Part Three of Practical Mid-Career Teaching Reflections: Assignments

I would like to begin with one of the age-old dilemmas facing instructors.  We all probably concur that teamwork is a key skill needed in our professional and personal lives, and that students can learn differently by collaborating within teams.  Yet freeriding is often rife within group projects, leaving lasting scars on group members.  My own view is that universities should primarily focus on empowering students to discover new ways of looking at the world and themselves.  This is an individual journey, and, accordingly, the balance of assignments should be tilted towards individual work.  Still, every course should include at least one team-based assessment.  My solution to the freerider problem is to ask students to produce what is essentially an edited volume. Group members come together to create a framework and write a lengthy introductory chapter together.  Then, each student is responsible for an individual chapter that links back to the introductory themes.  They receive a group grade for the introduction and an individual grade for their own chapter.  Thus they are incentivized to work together to identify the research problem and establish the theoretical framework, but they are given time to develop one part of the research project on their own and are assessed on how well it fits with the themes developed in the introduction.

While there is clearly value in asking students to defend a theoretical approach by finding the best possible supporting evidence for it, there is a tendency to overuse this assignment format.  An important aspect of developing critical thinking skills is the ability to critique ideas, and I have found that inverting this assignment has produced outstanding student work.  The assignment, then, asks students to critique a theory—in my case a theory of international relations—by discussing the flaws of that theory logically and/or empirically.

Long form writing is still the basis of many decision-making processes in life, and it should be valued, encouraged, and practiced.  Yet the days of courses based solely on long form writing are rightly over.  Ideas can and should be expressed in other formats, as these forms also develop original thinking, critical analysis, and evidence-based argumentation.  I have reduced the weighting of research essays and exams in my courses and supplemented these traditional assessment forms with new formats.  In particular, I endeavor to bolster students’ creative thought processes through unorthodox assignments.  In doing so, I have built on the groundbreaking work of other instructors.

Gravey et al. (2017) illustrate how theatre in the classroom brings theoretical concepts to life.  Instructors, fitted out with props and costumes, assume characters to animate different intellectual traditions.  For example, two faculty members act out a scenario in which “Green Growth” and “Degrowth” are matched on a dating website, or in another case, instructors imagine a dialogue between Peter Bachrach, Robert Dahl, and Stephen Lukes.  I turned this model into an assignment in which students prepare a script for and act out a short scene in international relations.  In the process, students conceived new ideas on international issues and new ways of communicating information. One of the highlights was a scene in which students resurrected Marx and Engels and had them walk through an Apple store and reflect on their theoretical models.  Students expanded their creative thinking by relating historical ideas to contemporary times.

Students will surprise you with their creativity when presented with such opportunities.  Instructors can experiment with a range of novel assignments and design wholly new creative projects.  In another recent example, I asked teams of students to develop an original approach to deploying new economic approaches to tackle environmental problems and then pitch their ideas to environmental professionals.  Encouraging feedback was received from both the students and practitioners.  The options are wide for instructors who hope to move beyond traditional assignments: games, simulations, mock briefing notes to heads of state or international institutions, letters to the editor, photo journals, video arguments, and blogs are among the possibilities.  Lang (2008) even suggests placing ideas from the course on trial with student prosecutors and defendants.  This assignment could be run across many disciplines.

Pugh and Veitch (2019) offer an interesting assignment in which students serve as peer reviewers, making them more familiar with the processes of the academic world.  Using Turnitin, teachers set up a blind review system where students submit an essay introduction and receive comments from classmates. The students’ peer review work is graded.

How can you ensure that students, in their busy lives, come prepared for class?  Two effective tools are discussants and what I call “five points before class.”  In my courses, each student must serve as a discussant at least once.  Discussants research the topic and associated debates before class, then during class they pose and answer questions, present their position on some of the key issues, bring up critical cases that shed light on the issue, and lead small group discussions.  There is no presentation.  Being a discussant simply means taking on a leadership role in class discussion that week.  A student’s performance as a discussant can be directly graded or factored into the student’s overall participation grade.

In the “five points before class” task, students need to post five bullet points on the learning platform for a selected number of lectures, seminars, or tutorials.  The goal is to ensure that students are reflecting on the subject matter and come to class armed with ideas.  After completing the readings and reflecting further on the topic, students must post two questions and three additional points, which might include the following:

  • examples that are relevant to the theory/issue;
  • the relevance of these examples to their city and/or country;
  • points that students feel are particularly important;
  • weaknesses that students see with the reading;
  • links to other topics in the course.

Most members of the teaching profession accept that students should assume a significant amount of responsibility for their learning.  However, operationalizing this proposition is not straightforward.  Lang (2018) offers the fascinating example of an academic named Toni Weiss, who allows students to re-weight, to a moderate extent, the value of different assignments.  As a result, students “can begin to see that: (a) The various assessments are different ways to demonstrate their learning, and (b) they have a role to play in deciding what they value most in their own performance.”  To apply this principle, I have given students the responsibility for choosing the order of their assignment submission.  In this example, instructors set out the hand-in dates and students organize their own semester according to their interests and schedules and decide the order in which they will submit their work.

In the next part of the series, I present some thoughts on reworking the use of guest speakers and tutorials.

Justin Robertson is an associate professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong. He is a scholar of the international political economy with his research focused on new capitalist forms in emerging markets. He is the author of Localizing Global Finance: The Rise of Western-Style Private Equity in China and US-Asia Economic Relations: A Political Economy of Crisis and the Rise of New Business Actors. He has had articles published in Globalizations, Global Networks, International Political Sociology, New Political Economy, The Pacific Review, and Review of International Political Economy. A teaching award winner, his teaching approach is founded on encouraging students to conduct primary research, directing a lively classroom featuring interactive software and problem-solving exercises and connecting students with experts in the field and having students share their findings with practitioners. 


Gravey, Viviane, Lorenzoni, Irene, Seyfang, Gill and Hargreaves, Tom (2017) “Theoretical Theatre: Harnessing the Power of Comedy to Teach Social Science Theory” Journal of Contemporary European Research, Vol. 13, No. 3, 1320-1336.

Lang, James M. (2008) On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lang, James M. (2018) “How Much Do you Want Your Final to Count?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 13 March 

Pugh, Michael and Veitch, Fiona (2019) “Undergraduate Peer Review, Reading and Writing: Reflecting on Experiences from an International Politics Module” European Political Science, Vol. 18, No. 2, 335-350.

Van Evera, Stephen (1997) Guide to Methods for Students of Political Science, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.