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Collaborative Learning in Course Simulations
Unformatted Document Text:  Van Vechten, 9 as these are typical from both semesters: • “I absolutely loved this class. I feel like I’ve learned a lot of important subject matter through the lectures and the Congress simulation.” • “The course is interesting and fun. The simulation is extremely helpful in understand[ing] how Congress works.” • “Very fun, awesome simulation!” • “I loved it and learned more than I could have ever imagined!” • “The simulation was wonderful because it was hands on and we could personalize it through our characters and bills!” Notably, no one offered anything negative to say about the structure of the simulation itself, though we discussed and they suggested ways to improve the experience (see below). The singular, notable “downside” from the students’ perspective pertained to workload: most students believed the overall workload was heavy, and some students pointed out the reading load in particular. “Prepare to work” is the advice that one would give to a student was planning to take this course, as well as “Read (sic) and manage your time!” Another student also advised: “Do the reading, put in the research, or don’t take course,” and elsewhere on the same evaluation: “Lot of work reading but got a lot out of simulation.” Finally, “A bit overwhelming but meaningful,” wrote one student with regard to the overall course evaluation. While professors might expect their students to privilege games and “hands-on” learning (if only because it tends to relieve them from a sustained, heavy reading load), students who discussed their experience immediately following and in the focus group consistently evaluated the simulation in terms of understanding how Congress works, how Congress members deliberate and make decisions, how parties operate, and how scholars analyze American institutions. Students’ level of participation did vary across classes. Each semester at least two to four participated at a rate that I would call “very low,” either because they had sports events conflicts, did not find the subject matter inherently interesting (such was the case with at least two business majors), or because they were simply not students who were inclined to engage (they invested a minimal level of effort when required). It behooves the instructor to realize that in an interactive situation, students lacking interest will inevitably affect other students’ quality of learning. Even two years later, students complained about the effect that disengaged party members had on the overall experience. Students with a low motivation level need to be addressed directly to minimize their impact on the simulation; knowing this, I took those students aside to discuss their level of commitment and ways to help them take advantage of the learning experience, but found that my efforts were not always successful (participation grades were also negatively affected, but this did not seem to matter to those students). For future simulations I am considering how parties might sanction members who have not lived up to each others’ expectations; this would start with party caucuses’ laying out their expectations for each other, and the requirement that they reassess those expectations as the course progresses. Sanctions could take the form of a letter sent from leadership encouraging fuller participation; it might take the form of allegations of ethics violations, which could lead to an investigation; it might mean constituents’ being reassigned to other members, for example. The balance between student-sanctioned “enforcement” of the rules and the professor’s need to step in and redirect is one of the more challenging aspects I’ve encountered.

Authors: Van Vechten, Renee.
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Van Vechten, 9
as these are typical from both semesters:
“I absolutely loved this class. I feel like I’ve learned a lot of important subject
matter through the lectures and the Congress simulation.”
“The course is interesting and fun. The simulation is extremely helpful in
understand[ing] how Congress works.”
“Very fun, awesome simulation!”
“I loved it and learned more than I could have ever imagined!”
“The simulation was wonderful because it was hands on and we could personalize
it through our characters and bills!”
Notably, no one offered anything negative to say about the structure of the simulation itself,
though we discussed and they suggested ways to improve the experience (see below). The
singular, notable “downside” from the students’ perspective pertained to workload: most students
believed the overall workload was heavy, and some students pointed out the reading load in
particular. “Prepare to work” is the advice that one would give to a student was planning to take
this course, as well as “Read (sic) and manage your time!” Another student also advised: “Do the
reading, put in the research, or don’t take course,” and elsewhere on the same evaluation: “Lot of
work reading but got a lot out of simulation.” Finally, “A bit overwhelming but meaningful,”
wrote one student with regard to the overall course evaluation.

While professors might expect their students to privilege games and “hands-on” learning (if only
because it tends to relieve them from a sustained, heavy reading load), students who discussed
their experience immediately following and in the focus group consistently evaluated the
simulation in terms of understanding how Congress works, how Congress members deliberate
and make decisions, how parties operate, and how scholars analyze American institutions.
Students’ level of participation did vary across classes. Each semester at least two to four
participated at a rate that I would call “very low,” either because they had sports events conflicts,
did not find the subject matter inherently interesting (such was the case with at least two business
majors), or because they were simply not students who were inclined to engage (they invested a
minimal level of effort when required).
It behooves the instructor to realize that in an interactive situation, students lacking interest will
inevitably affect other students’ quality of learning. Even two years later, students complained
about the effect that disengaged party members had on the overall experience. Students with a
low motivation level need to be addressed directly to minimize their impact on the simulation;
knowing this, I took those students aside to discuss their level of commitment and ways to help
them take advantage of the learning experience, but found that my efforts were not always
successful (participation grades were also negatively affected, but this did not seem to matter to
those students). For future simulations I am considering how parties might sanction members
who have not lived up to each others’ expectations; this would start with party caucuses’ laying
out their expectations for each other, and the requirement that they reassess those expectations as
the course progresses. Sanctions could take the form of a letter sent from leadership encouraging
fuller participation; it might take the form of allegations of ethics violations, which could lead to
an investigation; it might mean constituents’ being reassigned to other members, for example.
The balance between student-sanctioned “enforcement” of the rules and the professor’s need to
step in and redirect is one of the more challenging aspects I’ve encountered.


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