Using activities as a means to engage student learning

When Maya Prager steps through the doorway of her POLS 3520, Governing the New Europe course at York University, she’s no longer a fourth-year business student. One day, she might be the European Union (EU) minister from the Netherlands; another, she might be representing Poland. Her identity depends on the issue that she and her classmates will be debating under the watchful eye of their teacher, Heather MacRae, associate professor of political science.

Heather MacRae

Simulating the EU parliament is only one of the activities MacRae uses to involve her students in the subject material at hand.

“My classes at York are three hours long and there is no way the students want to listen to me lecture for three hours,” MacRae says. “I began incorporating activities into my classes, partly out of self-preservation. I got to the point where I realized that the material just wasn’t sinking in.”

This isn’t MacRae’s first foray into incorporating learning activities into classes. As a sessional instructor, she had her students participate in a model United Nations and found that it was both popular and effective as a learning tool. She began borrowing ideas from fellow educators and creating her own, too.

“By now, I have a pretty good repertory of fun activities,” MacRae says. “There are lots of ideas that grow out of conversations with colleagues or blogs. I find things that people do in different courses and apply them to my own. Sometimes, I create an activity from a concept I want my students to understand. They learn more if they are involved.”

The parliament of the European Union. Photo by Frederic Köberl on Unsplash

MacRae tries to incorporate a learning activity into each class session. She adds teasers to her course syllabus to keep the students guessing what it might be.

“They’re never sure what I’ll make them do each week,” she says. “Some of the activities flop, but when you have a rapport with a class, it’s fun to try things. When the students are asked to explain what does or doesn’t work, they learn from that, too.”

In her third-year class, Governing the New Europe, MacRae asks her students to create an interactive timeline of the history of the EU using markers, sticky notes, coloured tape and string. She divides them into small groups and they spend a portion of the class determining which events should be pictured.

“It’s a way of getting them to think through how different events interacted to propel the EU forward or backward,” MacRae says. “They must justify, or teach, each other why an event is important enough to be included or not.”

Flag of the European Union

In her fourth-year European Union course, she involves students in two separate negotiating exercises, asking them to simulate the EU’s parliament, with each of them representing a country. Initially, they played their parts by rehashing the Chocolate Directive, a case from the 1990s that addressed the ingredients that go into chocolate and whether to standardize them in all member countries.

Later in the semester, the students take on new national identities and discuss the current refugee crisis and potential solutions.

“I create a scenario with pitfalls built in,” MacRae says. “It gives the students an understanding of the institution and the issue; they are required to research the country’s point of view and have to negotiate what can and can’t be done.

“They start to recognize that a solution that should be so simple requires input from 27 other states with differing points of view. It highlights the intricacies of international co-operation, but they are also learning about negotiations in life and balancing different demands.”

In addition to the activities, there are assignments and readings to put everything into context.

“I’m not a big believer in exams,” MacRae says. “Generally, students don’t engage with the subject matter until two weeks beforehand; then they cram and don’t remember anything afterward.

“If they engage with small amounts of material week by week, they begin to understand the processes and remember them by being actively engaged. They leave with a solid understanding of the complexities of the European Union and know how to use facts and evaluate them critically.”

Prager, the business student, has really enjoyed both of MacRae’s EU-focused classes.

“Last semester, I was just looking for a non-business elective,” Prager says. “I had spent the summer doing an internship in Luxembourg, so when I saw a European Union course, it complemented my studies. I really liked it, so I enrolled in the second course.”

She finds the simulations rewarding. “They force you to learn at a more in-depth level and you get into how the process works,” Prager says. “Then, the topic engages you outside of class when you hear the news. It makes you a more well-rounded person who understands how the world works.”

Submitted by Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus

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