Academic Exchange Quarterly     Winter   2006    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  10, Issue  4

To cite, use print source rather than  this on-line version which  may not  reflect print copy format requirements or   text lay-out and pagination.



Exploring Political Science’s Signature Pedagogy


Mary C. Murphy, Department of Government, University College Cork, Ireland.

Theresa Reidy, Department of Government, University College Cork, Ireland.


Mary C. Murphy and Theresa Reidy are lecturers in the Department of Government, University College Cork, Ireland.




The international political science community has demonstrated a reluctance to engage with the discourse of education. Academics tend to be concerned chiefly with political science as an academic discipline and not with political science as a form of education. This article explores the similarities and differences in the signature pedagogy of political science across a number of countries. It outlines the emergence and resilience of the pedagogy, its impact on student learning and its future evolution.



Shulman (2005a: 1) identifies signature pedagogies as “types of teaching that organize the fundamental ways in which future practitioners are educated for their profession”. This recognises a link between what is taught in the classroom and what is required in the workplace. There are three dimensions to any single signature pedagogy - the surface structure, the deep structure and the implicit structure (see Shulman 2005a). Implicitly and collectively, these facets of the signature pedagogy define the culture of a discipline and profession.


The Signature Pedagogy of Political Science

There are many factors at play when discussing the signature teaching styles within political science. Sorokos (in Gregusova (ed), 2005) argues that the role of the political science teacher is to help students develop critical minds. The idea of critical thinking is one that is common across the humanities and social sciences. The critical thinking theme is also explored by Martin (in Fry, Ketteridge and Marshall, 2003). He argues that in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, students engage with a body of knowledge, rather than being trained in specific skills. In the course of this engagement, students acquire methods of understanding and become analytical in their approach to the material.


There is an important distinction to be made between the professions and academic disciplines. Political science is an academic discipline and it is not primarily geared towards training for a specific profession. There is no single career path for students of the discipline. Political science education equips students with a wide variety of transferable skills and most importantly, an enquiring and critical mind. Students can enter a wide variety of employments in diverse sectors.


Political science may not be a professional area but Shulman’s concept of disciplinary styles can provide important insights into the culture and pedagogy of political science. There are specific styles of teaching which are common across the discipline and there is an emerging emphasis on teaching styles that encourage critical thinking in the student. In the course of a political science education students are treated as independent learners and the styles of teaching reflect this.


According to Garrett: ‘The developing nature of each subject suggests that the individual disciplines of the social sciences are growing apart’ (1999:310). A difference is emerging between the more practical and skills based disciplines of economics and psychology and the discursive disciplines such as sociology and political science. As a consequence, the pedagogy of political science has in some cases remained relatively traditional and static in orientation. The signature teaching styles are those traditionally associated with the humanities and social sciences, a reliance on lectures, tutorials and private study tend to be the teaching and learning staple of the discipline.


The large lecture is the dominant experience for many political science undergraduates across Europe. The mass lecture stands out in social science education. It is usually non-participatory and very definitely, teacher centred. The standard lecture in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences is discussed in many works and the report is invariably unflattering (Martin in Fry, Ketteridge and Marshall, 2003), (Goldsmith and Berndtson, 2002) and (Shulman, 2005b). Despite all the criticism, it remains the principle teaching tool and Martin (in Fry, Ketteridge and Marshall, 2003) argues that the rapid increase in student numbers in European universities since the 1990s has actually resulted in greater use of lectures, even at a time when there is growing concern about the effectiveness of lecturing as a teaching method.


Apart from the standard lecture many students of political science will experience small group teaching. Tutorials to supplement/accompany lectures are offered in the early years of programmes with seminar style sessions, usually in the later stages of the programme. The disciplinary style in political science evolves as students proceed through their political science education. The early experience is of passive learning in large lectures but final year courses can be demanding, requiring students to take theoretical concepts and actively apply them to a real-life situation in small classes. Sorokos (in Gregusova (ed), 2005) believes students should reach a scholarly level of discussion within these classes.


Boggard, Carey, Dodd, Repath and Whitaker (2005) argue that in political science, the opportunity for deep learning is greatly enhanced by small group teaching. Their work suggests that surface learning is more likely to occur in a large lecture. It is only in small classes that students have the opportunity to engage directly with the material, an experience which is required for deep learning to occur. Across the discipline, the importance of small group teaching is widely accepted. The “Oxford tutorial” style is much discussed and appreciated (Petzschmann in Gregusova (ed) 2005), yet there is limited use of it as a teaching tool. With critical thinking as a central tenet of political science education, it is surely a limitation that the disciplinary style provides only limited access to small group teaching where critical engagement with material is most likely to occur.


The signature pedagogy of political science is essentially, a combination of large lecture and smaller group sessions. The style mix is usually determined more by the educational system within the country than by educational principles. Ireland and the UK lean towards the larger lecture, whereas some universities on continental Europe provide more opportunities for small group teaching and learning. Ironically, Shulman (2005b) argues that the large lecture is in fact the signature pedagogy of all liberal arts education but that smaller group sessions should be the signature style.


