Using Election 2016 in the Classroom

A teacher who brings elections, political processes, and government into the classroom is actually priming students to get involved…

Here is a problem that many professors have.  My syllabus has been set since the start of the semester, and any potential change might throw my students off or change my grading system.  But my students are interested in this year’s election, and I do not want to pass up a chance to teach history as it is happening.  How can I make it happen online, use no more than 10 minutes of class time each week, and easily incorporate it into my grade point structure?

The many different activities in Globalyceum’s Election 2016: Follow the Vote have provided me with the easy solution to this problem.  The first activity I chose was the mock election because I knew my students would appreciate the opportunity to vote and then analyze their votes.  For many of my students, this presidential election would be their first as potential voters.  

The mock election was online, and it collected not only the vote but demographic data about the voters.  I could assign it for homework, and the students could complete it at home in under five minutes.  In the following week, I would then be able to throw the results up on the screen for the first five minutes of class time to hold a brief discussion.  Globalyceum has organized it so I can manipulate the data with the students, comparing voting patterns of groups–age, gender, ethnicity, education, etc.–and digging a little deeper into the election.  Last week, my students completed the first mock poll of opinions about the issues and candidates, and I look forward to a similar and even more interesting discussion with those results this week.  If you missed the first round of elections and polls, it is not a problem because there is a second mock election the week of September 26 and a second survey in mid October, followed by the final mock election the week before US voters go to the polls on November 8.

Mock Election Results
Mock Election Results

Brief videos (under four minutes) about events of the election is another great feature of Election 2016 that I have chosen to use. The most recent was “The Battleground States.”  It not only explained the Electoral College and how it creates the phenomenon of battleground states, but also Dr, Melinda Jackson’s analysis of this year’s battleground.  I added my own variation — I showed the video at the start of class and asked the students to rate which candidate had the better battleground state strategy.  This in-class assignment took seven minutes, and dramatically enhanced my lecture.  I was using the Globalyceum lecture by Jack Rakove, “Three Myths of the US Constitution,” which talks about the Founder’s reasons for creating the Electoral College.  This allowed me to make a great connection between past and present.  The next video about the debates will be available October 3, and I plan to do a similar strategy of video and then poll.

Globalyceum’s Election 2016 suite of materials also has primary source problems and readings on our electoral system.  If you have the time, you can use these in class or as homework.  I have chosen to do just the videos and mock elections and polls, but I know other professors who have added one or two of the other activities.  

I had the good fortune last fall of talking with Dr. Melinda Jackson, the author of Election 2016.  I asked her what was the biggest problem with teaching students American government and history today.  She responded quickly–”student political apat hy.”  Professors should do more than tell students about politics and government. They also need to turn students into “engaged citizens who can make a difference.”  A teacher who brings elections, political processes, and government into the classroom is actually priming students to get involved by voting, volunteering in an election, writing a letter to a representative, or registering others to vote.  It only takes 10 minutes a week, but it can make a world of difference.

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The Active Learning Lecture?

I add a question mark to this title because most people when they think of active learning do not think of a lecture. A lecture by its very nature is supposed to mean passivity on the part of the student, and active learning means student engagement in their own learning. But the first part of that statement is simply not true. As I noted in my last blog, lecture that is handled well in the classroom can be incredibly active. Today, professors are finding ways to create a lecture experience that makes the classroom a dynamic place and gives more responsibility to the student. In order to transition to an active learning lecture, there are five principles to observe.

  1. Reduce lecture duration to 40-60% of the available classroom time.
  2. Move factual information to reading or online listening and leave more challenging conceptual information to lecture.
  3. Provide structure and good visuals without bullet points to your briefer lecture.
  4. Poll students during lecture for both opinion and understanding.
  5. Offer an active learning assignment for before or after the lecture.

Reduce lecture time.
Even the best lecturer has a hard time sustaining student attention past 20 minutes–according to science, the limit of sustained attention span. If your class is 75 minutes of lecture, you are truly asking for nap time. If you are naturally a good speaker and have a very engaging lecture style, you can talk for 45 minutes. But if lecture is not your strength, consider limiting yourself to 30 minutes as a standard practice.

Make Conceptual Information Shine in the Classroom.
I have observed enough lectures to know that, in the social sciences, about 75% of a 75-minute lecture is simply recitation of facts that a student could get by reading a book. Many professors admit to me that they are lecturing in parallel to their assigned reading texts, and students end up not doing the reading. But almost all lectures by a well-trained academic have a conceptual core, where there is real benefit in having a person explain it. It is this 30 minutes of concept explaining that should shine in the classroom. The other 45 minutes of factual information can be left to the students reading at home or by simply putting the remainder of your PPT online and creating a voice over–the flip in what is known as the flipped classroom.

