Lisa Disch, Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Political Science, has been recognized with the 2012 LSA Excellence in Education award. The award, presented to selected faculty members each year by the College of Literature, Science & the Arts, acknowledges "special efforts in the areas of classroom teaching, curricular innovation, and the supervision of student research, and other significant contributions to the quality of the College's teaching-learning environment."
Professor Disch takes an innovative approach to both introductory and upper-level courses. In her Introduction to Political Theory lectures, she found she was able to increase student engagement by incorporating iClicker technology.
"I was skeptical about this technology at first because I thought it would work best with subjects where you pose factual questions," she explains, "but I discovered that I can really use it to challenge students to grapple with interpretive questions about the readings."
One excellent feature of the iClicker technology, Professor Disch adds, is that "variations in the students' own answers become a point of discussion." The biggest surprise came on the day of an in-class iClicker quiz. "I had, of course, put in some trick questions," she says. "After the quiz, I reviewed the correct responses for the class--iClicker lets them see what percentage of the class got the right answer--and they started cheering on the questions with the higher percentages of right answers: they were rooting for each other to outsmart me! I thought that was hilarious."
In her upper-level courses, Professor Disch innovates in the classroom through unique and creative assignments. "In my Democratic Theory class," she says, "I decided to run a simulated Citizen's Jury," allowing students to experience what she calls "deliberative democracy in action." The Jury assignment piqued student interest by invoking an issue of local importance. "I asked the students to deliberate over the strengths and weaknesses of the Great Lakes Water Compact because it's something that students at the University of Michigan can really care about," says Professor Disch. "We have a relationship with a Great Lake."
Students were also asked to inform and educate one another about the issue. "I asked students to volunteer to be experts and to teach their classmates about various aspects of law and policy related to the Compact," Professor Disch explains. "I was surprised to find how many students volunteered for this and how many skills they brought to it - many of them had experience on the debate team." For Professor Disch, this process of mutual education and information sharing was a highlight of the assignment. "When they have really prepared and know their stuff," she says, "students learn the most by teaching other students."
Democratic Theory isn't the only class in which Professor Disch has put her ideas into practice. "In my Population and Environment course," she says, "I decided to use game playing as a way to make the arguments of the course more hands-on." According to Professor Disch, games help students understand how incentives impact their behavior.
"Playing and designing games brought to life one of the major themes of the course: that the incentives that structure the choices we make have more effect on behavior change than do beliefs or principles in the abstract. A game," she explains, "is, at its most basic, a set of principles linked directly to incentives though the rules and structure of play. I think the students really grasped this, in no small part thanks to Justin Williams, who was the GSI for the course."
Professor Disch plans to bring both assignments back to the classroom in the near future, with improvements based on her experiences the first time around. For the Citizen's Jury assignment, she says, "I want to fine tune the actual deliberations. Turns out, it takes real skill to have a good deliberation; this year, I'm hoping to formally train some students to act as moderators and also to break the juries down into smaller groups."
As for the game assignment, Professor Disch's next class will have some excellent examples from which to take their cues. "Several of the student groups designed some really remarkable games that managed to be truly fun to play even as they incorporated theories from the course," she says. "Their design skills and creativity are going to be an inspiration to next year's class, I'm sure."
More generally, Professor Disch plans to continue to help her students learn about political theory through involvement and experience, and to keep innovating in precisely the manner recognized by her Excellence in Education award. "I've been wanting to figure out how to give students real-world experiences in the classroom," she says. "It's easy if you teach a laboratory science, but not so obvious if you teach political theory."
Professor Lisa Disch gets ideas for classroom innovations during her time off in Chicago, where she enjoys biking along the lakefront.