It is inaccurate to see signature pedagogies as unchanging and inflexible. Small group teaching is increasing, as is training in the use of new technologies. Lee (2003) argues that political science teaching has been heavily influenced by technological advances and that teaching has embraced new developments. This has altered the disciplinary style somewhat and is making an important contribution to political science education.


The signature pedagogy is more complex than the teaching styles of the discipline. Shulman argues that the way knowledge is treated within a discipline is a central feature of the pedagogy. This has particular relevance for political science which is divided by a methodological schism. The qualitative/quantitative divide greatly influences what is accepted as knowledge on each side of the divide. It also impacts on a further element of Shulman’s signature pedagogy, the idea of judgements and values within a discipline. Furthermore, the discipline has been influenced both by normative arguments and by behaviouralism [1]. There has been extensive discussion of this divide and also of how it impacts upon students [2].


The divide is most evident in comparisons between the US and Europe. American political science was heavily influenced by the behaviouralist revolution of the 1950s and it has become a dominant feature of the discipline there. Rigorous methodological training is a central part of political science education. European political science education is more diverse and in the case of the Republic of Ireland, and the UK, the qualitative approach has often been at the forefront.


Accounting for the Signature Pedagogy

The absence of a professional or vocational component to the political science discipline is one means of accounting for why the signature pedagogy has become the dominant approach. Garrett outlines the functions of the key aspects of the political science pedagogy - lectures (to set the scene), tutorials (to discuss, analyse or apply) and private study (to develop underpinning knowledge) (1999:313). Collectively and implicitly, these contribute to the acquisition of key cognitive, analytical, communication, technical, social and IT skills. In other words, the signature pedagogy is an effective means of achieving the key learning outcomes associated with political science, hence its endurance is understandable. However, the challenges to the traditional political science pedagogy should not be overlooked. Resource issues and increasing research demands are increasingly the drivers of university priorities and the implications for pedagogy are significant.


The rapid growth in student numbers in European universities since the 1990s has resulted in more lecture-based teaching and reduced small group teaching. Growth in student numbers without parallel growth in staff numbers has reduced the capacity of departments to provide seminars, tutorials and small class sizes.


A further factor impacting on the political science pedagogy is the changing nature of the university environment. Third-level institutions are increasingly focusing on research as the driver of educational development. Although some recent developments challenge this view, [3] many suggest that the result is a diminished respect for teaching within the third level sector [4]. The political science community is in some ways complicit here. It prioritises research and has not engaged in any considered discourse on the subject of teaching and learning.


For example, the Political Studies Association of Ireland has not developed any discussion on teaching and learning in political science, Irish Political Studies does not publish material/research on teaching (most likely because Irish political scientists are not producing such material) and annual conferences do not typically address questions of pedagogy. The Irish experience is not unusual in this context and the same point can be made about the Political Studies Association (UK) and the European Consortium for Political Research. The research emphasis within the political science community does not extend to the subject of teaching and learning. This is not to suggest that the process of teaching and learning in political science is flawed or unsound. On the contrary, despite the many challenges, political science as a discipline remains respected. Nevertheless, a more considered awareness and collective discourse on the issue of teaching and learning may result in the evolution of a form of teaching which is innovative, creative and increasingly relevant to today’s changing global environment [5].


Motivating Students & Enhancing Learning

Political sciences’ signature pedagogy has remained relatively static. A traditional reliance on lectures, tutorials and private study remains the contemporary basis for teaching and learning in political science. Although the format has its merits, it also has its shortcomings, particularly in the context of the contemporary university environment.


A new university environment has been created as a consequence of wider social and economic changes. Biggs notes that:


In the days when university classes contained highly selected students, enrolled in their faculty of choice, the traditional lecture and tutorial seemed to work well enough. However, the expansion, restructuring and refinancing of the tertiary sector in the 1990s has meant that classes are not only larger but quite diversified in terms of student ability, motivation and cultural background (1999:1).


This is a considerable challenge facing the political science discipline. Goldsmith & Berndtson suggest that:


As labour markets and students demand more specialised knowledge, old traditional disciplines, such as political science and sociology, may not be as attractive to students as they used to be (2002:70).


This manifests itself in a situation whereby the character of political science students is changing. The challenge for lecturers is to motivate (and inspire) a body of students who are increasingly job oriented and less likely to value education for the sake of education. Furthermore, as higher education becomes increasingly accessible, the quality of students also changes as entry requirements for political science courses fall. This creates new expectations and challenges for the teaching and learning experience. However, the signature pedagogy has not changed significantly. According to Garrett: ‘What has changed is the style, content and often the process of each of these activities’ (1999:313). Lecturing styles have become more interactive, small group work has become more effective and inclusive, information technology is increasingly central to the delivery of lectures and private study is informed by academic advice on reading lists and internet sources.


