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Collaborative Learning in Course Simulations
Unformatted Document Text:  Van Vechten, 6 three students assigned to them from my American Politics courses. Representatives would be required to contact their constituents independently via newsletters or email updates at least three times during the semester, and they would have to respond (in a believable way) to any and all requests for help or meetings with their constituents and lobbyists. They were also encouraged to solicit witnesses for bills when the time arrived for committee hearings. Finally, the Congress members were told that their constituents would be voting for or against their reelection at the end of the semester. Each American Politics student would be assigned as a constituent to one Congress member. Full participation in the course required that they pose one formal “constituent request” and expect that their concerns be addressed. Further, each student would also play a lobbyist during a week normally devoted to the study of “Interest Groups.” They would be required to represent a membership association, to research it and write a brief descriptive paper about the organization’s background and mission; finally, they would identify a bill introduced into the Congress class and either support or defend it as a lobbyist for their favorite association to a Congress member. For example, a student concerned with animal rights might become an advocate for PETA, look for a bill on the docket concerning PETA’s legislative interests, and then contact the Congress member to register their position on that bill. (As it turned out, in Spring 2007 one member did introduce a cock-fighting bill that generated a lot of animal rights advocates’ interest. 6 ) Students could earn extra credit for showing up at the scheduled Congress committee hearings and acting as a witness for (or against) the bill. WHAT HAPPENED? AN OVERVIEW FROM THE PROFESSOR / COORDINATOR From the perspective of teaching American Politics, this iteration expanded opportunities for meaningful experiential learning, and I believe it produced both procedural and conceptual knowledge about democratic representation and citizenship. In other words, it was worth the effort. The concept of lobbying becomes more concrete when the students research and represent an organization they might naturally support, and the act of registering one’s position with another person helps fix the lesson in the mind. Watching the Congress members in session and in committee (as many students did for extra credit) made the lawmaking process more accessible and comprehensible, complementing the regular coursework on American political processes. The least concrete portion of the exercise for the American Politics student was probably being a constituent. Some were not contacted consistently by their Congress members, and the final act of requesting a favor (making a constituent request) was not entirely effective in terms of getting them to understand the nature of their relationship to their representative. That said, for most students the constituency exercise achieved twin purposes of connecting students across classes and campus -- producing a modicum of social capital, so to speak -- and (at some level) clarifying the responsibilities of representatives to constituents. At least one representative took the extra step of going to lunch with his consigns, for example, and most everyone became friendly with one or two students through the exercise. In the long run, I believe that forging connections among students (between newer and older students) who might not otherwise connect was one of the more positive outcomes of the simulation. The act of contacting Congress members as lobbyists, however, spanned the range of earnest 6 Several students could not find bills that were directly related to their organization s interests. They were advised to simply choose a bill and take a position that would be compatible with their group s mission.

Authors: Van Vechten, Renee.
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Van Vechten, 6
three students assigned to them from my American Politics courses. Representatives would be
required to contact their constituents independently via newsletters or email updates at least three
times during the semester, and they would have to respond (in a believable way) to any and all
requests for help or meetings with their constituents and lobbyists. They were also encouraged
to solicit witnesses for bills when the time arrived for committee hearings. Finally, the Congress
members were told that their constituents would be voting for or against their reelection at the
end of the semester.
Each American Politics student would be assigned as a constituent to one Congress member.
Full participation in the course required that they pose one formal “constituent request” and
expect that their concerns be addressed. Further, each student would also play a lobbyist during
a week normally devoted to the study of “Interest Groups.” They would be required to represent
a membership association, to research it and write a brief descriptive paper about the
organization’s background and mission; finally, they would identify a bill introduced into the
Congress class and either support or defend it as a lobbyist for their favorite association to a
Congress member. For example, a student concerned with animal rights might become an
advocate for PETA, look for a bill on the docket concerning PETA’s legislative interests, and
then contact the Congress member to register their position on that bill. (As it turned out, in
Spring 2007 one member did introduce a cock-fighting bill that generated a lot of animal rights
advocates’ interest.
) Students could earn extra credit for showing up at the scheduled Congress
committee hearings and acting as a witness for (or against) the bill.
WHAT HAPPENED? AN OVERVIEW FROM THE PROFESSOR / COORDINATOR
From the perspective of teaching American Politics, this iteration expanded opportunities for
meaningful experiential learning, and I believe it produced both procedural and conceptual
knowledge about democratic representation and citizenship. In other words, it was worth the
effort. The concept of lobbying becomes more concrete when the students research and
represent an organization they might naturally support, and the act of registering one’s position
with another person helps fix the lesson in the mind. Watching the Congress members in session
and in committee (as many students did for extra credit) made the lawmaking process more
accessible and comprehensible, complementing the regular coursework on American political
processes.
The least concrete portion of the exercise for the American Politics student was probably being a
constituent. Some were not contacted consistently by their Congress members, and the final act
of requesting a favor (making a constituent request) was not entirely effective in terms of getting
them to understand the nature of their relationship to their representative. That said, for most
students the constituency exercise achieved twin purposes of connecting students across classes
and campus -- producing a modicum of social capital, so to speak -- and (at some level)
clarifying the responsibilities of representatives to constituents. At least one representative took
the extra step of going to lunch with his consigns, for example, and most everyone became
friendly with one or two students through the exercise. In the long run, I believe that forging
connections among students (between newer and older students) who might not otherwise
connect was one of the more positive outcomes of the simulation.
The act of contacting Congress members as lobbyists, however, spanned the range of earnest
6
Several students could not find bills that were directly related to their organization s interests. They were advised
to simply choose a bill and take a position that would be compatible with their group s mission.


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