Part Four of Practical Mid-Career Teaching Reflections: Guest Speakers and Tutorials

Hosting a guest speaker virtually or in the classroom is potentially a highlight of the semester, but more often than not it is a letdown.  The pitfalls are many, and include unprepared and unmotivated students who fail to see a connection between the guest’s visit and the course’s learning objectives, as well as guests who deliver long, conventionally structured lectures, leaving only a matter of minutes for discussion.  I have a number of strategies to surmount these pitfalls.  First, you should i) choose topics for guest speakers that involve some level of contention and/or cover information that will be relatively new to students; and ii) outline clearly to your students how each guest visit is linked to the themes and objectives of the course.  Cohen’s (1993) model is commendable.  He places a spotlight on uncommon guests “to expose students to possibilities they may never have imagined.”  Further, this instructor connects the guest speakers to an assignment.  His students hear from libertarians, socialists, and followers of LaRouche.  After engaging with these three ideological standpoints through reading materials and the guests’ talks, students write a paper articulating an argument on which position is most convincing, and whether that ideological standpoint stands a chance of being incorporated into American politics. 

Second, a Q&A format, in my experience, is often more productive than a traditional lecture.  Have the guest speaker limit their remarks to 7-10 minutes and then move immediately to a Q&A session.  Alternatively, tell the students that they must read a newspaper article by the speaker, watch an interview, or listen to a podcast featuring the speaker before the class, and then have the guest’s visit entirely focused on Q&A.  Shifting to a more interactive Q&A format strikes a better balance between active and passive learning; it empowers students to drive the discussion, and enables the teacher to host more than one guest during the semester.  Focused Q&A sessions with guests on one specific issue can often meet their objective in 20-30 minutes, whereas traditional guest speakers take up one hour of class time.  You can incorporate more outside voices into your course by organizing such condensed guest visits.

Third, you should use a discussant system for the Q&A sessions.  Students are required to sign up as discussants throughout the semester.  Discussants are responsible for taking the lead in posing questions and offering comments and leading small groups or breakout rooms.  To do this effectively, discussants must conduct additional research, familiarizing themselves with key positions on the subject, which can lead to penetrating questions that will challenge the guest and their classmates. They can raise critical cases that shed light on the issue.  With discussants having set the scene, other students then feel at ease and join the conversation.  Finally, debriefing sessions with students are a must, either immediately after the guest has left or, in my case, a week later, so that students have time to reflect on the discussion and come back with additional insights.  To facilitate structured reflection at the end of the Q&A session, I run a think-pair activity for 6-7 minutes.

Thinking through tutorials

Tutorials present a unique, small class environment in which to introduce a variety of exercises.  Bromley (2013) makes the important point that courses should feature a range of active learning activities, as students possess different learning styles.  The key is to ensure that students have multiple opportunities both to learn in their most natural learning orientation and to be challenged to adopt unfamiliar learning styles.  Much of what students carry out at university is in-depth deliberative analysis completed over several weeks or months, resulting in lengthy outputs.  Tutorials can supplement this style of learning by incorporating problem-solving exercises at both the individual and group levels.  At the group level, students can be asked to solve a problem by working together and “thinking on their feet.”  The problem can be theoretical or policy-oriented.  The key is that students are developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills in a mode that they might use in an organization in the future: quick thinking with a pressing deadline and only 1-2 minutes to summarize their best points.  Specific roles should be assigned to group members, including facilitators, note-takers, presenters, and negotiators.  You could ask two groups to negotiate with one another to find common ground and synthesize their ideas into a common position.  Or you could run a class vote, using either old-fashioned pieces of paper or online polling systems, to determine which proposal the students find most compelling.

Another effective tutorial exercise entails sending students on a short mission outside the classroom.  In one of my courses, students are given 45-60 minutes to identify a product or service on campus or in a nearby neighborhood that embodies either globalization or a national business system.  In the remainder of the tutorial, groups “show and tell” their products or services and explore the similarities and differences between the groups.

At an individual level, students can develop their qualitative research skills in tutorials.  I ask students to interview an elderly person, defined as someone aged 70 or above, and ask them the following questions:

  •  What does globalization mean to you?
  • Have you seen the most change in your lifetime in the social realm, the technological realm, or some combination of the two? 

In this exercise, students process new information, fit this information into larger concepts and debates and make comparisons with interview materials presented by their classmates.

Another individual-level tutorial exercise asks students to complete MIT’s “Moral Machine” scenarios before class.  Students must grapple with the ethical quandaries presented by the advent of self-driving cars.  How should such a car be programmed when facing choices such as whether to prioritize human life over animal life, whether to prioritize younger pedestrians over older pedestrians, and whether pedestrians breaking the law on roads deserve any lesser treatment than law-abiding pedestrians.  Students find these scenarios thought-provoking, as they are forced to lay bare some of their fundamental assumptions about life.  The conversation that follows is an animated one.  Importantly, I then compare the responses of these students to the well over 40 million simulations of Moral Machine that have been completed by individuals globally.  Together we draw out the national, regional, and global trends and examine where and why the class aligns with and differs from these patterns.

Lastly, tutorials should be about interactive discussion; you should be wary of involving too many student presentations, as they tend to lead to overly passive learning.  A former colleague is on the mark when he stipulates that each student can deliver remarks for a maximum of 5 minutes and that all presentations must follow the same structure: they must use five slides and they must conclude by asking three questions.

The next and final part in the series focuses primarily on grading, but ends with a set of what I consider valuable resources as instructors seek to become better teachers, particularly in a time of online learning.

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. 


Bromley, Pam (2013) “Active Learning Strategies for Diverse Learning Styles: Simulations are Only One Method” PS: Political Science & Politics, Vol. 46, No. 4, 818-822.

Cohen, Mel (1993) “Making Critical Thinking a Classroom Reality” PS: Political Science & Politics, Vol. 26, No. 2), 241-244.