Specifications Grading, Attempt 1, Day 0

Hello, ALPS readers! I’m back after a long summer and spring sabbatical, and am eager to get back in the classroom and talk all things pedagogy here on ALPS. I’m starting a new series where I outline in excruciating detail my experiences using Specifications Grading.  I’ll be sharing my materials, talking about the ups and downs, and reflecting on this unique grading system throughout the semester.

We’ve given quite a bit of attention to specifications grading in the past few months. I did a presentation on it at the ALPS workshop at the University of Surrey in May as I started working on adapting one of my own courses to this new system. I also consulted several former students and children-of-friends about what they thought of the system in abstract, and the general consensus ranged from “shrug” to “that might be cool.” Experts in analysis, my young consultants.

In a nutshell, Specifications Grading is a system where all assignments are clearly linked to course learning outcomes, given clear specifications on what students need to do to earn a passing mark, and graded on a pass/fail style system, where a pass is a high bar (typically a B). Assignments are bundled together by learning outcome, and course grades are assigned based on the bundles that students complete. So, higher grades go to students that either complete more bundles (achieving more learning outcomes) or higher-level bundles that demand students complete more complex work. The course also employs flexibility mechanisms such as tokens to let students revise or reattempt a failing assignment, forgive a course absence, or gain some other kind of benefit. This system is supposed to ensure that all students who pass the class are achieving the minimum learning outcomes for the course, but also puts their grade into their hands by removing the mystery behind grades (no longer 170 out of 200 points, but ‘excellent’ ‘satisfactory’ or ‘unsatisfactory) and letting them choose which grade bundle to achieve.

Check out our previous posts for more general information on Specs Grading, or check out this great community of scholars working with the system.. For this new series, I am going to write throughout the semester about my experience in adapting and teaching my research methods course to this system.

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Rethinking my digital ban

I’ve long been a diehard “laptop ban” advocate. Basing this decision first on intuition and later Startup Stock Photoson empirical evidence, it was rarely an issue beyond the initial student grumbling. Among hundreds of student evaluations, a very small handful (less than 5) mentioned it as an issue. Although I included the caveat of “if this is problem for you, please talk to me,” no one ever did. Case closed, or so I thought.

As I’m getting ready for a new term, I read with interest this piece in the Chronicle on starting the semester. Basically, I read the whole piece, nodding along until he got to his critique of the laptop ban. I didn’t think too much of it at first; I have always stated that I’m willing to make accommodations, just no student ever asked. But then I read the piece from Digital Pedagogy Lab he linked to and I’m already singing a different tune.
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A hard disconnect

unplug-98609_960_720Because I live in a country with a sensible attitude towards work conditions, I’m about to go on holiday, even as my American colleagues steel themselves for the run-in to the new academic year.

This time, and for the first time in quite a few years, I’m going to have a hard disconnect during my fortnight away. That means no emails (not even the just-checking-there’s-nothing-urgent peek), no tweeting, not even Facebook (my usual place for non-professional posting).

I could pretend that I’m trying this because of some higher purpose, but largely it’s because I’m exhausted after a really full-on year online. I’d give you figures, but I can’t be bothered to count the regular blogging, the irregular blogging, the webinars, the chats on Twitter, the arguments on Twitter, the online interactions with research partners, the media interviews and the Pokemon Go (and no, not that either on holiday).

Maybe when I come back, I’ll tell you if it’s done me any good. In the meantime, I’d say that I hope you don’t miss me, but I’m well-adjusted enough to know that you’ll probably not even notice.

Have a good break!

Review of Learning Assessment Techniques

LATsSome of more widely-known practical guides for college teaching:

A recent addition to the list is Learning Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Barkley and Manor (2016).

The bulk of this book consists of an easy-to-use directory of assessment techniques, many of which can be found in the other books. Here, however, the emphasis is on how the data generated by each technique can be collected, analyzed, and packaged for dissemination.

The focus on the links between learning goals, learning activities, and outcomes assessment can be summarized with two questions people should be asking themselves:  Continue reading

Why bother podcasting?

