Professor wins national innovative teaching award

Mika LaVaque-Manty, associate professor of political science and philosophy, has won the 2014 CQ Press Award for Teaching Innovation in Political Science.

He is being honored for his innovative work in “gamifying” courses to promote student engagement, autonomy and problem-solving skills. Gamification involves applying game-design thinking to nongame applications, such as college courses, to make them more fun and engaging.

The award will be acknowledged at the American Political Science Association’s 2014 Teaching and Learning Conference Feb. 7-9 in Philadelphia. The APSA, founded in 1903, is the leading professional political science organization with more than 15,000 members in 80 countries.

LaVaque-Manty’s contest submission “Gamifying Large Courses to Promote Initiative, Problem Solving, Collaboration, and Reflection,” details his systematic approach to gamifying his courses using a point system to promote student engagement and autonomy through collaboration.

Students in his undergraduate political science courses are given a variety of paths to meet requirements and are encouraged to use a variety of platforms—from videos to blogs—to interact with each other and the material, and to take on new learning challenges. One of these platforms, a public blog written by mostly first-year students, was named one of the “100 Best Blogs for the Literati” in 2009.

The gamification of courses creates a space for students to become innovative participants in their own learning and to engage in “safe failures,” according to LaVaque-Manty, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and director of undergraduate studies in U-M’s Department of Political Science.

The course design using political theory and strategies, such as metacognition and self-regulated learning, demonstrates how professors can use robust pedagogical principles to engineer their courses in ways that inspire strong student commitment and creativity, he says.

“This award recognizes that the teaching mission of a research university is not secondary or separable from our research mission,” LaVaque-Manty said. “In the age of Google, facts are less than a dime a dozen and higher education can no longer be in the business of information provision. The skills researchers have—finding innovative solutions to problems we don’t yet have answers to — are the skills our students need.

“Gamifying instruction gives students multiple paths to achievement, which invites them to think about the skills they already have or want to develop. By allowing students to accumulate points and ‘level up,’ it motivates them by showing that even imperfect learning is learning. Now most of our students think a B- is a failure, instead of a sign that they have learned, probably a lot.”

Charles Shipan, chair of the U-M Department of Political Science, praised LaVaque-Manty as the most creative and effective teacher he’s ever known.

“Mika would be an outstanding teacher if he did nothing but stand in front of students and talk,” said Shipan, the J. Ira and Nicki Harris Professor of Social Science. “But, instead, he uses technology in remarkably innovative ways to magnify this natural talent, with the goal of providing the best educational experience he can for his students.”

Written by Maryanne George, Literature, Science & the Arts

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