Golden nuggets

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OK, not that complicated…

My university starts later than most: this week is induction for new students and we only begin teaching next Monday. With that in mind, maybe it’s a good time to think about the advice that we give those joining us.

In contrast to US institutions, we ‘own’ our students from the off: they’re on a defined programme of study from day one and the department provides not only teaching, but also pastoral care. That means we get lots of opportunities to socialise our students from the get-go and induction is a key part of this.

Notwithstanding the doubts I have about dumping a big pile of information on these young innocents in their first days – telling people that there is a very long list of vital points to remember isn’t a good pedagogic strategy – it’s the system we have and each summer we talk a lot about how we might run things more effectively.

The upshot this year has been that we’ve tried to cram less in and instead focus more on setting the tone, rather than dip-feeding them. Hence Monday morning’s meeting – the very first we had – was more of a debate than a lecture, putting students front and centre and underlining how it will be their actions and reflection that will drive their learning.

Of course, we also had the usual round of introductions of staff and – since I was first up – I thought I’d give them one piece of advice. Partly that was because I knew it would bounce colleagues coming after me to do the same (which they mostly did), partly to show that we might be useful sources of information and partly because it was the best chance I’ve have to share.

So, of course, you now want to know what I offered them. Nothing more than “get lost”.

Our campus is horribly difficult to navigate – as those of you who’ve visited will know – so this week is the ideal time to find your way around. Just wandering about, getting lost, is great for this, because it helps you discover the many nooks and crannies we have, plus all the short-cuts, and if you’re the person who knows their way around then you’ll find it easier to get talking to other (lost) people, which is nice for getting to feel comfortable.

Interestingly, and without coordination, all the other nuggets of advice my colleagues gave were in the same vein: embrace the opportunities available, be an active participant and so on. Nothing about Politics per se, everything about your personal attitude.

I found this very instructive, because it reminds me once more that university is so much more than an academic learning experience: it’s about one’s general social development. If you’re not willing to open up to new ideas socially and personally, then you’re not going to do that academically. As we like to say to our students: we won’t teach you what to think, but we will teach you to think about what you think.

Since you’ve all gone back already, I’d love to hear what you tell your students and whether it works or not.

Online Learning Teams

John RothgebToday we have a guest post from John M. Rothgeb, Jr., professor of political science at Miami University of Ohio. He can be contacted at rothgejm[at]miamioh[dot]edu.

Do online learning teams help students recall facts and/or analyze political problems? Instructors often use online chat rooms and discussions as convenient tools for engaging teams of students in the process of writing, reading, and reacting, helping them recall information, and giving them opportunities for analyzing problems.  Despite much agreement about the benefits of online teams, there is little evidence supporting their value.

I collected data on this subject from four sections of my introductory world politics course. Two sections from 2014 with a total of 75 students employed online learning teams, and two sections from the Fall of 2015 and Spring of 2016 with a total enrollment of 86 did not.  The classes met at the same time, the same days, in the same classroom, and received the same lectures.

The learning teams were created by randomly assigning five or six students to groups, with each group given its own online chat room.  Students received careful instructions regarding the use of chat rooms.  They were required to post chat room comments at least twice each week, first with a response to the week’s assignment and second with their reaction to other students’ posts. This activity counted for ten percent of the final grade. Students in the sections that did not use online learning teams were instructed to study material on their own.

I assessed students’ learning with in-class exams on conceptual definitions and a take-home essay in which they used theory to analyze an historical event—for example, applying deterrence theory to the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1990.

A chi square analysis showed that students’ grades on exams and the paper assignment did not significantly differ between the sections with the online learning teams and those without. The findings imply that the online learning teams had no effect on student performance.

These results invite reflection as to why online teams did not lead to evidence of superior factual recall or analytical ability.  More than two-thirds of students across all sections earned a B or better on the exams, indicating good recall. While fewer students earned an A grade on the analytical paper, only a small number earned grades below a C+. Perhaps the lectures, problem exercises, and readings that were part of all course sections were enough to generate this result.

Further research should explore the relative efficacy of online teams and weekly study guides. Given that my research did not control for variables like a student’s prior GPA, year in college, major, or extra-curricular activities, it also might be useful to include this kind of data in future investigations.

For additional information, please refer to John M. Rothgeb, “The Efficacy of Learning Teams: A Comparative Analysis,” Journal of Political Science Education 9, 3 (2013): 336-344, or contact him at the email address listed above.

Audio Assignments, Oral Communication, and Accessibility

I’m taking a break from specs grading this week–not because I don’t have anything to write about, but actually because I’m too busy writing specs and grading homework modules to write up everything that’s going on.  Plus we are in the midst of a search, and I’m buried in applications.  I’ll be back on topic next week with my thoughts about grading, and some micro adjustments I had to make to the course as a result of my reflections.

When I’m not talking about specs grading, I try to share some quick and easy ideas for teaching that can make a big difference. These often fall into the vein of James Lang’s Small Changes in Teaching, both his book and his series over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed (definitely worth checking out!).

Today’s idea is about using audio and oral assignments in the classroom.

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Biting off more than you can chew?

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We can do better than this. Probably

A while back, I wrote about running a sim on Brexit, the UK’s departure from the EU. (Obviously, ‘departure’ makes it sound grand and stately, rather than the big old mess that it more actually resembles, but I digress). In it, I asked if anyone was up for working together on doing this.

Well, we have a winner: Matthew LeRiche from Memorial in Newfoundland. Matthew joined us in Surrey earlier this year for our ALPS workshops, and this doesn’t seem to have discouraged him from working with us again. Continue reading

And the Data Say…

Hi, and thanks for reading! Chad has graciously invited me to share some activities with y’all focused on bringing research methods ideas into the substantive classroom. The goal of these activities is twofold. First, programs are increasingly adopting objectives (and even school-wide QEPs) about research literacy and data or numeric literacy. The activities I’ll be sharing support those goals.

Second, students have the best chance of success in the research methods classroom when Introduction to Research Methods is not actually their introduction to research methods. One of the reasons students have anxiety and less-than-optimal experiences in their Research Methods courses is the sheer quantity of new material. If we can decrease the novelty by even a small amount, we can improve their experiences in that often-required Methods class. Through these activities, I hope to show you some ways to incorporate social scientific thinking and methods into even introductory courses in ways that require relatively low amounts of additional preparation or even class time.

Students often ask questions about general trends or patterns. Do they usually do that? Is that what normally happens? With a little nudging, you can turn this curiosity into a data-based activity. When you reach a topic where data is readily available, consider a class activity that asks students to hypothesize about relationships between variables or indicators, then test those hypotheses on the spot using a quick graph. For example, my Intro to American Politics textbook spent a bit of time showing graphs of how partisanship has varied over time in Congress and how the current period of hyperpartisanship is different, and how partisanship affects the ability of Congress to get things done. Continue reading

Specs Grading Update #3: On Partial Credit, Following Directions, and the Awesomeness of Tokens.

I really thought I’d have little to write about on this subject until the midterm, but it turns out this specs grading experiment is requiring all kinds of reflection and micro-adjustments on my part, and thus I have plenty to share this week.

See my previous posts on converting my research methods course to specs grading, and insights from the first two weeks. Up this week are three reflections following the first few weeks of class and the grading of the first few assignments.

For those new to specs grading, see more general posts here, here, here, and here.

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