To highlight a course I developed recently, Applied Skills in Political Science (PLSC 397Z) has the explicit goal of developing and highlighting critical thinking skills that can be demonstrated and transferred to the workplace.
At the Department of Political Science, one of our learning outcomes is that students “demonstrate critical, independent thinking about politics and public life.”
At the Department of Political Science, one of our learning outcomes is that students “demonstrate critical, independent thinking about politics and public life. As such, fostering critical thinking skills is at the core of our pedagogical endeavor. The Applied Skills in Political Science course developed out of conversations that we have been having within the Department of Political Science regarding how better to meet the expectations that our students face when seeking employment, while emphasizing critical thinking. In recent years, there has been a growing debate about the extent to which a college education enables students to improve their prospects of finding a job and to excel in the job(s) they do find. A host of stakeholders, including parents, business leaders, and employers, have all expressed concern about the value and returns of a liberal arts education. While we do not believe that employment is the primary value of a liberal arts education, students want their education to provide them with pragmatic skills that will help them move into the workforce (Biswas and Haufler, 2017). But what, exactly, are these pragmatic skills?
A few years ago, while on sabbatical, I had the opportunity to work as a fellow at a United States federal agency in Washington, D.C. During that time, I started thinking about ways in which we can better prepare our students for the kinds of policy-related jobs that many of our students seek. Upon my return to Western, I conducted research on the skills that employers tend to seek from liberal arts students. Through this research, I found that employers reported valuing entry-level candidates who demonstrate the capacities of critical thinking, complex reasoning, teamwork, communication, and problem solving in diverse settings.
"Through this research, I found that employers reported valuing entry-level candidates who demonstrate the capacities of critical thinking, complex reasoning, teamwork, communication, and problem solving in diverse settings"1
Based on these findings, I developed the following learning objectives for Applied Skills in Political Science:
These objectives, which are linked to the capacities noted above, align closely with the attributes that a critical thinker should have, such as:
Applied Skills is a Writing Proficiency course, with about 20 students in each section. I begin the class with a discussion of the skills that employers tend to value and emphasize that this course is about developing demonstrable skills that can be transferred to the workplace.
"I begin the class with a discussion of the skills that employers tend to value and emphasize that this course is about developing demonstrable skills that can be transferred to the workplace."
A significant portion of class time is dedicated to developing skills to critically analyze quantitative and qualitative information. In lieu of lectures, I ask students to sign up, in groups of two, to present the class with their analyses of specific datasets and/or reports. Teams have to select from a list of databases and information sources that cover various indicators of political risk in international relations, including the following:
I chose these reports because of the range of topics and ideological perspectives that they cover and their wide usage in both academic and policy circles.
The presenting team is required to make a 15-20 minute presentation on their selected information source. I provide them with a guideline and tips specific to their subject. An example follows.
Your job is to educate us about the 2016 Human Development Report, regarding work.
You should also show us the progress of a country or two on the human development index over time. You will notice that the web version of the report has some neat data visualization. I encourage you to use some of those to explain the report to the class.
Finally, tell us what this report has to do with political risk. What are the kinds of questions about political risk that it can help us answer? Where does it fall short?
You will be graded on clarity, substantive content, and presentation style. Were you able to connect with the audience? Did you make good eye contact? Did you seem confident? Did you engage the audience in your presentation? Etc.). The points I have raised above are for guidance. You might find some other issues that are interesting and informative, and walk us through those. Avoid a jumpy presentation, where you are going from Issue 1 to Issue 2 to Issue 3 without providing us with any connections between them. Think of yourself as the expert on this-- for this class, you ARE the expert. Have fun with it; make it your own!
Through this exercise, students engage in the practice of critical thinking by examining the assumptions, implications and practical consequences of using certain information sources. The presenters must conclude with some well-reasoned arguments regarding the relative strengths and weaknesses of their chosen topic. For the presenting team, the assignment places a strong emphasis on verbal communication skills, as students have to be clear, informative, and comprehensive. The students in the audience are expected to have familiarized themselves with the database and are required to participate actively in a Q&A following the presentation.
"Through this exercise, students engage in the practice of critical thinking by examining the assumptions, implications and practical consequences of using certain information sources."
Emphasizing the fact that writing is a highly valued skill in the workplace3, I spend a considerable amount of time discussing how to write effectively. Based on my own experiences working in the policy world, as well as existing literature, I discuss good writing tips, particularly for briefing and memos. During the term, students are required to write a minimum of four written briefings on complex topics pertaining to international political risk. The papers cover topical issues, but must be based on the information sources covered in class. The briefing assignments cover the following student learning outcomes:
One assignment, given shortly after the US Presidential Election of 2016, asked students to assume the role of a signatory to the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and, from the perspective of that country, assess the impact of US withdrawal, in early 2017, from the agreement. This required research on the TPP’s projected impact on the chosen actor and an overall understanding of the country’s trade relations with the United States.
Each briefing assignment came with a grading rubric that helped students understand the expectations for the paper. Using rubrics also helped me, as the instructor, maintain a clear and consistent approach to assessment.
An example of a grading rubric is given below:
|Answered all parts of the question||1|
|Understanding of TPP||2|
|Links to chosen country||2|
|Analysis of US environment||2|
|Carefully edited and proofread||1|
In these assignments, students must critically assess the relative merits and demerits of the information sources they use. In other words, they must note the value that the datasets provide in analyzing a given situation while also consciously and deliberately identifying its shortcomings. Initially, students are reluctant to question “authoritative sources.” Through these assignments, I seek to instill in them the confidence to display a healthy skepticism of the information handed to them. I point out that such demonstrable critical thinking skills can prove to be a valuable asset in the workplace.
