If at first you don’t succeed…. try, try again

Over the years, I have tried to incorporate a blog assignment into my Introduction to Comparative Politics class. I think this is the fourth attempt and I might finally be close to a format that works.

The most recent iteration of this assignment, which I did last fall and revised for this semester, centers on the students selecting a country for the entire semester. I have them fill out a preference survey and then assign, to avoid overlap. I call the assignment the Country Expert Project and it involves a couple of components. First, the students write a short reflection paper before they start the blog posts. They are supposed to talk about what they already know about the country (sometimes the answer is “very little”) and why they picked it. This serves as a baseline, because they will also end the project with a reflection on what they learned about their country and what surprised them. Another small assignment at the beginning requires them to read a handful of academic blog posts; we then discuss blogs as a genre and how it is different than a research paper.

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Skinning your (teaching) cat

No cats were harmed in the writing of this blog

The other week I got to be interviewed by our university’s Department of Higher Education, for their new podcast series.

We talked about how my practice has developed and what advice I could pass on to others, which mainly fell into the category of ‘learning to let go’.

Mostly, though, it reminded me that I like teaching and that’s the single most important thing, just as it is for any part of your working life.

I like walking into the classroom and discovering what’s happening with my students, building knowledge and understanding (theirs and mine) together.

I’m guessing you feel something similar too – otherwise you’d not be reading this blog – but you’ll know someone who doesn’t really feel that.

The trite answer would be to say that maybe those people shouldn’t be teaching, but we know that’s not often an option.

So instead, I’d remind them that ‘teaching’ covers a lot of different things: it’s no more meaningful than ‘research’ in terms of specifying what to do.

So experiment: try something else out.

Think about the things you really enjoy doing and try doing those. If that’s research, then make your students into researchers. If it’s engagement with practitioners, get them to develop those skills. If it’s being in the media, interview them.

It’s easy to be lazy about teaching, to reproduce the things you got as a students, to reuse the other guy’s notes.

So give it a whirl and maybe you’ll see why people like me like teaching so much.

Syllabus Design

Last week a colleague and I led a workshop on syllabus design for junior faculty. The workshop focused on a method that I call EA2 — engage, apply, and assess.

First step in building a syllabus for a course is to identify the essential student learning outcomes (SLOs). For each SLO, students:

  1. Engage with corresponding content.
  2. Practice applying knowledge or skills associated with the SLO.
  3. Get assessed on how well they have achieved the SLO.

Here is an example from my comparative politics syllabus:

Red box is the SLO. Blue box is the content. Green box is the exercise in application — an argumentative writing assignment. Purple box is the assessment.

This sequence is used for each of the course’s SLOs, turning the syllabus into a map that shows exactly what the course consists of and why.

Trying to up my game

At the end of last month, I came to the end of my term with UK in a Changing Europe. The programme, which aims to bring the fruits of social science research on UK-EU relations to a public audience, was a great occasion for me to bring insights from my pedagogic work to public and political communication.

Part of that was thinking about different ways to package data and information.

Obviously (since you’re reading this) there’s the blogging, but also Twitter, podcasting, vlogs and graphics. Plus all manner of face-to-face events and formats.

Now that I’ve stopped with quite such a full-on public engagement role, I want to try and bring some more of that experience back into the classroom.

My first port of call has been the graphics, because they remain one of the less-explored avenues to date.

When I started out, shortly after the 2016 referendum, I haven’t really got the hang of it [shock]: I think this is one of my very first efforts:

Click through and you’ll see lots and lots of words and not a huge amount of structure: I’m trying to cover all the detail here, but of only some elements.

However, I also notice that the very next day, I also produced something with lots of empty spaces:

Simple, yes, but not very helpful beyond some groupings.

Since then I’ve produced dozens of the things, with not much more to go on than informal feedback and personal reflection: I’d suggest that this might not be the best way to go about it. Taking a course/workshop would have saved a lot of time all round.

For me, the first big thing was thinking about how to move away from what are essentially lists (like the two above), to a format that makes real use of the visual component to relate elements to each other.

The second was about working more to produce content that met the needs of the people using this: I’ve pitched different graphics to those without any substantial knowledge and to those working closely with the material.

That’s all been well and good and I’ve had a handful of graphics get really big audiences, mainly by virtue of trying to break down somewhat complicated things into simpler summaries (e.g. here and here). Getting retweeted by key influencers also matters, so do think about tagging people in too.

But my changing status has also been an opportunity to revisit what I do, including the template, which was essentially a expedient let’s-use-the-university’s-poster-template choice back in 2016.

What’s new?

The past couple of Mondays, I’ve been posting my new efforts. Here’s the first one:

As you see, it’s not massively different: a simpler title banner, clearer details on dates, versions and sharing rights, plus my Twitter handle and a link to a PDF version (i.e. all the stuff I should always have had in).

