This summer term I had the opportunity to assist in the under-graduate seminar on policy process theories taught by Helge Staff (see also the previous blog post on our seminar). Still working to complete my Master’s degree, this opportunity allowed me to get a first glimpse ‘behind the scenes’ of university teaching. Besides preparing different data sets for the research sessions, offering individual mentoring and of course becoming an expert on all the different public policy theories, I was also offered to prepare and hold my own seminar sessions. As you can imagine, this was truly exciting for me. Through all the times of my studies, most of my experiences in talking in front of other students were twenty minutes-presentations on selected aspects of a theory or a given topic.
This time I had to prepare two seminar sessions on the Punctuated Equilibrium Theory (PET). Even though Helge had already chosen the text for the ‘theory session’, I saw myself confronted with a lot of difficult questions. How to present and explain the PET in about fifteen minutes? How to link the PET to our chosen policy cycle on the road user charge in Germany (“PKW-Maut”)? What information do the students need to successfully complete the exercises of the ‘research session’?
Since the aim of the seminar is not only to introduce the students to different public policy theories but also to teach the basics of empirical research, I decided to also put an emphasis on that in the ‘theory session’. Thus, I gave some advice on the correct formulation of research questions and the factors which need to be considered when formulating a good hypothesis.
Due to special circumstances, both sessions were held on the same day which meant three hours of teaching for me and even more important: three hours of learning for the students. Since I remembered attending such long sessions myself, which sometimes felt longer than they actually were, I tried to break the classic seminar structure and let the students play a modified parlor game. In my case, I decided to develop a little “memory” covering all the significant terms of the PET. Groups of students would then compete with each other who could match all the PET terms with the adequate description correctly first.
For the ‘research session’, we analyzed budget data on federal spending in transportation policy collected by the Federal Statistical Office. Before doing so, I gave a brief introduction to Excel, which I chose as the best opportunity for the analysis in our seminar context. Afterwards, students were asked to discuss and interpret the given data concerning the research question: Can significant changes be observed in budget data during the period between 1963 and 2011? I had prepared a working document which detailed the single steps towards analyzing the data. The students executed these steps and in the end, and after only one hour, we were able to arrive at the classic and basic PET result of a general incremental policy development punctuated by a few instances of radical change.
To sum up my first teaching experience: After all my preparations, reading and thinking about structures and the methods of teaching, I was still very excited before the seminar actually started. Today, knowing it all went well, I can say: I am already looking forward to organize and execute the tutoring sessions on term paper writing which will take place in the following three months. Look out for my report on those, here on this blog!
[photos by Helge Staff]