Is this the real life?

Is this just fantasy?

As my day-job stumbles from one bizarre episode to the next, it’s been great to have the relative stability of my teaching.

Yesterday was our last class of the semester, so we spent a bunch of time on wrapping things up.

In so doing, it occurred to me that I’ve not been particularly systematic about this, so I tried this time to make sure I went around the houses.

First element was to try and draw out the overarching learning outcomes from the module: the stuff that’s been there most of the time, but which hasn’t necessarily been at the forefront of any one session.

When we focus on individual sessions, it’s easy to also focus our attention on the specific outcomes, without making the connections up to the higher-level points.

That fed into the two major part, namely the assessment.

In my case, students have a single piece of work to do for assessment, which requires them to integrate their reflection and learning from the whole module, so talking about those kind of things is doubly-useful.

In both cases, I tried to start from students’ questions and concerns: I’ve been touching on key points throughout the module, but I know from long experience that often that’s not enough. Just because you think you’re clear, doesn’t mean you are.

That’s particularly relevant here, as the assessment is a personal reflection, so I want to emphasise that only each student can determine what is central in that, since they known themselves better than I can.

Finally, I encourage students to give feedback.

No session is perfect – or even close – but the more feedback you can get from students, the better. That can be through the formal channels your institution uses, or more informally in class.

I didn’t use it this time, but the ABC system can also work well for generating ideas.

They don’t know it yet, but as I bump into students in the coming period of time, I’ll be asking for their views on how it all went.

Which just leaves the last task: putting my paperwork in order now, so that I have less to scrabble through next autumn. Much as there’s a temptation to just park your stuff on a shelf somewhere and forget it, it’s hugely more efficient and effective to sort it all out now, while it’s still fresh in your mind.

In short, practise what you preach to your students.

To Quiz or Not to Quiz, Part 3

Some final thoughts on adding in-class quizzes to my course on economic development:

For six of the nine quizzes administered so far, students answered only half of the questions correctly. Given the results of my survey on students’ study habits, I am increasingly convinced that the problem of transfer is contributing to their poor performance. Perhaps I should create a series of real world-based practice exercises for next year’s iteration of this course. These exercises could be an additional connection to the reading assignments.

Even though each quiz has a maximum of four questions, the quiz-taking eats up a significant amount of classroom time. Perhaps I should impose a time limit. If I put the quizzes online for completion outside of class, students will be able to search for correct answers, which defeats my purpose of testing recall to strengthen memory.

The quizzes have helped me identify what students still don’t know. Reviewing questions in class after grading each quiz might have helped students better understand the concepts that they had been tested on. But the final exam that I created for the course (Part 8 below) will allow me to only indirectly infer whether this occurred. Maybe next year I should repeat some of the same questions across multiple quizzes, or introduce summative exams, to get a better idea of whether students are in fact learning what they are being quizzed about.

Links to the original series on redesigning this course:

Group work as a tool to improve participation among non-native speakers

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Marcus Walsh-Führing.

Encouraging active learning and increasing engagement can be a big challenge for teachers, especially when it comes to improving participation in the classroom where students are learning in a secondary language. As demographics are changing in classrooms, I find myself re-evaluating my teaching methods to maximize learning outcomes and came across Godwin Awuah’s chapter, Using group work to improve participation and overcome fear of foreign languages among non-native English speakers, in the book, Early career academics’ reflections on learning to teach in Central Europe, Gabriela Pleschová and Agnes Simon (eds.). This chapter will help educators with teaching concepts or theory by introducing a new teaching tool to the classroom setting.

In his chapter, Awuah describes an experiment whereby he compares activity-based to lecture-style learning in a classroom setting comprised of non-native English speakers. In his study, the author distinguishes between types of group activities by focusing on the impact of learning outcomes for students. He conducted his study of classroom participation with topic maps which allow for direct observation of student learning and the utilization of quasi-experimental techniques to evaluate findings.

