of it what they put into it.”
In terms of substantive lessons, the consensus was that interaction helped “bring home” practical
considerations that enter the decision-making process, like party pressures and personal
relationships or grudges – sometimes to the point of eclipsing more important considerations like
“the public interest.” Mayhew’s reelection incentive became internalized, particularly in
Semester 2 when Congress members were looking forward to a semester-end re-election vote.
“We didn’t know if we were representing Democrats or Republicans,” noted one former
Congress student, “so you had to appeal to everyone, in newsletters or in updates.” Another
agreed, saying, “I liked the constituency update; it held me more accountable, to care about
reelection. You couldn t really send them an email saying I haven t really done anything.
Key points about the importance of institutional aspects were also driven home: the strength of
partisan divisions matters; majorities matter, and it’s no fun being in the minority party. They
were confronted by gridlock and understood some of the reasons for it; they better understood
the formalities and informalities of committee decisions and floor votes.
Further, students appreciated the introduction to using government and other sources, from
Thomas.gov to Capitol news sites to opensecrets.org, which they have variously consulted in the
semesters since. One student boasted that as a self-professed C-SPAN junkie, she understands
what she’s watching now. Most of the students also are more alert to real-time Congressional
activities; they profess to have a better appreciation of the news about Congress (on bills in
process and so forth), and of course they are connected through their portrayals of certain
members who might appear on the national scene.
Overall among the focus group, the most appreciated lesson was that of internalizing
lessons/providing a foundation for greater understanding of American Politics: decision-making,
partisanship, etc. All seven participants ranked it first as the lesson that the simulation
promoted well. Learning the process was the consensus vote for the second most important
lesson; the third was reinforcing lessons learned in the literature/scholarly work. The group
split on two other types of goals: socialization with peers (getting to know people in class, on
campus, as a community), and knowing how to do research.
Feedback from the American Politics classes was inadequate because I did not supplement the
standard U of R evaluation form with my own. However, several students volunteered responses
about the simulation on that form, and the overall responses were positive. Out of 42 course
evaluations, 12 volunteered affirmative comments about the simulation exercises, and additional
comments by others supported the structure of the course (or indirect support for the exercises).
These positive comments were found among responses to three separate questions: (1) “What
aspects of this instructors’ teaching were most important in helping you learn?” (2) “How did the
professor affect your attitude toward the subject matter during this course?” and (3) What aspects
of this course were most important in helping you learn?” For example, one student wrote that
[s/he] learned through the “outside activities with Congress class,” and another reported, “[The
professor] has plenty of hands on exercises. My favorite one was having to lobby a member of
Congress for the passage of a bill.” Indirect support for the simulation’s effectiveness might be
found in other comments such as: “[She] made it fun to learn and easy to follow and become
engaged in.”


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