Teaching however is only one means of motivating students and encouraging learning. One of the key dilemmas for political science lecturers is that motivating a new era of students can be nigh impossible when an appreciation of education is based solely on its outputs. For disciplines such as political science, which is neither professional nor vocational in orientation, motivating and inspiring becomes a particularly difficult challenge which requires marrying creativity and innovation with respect for the tradition and integrity of the discipline.



Learning from the Pedagogies of Other Disciplines

Shulman notes that signature pedagogies, despite their distinctiveness, also share a set of common features which have proven to be durable and robust components of the teaching and learning process.


Indeed I believe these features evolved precisely because they contribute to increasing student learning of professionally valued understandings, skills and dispositions (Shulman, 2005a)


Political sciences’ reliance on the traditional format of lectures, tutorials and private study may appear outdated. However, for many political science lecturers, the format works. There is an increasing literature and discourse on new and innovative approaches to the teaching of political science. Change however, has been slow and incremental and has largely taken place ‘within the traditional teaching framework rather than in radical departures from it’ (Garrett, 1999:312).


Unlike professional education, the study of political science is in many ways about learning for the sake of learning and knowledge, it is not about learning to engage in practice (see Shulman, 2005b). As Garrett points out: ‘The subjects [social sciences] are seen as academic rather than vocational or professional’ (1999:312). This therefore imposes some limits on teaching and learning experimentation within the discipline. That is not to suggest however, that little can be learned from teaching and learning practices within other disciplines. On the contrary, political science has much to learn from the approaches and practices of other disciplines. However, the extent to which the teaching of political science can be radically changed is open to question.


The learning of a range of skills is implicit in the current methods used to teach political science in universities. The emergence of techniques such as enquiry based learning in the human and physical sciences have greatly enhanced skills based learning. Political science could benefit from greater engagement with these techniques. In particular, enquiry based learning has a lot to offer political science.




An increasing engagement and awareness of the issues around teaching and learning is likely to further develop and improve traditional teaching practices. The discipline has witnessed greater diversity in relation to forms of assessment and the effective use of information technology. Many of these developments have been a consequence of engagement with other disciplines. This engagement however is limited in its impact, allowing political science to maintain a signature pedagogy which has evolved yet remains distinct and effective.



[1] Behaviouralism is an approach to the study of political science which concentrates on observable patterns of behaviour which must be susceptible to empirical testing. For a more detailed discussion, see March and Stoker, 2002.

[2] For an example, see Rothstein, 2004.

[3] For example, a number of European universities offer postgraduate programmes in teaching and learning; recognize excellence in teaching by awarding funding and teaching awards to academic staff; and engage in quality processes.

[4] New university funding models which disproportionately reward research; restructuring of academic departments; proposals to introduce performance related pay for professorial staff; and the introduction of staff performance and development review policies implicitly suggest that research is increasingly seen as the primary output of  universities.

[5] Experiments in the use of Enquiry-Based Learning, for example, may prove useful and effective for the development of teaching practice in political science. Other non-Irish political science associations and academics have engaged with wider debates on the teaching of political science and the social relevance of the discipline (see for example Donovan & Larkin, 2006; Gregusova, 2005).




Biggs, John (1999) Teaching for quality learning at university, Buckingham: Open University Press


Boggard, A., Carey, S.C., Dodd, G., Repath, I.D., and Whitaker, R., (2005) ‘Small Group Teaching: Perceptions and Problems’, Politics, Vol. 25.


Cannon, Robert and Newble, David (2000) A handbook for teachers in universities and colleges: A guide to improving teaching methods, 4th edition, London: Kogan Page Limited


Donovan, Claire and Larkin Phil (2006) ‘The problem of political science and practical politics’, Politics, Vol. 26.


Fry, H., Ketteridge, S., and Marshall, S., (eds) (2003) A Handbook of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. UK: Routledge Falmer.


Garrett, Helen (1999) ‘Key aspects of teaching and learning in the social sciences and law’, in Fry, Heather; Ketteridge, Steve and Marshall, Stephanie (eds.) A handbook for teaching and learning in Higher Education: Enhancing academic practice, London: Kogan Page Limited, pp. 309-28


Goldsmith, M., and Berndtson, E., (2002) ‘Teaching Challenges for Political Science in Europe’, European Political Science, Vol. 1.3.


Gregusova, G., (ed) (2005) How To Teach Political Science; The Experience of First Time University Teachers, Vol 2., Budapest: epsNet.


Huber, M.T., and Morreale, S.P., (2002) Disciplinary Styles in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning; Exploring Common Ground, USA: American Association of Higher Education.


Lee, D., (2003) ‘New Technologies in the Politics Classroom: Using Internet Teaching to Support Teaching and Learning’, Politics, Vol. 23.


Marsh, D., and Stoker, G., (eds) (2002) Theory and Methods in Political Science, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


Rothstein, B., (2004) ‘Is Political Science Producing Technically Competent Barbarians’, European Political Science, Vol. 1.


Shulman, L.S., (2005a) ‘Signature Pedagogies in the Professions’, Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. Summer 2005.


Shulman, L.S., (2005b) ‘Pedagogies of Uncertainty’, Liberal Education.