In his findings, learning outcomes were accomplished with topic maps, but there was strong evidence that a combination between topic maps and group work strengthen students‘ conceptualization of subject matters. In addition, topic maps created a working environment that was non-threatening by encouraging peer-to-peer engagement in working on ideas in a systematic way. Topic maps created a framework for students to work through the problems presented in the assignment to gain the necessary knowledge for understanding learning outcomes.

The author observed that group learning with the help of topic maps improved participants’ engagement by 70% and positively impacted students’ assessment scores with a mean net difference of 25%. He also noticed that participants with a stronger command of the English language engaged more actively in classes and assisted their fellow students with signs of difficulties in the language component of the assessment.

I believe that the hands-on approach with topic maps offers a valuable supplement in combination with a lecture-style lesson plan. As an instructor, this teaching strategy will allow me to observe the impact of my learning outcomes while, at the same time, reinforcing key terms and lowering barriers for non-native English speakers in the classroom.

As the world becomes more globalized, the challenges laid out in Awuah’s chapter will become more frequent. To address these problems, we as teachers need to find innovative and tested tools that will enhance our teaching performance.

Awuah proves through direct observation that topic maps result in a higher number of students producing more comprehensive class engagement. The article helped me understand how how to better present complex concepts to students who are non-native English speakers. Awuah’s chapter is a perfect read for all educators who are looking for a teaching strategy that is backed up by relevant data.

Next semester, I plan to incorporate topic maps in my ‘ Introduction to Comparative Politics‘ class to explain the complexity between the state and the nation state. The incorporation of group work with topic maps will help non-native English speaking students better conceptualize the idea of the state through interaction and hands-on engagement.   

Path dependency in class

A few years ago, I had a student who kept walking out of class.

He did this because he’d decided that, in several of the various negotiation scenarios into which I had placed him, his optimal strategy was to literally walk away from the table.

During the semester, he did this about four times, usually to snippy comments from his classmates.

We talked about it a fair bit, as a group, because I felt it was really useful to unpack the merits and demerits of this approach, which I’d not seen before (or since, for that matter).

I was remembering this case the other day, as my current group of negotiation students once again decided to hold a closed door meeting of principals, kicking out most of the class to the corridor outside.

As one student noted in the debrief: “why does this keep happening? Every time it does, it just really alienates people and makes it harder to reach an agreement”.

And that’s my question here: how and why do cohorts get stuck in patterns of behaviour?

Continue reading

Ethically Simulating

This post was inspired by a story in The New York Times: a U.S. Marine discovered his daughters reading a “choose your own adventure” book with a chapter about a battle in Afghanistan in which he actually fought. He thought the book presented a superficial view of war and wrote an editorial on the subject. The book’s publisher decided to stop selling it and halt production of four other similar titles.

The story got me thinking about my own teaching. I often place students in simulated environments that in real life are horrendous — such as genocide, civil war, and natural disasters.* I do this because I believe it does a better job than just reading a text at getting students invested in the subject and developing a less-biased understanding of others. In the past these simulations have even included the digital version of choose your own adventure books.  

Yet I probably don’t pay enough attention to the risk that these exercises can come across as trite games completely divorced from reality. On the one hand, I teach undergraduates who in many cases have lived a materially comfortable life within a psychologically-comfortable bubble. Their world is diametrically opposed to the one that I am hoping they are learning about, and that probably gives them far less of an ability to empathize than I would like. On the other hand, my graduate courses are filled with active and former military personnel. Many of them have direct experience thinking through situations that my simulations attempt to artificially replicate.  

Perhaps I should be asking students “Did this simulation respect reality in a way that contributed to your learning?”

*Inside Disaster: Haiti, the death of which I reported in 2015, has apparently been resurrected via subscription-only access. While its history demonstrates the inherent problems of online simulations, I strongly recommend this product.

Getting into blogging

The magic of blogging

Hilariously, on a day when I find myself suddenly confronting my self-imposing deadline for posting here, I find that both time and inspiration are in short supply.

