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Political Science at UW: The Classroom Experience

February 20, 2016

Hey Guys!

So a LOT of people constantly ask me the same questions about my courses: What happens in a Political Science class at Waterloo? What do you learn? What do you do? What are the assignments and exams like? How are you marked? Oftentimes, when people think of of a Political Science class, they picture a old professor with graying hair droning on about dry political theories for hours on end. Many people think that Political Science is thus super boring and only for hardcore academic nerds. But this is for sure not the case at Waterloo! Certainly there's a lot of political theory involved in a PSCI course, but there's also a lot of opportunity for student participation in the form of discussions and debates. If you're interested in the field of Politics, don't let these common stereotypes dissuade you! In this article, I'll be going over the content that we cover in PSCI courses, the classroom experience, as well as going over how we are graded in these courses. 

Course Content:

So what's in a Political Science course? Well, there are so many Political Science course that it's hard to really give you guys a general picture of an average PSCI course! However, content wise, each whole course covers a certain topic on Politics. It could be something broad like "World Politics" or something more narrow like "International Development" "American Politics" "Government and Business" "American Foreign Policy Post 9/11". Usually, the content is divided into weeks, where in each week a different subtopic is covered. There are highly theoretical courses, as well as courses that focus more on application through analyzing recent and historical events. Each course has it's own unique set of content, which is what I love about PSCI. Since around 8-12 PSCI courses are offered per term, I can choose 2-3 courses based on topics that I'm interested in.

The Classroom Experience:

In the classroom, most of the material is generally presented in a traditional style, with the Professor talking and you taking notes. Power Points are often used and provided online for reference, but they only provide a "backbone" of the topics lectured on. Frequently, professors will ask students of their opinions on a certain topic and hold small discussions of about 3-4 minutes each. I would say about 80% of the time is the Professor talking, 20% of the time students discussing. These discussions are designed to help maintain student interest, as well as encourage the introduction of multiple perspectives regarding a topic. Each course has around 3 hours of classroom time per week. Outside of the class, there are generally a few assigned readings of about 20-30 pages per week for each course. Depending on the course, these readings could be mandatory or could be used to help students gain background knowledge for the lecture material. In terms of class size, first-year classes have around 150 students, but the number dwindles down after every year as students specialize in different areas of Political Science. In my second year courses, I usually see class sizes of around 60-80 people.

Evaluation/Grading Scheme:

In terms of how you're marked, there are usually around 2-3 major assignments per course, worth around total ~30-50% of your final mark. Generally, these will be in the form of essays, analytical reports, critiques, etc. and will be based on a specific topic. For example, a classic topic would be something like "Winner-Take-All vs. Proportional Representation in the Canadian Federal Elections". There are also 1-2 exams. These are usually held either in-class or during the exam period and are weighted around ~20-30% each. These exams are mostly a few short answer questions (pretty much define and explain significance, compare and contrast, give examples of ... etc.), followed by a few essay questions. Don't worry too much about trying to write perfectly as the essays written during the exams are marked far more generously due to the fact that you only have 2 hours or so to write them. There is often choice involved (i.e pick 3 to answer out of these 5 questions) in the exams. Some courses also have 1-2% potential extra credit marks, generally for attending some political speech/presentation and writing a short response about it.

It is often the case that around 10-20% of the final grade in a PSCI course is based on participation. This generally involves either discussing in the lecture as mentioned above, or attending tutorial sessions, where students will discuss a certain topic/question. It's less so of a formal debate and more of a casual discussion. (Example topic: How can an abundance of resources actually hinder economic development?). Usually, this participation portion is graded rather generously. As one of my TAs put it: if you show up to class and tutorials and don't participate at all in the discussions, you get 50% automatically. If you contribute anything at all, you get 70-80%. If you contribute anything relevant and useful, you get 90-100%.

Final Remarks:

Hopefully I've dispelled some common stereotypes about Political Science courses in general! If you have any interest in Politics, I would strongly encourage that you pursue a Political Science minor or even a major at the University of Waterloo! Our courses are full of discussions, debates, and student participation. It's a great way to meet new friends in the classroom and also to contribute your ideas to the course.