Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

October 31, 2014

Expecting the unexpected in a dynamic group project

“Running a simulation in a class is more work than giving lectures. But the students retain more. And it’s so much more interesting, for the students and for me.”

John Wilkerson
Professor, Political Science


John Wilkerson’s initial goal in developing LegSim, a web-based mock legislative session, was to find a more convenient way to manage the one- or two-week capstone of his course on the United States Congress (POL S 353). Now LegSim serves as the centerpiece of the course, and is used by thousands of college and high-school students, whose fees help pay for maintenance and continued development of the site.

Running the simulation presents a multitude of challenges, including balancing the breadth of conceptual knowledge that can be presented in lectures against the depth of operational knowledge that project-based learning promotes, says Wilkerson. He was pleased a recent study showed high school students in classes that used the simulation had better scores on the Advanced Placement exam on U.S. Government and Politics and other measures (see Walter et al. in Resources). Engagement among Wilkerson’s students is high during the simulation, and the majority report that they enjoy the experience. Here are Wilkerson’s suggestions for managing a simulation, advice that can apply to other complex, collaborative group projects:

Develop your inner coach: Wilkerson begins the class with a few weeks of lectures, and then steps down from the podium to serve as a coach and consultant. As the quarter progresses, demand for his time is so high that groups must make appointments to meet with him.

Boost your tolerance for ambiguity: Despite his years of success with LegSim, Wilkerson still worries when the class inevitably stalls midway through the quarter, after students have completed the straightforward assignments required to set up the simulation (e.g., claiming legislative districts and setting policy agendas) and are faced with the complexities of actually crafting and passing legislation. “At this point in the course, as with any coaching assignment, there are moments of doubt,” says Wilkerson. “How long will it take students to figure out that they should not be waiting for me to tell them what to do? Will the Defense Committee overcome its collective action problem? When will someone discover the power of the Previous Question motion?”

Trust the process: Inevitably something, often a surprising defeat, will galvanize the class, says Wilkerson. Participation shoots up. Posts and views on LegSim soar, from hundreds to thousands per day, and students query Wilkerson about details of Congressional procedure he had covered in the weeks earlier in lecture. “The students take ownership and that makes a huge difference in terms of their level of interest and involvement,” says Wilkerson.

Embrace the unexpected: “After using LegSim for 10 years, I am confident that students are going to have a positive experience,” says Wilkerson. “I am much less certain about how events will unfold. This makes the class eminently more interesting to me as the instructor.” Once, he had to improvise a Supreme-Court–style arbitration to settle a dispute between two groups of students. One group wanted to extend the LegSim session by a day to hold a legislative vote; the other had thus far successfully delayed the vote and wanted the session to end so it couldn’t occur. Wilkerson scrambled to find a qualified volunteer willing not only to evaluate student briefs, but to do so overnight. A local attorney stepped up and rendered a decision in favor of the students who wanted to extend the session.

Resources: Walter Parker, Susan Mosborg, John Bransford, Nancy Vye, John Wilkerson, and Robert Abbott, “Rethinking Advanced High School Coursework: Tackling the Depth/Breadth Tension in the AP US Government and Politics Course,” Journal of Curriculum Studies 43, no. 4 (2011): 533-559.

Wilkerson and a long-time student collaborator, Nicholas Stramp, have also developed Legislative Explorer (, a site that visualizes the progress of more than 250,000 Congressional bills and resolutions introduced since 1973. Through the site animations, students and citizens can see, for example, exactly where and when bills get stalled. The site has been featured in The Washington Post (John Wilkerson, Nick Stramp, and David Smith, “Why bill success is a lousy way to keep score in Congress,” 6 February 2014) and The Huffington Post (HuffPollster, 28 April 2014).

Learn More

Read the full Provost report on how to use technology in the classroom to engage students.