Students Take Charge of Political Science with Guidance from Instructor

By Dr. D. Kyle Latinis (Associate Dean of Graduate Studies)

In an effort to increase experiential learning and to “innovate” large classes, a new approach was taken to teach the morning and afternoon sessions of POL101 (Introduction to Political Science: Theory and Practice) for Foundation Year students during the Academic Year 2009/2010. What was this innovation? Put the students in charge. While studying about the Theory (inclusive of a lot of history and comparison), they did the Practice.

Each of the two classes formed interest groups (later to be provinces), elected group leaders, nominated overall class leaders, campaigned, held class elections and formed their own governments. They then set goals, policies and formed an administration at both the group level and class level—Democracy in practice (with a necessary ‘peppering’ of Dictatorship from the instructor). Classes not only designed their governments, goals and policies, they implemented them.

The students and their leaders set short-term and long-term goals—helping each other with individual and group homework, projects, presentations, reports and exams. They were responsible for systematically understanding and explaining each chapter to group members and the class while expanding their explanations with real examples and interactive discussions and feedback. Progress reports on studies, activities and group member efforts were produced every two weeks (these also frequently included progress on other courses as well). Class groups and individuals were essentially responsible for increasing each other’s performance and the class performance as a whole.

As an organized class, they had the power to provide feedback and make suggestions to augment the course requirements and structure (i.e., there was some flexibility for this designed in the original class plan and syllabus). Instead of asking to decrease the workload, they asked to increase it!!! How? By implementing well-organized debates in addition to post-term class excursions/field trips to build solidarity among class members and set future goals at UC.

Feedback from all class members indicated that the debates proved to be the most valuable practical skill that they enhanced (and students enjoyed it the most). Two other innovations were: 1) evaluation of a series of no less than ten political cartoons (group assignments), and 2) following a ‘hot topic’ news story over the course of six weeks (individual assignments, minimum of ten newspaper articles on separate days with references); these also demonstrated high motivation, sincere efforts and unique insights well above personal observations on top students anywhere else in Cambodia. All students even participated in a ‘gender and politics’ Masters Research Project conducted by Ros Dadnet, one of UC’s recent MA graduates in Social Sciences, the results of which are planned to be published as a research paper in the near future.

Exams were designed to challenge the high activity and homework performance levels. No rote memorization “cram it into my head the night before and forget it the day after” approach would do. The unanimous feedback, “Teacher, the exam was sooooooo difficult!!!” Students, however, were allowed to suggest challenging exam questions and form study guides (which generally resulted in allowing the instructor to increase the exam difficulty; i.e., weed out the easy questions but identify weak areas to be reinforced in lectures). Most students scored well in the end.

What resulted overall? Increased performance by all students. Top performing students can give themselves a medal because it is more than likely that their efforts helped strengthen all student performance scores—it’s always nice to see your efforts actually work to help others.