Craft the Briefer Lecture.
When you confine yourself to a 30-45 minute lecture, you can put more effort into a quality lecture with 3 attributes. (1) Choose a subject for the lecture that can be explained in 1500-2500 words (about 5-9 pages double spaced if you were to write it out). (2) Create a 3-part structure like a well-written essay, including an opening hook to engage the students, a clear thesis with several points, and a final summary. (3) Make a visual PPT with 10 quality visuals that illuminate what you say about every 2-4 minutes. By illuminate I mean images that have some detail and are directly on point with your lecture. There are no bullet points in a quality lecture–the scientific literature on this issue is absolutely clear. The minute you put up bullet points, it is a signal to students to stop listening, start copying, and go into zombie mode.

The Punctuated Lecture.
You want a lecture where all students are engaging, not just the top 10 students. To ensure this, there is a new lecture idea called the “punctuated lecture” that builds poll technology, readily available today, into the lecture and actually grades students for lecture understanding in real time, not 5 weeks later. First, make sure that the poll technology you use will give participation points for student opinion with multiple choice, true-false, and free response answers, but also gives varying points for right and wrong answers. Create provocative opinion questions for the start or end of the lecture, and a couple of right-wrong answer questions for the middle of lecture to check for student understanding. Practice keeping your discussion of these questions to 1 minute of implementation and 2 minutes of discussion, which provides about 12 minutes of punctuated engagement time for each 30-45 minutes of lecture (about a 25-30% ratio).discussion

Active Learning Assignments.
This is a larger subject for another blog, but active learning assignments of this type have 4 features. (1) They use primary sources, case studies, and actual evidence, because the student is practicing being the social scientist. (2) The exercise has an analytical question and the student must use the evidence to answer the question. (3) The assignment is related to the topic of the lecture or the general topic of the week, so that the lecture and the assignment work hand in hand. (4) Generally, it is best if the student does most of the assignment outside of class; works in groups in the beginning or end of class to clarify understanding, and finally debriefs or reports out as a group to the whole class for a discussion of the concepts in class. The whole process would be about 30-40 minutes of class time.

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To Lecture or Not to Lecture? That is Not the Question.

Sometimes I am told that I am anti-lecture because I spent much of my career writing active learning pedagogy. That is absolutely not true. I lecture, I enjoy a good lecture, and I see real value in lecture in the college classroom. In fact, experience has shown me that truly great lecturers are usually great analytical thinkers.

But I personally find this whole debate about lecturing a non-starter. If you read carefully, most people who advocate for the lecture, and presumably against active learning, actually argue for high-quality lecture and combinations with active learning methods. And people who advocate for active learning do not discount the lecture and pretty much arrive in the same place–advocating a blend of the two.

In the final analysis, quality teaching is whatever works in building ever more sophisticated thinking in the majority of students. In my 4 decades of teaching, I have found that no one method has a lock on that goal.  The problem as I see it is instructors’ lack of diversity in methods, not the use of a so-called “bad” method.  Research shows that the higher education classroom is over 75% dominated by the method of lecture. On the other hand, the high school classroom has migrated over the last 40 years to a very active learning space.  Is it better?  No one makes that argument. But the truth is that neither classroom has been well-served by taking one side of this useless debate.


For example, in high school classrooms today, you see students going from one small group assignment to another with no lecture in between–because of the mantra that active learning is supposed to be good and lecture bad. But what is the result? Many students come to college lacking mastery of knowledge or any sense of the discipline. The students seem to think that the classroom is like a series of “fun” games. I like fun too, but learning is also work. Students seem to be mystified by the idea that they are supposed to do something to further their education outside the social group of the classroom–such as individual study. And individual work is necessary if you are going to read, research, and write–skills essential to graduating and functioning in the real world. But these skills have truly lost ground in recent years in the secondary space.

Now the same students come to college and find that the classrooms are, as I said, dominated by lecture. The knowledge being conveyed is more sophisticated but the involvement of the student is pretty low, if the classroom follows that usual pattern of 75 minutes of straight lecture, 2 days a week. This college classroom is an information space, where building the fund of knowledge is emphasized, but not necessarily the student’s ability to do something with it.

The interesting parallels in these two scenarios is the following. First, each creates a lot of student dependency on the instructor. Independent learners and confident students are not necessarily being nurtured. Second, if the instructor is not careful, each method can easily and quickly deteriorate into a superficial educational environment with limited learning. So let’s take a look at the advantages of each method when it is done well.

  • It provides quickly and efficiently a fund of knowledge upon which the student can rely to proceed with in-depth study.
  • It models problem solving, analytical skills, evaluative judgments, and passion about the knowledge set forth and the discipline itself.
  • And it creates a narrative glue that holds together all of the active learning sessions, readings, research, and other in-depth study opportunities where students demonstrate their own analytical thinking and expression.
Active Learning:
  • It asks students to use knowledge acquired from lecture and reading to do analytical thinking for themselves.
  • It gives students opportunities for both individual and collaborative in-depth learning, both in and out of the classroom.
  • It provides detailed steps and practice in the classroom for how to do analysis, research, reading, study, and writing to assure that all students know what to do outside the classroom and on their own.
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