Sara Mitchell, Political Science

Initial Publication Date: November 11, 2013

Sara Mitchell is a professor of Political Science at the University of Iowa, a public 4-year research institution. Information for this case study was obtained from an interview conducted on September 9th, 2013. This page is part of a collection of profiles about a variety of techniques for integrating Quantitative Reasoning (QR) across the curriculum.

Jump down to Design and Implementation of QR Goals | Key QR Assignment of the Course | Challenges | Advice | Documents

Overview and Context

About the Course

The course is called International Conflict. I usually have about 32 to 42 students in the class. We have a new international relations major as of last year, and this class is required for students in that major. The audience of the class includes political science majors and international relations majors. There are occasionally students majoring in history, journalism and even engineering in the class.

Students tend to be upper-division students, so juniors and seniors. But, now that the course is required for the international relations major, I'm expecting that we'll probably have a larger number of younger students. In the past, it was just an elective that students could take for political science credit.

I have taught this course for over ten years.

Syllabus for International Conflict (Acrobat (PDF) 26kB Oct31 13)

Key QR Assignment Description (links to section in this page)

How Quantitative Reasoning (QR) and Literacy are Approached

I tend to focus my courses on quantitative literacy, so that students gain the ability to read articles with statistical analysis or formal models. At the undergraduate level, I don't have students engage in research themselves unless it's a research methods class. In research methods courses, there would be even more emphasis on quantitative reasoning, where students are actually using data or SPSS or other programs to do their own statistical analysis.

That said, I'd say my assignments do teach quantitative reasoning by teaching students how to apply the concepts they learn in class. In the International Conflict class, one of my goals is to get students more able to read the studies with quantitative models or analysis so that they have the ability to understand the basic research approach. For example, if there's a table of predictive probabilities I want students to understand "what is the logic of how those were generated?", and "how do I interpret those probabilities?" Students also write basic descriptions of data and graphs to show trends such as the relative changes in power between entities over time. They use quite a bit of quantitative reasoning discussing and writing about how data applies to the theory.

But I don't go so far as to say, "Here's a dataset. Develop your own project." I rely on structured assignments and walk students through the process of linking data to theory.

Design and Implementation of QR Goals

Motivation to integrate QR

For me, I feel personally convicted to use quantitative information in my teaching. I was trained throughout graduate school to use quantitative methods. It's the way that I do research.

My desire to teach quantitative reasoning stems from the combination of seeing the quantitative approach in my economics courses along having a substantive interest in the study of war. Because of my background, I try to integrate both approaches in my teaching. During my undergraduate education, I was a political science and economics major. I noticed as an undergrad that there was a divide. Some of my courses were focused very heavily on learning history or events. Other courses I took focused more on theories and formal models. These courses gave me a brief introduction to aspects of the scientific study of international relations. When I got to graduate school, I took classes with people who used quantitative approaches.

QR goals

I think a lot of political science majors don't think about the science in political science. I want students to be able to think about the concepts of testing hypotheses, measuring concepts, and thinking about "how do you go from theory to empirical testing?" To meet that goal, we talk about research design questions and whether those research design choices are good or bad. We talk about "how do you interpret the findings from a fiscal model?" and "what are the limitations of those models?"

Pedagogic approaches used

I run the class as a discussion every day. We typically work through an article to determine what the theory is that underlies the research, what the hypotheses are, how the researchers measured their concepts, and what the statistical approaches are that the authors used. Then we go through the tables of results in class. Since we do this regularly in class, I think the repetition of that approach is successful in getting students to read the research in a different way.

The Key QR Assignment of the course (described below) is conducted as a group project. While students are skeptical of this approach, they seem to enjoy it more than they anticipate.

This summer, I taught the course online and the projects were done online which I was skeptical about. I had students write their group projects on the Wiki software that is part of Iowa's ICON system (an online learning management system like Blackboard). I definitely found that the Wiki was a useful pedagogical tool. Students wrote their draft in the system and then the they were required to comment on other students' drafts in their group. I found that the approach worked really well. It's something that I'll use in a regular semester because it provided a way for me to see who was doing what and when and also gave students a way to have a structure for commenting on each other's writing. The Wiki provided a place for them to communicate with each other more easily as well. Another approach I used was to assign group leaders. I think that worked well because it allowed me to communicate with one person in the group and also allowed the leader to organize group meetings to keep everybody on track to finish the assignment.

Knowing the course is successful

There are several indicators that I use to measure the success of the course. I look at how students score on exams. I look at course evaluations. I get feedback individually from students. I look at enrollment patterns to see if people are saying good things about my class so that other students want to enroll. I also think how well they do on the group project provides a really good indicator of whether or not students can take what they learn in the class and apply it to a specific scenario.

