The Promise and Potential Pitfalls of a ‘Learning-Centered’ Approach to Creative Social Inquiry: Lessons Learned from an Undergraduate Seminar on Authoritarianism through Literature and Film

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Pitzer College, Organizational Studies (Pitzer)

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authentic assessment, backward course design, learning-centered course design, learning goals, learning outcomes


Political science faculty have access to a wealth of innovative pedagogies thanks to a comprehensive literature on teaching and learning in the discipline and related fields. Yet, from among the hundreds of documented possibilities, how does one go about deciding which to incorporate into a given course? Few articles have much to say in response to this basic question, as most begin with a particular method, assignment, or assessment in mind and proceed from there. Drawing on the work of Fink (2003 Fink , L. Dee. 2003 . Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses . San Francisco : Jossey-Bass . [Google Scholar]) and Wiggins and McTighe (2005 Wiggins , Grant and Jay McTighe . 2005 . Understanding by Design, Expanded 2nd ed. Alexandria , VA : The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development . [Google Scholar]), among others, I argue that, instead of taking the choice of activities as the starting point in course design, teachers—and, by extension, students—would be better served by first contemplating the desired results of the course and only thereafter devoting consideration to content and instructional methods. In making this claim, I reflect critically on my experience teaching a writing-intensive first-year seminar on comparative authoritarianism using “learning-centered” and “backward” course design. My experience speaks to both the potential pitfalls associated with the learning-centered model and the enormous promise that it represents.

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© 2014 Journal of Political Science Education