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Collaborative Learning in Course Simulations
Unformatted Document Text:  Van Vechten, 7 advocacy to insincere signature-gathering, as some students simply chose to ask their friends to verify that they’d made contact, whereas others took the assignment seriously and made a full case for a bill – to the point of lobbying that case before the full committee where they were interrogated by zealous Congress members. (At least one freshman was heard to say, “They’re so mean!” after she, awaiting her turn, watched the committee chair grill a witness about the possible consequences of a measure.) Yet even those who contacted their friends were required to deliver a pointed message to a Congress member, which helped achieve the goals of the exercise. I believe that the preliminary steps of researching and writing about membership organizations (lobbying) combined with a reinforcing activity were useful to most in the class, though I would continue to refine the activities to be more meaningful. 7 For the lower division class, the most valuable experiences were generated by the students who appeared as witnesses for bills – and these efforts were for extra credit only. Some students required (my) prodding to engage in the effort, but most who braved the hearings were self-starters who were interested in experiencing the process writ large. Certainly their mere presence rendered the situation more convincing, as Congress members knew they were being watched by and reported on by outsiders; they more easily slipped into character when facing students they didn’t know. From the perspective of teaching Congress, introducing lobbyists and constituents into the simulation manifested a stronger sense of realism for everyone. Creating a more credible set of pressures and cross-pressures added critical layers to the decision-making process throughout the semester, and helped enlarge the sense of purpose: most realized they were helping to educate their peers. Performance took on new meaning when outsiders needed to be impressed, and this was enough to prompt some students to create elaborate communication pieces, to “do their homework,” and participate more fully than they might otherwise have done. The threat of an impending election also provided a measure of accountability; in the focus group, I was surprised to hear all the students mention or agree that the election, limited as it was to two or three votes from their constituents, provided a good incentive to work. Some students were clearly worried about losing even though their grades wouldn’t reflect the poll results. Considering the Coordinator’s role, two caveats: (1) successfully guiding the simulation requires letting students take the lead, but also knowing when to strategically redirect. Student leaders (like the Speaker) who do not live up to their roles affect the tenor and energy level of the entire simulation; lackluster performances set the stage for a committee hearing or floor session to fall flat. Students take cues from each other – especially their own authority figures. The director might need to weigh in on the selection of the Speaker, step in and give a “pep talk” when energy wanes, or impose requirements to speak for a certain number of times and minutes (it’s easy enough for a member to say, “I support the bill” and sit down.) It’s necessary to provide benchmarks for expected participation. Clear expectations from the beginning must be spelled out and reiterated later. (2) It took an extraordinary amount of effort to keep track of the students’ interactions. Ideally, 7 It should be noted that the lessons of the simulation were not immediately apparent or even effective for every student; those who invested the bare minimum of energy also reaped as much. Although participation is required in all my classes, a few students who missed class when the assignments were explained found it difficult to understand and keep their dual roles of lobbyist and constituent straight (this required a considerable amount of explaining to everyone). Overall, however, these students were not representative of the entire introductory classes.

Authors: Van Vechten, Renee.
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Van Vechten, 7
advocacy to insincere signature-gathering, as some students simply chose to ask their friends to
verify that they’d made contact, whereas others took the assignment seriously and made a full
case for a bill – to the point of lobbying that case before the full committee where they were
interrogated by zealous Congress members. (At least one freshman was heard to say, “They’re
so mean!” after she, awaiting her turn, watched the committee chair grill a witness about the
possible consequences of a measure.) Yet even those who contacted their friends were required
to deliver a pointed message to a Congress member, which helped achieve the goals of the
exercise. I believe that the preliminary steps of researching and writing about membership
organizations (lobbying) combined with a reinforcing activity were useful to most in the class,
though I would continue to refine the activities to be more meaningful.
For the lower division class, the most valuable experiences were generated by the students who
appeared as witnesses for bills – and these efforts were for extra credit only. Some students
required (my) prodding to engage in the effort, but most who braved the hearings were self-
starters who were interested in experiencing the process writ large. Certainly their mere
presence rendered the situation more convincing, as Congress members knew they were being
watched by and reported on by outsiders; they more easily slipped into character when facing
students they didn’t know.
From the perspective of teaching Congress, introducing lobbyists and constituents into the
simulation manifested a stronger sense of realism for everyone. Creating a more credible set of
pressures and cross-pressures added critical layers to the decision-making process throughout the
semester, and helped enlarge the sense of purpose: most realized they were helping to educate
their peers.
Performance took on new meaning when outsiders needed to be impressed, and this was enough
to prompt some students to create elaborate communication pieces, to “do their homework,” and
participate more fully than they might otherwise have done. The threat of an impending election
also provided a measure of accountability; in the focus group, I was surprised to hear all the
students mention or agree that the election, limited as it was to two or three votes from their
constituents, provided a good incentive to work. Some students were clearly worried about
losing even though their grades wouldn’t reflect the poll results.
Considering the Coordinator’s role, two caveats: (1) successfully guiding the simulation
requires letting students take the lead, but also knowing when to strategically redirect. Student
leaders (like the Speaker) who do not live up to their roles affect the tenor and energy level of the
entire simulation; lackluster performances set the stage for a committee hearing or floor session
to fall flat. Students take cues from each other – especially their own authority figures. The
director might need to weigh in on the selection of the Speaker, step in and give a “pep talk”
when energy wanes, or impose requirements to speak for a certain number of times and minutes
(it’s easy enough for a member to say, “I support the bill” and sit down.) It’s necessary to
provide benchmarks for expected participation. Clear expectations from the beginning must be
spelled out and reiterated later.
(2) It took an extraordinary amount of effort to keep track of the students’ interactions. Ideally,
7
It should be noted that the lessons of the simulation were not immediately apparent or even effective for every
student; those who invested the bare minimum of energy also reaped as much. Although participation is required in
all my classes, a few students who missed class when the assignments were explained found it difficult to
understand and keep their dual roles of lobbyist and constituent straight (this required a considerable amount of
explaining to everyone). Overall, however, these students were not representative of the entire introductory classes.


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