Another way I know the course is successful is because in the beginning of the class, most students skip over the tables presented in text altogether. By the end of the course, they're not only reading the tables, but actually asking questions about them. So students will raise their hand and say "Can you explain to me in Table 3 why this number looks like this?" or "I don't understand why the number of cases in this table is this."

Key QR Assignment of the Course

The purpose of this group assignment is for students to interpret and describe real war data for a variety of factors to apply theories learned in class and to determine whether the countries involved will fight again in the following 5 years. This assignment is presented in the form of a group paper and a class presentation along with a shorter individual reflection paper. The assignment spans the entire semester.

In the past, I used to have students individually write a paper that described different interstate wars. However, In recent years, I've focused more on organizing a paper as a group project. I usually have five to seven students per group. I might have around six groups typically. Students are given the assignment the first week of class, and then the presentations don't occur until the last week. Students can work on the assignment all semester.

I give all groups of students numerical data from one actual case such as Israel and Egypt from 1948 to 1978 or the United Kingdom and the United States in the 1800s. I give them actual data from the Correlates of War project on their military expenditures and military personnel, GDP and their regime type. I fabricate data for public opinion scores.

In addition to the numerical data, I also give them information about whether the countries have border disputes, whether they have nuclear weapons, etc. I rename the countries, say Mars and Venus, and I also change the years. I make it so that the end year is the current year, regardless of the case. That way, students don't know what years or which countries actually are involved.

Students write a group 10-page paper making predictions and then explaining how the theories taught in class would help them make a prediction about each of the pieces of data I have provided. The students also have to make a prediction about whether those countries will fight within the next five years based on the data that they're given.

Then, I have them do a PowerPoint presentation where they present their findings to the class. Since all groups are working with the same data, I randomly select which group will present the project (students don't like that part). They don't know until the day of class which group is actually going to present. I think this approach works pretty well, however. It gets all students ready to present the project.

In their presentations, students present graphs. This means that they have decided to create those graphs from the data they were given since I don't provide data in graphical form. The graphs show if one side becomes stronger than the other in that time period and illustrate other factors the group is trying to illustrate. Other ways they present the data are by providing basic descriptions of the data. Students use quite a bit of quantitative reasoning in talking about how the data applies to the theories learned in class.

The last component of the assignment is an individual 2-page paper that describes what they learned about the study of war, and to address if we can we make predictions, using the kind of quantitative indicators that I provide them with.

This assignment is part of an online instructor supplement for a textbook that I recently co-authored with John Vasquez, through CQ Press called Conflict, War, and Peace. The textbook is designed for instructors who want to teach a scientific study of war. (Contact CQ Press for instructor access to get a copy of this activity)


  • Skepticism about the quantitative approach: I think there's some segment of the population that is skeptical of a quantitative approach. I think some people who have this bias think numbers lie or numbers are used to manipulate what people think. I sometimes have had students who are just skeptical all the way through a semester which can really be a challenge.
  • Student discomfort with the lack of 'one right answer': Students often say that they feel like there's no right or wrong answer to a question. Usually, when I teach them about a particular approach, we read two sides of a debate. And they can be frustrated by the fact that the evidence doesn't always come down on only one side of that debate. For students who are looking for a right answer for an exam, this can be frustrating. But, in the social sciences, that represents how our research discipline is actually structured. We have debates, we don't always agree, and we have evidence published on more than one side of a debate. What I'm teaching them to do is to sift through different arguments that are in opposition to each other and think about which argument is more persuasive and why.


  • Make sure you personally want to add QR: I think, first of all, there has to be basic buy-in to the quantitative approach. You as an instructor have to buy into it. You have to have personal conviction to use this approach. My background has taught me the value in a variety of perspectives, so I personally try to teach more than one perspective. This is one way for me to achieve that goal.
  • Have a full project in mind: I think you have to have some kind of project in mind in order to address QR. The students often report that they learn more about the theories of war by doing the group project than by studying for the test. And I think that makes sense because with the group project, they actually have to look at numbers and figure out how the data relate back to the theories that they read. I think it works better to have a full project in mind where students can fully understand the connections between theory and data.
  • Use high quality materials you find online, like simulations: Like I said, I think it works better if there's some kind of project or activity or multiple activities that gets students involved in applying what they have learned. One of the things that I do when I teach an introductory course in international relations is I have students do simulations. For example, if I talked about the prisoners' dilemma as a model, then students might do a simulation to have them play the prisoners' dilemma game. There are a couple of war simulations out there that are very good, too. There is even a model out there right now that is a whole semester long simulation where the students actually play as countries and make decisions about how to build up their arms or not and who to attack or not attack. They can form alliances. There's also a version of the game Diplomacy that I've seen many reviews of. I think any of those activities are fun for the students and they help students apply the concepts, even if it's in a hypothetical case, which can help them build quantitative reasoning abilities by making connections between data and theory.


Syllabus for International Conflict (Acrobat (PDF) 26kB Oct31 13)

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