Instructor: Dr Simon Anglim
Module: Contemporary War and Warfare, Level 7 Optional Module, War Studies, Social Science and Public Policy
Assessment activity: Students work in small scenario groups to produce viable strategies for actors in four current or potential wars or conflicts. Each student produces 4x 1000-word papers over four weeks on a different conflict. In the final weeks of the course, the groups present their strategies to an expert audience of former military officers and advisors in a formative feedback session before submitting their final papers.
Why did you introduce the assessment?
I aim to teach the practice of policy and strategy formation (the more practical aspect) rather than just the theory, which is already covered very well on other modules in my Department. Indeed, the most important stated aim of the module is ‘for students to develop their ability to critically analyse policy, strategy and military operations in current conflicts; and to conduct real-world policy and strategy analysis relevant for national decision-makers.’
The policy recommendations assessment is therefore a good means of testing how far the students have developed the intellectual skills necessary to achieve the module learning outcomes by doing something practical and tangible which can actively demonstrate achievement.
How did you set it up?
The module runs for two terms. Students are grouped into teams of 6-10 each at the beginning of the second term. Each group selects a team leader. Students choose amongst themselves in the group what roles to take BUT to ensure equal participation as much as possible, these roles are rotated each time they change conflict. Team leaders are also rotated.
The groups work together to produce a recommended strategy for government or non-state actors in four current or potential future wars or conflicts: Afghanistan 2001, Nagorno-Karabakh, The Syrian Civil War and the Russian Confrontation with NATO. I usually change or adapt these each year to reflect global politics and recent developments in international relations.
Each week, each student will produce a paper of no more than 1000 words, excluding footnotes and bibliography, which will be the basis for their assessment.
The group selects a team leader and negotiates their own role from one of the following tasks:
- Executive Summary of the proposed strategy (Team Leader’s Task)
- Strategic analysis of strengths and weaknesses on both sides
- Strategic Concept – the major lines of effort
- The main assumptions and judgements underlying the strategy
- Risks and opportunities
- Premortem – what might go wrong, what might go right, how do we deal with it, etc
For each of the last four classes of the year, each team will present its strategy to the teaching staff and an invited audience of visiting professors – including some retired senior military officers and journalists – and other guests who may include serving members of the armed forces and former students. The teaching staff and audience members will provide expert feedback on how things are going based on these presentations.
The students upload their papers for that week onto KEATS two working days after each classroom session.
How did you design the assessment criteria and weighting?
The grades for the four policy recommendations aggregated make up 50% of the assessment for this module. (The other 50% is for a 4000-word essay in the first term).
Each of the four papers is marked according to the same generic College criteria we apply to all postgraduate written work. However, extra credit is awarded for strategies which are particularly original, credible and well thought-out.
How do you give feedback?
The assessment is staged with the important formative session (see above) where the groups present in the final four classes of the year in front of an expert audience of visiting professors, including retired senior military officers, journalists and serving military officers. The audience provide feedback, not on the assessment itself, but on their progress and give constructive criticism. The teams should use this feedback within the two days before submission to refine and enhance their report.
How do you explain the assessment to the students?
The process is laid out in the module outline, but I also recognise that talking through the assessment in person is very important. I visit each seminar group in the first week of term.
This year I invited a serving British Army officer and former MA student to talk to them about how military plans are formulated at the same time as the assignment brief was given out.
What benefits did you see?
Improved grades: We have had four years of consistently solid to excellent marks for the policy recommendation papers, indicating that students are responding to the process positively.
Staff workload: We have lectures covering some of the scenarios the students look at for the policy recommendations which we would have had anyway, but the policy recommendation approach gives these lectures an altogether different significance, in that they provide source material for a pro-active, team based process. There is a slight, but not excessive increase in workload at the end of the second term because it requires marking a larger number of shorter papers. However, in many ways this is perhaps easier (and more engaging!) for staff than the process of marking a longer and more complex assignment at level 7.
Employability: This module has a very good track record of its students going on to find employment in the armed forces, government, consultancies and non-governmental organisations, as well as academia. Many students have attested that the Policy Recommendation exercises have been particularly useful in developing their ability to assess real-world data based on wars and conflicts actually happening around the world, and to then produce practical strategies for dealing with them as part of a team, and then report on them in a clear and concise way. Because we sometimes invite former students to the feedback panel sessions who have jobs in the field, it provides potential role models for students and adds to a sense of ‘I can do it too’ belonging. It is also useful in practicing teamwork, leadership and problem-solving and the ability to communicate with the non-academic community, all of which are key employability skills.
What challenges did you encounter and how did you address them?
Confidence building: A particular challenge is getting students who might be approaching what for them is an entirely new experience and one which they might also view with some trepidation to open up to the process. I have found that the best approach is to explain it to them early in as much detail as possible and to then keep reminding them of what I have told them alongside getting in professional experts, including retired and serving military personnel, to talk them through the basics of appreciating a situation and coming up with a plan for dealing with it. This allows them to embed in the process at a comfortable pace over the course of a term, rather than quickly and against the clock.
Class size and scalability: Although this is an option module, there are sometimes 70+ students in some years. This means that the individual teams have often been large, with over a dozen members each. Research shows that the optimal group size should be 4/5 in order to prevent freeloading and dominance/reticence. To address this, I devised an expanding range of roles (see above) for individual team members and tasks so each person has to take responsibility for something specific in the group. Also, the policy recommendation classes at the end of the year are longer than in previous years, having now expanded to 2.5 hours from ninety minutes, and time-management of these classes often has to be very tight.
Inclusivity: Another logistical issue is that in order for the team-based exercises to work effectively, it is essential that all seminar groups be kept to approximately the same size. This can be difficult at times when the class includes numbers of part-time students with outside commitments precluding them from attending at certain times. However, the rotation of tasks within the teams is designed to alleviate this, and I accept that some students will choose to take less of a prominent role in the presentation and more of a role in the report.
What advice would you give to colleagues who are thinking of trying this type of assessment?
- This needs careful planning and preparation and as with all assessments, consider whether it really measures your learning outcomes. It strikes me as being particularly appropriate for modules where an ability to apply learning to real-world scenarios is central to these learning outcomes and the approach to teaching and learning is pro-active throughout.
- You will need to be very careful in selecting the scenarios for the assessment. Of course, the task would need to be adapted for your context but is certainly applicable for health-related subjects where there are policy concerns, for example. In the case of modules covering any contemporary global situations, you will need to keep all or most of them up to date in order to engage student interest. It might be possible to have your students choose their own scenario at level 7.
- It is crucial that you begin explaining the process to the students as early as possible (or appropriate) so they can take it on board at a comfortable pace – this can be particularly important if your group contains students for whom this might be a new departure.
- It can also be of great help if you can get professional experts involved in a formative feedback process, not only providing constructive criticism but also alternative ways of looking at the scenarios presented. This is where our distinguished visiting professors, alumni and industry or health partners can be a useful resource.