The colour was horrible and won’t be used again, but the format does highlight my efforts to try and take the reader through the subject matter.

And as for sticking with PowerPoint? Well, I know how to use it, even if it’s not the most elegant or high-powered.

Next steps

But this new formatting isn’t the core of what I want to do: I’m going to bring this into the classroom.

As you’ll recall, I flipped my Intro to the EU class last year, with somewhat mixed results. A big part of the issues was students not seeing what the point of the contact time previously used for lecturing was.

Enter graphics.

I’m planning to use that lecture time briefly for any Q&A on the flipped lecture (as before), but much more for getting the group to generate graphics on a key question.

Given there’s about 120 of them, that’ll need some snow-balling of groups and for me to investigate some software for sharing graphical content, but I think it’ll be good for getting more active and reflective skills developed by students.

We’re still at early days on this, but I’ll report as it evolves.

What Do Faculty Think?

As my university’s director of faculty development, charged with designing a new Center for Teaching & Learning, I surveyed faculty to try to get a sense of how they felt about their jobs. Survey results are in and I have done a preliminary sort of the data. Here are my initial impressions:

  • Both full- and part-time faculty derive much satisfaction from helping students learn and seeing signs that their teaching had an effect. But not a single respondent referred to student evaluations of teaching. The instrument simply isn’t on instructors’ radar as an informative, useful tool. (Probably because it’s not.)
  • Only 2 of the 79 full-time faculty who completed the survey mentioned collaborating with colleagues to foster student achievement. Teaching seems to be regarded, in the end, as a solitary endeavor.
  • On Likert-scaled questions about teaching, research, and service, full-time faculty were the most satisfied with their teaching (4.3 out of 5) and the least satisfied with their research (3.2). Perhaps this explains why only a handful of both full- and part-time faculty expressed a desire for pedagogical training. Since respondents frequently cited high teaching loads as the main impediment to engaging in more research, opportunities to learn how to teach more efficiently — for example, by spending less time on grading — might be well-received.
  • Although satisfaction with research had the lowest numerical score, responses to open-ended questions about committee service were far more negative than comments about teaching or research. Faculty signaled frustration with the inequitable distribution of service commitments, meetings that were badly managed and time-consuming, and a general lack of concrete outcomes from committee work.
  • In general, faculty feel that there are too many conflicting demands on their time. As a result, they feel forced to reduce the scholarship that — in their minds — is inherent to being a professor. Notable in its absence is any mention of the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Triggering debate

One of the persistent problems of teaching politics is that it’s not a steady target: things keep happening.

Niche (and better than a photo of a bus)

There has been much discussion of this, both generally and on this blog, but it’s something that come back into my consideration of late as I think about how I’m teaching.

In the past weeks, I have several classes that have started from a specific trigger. That’s either been a news event, or some material that I’ve come across that prompts a question (and a discussion).

Last week, my students sourcing some campaigning materials from the 2016 referendum and then used them in class to consider what that told them about framing and rhetoric more generally.

Tomorrow, I’m running a public event where people can ask any question about Brexit of me and my colleagues: there we’ll find ourselves very much wherever the audience want.

This connection to events (and to symbols) is important. Firstly, it helps those we’re helping to learn to see how academic study fits with the world in practice. And secondly, it provides a hook on to which we tie ourselves as we explore the issues surrounding it.

In many ways this is analogous to the use of theory to anchor our debate: in that case, we seek out master-ideas that pull together disparate phenomena and – hopefully – make them cohere. In the event-led model, we’re focusing on a phenomenon as a site of interaction for multiple concepts and ideas.

Putting it like that makes me think about why it’s important to have a balance between the two approaches. It’s good to have a rounded set of perspectives on any one event, but equally it’s important to see the structural processes that transcend it.

It might be that in the appreciation of the mixture of specificity and sameness of the world around us that we can gain the fullest understanding.

Something to talk about with class, perhaps.

The Article Summary

(Photo credit: Joanne H. Lee, Santa Clara University)

Today we have a guest post about teaching the research process by Anne Baker, assistant professor of political science at Santa Clara University. She can be reached at aebaker [at] scu [dot] edu.

Getting students to use academic articles for research papers can be a challenge. In my experience, many students, even those in upper-level courses, are not familiar with search engines such as JSTOR, Lexus Nexus, or Political Science Complete. And if students do happen to use Google Scholar, they frequently rely on excerpts from sources instead of entire articles that they might not have access to. So, what can be done to replace these habits with better practices?

