Published: May 19, 2021 By

In PSCI 3211 The Politics of Economic Inequality in the U.S., the goals of the course include: understanding the political causes of economic inequality; identifying the political factors that cause or alleviate economic inequality; and considering political changes that could reduce forms of economic inequality that are unfair and/or socially and politically damaging.

In class discussions, activities, and papers, students often seem unable or reluctant to identify the causes and causal mechanisms of economic inequality. I use a thought exercise called counterfactual thinking in discussions to try to get students to “imagine a different world,” and unfortunately, it often falls flat. A counterfactual requires the student to identify a causal relationship and consider what would have happened to the dependent variable if the value of the independent variable had been different. Students who can identify the causes and imagine how things could be different are more likely to feel confident that they have the ability to make meaningful political change (Ripley 2007, listed in “resources” below).

Causality is fundamental to thinking like a social scientist but is quite complicated for students to learn. Causality is vital to both understanding and being able to engage in social science research and also in applying a social science education to the real-world problems of political life. Counterfactuals are a helpful tool.

What we did in PSCI 3211

We engaged in a series of three activities over the course of the semester. Each activity had two parts: the first and last activity involved a Canvas component and an in-person component; and the second activity required completing a reading outside class and an in-person component. I was fortunate to be able to pilot this in a small honors section of the course, as the standard class size for this course is approximately 45 students—perhaps too unwieldy for a good pilot run. 

Students identified a causal relationship and wrote a causal statement regarding one Constitutional cause of economic inequality in the U.S. Then, they each wrote a counterfactual statement changing the condition of that Constitutional cause (such as, if the Supreme Court had ruled a different way or a Constitutional amendment had been passed or not passed). The statements were submitted on Canvas for review. Next, we worked on several of these counterfactual statements as an in-class group activity, focusing on the causal mechanisms and the dependent and independent variables involved. 

Students read a social science research article using quantitative counterfactual analysis and discussed counterfactual reasoning and the causal mechanisms in class. We focused on how current conditions of economic inequality (dependent variable) would be different if different policy choices had been made (independent variables).

Students located and posted a news article on Canvas about a public policy that either alleviates or causes economic inequality. In class, we worked together on thinking through and writing counterfactual statements for what would have happened to economic inequality if a different policy decision had been in place. 

What I learned

Using a mix of in-person and online technology for conducting these activities was helpful. Having everyone’s prepared contributions available on Canvas was a transparent way to ensure that everyone “did their part” to prepare for the group activity. Practically speaking, it was also a safe way during the COVID-19 pandemic to do something we might otherwise do in small, in-person groups. Having the materials available for the class later on was helpful but conducting the interactive part of the activities in class was also beneficial. Students were able to have back-and-forth discussions and work through their causal reasoning in real time in a way that would be more difficult online. Doing this series of activities in a “hybrid” fashion makes sense moving into the future. 

From an inclusive pedagogy perspective, this set of activities worked reasonably well. Commonly in group activities, the same people take the lead. This approach allowed me to pick the most innovative or interesting causal statements and contributions and use them as starting points. Because everyone was required to post, students who participate infrequently in-person were brought into the classroom discussion. Having the preparation online also meant that students were able to spend as much time as they needed or wanted to on each activity without accommodation. In the future, I would do more to ensure that the wider participation continued more substantially in the classroom. This was somewhat challenging with COVID-19 constraints, as some students are more reluctant than others to speak in masks and we were unable to move around in small groups. 

Overall, the activities were successful in helping students to better understand causality and to have a clearer understanding of how policy choices shape economic inequality in the United States.

Teaching tips and techniques

Building scaffolding into the series of activities was important. Students needed to see examples of causal statements and build their skills step-by-step. We started relatively simply with logical counterfactual statements, moving on to read a more sophisticated quantitative counterfactual analysis, and then, to working on more complicated counterfactual statements together. 

Going back and forth between reading and sharing examples, and then creating their own causal statements and counterfactuals is helpful. The iterative “learn, do, learn, do” was an essential part of the process.

Assessing student learning

I conducted an optional survey to learn about students’ experiences. In the survey results, 85% of students accurately defined a counterfactual (11 of 13 respondents, class of 16 students). This provides evidence that the learning objective of understanding counterfactuals was achieved.

In the same survey, students were asked whether they thought that learning about counterfactuals has been helpful in understanding causality in the context of politics and economic inequality. Twelve of 13 respondents answered “yes,” and one answered “somewhat.” They were also asked, “do you think learning about counterfactuals has been helpful in understanding how political change could be achieved in the context of economic inequality?” Twelve of 13 students answered “yes” and one answered “somewhat.”

I used specification grading to assess individual students. If students completed all portions of the activity, they received the points allocated to the activity. Students who were unavailable for the in-person portion were offered an alternative activity. Using specification grading, but with the check of assessing whether the assignments are meeting course goals is a way to reduce the stress on students and the grading burden of low-stakes assignments. 

Future questions and next steps

I would like to assign more readings that involve counterfactual thinking. Students would benefit from a wider variety of examples. 

I plan on working to make the in-person part of the activities even more inclusive; particularly, students need clearer expectations of what is expected of them in the in-person portion of the activities. In addition, it would be helpful to give students options on how they want to make their in-person contributions. Once we are able to get into small groups, I hope to be able to have students sign up for different tasks for the in-person activities, including spokesperson, online scribe, writing on the board for the group, etc. This should carry the expanded participation that occurs on Canvas into the classroom and hopefully beyond the discrete activities.

Janet L. Donavan is a faculty member in Political Science at CU Boulder. 

Further reading and resources:

Kachani, Soulaymane, Katherine Ross and Amanda Irvin. 2020. “Five Principles as Pathways to Inclusive Teaching,” Teaching Today: Inside Higher Ed. February 19.

Nilson, Linda B. 2016. “Yes Virginia, There’s a Better Way to Grade,” Inside Higher Ed. January 19.

Price, Carter C. and Kathryn A. Edwards. 2020. “Working Paper: Trends in Income from 1975-2018.” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation Education and Labor. September.

Ripley, Brian. 2007. “Causation, Counterfactuals and Critical Reading in the Active Classroom,” International Studies Perspectives 8:303-314.