Fortunately, this weekend saw a meeting of the UACES graduate forum, talking about how to get into, and make use of, social media.

Rather than re-hash the various content, I’ll direct you to the #UACESdta hashtag for inputs from various people who know (and me) on things to think about and deal with.

Reassuringly, the main message was a positive one, stressing the value of connecting to new and diverse audiences, generating ideas and debate, and the personal value of writing more regularly.

At the same time, the costs of ‘doing’ social media have to be recognised: I’ve certainly encountered some of those, but I’m going to be seeing if I can get some guest posts together on this.

And as I sign off, from the floor of the train carriage heading into an event, I’ll note that opportunity costs cut both ways.

Alternatives to Traditional Research Papers

Today we have another guest post by Charity Butcher, Associate Professor of Political Science at Kennesaw State University. She can be reached at cbutche2[at]kennesaw[dot]edu.

Research papers are a common tool used to help students learn about a particular topic. However, students have become accustomed to using information in different ways, and will also be expected to present information differently in their future careers. I therefore decided to give students in my American Foreign Policy course the option of writing a traditional research paper or completing the same research project in a different format – a podcast, video, or poster. Nearly half the students in the class chose one of the alternative formats.

For the assignment, students were asked to choose a current American foreign policy issue, such as U.S. relations with a specific country or a broader foreign policy topic like development aid, human trafficking, climate change, or terrorism. Students first submitted proposals that outlined their topic, included a preliminary bibliography, and identified which format they had chosen. The end product had to describe the foreign policy issue and its importance to the U.S., analyze past U.S. foreign policies on the subject, and recommend future policy. Regardless of the format, students were evaluated on how well they addressed these elements.

Each of the alternative formats had pros and cons. For podcasts, students could include information that was similar in quantity to the traditional research paper. On the other hand, some students first wrote a paper and then read it for the podcast, making some podcasts less dynamic and creative than I had hoped. Overall the podcast option seemed to generate the same effects as a research paper, but added an extra step for students.  

The videos were more dynamic than the podcasts and generally included the same amount of content as a traditional paper. Students were very creative in how they presented information, signaling a bit more thinking than the traditional paper. The downside was that the videos were significantly more time consuming than papers for students to produce. Several students experienced technical problems.

Posters, which students had to present in class, were quite successful. The poster option allowed students to practice their presentation skills, though this occupied class time. It was also more difficult for students to include as much information on a poster as in a paper, though some of this additional information did get communicated in presentations.

Overall, I felt this experiment was successful. In the future, I will eliminate the podcast option and have more specific grading rubrics for each project format. Grades for video and poster formats should incorporate criteria on visual design and presentation delivery. I may also add other presentation options, such as Prezi. I may even add a blogging option!

Let’s play… T&L Bingo!

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans, University of Maastricht.

During last September’s annual conference of the University Association for Contemporary European Studies (UACES) in Bath, Simon kicked off the teaching and learning afternoon gathering with a teaching and learning bingo.

I enjoyed this a lot. It was nice, active, fun. I got to meet new people and learned new thing about teaching and learning. Based on this (perhaps somewhat subjective) experience, I decided to hijack Simon’s idea and use it in two similar, but different settings. This is what happened.

Problem-Based Learning workshop Bolzano

Maastricht University is known for its application of Problem-BasedLearning (PBL). New staff have to attend a PBL introduction training session upon starting at our university. All teaching staff also need to complete the so-called University Teaching Qualification (UTQ) trajectory (this, in fact, applies to all higher education institutions in the Netherlands). One of my duties is to coordinate UTQ at my home faculty. And it was this – plus my teaching experience – that lead me to being invited to convene a workshop entitled ‘Tutors in problem-based learning from distant facilitator to approachable coach’ at the University of Bolzano early October.

Since I did not know any of the people there, I thought this would be a great opportunity to use the T&L bingo.

I adapted Simon’s bingo to my own needs. The instructions are relatively straightforward and the items of a diverse nature, including more light-hearted ones.

