Rorden Wilkinson

Active learning has a long history on university campuses, and simulations and role play exercises such as Model United Nations show little sign of vacating university calendars anytime soon. Indeed, a steady proliferation of simulations based on international institutions is a noteworthy feature of learning in international relations and political science. Yet, they are just some of the forums in which students can now assume the identities of key players to gain deeper understandings of economic, social and political events, and the context within which pressing issues are negotiated and—on occasion—resolved.

It is not just thinking and learning through simulated negotiations and debates in international institutions that are a familiar feature of university education. Diplomatic crisis simulations and other role play exercises also abound. The Princeton Interactive Crisis Simulation (PICSim) is one of the countless opportunities for students to role play in an inter-collegiate setting. There are many others that are implemented at the classroom level or through computer-assisted and online environments. Other popular active learning tools include service learning, experiential learning trips, internships, volunteerism, collaboration on group projects and many more.

It is not hard to appreciate why these and myriad other activities populate university curricula. Active learning is designed precisely to spark critical reflection in students encouraging them to take part in the construction of their own knowledge and understanding of the world through “doing.” It should be a self-reflexive process that results in the articulation, evaluation and development of skills, ideas, beliefs and attitudes. The role of the educator is not to impart knowledge per se; rather it is to provide students with the tools to access information, examine issues from a range of vantage points, and engage in the critical evaluation of new ideas.

In this regard, simulations and role play offer unique opportunities for positioning students inside complex and dynamic social, political and economic processes and encourage them to tease out power dynamics and asymmetries, constraints, interests, behaviors, resources and interactions. They are widely thought to promote what Greenbalt identified as the six dimensions of learning: cognitive learning; affective learning; student engagement motivation and interest; longer-term learning; increased self-awareness; and improved student-teacher relations.

Simulations and role play—among other forms of active learning—are not without problems.1 Much active learning involves asking students to assume fixed identities or existing theoretical lenses. Poorly designed, this can reify existing power relations and make students blindly complicit in the maintenance of exclusions, injustices, silences and violence. The very best active learning moves beyond enabling students merely to see the complexities and constraints of the social world through simple exercises that illustrate existing social, political and economic orders to inspire critical consciousness and praxis. It constructs learning environments that provide students with the tools to perceive and resist social, political, and economic oppression. It encourages students to reject their role as passive recipients of knowledge, providing learning environments in which they can actively construct alternative views of the world.

The essays that follow are united in their motivation to get active learning right. Each offers insights into the practice of creating active learning environments across a range of disciplines and among groups of students preparing for, and who have already entered higher education. Taylor, Garnham and Ormerod’s endeavor is to promote active learning through essay writing as a ratchet on passive regurgitation. Kirby reflects on the design and evolution of a foundation year module cognisant of the problems of transitioning from school to university, and mindful of the need to enable students to relate to their own experiences to deepen engagement and learning. Steinberg’s reflection is on active learning through embodied experiences in the use of performance and movement—in this case the Argentine Tango—to investigate complex situations and topics. Oprandi and Murphy examine the utility of “specialism-based learning”, focusing on a single word as an optic for understanding different and changing meaning. Bett’s contribution turns to the use of technology as an enabler of active learning and the extent of its application. Walden’s chapter explores how peer assisted study sessions can be used to support student learning in study skills. Ashall’s intervention examines the practical rollout of technology-based active learning exercises, focusing on Poll Everywhere. While, Garnham and Taylor explore the possibilities provided by video-based feedback for active student engagement among foundation year students.

Each paper offers valuable understanding; in combination they provide powerful insight into the development of programmes of study and methods of learning that simultaneously showcase understanding, embed knowledge, develop critical skills and enlist learners as collaborators in the search for new ways of thinking unbounded by a tendency to reinforce the status-quo. This is far from an easy challenge. It is, nonetheless, one to which this fine book rises.

Rorden Wilkinson

Professor of Global Political Economy

Deputy Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education and Innovation

University of Sussex


Greenblat, C.S., 1973. Teaching with simulation games: a review of claims and evidence. Teaching Sociology1(1), pp.62-83.

1 For elaboration and critical engagement of the use of popular culture as active learning see Erin Hannah and Rorden Wilkinson, ‘Zombies and IR: A Critical Reading’, Politics, 36: 1 (2016), pp. 5-18


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Disrupting Traditional Pedagogy: Active Learning in Practice Copyright © 2019 by Rorden Wilkinson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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