Teaching IR #1: The Discussion Panel

This is a series which I set up to discuss teaching methods which I have employed in class. In this post, I cover the discussion panel method of student-centered learning.

The Discussion Panel is basically a watered-down version of what goes on at an academic conference. When academics enter a conference, they usually bring with them a paper which they present in front of an audience of their peers. At the same time, they sit on a panel with other academics working within the boundaries of the panel’s theme. So, I thought to carry this over into a classroom setting. With some minor modifications, of course.

Structure of activity

The mechanics of the Discussion Panel are quite simple. The instructor first defines a broad area of inquiry or theme for the week’s Panel. In my case, I had three broad themes in which a Panel convened every alternate week: Cold War geopolitics, post-Cold War geopolitics, and digital geopolitics. Each theme could be explored in a variety of ways depending on the interest of the student.

Since I handle undergraduate classes, I had to provide participants with a limitations on the topics that could be discussed to remain salient with the curriculum. These limitations were in the form of open-ended questions which the participants had to answer, which would form the basis of their presentation. For example, in the Cold War geopolitics panel, I purposefully limited the area of inquiry to interventional wars carried out by both the US and Soviet Union. Students would then stick to a few representative case studies (in this case, the Vietnam War and Soviet-Afghan War). The point which was attempted to be delivered was due to the setting of the Cold War, the two superpowers could not confront each other directly and had to resort to low-intensity warfare.

Each Panel requires 2 weeks. In the first week, I would deliver a background lecture to acquaint the students with the larger context of the Panel’s theme. Then, the following week, the Panel proper would commence.

Panelists were free to meet outside of class sessions to discuss how they would approach the questions they have been assigned. They were also free not to meet, should they feel they were better off working alone.

Each student would be given a set amount of time to present (in my case, it was 10-15 minutes depending on the size of the panel). They would be allowed (and were encouraged!) to criticize or build upon their fellow panelists’ answers.

After all panelists have finished their presentations, students who have yet to assume or have assumed the role of panelists would be allowed to ask questions to the panelists. The exchange is moderated by the instructor.

Students would be graded based on the substance of their presentations, along with the way they present it. The ratio is roughly 80 (substance) : 20 (manner). They are also eligible to earn extra points if they manage to answer questions from the audience in a satisfactory manner.

Expected benefits and outcomes

The exercise allows students to develop their own area of expertise or research (ideal for postgraduates) or to enhance understanding of a specified area of knowledge (ideal for undergraduates).

I also expected students would be able to exercise their own independent study abilities prior to their session. They would also learn how to effectively filter and use information, especially due to the time constraints imposed.

However, I would argue the most evident benefits would be in developing reasoning and articulation skills. Students would be actively engaging and discussing with their peers in real-time, which forces them to think on the fly and come up with clear answers. This addresses a concern I have about conventional group presentations. Often, a single adept student would hog all the glory and leave the others in the dust. This makes grading a tad difficult; is the individual’s ability representative of the entire group?

Results of pilot test

I ran a total of 6 Panels in two different classes (3 Panels per class) over the course of 6 weeks (including preparation time), each with the same theme and limitations. The classes in which I applied this method were second-year undergraduate IR students learning about Geopolitics.

In the pilot test of this method, student activeness levels were the most dominant variable which affected the method’s usability and execution. Unfortunately, I did not distribute end-of-class surveys; these results come from my own observation and post-hoc reflection.

Since it is a student-centered method, the smoothness of execution would be dependent on student participation. This then requires a large portion of “active” students for the exercise to be fully effective. In my pilot test, student activeness severely undermined my expectations of the exercise’s outcome; the audience was mostly passive and disengaged.

Two reasons come to mind. First, the possibility of a non-aggression pact. Students would agree beforehand to not ask any questions for fear of making their friends look dumb, a practice which I am too familiar with as I have engaged in similar practices during my student years. Second, the lack of preparatory reading, which is essential to ensure everyone is on the same page. There is a tendency to neglect required readings, despite encouraging nudges. When the audience is not on the same page, communication between panelists and audience becomes deteriorated.

To remedy the lack of questions, I had to personally try to get the ball rolling; yet in many cases, I failed to generate a fruitful discussion.

Other problems appeared in the panelists, namely, the quality of their presentations. This is related to the limitations in the form of open-ended questions. While I have emphasized that the questions are there simply as a guide, it would seem that they think the entire presentation should be about answering the question as-is. This resulted in awkwardly short presentations (the panelist would only use a third of the allotted time), where the panelist would just answer the question and consider the job done. There is little personal exploration and contemplation of the question and the larger theme. In some severe cases, panelists would often just read from a prepared text. When it came time to entertain questions, they would be baffled, showing a lack of understanding of their own topic.

However, in spite of these negative outcomes, there has been a sliver of positive responses from the students. They prefer this method over the conventional presentation, where they would present a specific topic as a group. They also noted the flexibility of the exercise, which allowed them to explore the theme according to their own interests. However, I must also be aware that these students may not be representative of the entire population, as they are the ones who were academically above-average.

Notes for the future

I plan on continuing with this method. Initial observations show it provides a clear advantage over conventional presentations, which I feel to be overly rigid and too reliant on group dynamics. This method also provides a nice balance for the more individually-inclined students, as they are not forced to collaborate with groups and can engage in deeper self-study; whereas the group-inclined students may form their own learning coalitions to augment their performance in the panel.

I also believe this method would serve as a nice exercise in both an academic and non-academic setting, and could benefit students well after their graduation. They would be more confident in their own presentation abilities, while also being able to entertain constructive feedback from their peers.

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