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Collaborative Learning in Course Simulations
Unformatted Document Text:  Van Vechten, 2 Introduction Learning about one of the world’s most studied institutions, The U.S. Congress, can happen merely through tapping into a literature whose range and depth is nearly unmatched in American politics. While that body of words provides the theoretical basis for understanding the institution, additional tools are necessary to create a learning space where undergraduate students can practice what they have read about, and internalize what they have heard and discussed. Absent personal observation of Congress members at work, simulating institutional roles through a semi-structured, course-driven exercise can help create a visceral experience that forces students to confront “textbook” lessons in ways that discussion and paper-writing cannot; asserting and interpreting roles allows students to develop interpersonal and intellectual skills simultaneously. But how to create an environment in which the “real” lessons of Congress might be learned – whatever they may be? How might students create a situation that modestly replicates the elements that make a simulation “true to life” rather than a poor representation of it? In this paper I describe and evaluate my experience with two semester-long, upper division U.S. Congress courses that combined book learning with an extended role-playing simulation. Students in both classes assumed the role of a Congress member, and used class time to meet in caucus, in committee, and in floor session. The second iteration, however, was designed to overcome some of the limitations that surfaced in Semester 1, the most important of which stemmed from the “closed” nature of the exercise. In brief, many students from Semester 1 felt that critical cross-pressures that might have influenced policymaking were not present, so in Semester 2, role-playing “Congress members” were required to connect with other students outside of class to render their decision making more “realistic.” Extra roles were assigned to a lower-division American Politics class I was teaching at the time, which resulted in a collaborative learning experience whereby students helped create more realistic cross-pressures and responsibilities for each other, naturally generating the critical by-products of socialization and increased political interest. THE SETTING: UNIVERSITY & CURRICULUM The University of Redlands is located in Southern California at the foot of the San Bernardino mountains (about 60 miles east of Los Angeles off the 10 freeway), and is a four-year, liberal arts institution with approximately 2400 undergraduates, 75% of whom live on campus. 1 The student population is drawn heavily from Southern California and Western states. The mission of the university is clear: personalized education made possible through small classes (capped at 25 for introductory classes, and 15 for advanced seminars), and significant student-faculty interaction. The Department of Government currently has seven full-time faculty members and two full-time adjuncts. Two full-time and two part-time faculty offer courses in American Politics and U.S. political institutions, including the Introduction to American politics, which serves as both a gateway course for the major and as a lower-division course that satisfies a university-wide liberal arts foundation requirement. The Congress class is offered approximately every third 1 About 1600 additional students are enrolled in the Graduate Schools of Education and Business.

Authors: Van Vechten, Renee.
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Van Vechten, 2
Introduction
Learning about one of the world’s most studied institutions, The U.S. Congress, can happen
merely through tapping into a literature whose range and depth is nearly unmatched in American
politics. While that body of words provides the theoretical basis for understanding the
institution, additional tools are necessary to create a learning space where undergraduate students
can practice what they have read about, and internalize what they have heard and discussed.
Absent personal observation of Congress members at work, simulating institutional roles through
a semi-structured, course-driven exercise can help create a visceral experience that forces
students to confront “textbook” lessons in ways that discussion and paper-writing cannot;
asserting and interpreting roles allows students to develop interpersonal and intellectual skills
simultaneously.
But how to create an environment in which the “real” lessons of Congress might be learned –
whatever they may be? How might students create a situation that modestly replicates the
elements that make a simulation “true to life” rather than a poor representation of it?
In this paper I describe and evaluate my experience with two semester-long, upper division U.S.
Congress courses that combined book learning with an extended role-playing simulation.
Students in both classes assumed the role of a Congress member, and used class time to meet in
caucus, in committee, and in floor session. The second iteration, however, was designed to
overcome some of the limitations that surfaced in Semester 1, the most important of which
stemmed from the “closed” nature of the exercise. In brief, many students from Semester 1 felt
that critical cross-pressures that might have influenced policymaking were not present, so in
Semester 2, role-playing “Congress members” were required to connect with other students
outside of class to render their decision making more “realistic.” Extra roles were assigned to a
lower-division American Politics class I was teaching at the time, which resulted in a
collaborative learning experience whereby students helped create more realistic cross-pressures
and responsibilities for each other, naturally generating the critical by-products of socialization
and increased political interest.
THE SETTING: UNIVERSITY & CURRICULUM
The University of Redlands is located in Southern California at the foot of the San Bernardino
mountains (about 60 miles east of Los Angeles off the 10 freeway), and is a four-year, liberal
arts institution with approximately 2400 undergraduates, 75% of whom live on campus.
The
student population is drawn heavily from Southern California and Western states. The mission of
the university is clear: personalized education made possible through small classes (capped at 25
for introductory classes, and 15 for advanced seminars), and significant student-faculty
interaction.
The Department of Government currently has seven full-time faculty members and two full-time
adjuncts. Two full-time and two part-time faculty offer courses in American Politics and U.S.
political institutions, including the Introduction to American politics, which serves as both a
gateway course for the major and as a lower-division course that satisfies a university-wide
liberal arts foundation requirement. The Congress class is offered approximately every third
1
About 1600 additional students are enrolled in the Graduate Schools of Education and Business.


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