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How to integrate active learning pedagogy into political theory tutorials

The “thesis-building carousel” ignites intellectual curiosity to hone essay-writing skills

by Natalia Mukhina, November 2017

It looks like a game. “You come in a class, divide the students into groups, and each group goes up to its whiteboard to write down a theme relevant to the tutorial topic and assigned reading,” tells Michael Murphy, describing a political theory tutorial that he led as a teaching assistant. “When all the groups have written their theme, you ask them to move to the next board. The groups now have to write a question on the theme that the previous group has introduced.”

Again, after all the groups have finished with their questions, they move to the next board and give a short answer to the question the prior group has left for them. This answer is considered a working thesis to think on further. Then, all the students move around again and reach the next board – the last station – where they develop a draft of the argument on the working thesis they see on the board. Ultimately, each group presents the question and answer to the class, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of the working thesis. 

Clearly, this is not the type of learning activity which normally occurs in a hushed silence. “Certainly, not,” agrees Murphy. “The instructor encourages the students to walk freely through the classroom, discuss things collectively in the group, share the ideas, teach each other, and give peer reviews. Such a classroom is a messy space, in the best sense of the word ‘messy’, where students are encouraged to be active instead of just sitting all lecture long behind the desk.”

Called the “thesis-building carousel”, this teaching strategy is a form of active learning pedagogy – a student-centered approach to instruction that rethinks the role of students in the educational process. Active learning methods include a wide range of activities to involve students in doing things and reflecting critically on them.

Asked to describe his understanding of what active learning pedagogy is, Murphy first answers in the negative: what active learning is not. “The way the universities have worked for centuries is that you have a professor in the front who has a big bag of knowledge. The professor scoops it out for all the students in a lecture. It is a very passive thing from the students’ perspective. On the contrary, active learning pedagogy says, ‘Let’s get the students engaged at moving around, talking, working through the ideas instead of just hearing about what the ideas are.’”

As Murphy stresses, being a teaching assistant for the introductory political theory course has been one of the highlights of his time as an MA student. “My parents are teachers, so it must be in my blood,” says Murphy with a smile. For him, the thesis-building carousel is a good way to extend the constructs of active learning ideology into the political theory tutorial.

Politics is another thing that is in Murphy’s blood along with teaching. “When I was about 3, my mother and I were walking through our neighbourhood. That was just after the teachers’ strikes in Ontario in the late 90s. I walked onto the lawn trying to reach an election sign. My mom stopped me saying, ‘What are you doing?!’ and I answered, ‘That man made us go on strike,’” Murphy tells this funny story, which his mother, a teacher, loves to recall. He became fascinated by politics early in life, and this passion ultimately brought him to the MA program in Political and Legal Thought at Queen’s.

Due to his specialization in political theory, Murphy realizes that introductory political theory courses may be challenging for undergrads. “The political theory course is built on a number of theoretical texts,” explains Murphy. Students must conceptualize those texts to be able to write the final paper, which is an essential part of their success. “Writing the theory paper is a tough thing, and the thesis-building carousel helps enhance learning and develop essay-writing skills”.

Murphy taught in one of the active learning classrooms at Queen’s. “All of those spaces are very bright,” recalls Murphy. “Most of them have three walls full of very large whiteboards or blackboards. When you are going in there, there is no front of the class. Students do not feel like they have to play the role of passive students who are just going to listen.”

As described before, the thesis-building carousel is a few concrete steps that someone can use to come up with an essay outline at the end. “A part of a writing block is not knowing what to say. After you come out of the carousel, you have something to say, definitely”. Another advantage of the method is that in the carousel-like rotating process, the students are free to criticize the arguments because they will not be offending anyone. “Everyone is worked down together. It gives students the opportunity to give feedback in a friendly manner.”

Murphy believes some active learning strategies, including the thesis-building carousel, can be widely implemented in the educational environment. If you work in a traditional classroom where there are no opportunities for students to move around, you still can divide the students into groups and give each group a piece of paper that will be passed around.

“Obviously, no university in the world has the budget to have classes of 10-20 students. But having the traditional instructive lectures along with active learning tutorials is a good way to balance the strengths and limitations of both types of teaching,” argues Murphy in conclusion.

For a more detailed look at the thesis-building carousel strategy, see: Murphy, Michael P. A. "Using Active-Learning Pedagogy to Develop Essay Writing Skills in Introductory Political Theory Tutorials." Journal of Political Science Education DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15512169.2017.1328683

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