It worked surprisingly well. I got to know the participants, plus they got to know each other a bit better too. It also provided me with some input for the workshop (‘The one thing they’re hoping to learn more about today’). Considering it was a day-long workshop, this helped me to focus on specific points and also, towards the end, to check if everyone thought that we sufficiently covered their needs.

University Teaching Qualification workshop Maastricht

I already wrote that I coordinate UTQ at my home faculty. This year 13 colleagues have to complete the trajectory. The group of participants is very diverse in terms of disciplinary backgrounds and teaching experience, and included teaching assistants, PhD students and a professor. Not everyone knew each other, so once again the bingo seemed like a good idea. And once again, I thought I could use the input for the workshop.

This time too, I adapted the bingo to the setting,with specific questions about the topics that we were going to focus on during the day.

Even though there was some hilarity as to whether this was really a serious exercise (see this tweet),participants actively engaged in it. As they will be working together throughout this academic year, it was important that they got to know each other – the usual round of introduction is a bit boring, especially because it usually does not result in new information. Once more I included a question that gave me specific input as to the expectations for the day (‘Your colleague’s personal learning goal for today’).

What I learned

The good: after a bit of hesitation everyone got really involved. Some colleagues did their utmost best to talk to everyone; others decided for a longer talk when the issue at hand was interesting. Reason enough to do it again, though I’d probably want to explain the exercise better in order to avoid awkward moments at the start.

The bad: timing is an issue. In both cases, we took much more time than I had anticipated, as everyone really got into it and because I had encouraged them to try and talk to everyone. Next time I might consider using a timer or buzzer. Or perhaps offer a prize to the person who gets most boxes filled within a set time.

The ugly: I enjoyed it so much that I also got completely carried away. And subsequently lost track of time… As such, a timer is definitely needed! Someone needs to keep track of me too. I might ask one of the other participants to be in charge of time instead.

What’s next

I’d love to try this exercise with students. I think it would make a great course opening. I mostly teach in a programme with +300 students, so they do not always know each other despite changing tutor groups every 8 weeks and every course. Plus it would be a great way to have them discuss a course topic in a more informal setting and get to know more about the course’s intended learning outcomes. Obviously, I would have to adapt the bingo to the course itself. I would include a debriefing so that we all get to know more about students’ pre-knowledge about the topic and our expectations of the course, the group and the tutor (i.e. me).

And, you know; I already have a course in mind.

The Death Spiral

Nearly five years ago I wrote about the dim prospects for Iowa Wesleyan University (formerly College). The school had just announced that it would eliminate half of its academic majors and terminate more than forty percent of its faculty members.

Earlier this month, Iowa Wesleyan’s president announced that it was in danger of shutting down. The university’s trustees decided on November 15 to keep the university operating until at least December 2019. My guess is that their decision just delays the inevitable. According to Iowa Wesleyan’s IRS filings, it suffered from negative net revenue — a deficit — for five of six fiscal years from 2011 to 2016. Operating expenses per full-time equivalent undergraduate increased by more than fifty percent during the same period. Supposedly the university needs $4.6 million in additional revenue to stay open until the end of 2019.

Iowa Wesleyan faces the same problem that many other similarly-sized private colleges and universities face: declining demand coupled with increased operating costs. For many small-enrollment, tuition-dependent higher education institutions, the future is financially unsustainable. 

I’ll be writing more about how to interpret the relationship between a school’s enrollment and operating expenses in the coming months, both here and, possibly, at Inside Higher Ed.

Reminder: International Teaching and Learning Conference proposals due Monday

Just a reminder that the joint International Teaching and Learning Conference proposal deadline is this Monday, 19 November. The conference  will be held in Brighton, United Kingdom, 17-19 June and will focus on teaching politics in an era of populism. It is jointly sponsored by APSA, PSA, BISA, and ECPR. All kinds of proposals are welcome, including panels, papers, individuals for roundtables, lightning talks, workshops, and any other innovative pedagogical approach you want to propose.  For more information, head to the PSA conference website.