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Teach What You Preach: A Comprehensive Guide to the Policy Memo as a Methods Teaching Tool

The policy memo is particularly suited for introducing basic methodological concepts to upper-division undergraduate students of political science, argues Oriana Skylar Mastro.
Portrait of Oriana Skylar Mastro and cover of the Journal of Political Science Education

Students and instructors alike have lamented the nature of methods instruction in political science curricula. Existing research has presented a number of innovative approaches to engage students in this important learning enterprise, from blogging and simulations to data visualization and the use of clickers. This article builds upon this literature by arguing that the policy memo is particularly suited for introducing basic methodological concepts to upper-division undergraduate students.

To facilitate its use for this purpose in addition to its utility as a knowledge assessment tool, Oriana Skylar Mastro offers a policy memo template based on over ten years of experience as a strategist and analyst in the U.S. military. The article also includes a detailed description of the basic methodological concepts that can be developed through each section of the template. Specifically, the policy memo can be used to introduce students to concepts like identifying a critical research question, defining and measuring variables, conducting a literature review, developing hypotheses, using data to assess hypotheses, evaluating the authoritativeness of sources, and devising the theoretical implications of one’s research.

Mastro presents some preliminary results that support the policy memo’s inclusion as a tool of methods instruction, but the pedagogical literature — which argues for integrative, experiential, relevant, and short assignments — provides the strongest rationale for its use.