Call For Proposals — APSA Centennial Center Teaching Workshop

The American Political Science Association’s (APSA) Centennial Center for Political Science and Public Affairs is pleased to announce a Call for Proposals for faculty interested in participating in a two-day teaching workshop from May 18-19 at APSA’s headquarters in Washington, DC. APSA’s Teaching Workshops provide a unique opportunity for faculty with similar teaching interests to refresh existing syllabi, develop new teaching approaches, and share best practices. Led by co- facilitators Andrew Rudalevige (Bowdoin College) and Caroline Tolbert (University of Iowa & University of Delaware), this workshop will focus on sharing and developing teaching resources for introductory courses related to American government.

Approximately 15 faculty will be invited to take part in the workshop. In addition to assessing fundamental texts and themes of American government-related courses, the program will include a series of roundtables in which each participant will share a specific teaching resource, class project, or course component with the group.

Through sharing and discussing a wide range of teaching materials, we expect participants to learn about high-impact practices for the classroom and extend scholarly networks. Examples of teaching resources or topics of presentation may include:

  • Innovative teaching approaches
  • Civic engagement education
  • Simulations
  • Community engagement projects
  • Use of technology (including social media, discussion boards, virtual reality, etc)
  • In-class exercises and assignments
  • Evaluation and assessment

Following the workshop, attendees will be invited to contribute a revised version of their teaching materials to an APSA teaching resources collection.

Applicants should have at least 3 years’ experience teaching their own American government-related course (Intro to American Government, Political Behavior, Congressional Politics, American Presidency, Political Parties and Groups, Media and Politics, etc). We encourage applications from faculty at a range of institutions, including universities and two- and four-year colleges. The deadline for proposals is Thursday, March 1, 2018.

Proposals should be submitted online and include:

  • Recent CV, including detailed information on teaching experience.
  • 250-word abstract summarizing the teaching resource you plan to share at the workshop.
  • 250-word description of your motivation and goals for participating in the workshop.
  • Brief description of your institution and how the American government courses you teach fit into your department’s curriculum or a general education requirement.

Successful applicants will be notified by the end of March. Course registration fees ($79) may be paid online in advance of the workshop. For more information, contact centennial@apsanet.org.

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 1

The first of what promises to be a semester-long series on granular-level changes to my globalization course, in which students will be partnering with a local non-profit organization:

Historically my students have been reluctant to evaluate their performance in relation to that of their peers, whether via Monopoly money, rubrics, or anonymous online rank-order surveys. Given that team-based projects account for twenty to twenty-five percent of the final grade in several of my courses, I do think it’s important to ensure some degree of individual accountability in any formally-assessed collaboration between students. No one likes being forced to work with free riders, especially in a course like this one, where students will be conducting research outside of scheduled class time by gathering information from (gasp!) members of the local community. As I have explained to students before — without much success — I can’t be aware of how hard or how well every single one of them has worked with their teammates on a group project, because I’m not always present when the work happens.

So, I racked my brain for a new method of peer evaluation, and came up with the Project Contribution Award:

Please select four people from class, other than yourself, whom you think each deserves 40 points for their outstanding contributions to the project. I will tally the results and the individuals with the most votes will win the award.

Students will submit their choices via an ungraded survey on the Canvas LMS.

The class has only twenty students, so the Project Contribution Award translates into one-fifth of them winning an additional 40 points in a course with a 1,200 point grading scale, a three percent bonus for being perceived by classmates as having performed well on the project. Although I will be dividing students into teams that will take on different responsibilities, the quality of the final product for the community partner will be dependent in some fashion on everyone’s contribution. So I’m hoping that the one in five possibility of earning the award is a sufficient incentive. If not, I can increase the weight of the award in future semesters, or assign one award to each team instead of having multiple awards for the whole class.

A mechanical note: constructing this kind of survey on Canvas requires repeatedly copying and pasting the names of all the students on the class roster. In my case, the survey has four multiple choice questions, each with the same set of twenty names, so the process only took a few minutes. But the inability to generate multiple iterations of a survey or quiz question with a “copy” command probably reduces the utility of Canvas’s quiz feature for courses with large enrollments. No one wants to paste each student’s name over and over again for a 200-student class. In this scenario, I would probably use Google Forms, which does allow the copying of questions. However, I would not be able to just send a link to the survey to students, because responses would be anonymous (allowing students to vote for themselves). Everyone in the class would need Gmail accounts. If your university uses Gmail as its email client, that’s great, but if not, this option requires some extra work on the instructor’s part getting students to create Google accounts with easily-identifiable usernames.

The Perfect Storm

I’ve been working on my paper for the upcoming APSA Teaching and Learning Conference, where I will be presenting research on students who were in different sections of my university’s fall semester first-year seminar. The survey was an attempt to compare levels of student academic engagement across sections, in the hope of showing that game design projects in my sections were associated with higher survey scores. As usually happens with my research on this kind of topic, there are no easily-recognizable patterns in the survey data. Aware of the looming conference paper deadline, I began thinking about possible alternative explanations for the data. This led me to look at the student evaluations for my seminar sections, and I was surprised to find that average evaluation scores had sharply decreased from the previous year, despite nearly identical course content. Odd.

