Teaching policy analysis – A research seminar for BA students

A small group of students, close support by lecturers, and a hands-on research approach characterize the seminar

The Federation of the Automotive Industry, Greenpeace, Verdi or even a local citizens’ initiative are examples of the articulation of specific interests or political preferences apart from parties or forms of direct democracy. All these actors are actively trying to put their issues on the government’s agenda and influence decision-making. But who are these actors? Is that really “democratic”? And how exactly are such particular interests incorporated in the policy process? The proseminar “Lobbyists, NGOs & Associations: The Influence of Interest Groups in the Policy Process” dealt with these questions.

The seminar is funded in the context of the project “Expansion of research-based learning from the first semester onward”. This funding gave me the opportunity to assist in the seminar which was taught by Helge Staff this summer term. While I am still pursuing my master’s degree it was an exciting chance to look behind the scenes of teaching. In this blog entry I want to give you an idea of the chances and challenges the seminar had in store for the students as well as for the lecturers.  The core idea of the seminar was to introduce the students to policy analysis focussing especially on the influence of interest groups on agenda setting and decision-making processes. The proseminar placed a special emphasis on the joint development of techniques within the scope of “learning by researching” and should thus promote the enthusiasm for applied empirical research with simple methods already in the first semesters of a BA. The ultimate aim of the seminar for the students is to write an empirical term paper presenting the results of their own research projects.

Playing “ACF-taboo” as part of the overall gamification approach of the seminar

The first session of the seminar, which took place on April 26th focussed on the systematic teaching of essential theories relevant for understanding the impact interest groups can have on the political process. The theoretical foundation for the seminar was given by the Power Resource Theory and the Advocacy Coalition Framework. The students elaborated the theories together with the lecturers and then internalized the insights through interactive playful repetitions. To internalize the important concepts of the Advocacy Coalition Framework, we played ACF-Taboo. The students each had to describe one concept of the ACF, which was part of a graphical illustration. Yet, they were not allowed to use other words included in the graphic to describe their concept. While one imagines this game to be pretty easy, it was harder than expected to not use any of the other concepts in the description. We also repeated the Power Resource Theory by playing Powerpoint-Karaoke. Each student had to present two or three slides dealing with the approach. While it was easy for them to present the theory-based slides, it was a bigger challenge to present the empirical slides, which for example contained data on the correlation between trade union density and social expenditure in various countries. Nonetheless, all students mastered the task very well. Building on their theoretical knowledge the students developed a common analysis grid, which they will use to carry out their own research projects.

So far, the students were lacking the methodical knowledge to conduct their own research. Therefore, the second session of the seminar focussed on introducing methods of empirical research that are suitable for the projects the students are expected to carry out. The students are asked to investigate an interest group based in Kaiserslautern or the surrounding area by means of the common analysis grid we developed in the first session. This analysis grid containing legal foundations, political and general resources, belief systems and many more concepts, meant to help the students to describe their interest group with regard to their participation and their influence in the policy process.The methods of choice to gather relevant information were document analysis and expert interviews. Yet, many problems can arise in the course of an interview. To prevent this, we simulated an interview situation, in which two students could practice their skills and the others monitored closely. Equipped with theoretical and methodological knowledge, the students now have time to research local interest groups.

Simulating an expert interview with the students during class

The results are due at the end of June. In the meantime, I offer a tutorial on scientific working in order to provide theoretical basics of academic writing and to accompany the individual writing process by providing practical knowledge. For me it was a challenge to prepare and hold my own seminar and tutorial sessions, as it was the first time I switched sides, from being a student to being a lecturer. At first I felt overwhelmed by questions like which information is relevant for the students to successfully carry out their research? How to spice the theories up with some empirical data? Are the exercises too easy or too complicated for the students to master? Yet in the end it was a lot of fun, I myself learned a lot about interest groups and their influence on policy processes and it also gave me the chance to reflect my own learning behaviour as a student from a different perspective. In the last seminar session in the end of June the students will present their results and I am already looking forward to get to know more about some local interest groups.

Kira Wolf