2743534799_e1c988d6be_bAs it’s high summer, so thoughts turn to “interesting things I might do”. And one of the things to think about going is podcasting.

This is prompted by a conversation I had over the weekend with a friend who’s an architect. He had recently passed up the opportunity to present his company’s work at a show-casing event because he didn’t feel very confident about his presentation skills, to the point that there were “more downsides than ups” to it all.

Aside from being a shame in itself – he’s a very friendly and engaging personality and nobody likes to miss out on opportunities to sell one’s product – it also highlights the rather particular situation that educators find themselves. As my friend put it, profs get lots of practice at presenting.

Now, as you and I both know – and will recall at the next conference panel we attend – practice does not make prefect. Or even close in many cases. But the point still has something to it: we do spend a fair amount of time talking to rooms of people, so it’s not completely alien to us.

Any how, my suggestion was that my friend try podcasting. It’s good practice at speaking to others – even at a distance – and it invites you to have a focus in what you talk about.

This really matters in presenting. One of my friend’s issues was that his draft talk was rambling and unstructured, again a problem not uncommon in academic circles.

In the 18 months I’ve been running my Diet of Brussels podcast, perhaps the most useful choice I made was to stick to 5 minute long episodes. This was initially based on two key logics: 1) listening to someone talk about the European Union isn’t that interesting, so keep it brief, and 2) 5 minutes would mean prep for each epsiode could be kept to a minimum. So, boredom and laziness then.

But it also had the effect of requiring me to pick very focused topics each time, because it turns out that 5 minutes is very little time indeed. This, in turn, meant that the amount of blathering was cut back, as I tried to make sure I used my short time wisely.

I’m now nearly 200 episodes in and – thanks to the wonders of the British political system – I might now be locked into another 2-15 years of doing it, so I now have a bit more perspective on it all.

Firstly, regular podcasting has been very good for developing my confidence on speaking on various issues. This has been really important for my other work, as a Senior Fellow on the UK in a Changing Europe programme, which involves a lot of dissemination. If nothing else, it’s meant I’ve probably made an episode about whatever topic I might be asked about.

Secondly, podcasting is an excellent adjunct to face-to-face communication, be that teaching or more generally. I’ve been able to use my new skills to enrich what I can offer my students and it’s a very clear gateway into flipping the classroom. It’s also a space into which one can place the lines of further development that might not be possible in your teaching timetable.

Thirdly, it connects you to new audiences. This is a longer-term thing, unless you have a big, read-made group of people waiting for you (and if you’re feeling a bit nervous about it all, then maybe you don’t want a big audience right away). Indeed, because I’ve always worked on the basis that no-one listens to my podcasts, it has been very good for disinhibiting me and making me feel more comfortable about speaking my mind. Hence my continued mild shock whenever someone mentions that they listen to me.

Finally, it’s relatively low-risk. The worst that is likely to happen is that no one does listen to it and you give up. However, that should not be your aim. Instead, if you take it on its intrinsic merits, then it can be really helpful for you: public effects will come later.

So have a look at the technical guide I put together and try it out.

The US Election in a Comparative Context

Teaching in DC, at the #mostpolicallyactivecampus (GWU’s unofficial Twitter hashtag), I decided to embrace all the craziness of the election season and design my Introduction to election2016Comparative Politics syllabus around it. I bring the US in as a point of comparison a lot already – both in formal assignments like debates and informally during class discussion – but this year, I will be more deliberate about it. Knowing my student population, they will be watching debates and following the election like hawks. If I can tap into that enthusiasm, I think it will be a good hook for student engagement. Bonus points if it means they become move critical consumers of news about the election. Continue reading


pokemon-1543353_960_720I’d love to be able to tell you about how you can teach political science using nothing more than Pokemon Go. I’d love it, because it would give some semblance of meaning to the past fortnight, the hours spent hunting down Pokemon and wondering whether I’ll even catch a Jynx.

Sadly, I’m not able to. Not yet.

For those who’ve been living under a rock of late, Pokemon Go is the latest incarnation of the long-running series of games from the Nintendo stable, wherein one attempts to catch a variety of monsters – the eponymous Pokemon. Continue reading