As I’ve blogged about here previously, several weeks ago I used the flipped classroom technique to teach my first year seminar students about the “state of nature” and its utility (or lack thereof) for analyzing politics. The results were exciting and astounding!

The following two weeks, however, were going to be different because I would be introducing my first year students to rational choice and game theory. In my experience, and even at the graduate level, students tend to have a hard time grasping the basic concepts contained in these theoretical approaches so I figured these weeks would be a good test of the pedagogy.

So what happened? In the first week, I asked the students to read a chapter from Tom Flanagan’s Game Theory and Canadian Politics, and a short excerpt on social cooperation and the Prisoner’s Dilemma from an introductory textbook. Then they completed an online quiz before class that asked them to: a) provide an example, either from the news or from your own personal experiences, that illustrates and supports any TWO of the following rational choice assumptions: methodological individualism; ordinal vs. cardinal utility; self-interest; and perfect information); b) provide an example, either from the news or from your own personal experiences, that illustrates the prisoner’s dilemma; and c) What did you find most confusing about the readings this week? Using their answers, I wrote two short, mini-lectures on rational choice and game theory, spending most of my time going over the concepts with which the students had trouble.

After delivering the rational choice lecture in class, I divided the students into groups of two or three and asked them to apply the tools of rational choice to explain a number of scenarios. For instance, they had to craft rational choice explanations of teenage pregnancy, immigration policy; white collar vs. blue collar crime, and an instance of collective action involving community and university actors. We then took up their answers as a group.

In the first few scenarios, students had trouble developing rational choice explanations for these situations. What became clear to me very quickly, however, was that they needed some guidance about HOW to apply the theory to the various scenarios. After some brief explanations about how they might do this, the quality of the group work improved quickly.

After a short break, I began the class with a mini lecture on game theory, again emphasizing the concepts that the students seem to have trouble with in their quiz answers. After the lecture, I divided the class into groups of three and asked them to solve a particular game theory puzzle. We plotted their answers on the board and then discussed their answers and what rational choice and game theory would predict. We then watched the opening bank robbery scene from The Dark Knight, which was similar to the puzzle they had just solved, and I asked the students in their groups to use rational choice and game theory to make sense of what happened to each of the robbers. We then took up their answers with the larger group.

Finally, we divided up into pairs to play the ultimatum game, first by dividing $10, and then dividing $100. After plotting their results on the board, I summarized the main experimental findings in the economics literature, before facilitating a discussion about the significance of the results. I then dismissed the class.

A week later, we watched the movie, Return to Paradise, in class. The movie is in essence, a prisoner’s dilemma. Midway through the movie, I stopped the film and sketched out, in normal form, the game being played out in the movie. Before restarting the movie, the class and I worked through the various solutions to the game, varying our assumptions about the players’ preferences and preference structures. The point here was to show how rational actors should behave, given the scenario presented in the movie. We then watched the rest of the movie.

At the end of the movie, we discussed the following questions: Does rational choice and game theory explain what happened in the movie? Or does this movie provide strong evidence that these theories are not useful when applied to real life situations?

The ensuing discussion was amazing! The students debated the questions using the language of rational choice and game theory. They debated whether the rat choice/game theory assumptions about utility maximization, transitive and intransitive preference, and expected vs. actual utility, were successful in accounting for the behaviour of the various characters in the movie. The result was an intelligent and vigorous debate in which students showed that they understood the theories, how they could be applied to various situations, and what some of the strengths and weaknesses were of these approaches. One student even commented about how rational choice is a post-hoc theory, which is criticism of rational choice and game theory that my students in other classes rarely ever find on their own.

Bottom line: this flipped classroom approach works. Students learn and can apply that learning to various situations and to critical debates. Next week we tackle, structure and agency, and the role of institutions. Stay tuned.

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