Andrea Lawlor, Department of Political Science, King’s University College, Western University and Erin Crandall, Department of Politics, Acadia University
Courses on Canadian politics are not always the first pick for university students interested in political science. It may be that American politics, with its sensational headlines, or the pluralistic and conflict-driven nature of international politics, attract students as they become more aware of their own place in the world. But there are important reasons why students can benefit from an understanding of the political institutions, processes, and people that make up the Canadian regime. As professors who teach Canadian politics, our goal is not only to educate our students about these topics, but also to show them why Canadian politics matters, particularly as it applies to their own roles as citizens and residents of Canada. And while there are undoubtedly many different paths to this goal, it is helpful to reflect on what works, what doesn’t, and why. With that in mind, we’d like to briefly share our own experiences teaching introductory Canadian politics, as well as the results of a student survey we ran at the beginning and end of our courses.
Though we teach at different universities (King’s University College at Western University and Acadia University), the similarities between our courses—second-year, small class size, over a full year—and our shared interest in teaching Canadian politics, prompted us to collaborate on our course design for the 2015-16 academic year. We used the same texts, The Canadian Regime and Canadian Politics (from University of Toronto Press), and also collaborated on the design of two in-class simulations.
Discussing how we might retool our existing courses to energize the learning environment, we decided to eliminate both term-end exams in favour of smaller quizzes throughout the year to give students a more consistent barometer of how they were performing in the class. We also added a practicum component—in our case, two two-week simulations of the Canadian political environment to help students put what they learned into practice and to work on both their written and verbal communication skills.
In order to better understand students’ knowledge and interest in Canadian politics, we designed a two-part survey for students to comment on their existing familiarity with the subject matter and their preferred modes of learning.* Our goal here was to measure how our students felt about the study of politics (Canadian and otherwise), their study habits, and what they wanted out of a second-year course in Canadian politics. The endline quiz also measured what they thought of the course components. Of course, we can hardly generalize from the changes we observe in our limited data, but the results, descriptive though they may be, were encouraging.
Starting with students’ interest in and knowledge of Canadian politics, we observed that both increased from the start of term in September to the completion of the course in April. We measured their increase in knowledge in two ways: how knowledgeable they believed themselves to be (self-reporting) and how well they were able to answer a battery of questions about material related to Canadian politics. Over 95% of students reported that they felt very or somewhat knowledgeable in April, compared with only 34% the previous September. We also saw a slight increase in the number of questions answered correctly in a short quiz on Canadian politics embedded in both surveys.
While the increase in self-reported Canadian political knowledge may simply signal that (a) we’re doing our jobs and (b) students are doing theirs, we take heart at the self-reported increase in interest in Canadian politics (from 43% in September to 76% in April). These results are particularly encouraging if we consider that, in September, 78% of students reported taking the class because it was required for their degree (compared with only 67% who reported taking the course because it sounded interesting and 25% who reported feeling guilty about knowing little about Canadian politics).
We also sought to measure whether participation in the course may have encouraged civic participation—namely voting (though voting is far from the only mode of civic participation discussed in our classes). We know from Elections Canada’s statistics on voting in the 2015 federal election that participation amongst voters aged 18 to 24 increased an impressive 18.3 percentage points to 57.1% (from 38.8% in 2011). This national uptick was even more apparent in our classes where nearly 95% of eligible students voted (33% of those surveyed were international students and therefore not eligible to vote and 5% had not reached the voting age by the time of the election).
Regarding the teaching tools used in the course, over 80% of students rated The Canadian Regime and Canadian Politics as useful. We selected these texts because we believe that they balance coverage of key concepts, issues and institutions, with their brevity and easy-to-read style. Because the course was redesigned with these texts in mind, we were pleased to find that 83% of students reported that they enjoyed the topics selected for study.
The most significant change to our courses was the institution of the two-week simulations. We think that these simulations in particular proved to be an engaging and effective learning tool. In the first semester, we ran a model Canadian Parliament, which had students divided into federal political parties. Each party was responsible for researching and drafting a bill that they would then introduce and attempt to pass through the model House of Commons. Students had to tackle the legislative process in a minority government situation, requiring them to apply the rules of responsible government that they had learned earlier in the semester, while also navigating the more partisan challenges of coalition building and political negotiation.
The second simulation was a First Ministers’ Conference, which had the students divided between federal and provincial governments, and the Assembly of First Nations. The conference was convened for the purpose of drafting a new health care accord, but governments were assigned competing objectives and varying budgets to simulate the political and fiscal challenges that governments face when working on major social policy initiatives. Here students were tasked with researching and completing policy briefs for their government, while again navigating the unique challenges associated with political negotiation. While students’ enthusiasm for these simulations was fairly evident in class, this was confirmed in the year-end survey where nearly 94% of students who responded reported that they were a useful, hands-on activity.
Undertaking these surveys at the beginning and end of our courses proved a helpful tool to better understand students’ interest, knowledge, and approaches to studying Canadian politics and provided us with a better, subject-specific barometer of students’ goals and opinions than standard teaching evaluations. While the survey confirmed our impression that students often begin Canadian politics courses with a relatively limited interest in the topic, it also showed that a course that provides modes of learning outside of the general evaluation metrics can help to increase student interest. In particular, the popularity of the simulations suggest that interactive class activities may contribute to stimulating this interest and we plan to continue to use simulations in lieu of exams in our courses going forward.
Ultimately, there are many different ways for instructors to reflect on the successes and failures of each course they teach. A pre-/post-survey is one such method, and has particular utility when trying out new pedagogical techniques. Our own findings helped us triangulate the courses’ strengths and areas for improvement through gauging students’ preferences, behaviours, and outcomes at two different time points. The results are helping us improve our approaches to teaching and our students’ learning experiences in Canadian politics.
*We collaborated with Erin Tolley (University of Toronto, Mississauga) in the design of the two-part survey.