Teaching Math and Programming in Political Science: Best Practices for Common Challenges


Designed and Led by:

Shiro Kuriwaki (website) and Soichiro Yamauchi (website)

Department of Government, Harvard University

For advice on the content of this course, the instructors thank Matt Reichert (Department of Government, Pedagogy Fellow) and Dustin Tingley (Deputy Vice Provost for Advances in Learning). For helpful discussion and advice we also thank Joe Blitzstein, Peter Buisseret, David Kane, and Tyler Simko.

Date and Time

Thursday January 21, 2021, 10am to 12pm

(A total of 16 students, mostly PhD students in Government, participated for this session).


Teaching fellows in the social sciences increasingly teach programming and math in social science departments. However, traditional TF training often omits this content. Therefore TFs often reinvent the wheel and over-invest in lesson planning. This session prepares for such classes. Happening the week before Spring classes and intended for students who have already had done the department TF training, we will focus on actionable techniques and concrete questions. We will (1) collect and synthesize common challenges in our teaching, (2) introduce best practices for designing exercises, and (3) improve each of our sections based on a case discussion.

Who is this training for?

Our goal will be to provide immediately actionable plans for TFs. We expect a small group discussion of about a dozen Gov students, with most having some experience teaching programming and/or methods courses, and completing the Gov department’s pedagogy course (Gov 3002). However, prior teaching is not a prerequisite and any Gov student interested in the content is welcome. By participating in this training, students will gain immediately actionable tools to design a section in the Spring semester. We will synthesize our collective experience, rather than having to reinvent the wheel. Ideas and data collected as a part of this session will be valuable data to circulate outside the Gov department and Harvard.

Pre-class work

To maximize the effectiveness of the time together, we ask attendees to do two things beforehand. (1) Evaluate the open-text comments of the teaching evaluations they have received in the Fall and summarize in this form. (2) Read a case we prepared on a particular section design, which includes a 60-minute recording of a section, and consider the discussion questions in the case.

Lesson Plan

This plan was designed for a group of 16 people on Zoom, divided into four breakout groups.

Introductions 15 min
Identifying Common Challenges 25 min
Inclusive Explanation 20 min
Informative Exercises 10 min
(break) 10 min
Designing Section 35 min
Wrap-up 5 min

Identifying Common Challenges

What to infer from course evaluations


Watch and discuss: If you were a student, what would discourage you from learning?

Informative Exercises

Cognitive Load and Formative Assessments

Designing Section

Code Demonstrations, Problem Set Design

Discussion question based on a a case: 50 minute recording from Soichiro’s section that participants were asked to watch beforehand


More Information

For more information on the slides and videos used, please do not hesitate to contact Shiro Kuriwaki.