In my advanced writing course on the presidency, I have developed a class activity which provides students with skills they will need if they are going to successfully locate and utilize academic references for their research papers. First, I want them to be able to use the library’s website to access search engines. Second, I want them to understand that research is an iterative process. Sometimes you don’t find what you need for a variety of reasons and you should be able to determine what those reasons are—whether its human error, the need for a wider search net, or that no one has written on the topic (this last possibility always surprises the Google generation). Third, students need to become acquainted with the literature on the presidency, including the subfield’s primary journal, by discovering how research practices in political science have changed overtime, even in a subfield which remains largely qualitative.

I have students work in pairs and I provide them with two search terms related to the institution of the presidency (e.g. signing statements, executive orders, oath of office). I pick the search terms carefully knowing that some topics have no scholarship and represent dead ends and others have later but not earlier scholarship or vice versa. The first step of the activity provides instructions about how to first locate JSTOR on the library’s website and then how to access Presidential Studies Quarterly using JSTOR’s advanced search options. Helpfully, for the purposes of this activity, JSTOR only has copies of the journal until 2000. To access later copies, students have to use the Wiley database, which students have to figure out how to find.

For each search term, I have students locate one article published in the last few years and then another for 1995-2000—a total of four articles. Next, students identify the research question and method the authors used, noting whether it is qualitative or quantitative, the sources of data regardless of method, the type of analysis (e.g. text, interviews, statistical), and the date of publication. After they have their four articles and perform this analysis, I ask them to compare the results of both searches. Finally, we have a class discussion in which we explore road blocks and challenges encountered and review how the field has changed over time.

I have found that this activity makes students more likely to cite academic articles in their final research papers and use them more effectively to support their arguments. Students also exhibit a much better understanding of the subfield and are more likely to use the other search engines that they encountered while on the library’s website. And they learn that research takes time and requires shifting your strategies to find the information you need.

GIYF, apparently

Long story

This academic year I’ve encountered a problem that wasn’t previously one I’d seen.

On several occasions, students have been in touch to say they can’t access materials, or links in reading lists are broken.

That’s bad, on my part, but a quick type into Google pulls up the correct link and/or material.

Most of me assumes that search engines are a staple of modern life, so I struggle to understand why one wouldn’t just check on one if you couldn’t find what you wanted.

But a bit of me also worries that this is symptomatic of some kind of learned helplessness: by being in the habit of just being given stuff, one loses the ability to find stuff for yourself.

I know we go around the spoon-feeding debate in education pretty regularly, but this seems like an odd case, given that we could expect using search engines to be a much more pervasive thing.

I need to follow this up with students and I’ll come back with any feedback, but I’d also welcome your thoughts too, both on causes and solutions.

Keeping up with current events in the classroom

How do you include current events in your courses?

I’m teaching Introduction to Comparative Politics this semester and I just can’t keep up with all the relevant current events. Every morning, I scroll through my Twitter feed, full of examples that I can be using in class. My students tend to be very engaged with the news and I want to tap into this excitement by integrating more current events into class, but I just find it overwhelming.

What, in particular, are some of my challenges to integrating current events into a political science course, particularly an introductory course?

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From quality teaching to satisfaction

As UK universities get more fully into their new academic year, it’s also the time to dust down action plans for improving student satisfaction.

Predictable photo

I’ve discussed the National Student Survey (NSS) before here, but the key point is still that while this survey measures how satisfied students are, that isn’t the same as whether they have got a high quality educational experience.

To put it differently, the things that we might learn most from are not necessarily those which are most enjoyable, or even the most satisfactory.

In my own professional experience, I have taken a lot from unsatisfactory experiences that have generated frustration or annoyance and then (critically) self-reflection and thus improved practice.

This isn’t to say that education should be unsatisfactory, but rather to point up that there’s not a necessarily linear correlation between satisfaction and learning outcomes.

The problem is that satisfaction is easy to measure, and notwithstanding that everyone in the sector knows it’s not the same, it becomes a proxy for learning.

If we assume that just railing against the system isn’t going to work, we have instead to think about how we can work it to best effect (i.e. getting to a learning environment for our students that optimises learning outcomes).

Here, once again, the route has to be through sound pedagogic principles, rather than through targeting specific questions on the NSS list.

That doesn’t mean that timely feedback – to pick one obvious example – isn’t important, but rather that we should be framing it as important in supporting effective learning – as part of a wider system of dialogue and support with students – rather than just good-in-itself.

This matters because the NSS isn’t an exhaustive list of What Matters in Education. As instructors, we should be considering the totality of what our students encounter during their time with us.

Crucially, that means having an understanding of the relationships between different elements of that provisions and the trade-offs: increasing feedback might mean having fewer assessment points, which might compromise our ability to monitor understanding and progress, for example.

Moreover, it’s only be having such an overview that we will be able to effectively engage in the silent arm of student satisfaction: expectation management. If we don’t understand what we are trying to achieve, how can we hope to communicate that to our students?

In short, we all know that teaching to the test is A Bad Thing for our subject material, but it’s also true elsewhere too.