Return of the Sticks

It’s nearly the Christmas break here in England, but before I jet off to my chalet for a few week’s powder-skiing with some minor royals, (inevitably) Kim Kardasian and (oddly) Piers Morgan, I’m going to look forward to next semester’s teaching.

In particular, I’m looking at a new module that I have, an introduction to European integration for first-years/freshmen. My central aim in designing this module was to avoid the usual problem with this subject, namely a perceived high level of difficulty and an associated problem of engagement.  With this in mind, I’ve aimed to create learning spaces that privilege student activity.

Firstly, seminar activities are centred around the creation of one-page summaries of key concepts and events: students come with materials, then spend their time in the active construction of a collaborative piece, which is then shared with the rest of the students in other seminar groups.  The material will all be included in some form in the final exam, so giving students added incentive to produce their best work.

Secondly, to try and reduce free-riding, I’m getting my seminar leaders to use the old stick technique.  Each student has their name on a lolly-stick, and the seminar leader will randomly pick someone from the pile of sticks to write the summary, and another person to lead the discussion with a 5-min presentation.  This means everyone needs to be prepared to make that contribution.

Thirdly, and largely because I didn’t pay enough attention at the time, there is a mid-term multiple-choice test.  However, because I’m me, we’re doing it in class, not only open-book, but also allowing students to talk to each other.  With 45 questions in as many minutes, my anticipation is that students will discover that even in such benign conditions, there is no substitution for proper revision and preparation: weak students will spend so much time looking for answers that they can’t finish the test.  I can also see it becoming a test of altruistic behaviour.

So, plenty to look forward to and plenty to need on-the-fly adjustment.  I’ll be reporting back during the spring on this and other developments.  Until then, happy holidays!

4 thoughts on “Return of the Sticks

  1. I’m very intrigued by the open-book, open-discussion midterm. I just did an open book final with my film and fiction class, and I don’t think it helped them much, since it too was a long exam, and lack of preparation certainly told. I wonder if students will be able to bring themselves to talk to each other, given strong exam norms, or if they do, if the students who see each other as the hard workers of the class will group together and leave the others to fend for themselves, or if it will organize by friendships in the class. Keep me posted on this, I’m eager to hear how it goes.

    1. All good points and ones that I’ve come back to on several occasions. My views seem to shift depending on how good my day has been, but my best guess is that they will not talk much and instead will consider the open-book element as a substitute for revision, failing to notice the time penalty that will incur.

      Maybe I’ll be proved wrong (not least since I’ll be telling them all this several times beforehand), but I think we’ve all had enough experience to know that second-guessing rarely pays off.

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