Teaching U.S. Politics in Comparative Perspective

By Engstrom, Richard N. | Academic Exchange Quarterly, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview
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Teaching U.S. Politics in Comparative Perspective

Engstrom, Richard N., Academic Exchange Quarterly


Introduction to American Politics classes would benefit from the use of examples from non-U.S. countries. These examples provide a contrast to the U.S. material, and create a learning environment in which students more thoroughly consider, and therefore better retain, the information. Research outlining the benefits of using cognitive conflict tasks is outlined, and specific examples applicable to American Government classes are offered.


In this article, I argue that teachers of Introduction to American Politics courses can usefully integrate material from non-U.S, countries in order to more effectively present the American material to students. This approach encourages students to compare the governmental choices made in the U.S. to other alternatives, and to evaluate and consider the implications of those choices. By having alternative viewpoints presented to them, students are given a "cognitive conflict" task, rather than a simpler "intellective" task. Cognitive conflict tasks have been found by cognitive psychologists to encourage higher level thinking, and to lead to more effective learning on the part of students.

There are few responsibilities more universal in political science than teaching Introduction to American Government. It is a course commonly required of majors, though sometimes the class is a university requirement, or even a requirement as a matter of state law.[1] Indeed, many college-educated people have an Introduction to American Government class as their only contact with political science. Others take the course and are inspired to major in the field, and may even transition to making a career out of the discipline. Given the role that Introduction to American Government courses play, it makes sense to pay attention to how we teach the subject. In accordance with how important Introduction to American Government is, researchers have spent a significant amount of time studying ways to improve it. These studies include assessments of how the use of multimedia presentations affects student learning (Jordan and Sanchez, 1994), and the implications of using online discussion groups for student participation (Pollock and Wilson, 2002; Pollock, Hamann and Wilson 2005). This attention is understandable, since teaching the course well or poorly can have implications from the very narrow (how many majors are recruited into the discipline) to the very broad (how much large numbers of college educated citizens know about government).

Teaching and Learning

Fortunately, educational psychologists have some suggestions about the effects variation in teaching techniques can have on student learning. Though some argue that there is "little variation between teachers in terms of their impact on pupils' progress" (Long 2000, p. 7), other researchers find that teachers vary a great deal in their effectiveness (Wayne and Youngs 2003). In particular, they find that teachers are capable, as Wenglinsky (2000) argues, of promoting higher level thinking in their students. In an extensive study of teacher effectiveness at the college level, Bain (2004) finds that the most effective teachers "often want students to do something that human beings don't do very well: build new mental models of reality" (p. 27). Stimulating students to formulate new understandings of how reality works, rather than simply feeding them information with the expectation that they will remember that information, is the difference between "higher level" and "surface" learning. Bain finds that effective teachers place students in situations where their existing models do not work, and then force those students to grapple with the new information.

This approach to effective teaching is consistent with how cognitive psychologists have come to regard effective learning. People are much more likely to retain information when that information is placed in a useful and interesting context that allows students to relate the information to things that they regard as important (Bransford and Johnson 1972, Symons and Johnson 1997).

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