Using Background Memos as a Teaching Tool

Last week, I concluded a successful ViaX workshop on policy responses to COVID-19. One important component of this workshop was a policy simulation, where the students developed possible responses to COVID-19 in Pakistan.


A key challenge with this simulation was background knowledge. I specifically chose to focus on a country that was mostly unfamiliar to the students, so that everyone would have to learn about the situation and think on their feet. How to ensure students would be prepared to do this?


I found a good solution in background memos. Two weeks before the simulation, I gave each student the same instructions to prepare a 2-page note on COVID-19 in Pakistan. The memo was to cover both the public health crisis and government response. The memo was due one week before the simulation itself.


After reviewing the student memos, I gave students some general feedback and then – this is the important part – shared all memos with the entire class. That way students were able to learn from each other and fill gaps.


Overall, I found the quality of the student memos excellent. Nonetheless, students focused on different things, and reviewing other students’ memos ensured that everyone was on the same page.


In the future, I plan to use this approach again. It works really well in a small seminar without modifications. But even in a larger class, students could be randomly assigned to small groups, such that each student in a group reviewers memos written by the other group members. This approach keeps the effort at a reasonable level, yet enables collective learning.


About the Author

Johannes Urpelainen is the Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Professor and Director of Energy, Resources and Environment at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (Washington DC, USA). He is the Founding Director of the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy (ISEP). He serves as a senior advisor for ViaX Online Education, a a Beijing-based learning and education company.


Johannes Urpelainen works as a senior advisor for ViaX Online Education. The views presented in this blog are the author’s alone.