So I starting asking colleagues what had happened in their seminar sections. I received reports of students’ problematic classroom behavior, lack of motivation, and declining academic performance. There also seems to have been an uptick in diagnosed or in-need-of-diagnosis psychological disorders among last fall’s incoming class of undergraduates.

While there is some solace in knowing that many of us had similar experiences, this could be the thin edge of a very problematic wedge. In the United States, academic ability and college preparedness correlate with socioeconomic status — unfortunate, but true. And at my university, as at others, more incoming students are being granted larger tuition discounts than in the past, which reduces net tuition revenue per student. In sum, in order to fill seats the university recruits a greater proportion of academically-marginal students by offering them greater amounts of financial aid.

To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you teach the students you have, or more accurately, the students that the university brings to you. If declining aptitude is a long term trend, what practical steps can I — on the front line, so to speak — take in an attempt to adjust to what might be the new normal? Continue reading

More ABCs for Comparative Politics

Happy New Year everyone. Today I’ve got some additional exploration of ABCs for my spring semester comparative politics course, as an update to posts on the subject from September.

I did in fact abandon the book Around the Bloc because of its age and length, and this freed up space in the syllabus for more more articles from the Journal of Democracy. The contents of Journal of Democracy are more concise, contain less jargon, and are overall much better written than what’s found in other journals, making it an excellent source of material on comparative democratization. I’ve inserted a few more questions into the syllabus quiz that require students to find these assigned articles at the beginning of the semester. If students don’t have this skill, they have plenty of time to acquire it by talking to a librarian.

I’m going to begin using Egypt as a small case study. Egypt complements my use of Russia as an example of failed democratization and authoritarian resilience, and it also makes a good contrast with Iran on the subject of revolutions.

I will continue to use the assignment that I created last spring in which students compare two nation-states using either a most similar systems or most different systems design. A year ago, I created a template for students to use for completion of these assignments; however, some students seemed confused about the relationships between variables because of the way I formatted the template. Also some of the completed assignments were awkward for me to read because students had stuffed multiple paragraphs or lots of bullet points into each table cell. So I have revised the templates and changed the assignment directions:

Continue reading

Continue: Fall 2017 Edition

I will continue using the somewhat tried-and-true knowledge plan and quality of failure essays, but I am going to modify them yet again. I want these assignments to push students toward the realization that they need to take responsibility for their learning by evaluating how and why it happens, instead of assuming that they can displace this task entirely onto me. However, I still see a large portion of students responding to these meta-cognitive prompts  without much thought, as if they are following a recipe in a cookbook.

So I have condensed the questions that I ask in these assignments even further, making them more open-ended, in the hope that it will force students to exert more effort in examining their own attitudes and behaviors.

The knowledge plan prompt now reads as:

Plan for this course by writing a 2-3 page essay (double-spaced, equivalent to 11 or 12 point font) that answers these questions: 

  • What do I want to get out of this course?
  • What strategies will help me achieve these goals?

The quality of failure prompt now says:

Read:

Write a 2-3 page essay that analyzes the following:

  • What helped or hindered your learning during the semester?
  • Are your experiences similar to those of Robert J. Moore and Soledad O’Brien? Why or why not?

Abandon: Fall 2017 edition

As promised in my last post about teaching risk-averse students, I am going to again apply Simon’s ABC technique to last semester’s teaching. And since I taught two sections of my first-year seminar, I’ll focus on that.

First item on the “abandon” list: in-class peer review of student-designed games. Although I think the rubric that students use to evaluate classmate-designed games is good, they simply refuse to use it to provide honest feedback. I know that the majority of the students understand at least some of the principles reflected by the rubric because of the way they have analyzed the games in the final exam. In the classroom, though, they rate the games as perfect. A potential replacement for the peer review process — and this is really more of a “begin” item — is a short writing assignment after each round of game design in which they compare the game their team designed with another team’s game that they played in class.

Second thing to abandon: my organization of memo-writing assignments. I have assumed, incorrectly, that first-semester college students can grasp the purpose and format of a memo with minimal instruction on my part. After three separate iterations of the assignment, complete with an opportunity to rewrite each memo, I didn’t see significant improvement in the quality of students’ work, which was the same thing that happened in the course last year. A possible solution is to walk students step by step through the mechanics of writing a memo in class, so that by the end of the process they have in their hands a  document that they can submit for a “perfect” grade. But this would remove pretty much any opportunity for students to independently engage in creative thinking, which is another term for problem solving. More holding of students’ hands to protect them from anything they might find unpleasant. I’ll have to think more about how to better organize an assignment like this.

Third item on the list, which is speculative at this point: abandon the whole course. I’ve been teaching this first-year seminar since its inception four years ago, when it came into being through a revision to my university’s general education requirements. The developmental rationale for the course is not well-defined, and the learning outcomes associated with it are mostly not measurable. Valid data on how the course may be of benefit to students simply isn’t being collected, which means that it is really nothing but an empty three-credit curricular requirement. While I think the topic on which I have built the course is a good one, I am finding it less enjoyable to teach over time. And interaction with university administrators about aspects of teaching it have been less than satisfactory. So, if I have the opportunity in future fall semesters not to teach the course, I might take it.