Assessing Students in Introduction to American Politics

Student studying and taking notes
Political Science
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Author: Emily Farris, Texas Christian University

As we approach the end of the fall and start thinking about our Spring classes, I’m thinking about my two sections of Introduction to American Politics coming up. I’ll think more about my syllabus as the semester approaches, but I’ve already started thinking about how I might rework my assessments to better fit the needs and demands of my course and semester.

Determining appropriate assessments for your introductory classes can be complex. You might have grand ideas, but little resources or time to accomplish them. Or you may have a variety of learning objectives that make a cohesive set of assessments over the semester difficult. Any choice you make requires tradeoffs generally.

Democracy Labs

Dr. Joseph Anthony, Visiting Assistant Professor at Oklahoma State University, shared his excellent introductory American Politics assessments with me. He has developed aptly titled “Democracy Labs” to help teach students how government works and policy is formed, while practicing the important skills of civil discourse and civic engagement. These group project sessions are worth 20% of students’ final grades and are dispersed throughout four work sessions in the semester.

This semester, Dr. Anthony focused on gun policy and directed his students to come up with a feasible policy solution (no easy task!). Through a series of four well developed worksheets, students considered the history of the issue, identified underlying values and concerns, explained the role of political parties, interest groups, media, and public opinion play on the issue, and then finally made policy recommendations. Students ended the project with individual reflection papers that allowed for individual assessment and reflection.

Like Dr. Anthony, I’ll be teaching about 30 students in each section, mostly freshman and sophomores with a variety of interests and majors, without a TA or grader. I like his assignment for a lot of reasons but two stand out:

  1. it is feasible in classes with a variety of sizes. With 60 students (and another 30 in an upper level class), term papers are difficult for me to successfully accomplish.
  2. it flows throughout the semester. It lets students see the nuances of American politics. Each student in Dr. Anthony’s class will leave the semester with a ready answer to anyone who says, “Why doesn’t Congress just do X?”