This series highlights an array of teaching strategies implemented by faculty members at the University of Iowa. Each strategy aims to enhance students’ engagement and broaden the scope of their learning.

This month’s strategies are provided by Elise Pizzi, assistant professor of political science.

Scale up assignments. Most of my assignments ask students to repeat the same key actions—applying theories to real world examples. I start small by asking them to apply theories discussed in class to current events or cases I provide; then they apply theories in short homework assignments to a current event they’ve selected. By the time they write their final papers, they’re ready for more complex theories and events. Starting with small, low-stakes assignments gives students a chance to practice, learn from mistakes, and build confidence. 

Build community. Active learning and participation are critical to the success of my course, but students participate only if they feel comfortable with me and with their peers. Early in the semester, I incorporate several activities that address content but also encourage students to get to know each other and work together. I ask students to discuss with their peers before reporting to me, work in groups that they choose, and provide feedback on papers through peer review.  

Give students responsibility. I ask students to take on responsibility as much as possible. I let students choose their own deadlines for some assignments. I ask students to write five to six reflections on readings but let them choose which readings and days they want to write about. They have to commit to deadlines but can arrange their schedule around topics that interest them or dates that work for them. For homework assignments, students select current events and news articles to discuss. For larger papers, they choose their research topics. Giving students a choice helps them find issues that motivate them, and it also teaches them to take responsibility for their schedules and workloads.