"I seek to instill in them the confidence to display a healthy skepticism of the information handed to them. I point out that such demonstrable critical thinking skills can prove to be a valuable asset in the workplace."
The final paper asks students to assess a given situation or business prospect from the perspective of a particular actor. Examples of possible scenarios follow.
Option 1: Corporate Political Risk Analyst
You are a multinational corporate political risk analyst, and your corporation is planning to expand operations in one or more developing nations located in South Asia, Africa, or Latin/South America. Your corporation is not sure where to form joint ventures or locate new manufacturing facilities. They are unsure of the risk involved and options open to them. They request that you perform a political risk analysis of a country. Present them with your analysis and tell them how you made your decision. Is your country an acceptable risk? Why or why not?
Option 2: United Nations Senior Risk Advisor
You work for the United Nations as a senior risk advisor. In the past several years the United Nations has been asked to supply troops to many multinational peacekeeping areas. The UN is trying to look ahead to further understand what areas in the world are potentially high-risk areas where they may need to deploy a multinational peacekeeping force. They ask you and your team to develop a political risk model that allows them to predict risky areas. You have to identify a country that you think is high risk and explain why you think this country is high risk.
Option 3: Foreign Policy and Military Analysis Team
You are a team of U.S. foreign policy or military advisors to the National Security Advisor to the President. In an attempt to develop foreign, defense, and intelligence policies you have been given the task to analyze a particular country’s risk to the United States. Risk can mean any number of things, including cyber threats, terrorist attacks, government-to-government tensions and challenges to US business investments overseas, among others. Be specific about the risk you are seeking to address. Based on your analysis, the National Security Council and National Security Advisor can make recommendations to the President that would affect various policies for defense and intelligence spending.
Each draft of the paper, and the final version, are assessed according to a grading rubric that is made available to the students prior to the submission date. Each paper is subject to two rounds of peer reviews, which are based on the same rubric that the instructor uses. Peer-to-peer feedback fosters a collaborative approach to research and writing based on respect and trust among classmates.
"Peer-to-peer feedback fosters a collaborative approach to research and writing based on respect and trust among classmates."
Students are also asked to record their final presentation through a presentation recording program. This enables students to reflect back on their presentation skills and it provides them with a shareable demonstration of their oral presentation skills.
Relative to the other courses I teach in the Department of Political Science, Applied Skills is less conceptually substantive. Because we spend most of the time on the application of political concepts, we do not unpack theoretical concepts and frameworks in international relations. Initially, I had some misgiving about such an approach. Was I undermining the theoretical underpinnings of my discipline? I have come to believe that the class has great value for upper-level students. It helps them draw linkages between the concepts they are learning in other courses (and disciplines) and demonstrable competencies in those skill areas that are identified as being most important by prospective employers. In the first few sessions, I emphasize the goals of this class and the ways in which it might differ from other classes that the students have taken. Throughout the term, we work on linking theoretical and conceptual rigor (for example, What is risk?) to the applied questions we are exploring.
"In this class, my role is that of a facilitator. Students have the agency to lead class discussions, ask probing questions of each other, and learn from peer reviews."
In this class, my role is that of a facilitator. Students have the agency to lead class discussions, ask probing questions of each other, and learn from peer reviews. Through this process, they should develop confidence in their own skills, as well as those of their classmates. Based on the grading rubrics that I have developed for each assignment, I provide them with detailed feedback on every written assignment and on their verbal presentation styles. Throughout the course, we hear from guest speakers who discuss their own career trajectories in various policy jobs. We have had speakers from federal agencies such the Department of Defense, the Senate Armed Services Committee, the State Department, and nongovernmental organizations, such as Mercy Corps. This, too, helps students put their education in a professional context.
"Students show a strong improvement in their writing and verbal communication styles over the course of the term. They also become, over time, more willing to engage critically with the class materials and with each other’s papers."
Students show a strong improvement in their writing and verbal communication styles over the course of the term. They also become, over time, more willing to engage critically with the class materials and with each other’s papers.
A number of students appreciated the writing and database analysis skills provided through the course:
“I learned how to write in political science and how to properly research topics that interested me.”
“I learned how to write concisely and how to use databases that are helpful towards my research.”
“My writing and research skills has improved. This class also taught me how to write memos that are short and concise.”
“This course honed my writing skills and taught me how to research and use various sources.”
“I acquired so many new skills. Not only did I learn and develop my memo writing ability, I was able to develop my knowledge on specific regions of political interest for me.”
“I became familiar with many different political databases that I wasn't previously aware of or able to use. Our work drafting memos was also a good skill.”
Students also appreciated becoming familiarized with different career trajectories available to them:
“I learned about working for NGOs and for the government.”
“The [guest] speakers really helped to show us, what types of jobs we can get after we graduate. In addition, it also showed that there wasn't a "traditional" path to working in the political science field.”
“I came to understand better how to turn academic knowledge into a product that can be applied in both public and private sector jobs.”
“I gained understanding of what options are open in various federal jobs, including within senate committees and various executive branch agencies.”
“We had speakers talk about many opportunities that we had including working in the state and national governments, and well as military and non-profit work.”
“I became familiar with positions surrounding the many databases we covered, the positions and opportunities related to our guest speakers and the other jobs that our Professor lectured about.”
I have found my recent offerings of Applied Skills in Political Science to be a learning experience for my students—and me. I, too, gained the opportunity to explore and critique datasets that I do not regularly use in my teaching or research! Based on student feedback and my own observations, I believe that students in Applied Skills in Political Science have been able to develop demonstrable critical thinking skills in the class. I look forward to honing the course (with, for example, more short, oral presentation assignments) so as to better address the needs of our students. ∆