That Giant Sucking Sound

Something of an update to my last post on the slow-motion tsunami in U.S. higher education: Green Mountain College and Oregon College of Art and Craft will close at the end of this semester. Essentially the same fate will befall Hampshire College, because its board of trustees has limited the Fall 2019 incoming class to only about seventy deferred and early decision admits. Few of them will enroll and current students will transfer out, hastening Hampshire College’s impending insolvency.

Applying my measurement of change in annual total expenses per FTE undergraduate from fiscal years 2011 to 2016 to these schools, I get the following percentages:

  • 27: Green Mountain College
  • 24: Oregon College of Art and Craft
  • 25: Hampshire College

Note that these figures are far lower than those for several of the colleges and universities listed in my last post. Does an increase of 25 percent or more over a six-year period in the average cost per full-time undergraduate indicate that a private, tuition-dependent, small-enrollment institution is at high risk of closure? I’ll say, “Yes.”

What’s the figure for the college or university at which you work?

Out of Control

Some comments on a recent study of active learning published in the journal PLOS One — “Knowing is half the battle” by Shaw et al. The study reports on data gathered in an introductory biology course that was taught with active learning techniques from 2013 to 2016. Post-course scores on a concept and skill inventory were significantly higher than pre-course scores, which the authors take as an indication that students learned. Inventory scores from traditionally-taught iterations of the course are not reported. Without a control group, we have no idea whether the new pedagogy is more effective at generating desired learning outcomes than the old one. This is the typical flaw in research on active learning.

But there is a silver lining to this study. The researchers also measured student perceptions. Over time, students increasingly attributed their learning to course structure and pedagogy. Student course evaluations usually correlate with grades, but in this case, grades did not significantly change from year to year. So it appears that students’ expectations about the course eventually aligned more closely with how the course was taught.

This points to a phenomenon that I have noticed anecdotally: if you suddenly adopt an active learning pedagogy, prepare to be criticized initially by students, especially if all the other instructors that students encounter continue to teach in a traditional way.

When Education Harms

Alternative title for this post:

Why Many Teacher-Training Programs Should Be Abolished

Perhaps some of you — at least in the USA — have noticed the phenomenon of college students using multi-syllabic words out of context. The student clearly does not know what the word he or she inserted into the sentence actually means.

I used to think this was an attempt to impress me in the hopes of getting a higher grade on the writing assignment — pull a complicated-sounding but inaccurate word from an online thesaurus instead of using something simpler. But perhaps the behavior is really a sign that the student is deficient in some basic literacy skills.

As pointed out in this National Public Radio story, millions of children in the USA do not learn how to read well at an early age because of the unscientific and ineffective methods used by their teachers. If children fall behind in the first few years of primary school, it’s probably difficult for them to become proficient readers later on. I’m now wondering if these deficits in literacy persist all the way into college.

The Pigeon’s Checklist for Classroom Game Design

Today we have a guest post by Lt Col James “Pigeon” Fielder, USAF, Associate Professor of Political Science at The U.S. Air Force Academy. He can be reached at

Interested in designing a classroom game, but have no idea where to start? Being a fan of classroom games, I developed this checklist to help me think through my own designs.  The only checklist items that I think are absolutely necessary are the objective and win conditions, as both are crucial for identifying the concepts you are measuring and providing students with clear and achievable goals. Other checklist items are dependent on your design. For example, if your game is not map-based, then a map and scale are not required, but a game with many pieces likely needs a detailed inventory. Game on!

  • Win Conditions: how the game ends.  Can be competitive (zero-sum) or cooperative (non-zero sum).  Games in which all teams can win are still challenging
  • Objective: what is the specific goal of your game?
  • Number of Players: helps the designer conceptualize the game size and boundaries. 
  • Level of Detail: abstract to elaborate setting.  Increased detail improves conceptual accuracy, but requires significantly more time to develop and play.  Not that abstract games are necessarily easier to design!
  • Inventory: all required pieces and parts to play the game. Be exhaustive, even down to number of spare rulebooks and pencils.  
  • Map or Board: visual display of the gameplay area. 
  • Scale: if the game requires length and volume measurement.  Example: each hex or square equals 1/6 of a mile. 
  • Course of Play: every step for running a game from start to finish. This will be the most detailed portion of the game. 
  • Combat Resolution: determining outcome of players cooperating or conflicting during the course of play.
  • Rewards and Punishments: mechanisms for players to advance or regress based on performance.
  • Measurement: scoring the game.  Can be qualitative (e.g. area of controlled space) or quantitative (number of points).
  • Arbitration: handling rule and player disputes.
  • Feedback: discussing game outcomes and recommended game improvements.
  • Glossary: define key terms.

Recommended Reading:

Asal, Victor. “Playing Games with International Relations,” International Studies Perspectives, Vol. 6, No. 3 (2006): 359-373. 

Dunnigan, James. Wargames Handbook, Third Edition: How to Play and Design Commercial and Professional Wargames. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2000. 

Macklin, Colleen, and John Sharp. Games, Design and Play: A Detailed Approach to Iterative Game Design. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley Professional, 2016. 

Sabin, Philip. Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games. New York, Continuum, 2012. 

Comparative Politics 2019, Part 3

Another post on changes this year in my comparative politics course:

As usual, students are reading a lot of academic journal articles, especially from the Journal of Democracy. Although the writing in this journal is very user-friendly — concise sentences, little jargon — students lack the kind of familiarity with the genre that I do. Identifying and evaluating the elements of the author’s argument is a skill that gets better with practice, and the undergraduate students that I see need a lot of practice.

I regularly assign journal article analyses in my graduate courses. My original instructions for this assignment were too long so I simplified them. But I can’t assume that the process of analyzing the argument made in a text is immediately understandable to the average undergraduate. Years ago, I used an in-class exercise in textual analysis in an attempt to give undergrads some training in this skill. An actual example of the exercise can be found here. But I was never quite satisfied with the results.

On the first day of class this semester, I tried a new exercise, in part to prepare students for Seymour Martin Lipset’s “The Social Requisites of Democracy Revisited: 1993 Presidential Address,” from American Sociological Review 59, 1. This article includes an abstract that handily functions as a summary for the reader. Journal of Democracy articles don’t have abstracts, so I redacted it. I projected the article’s introduction on the wall screen and asked the class to examine each paragraph in sequence to identify Lipset’s subject (which is stated at end of the first page and beginning of the second page).

I then divided the class into groups of two or three students each, and gave each group copies of a different section of the article. Each section presents a particular set of characteristics that, in Lipset’s opinion, facilitates the institutionalization of democracy. I asked students in each group to identify the characteristics discussed in the section that group had been given. Each group then reported its findings to the class, which I wrote on the board.

The exercise seem to work well in terms of demonstrating how to pull apart a journal article’s argument, and it made the first day of class a lot more productive than it usually is. The challenge will be to engage students in this type of exercise using articles that have a more complex structure.

Comparative Politics 2019, Part 2

In addition to creating new writing prompts for my comparative politics course this year, I have re-arranged the order in which students encounter different topics. Last year’s version of the course was sequenced as follows:

  • Methods
  • Theory
  • State and Nation
  • Democracy
  • Authoritarianism
  • Political Transitions
  • Political Economy
  • Resistance, Rebellion, and Revolution
  • Gerhkania simulation

This time around the sequence is:

  • Theory
  • Nation and State
  • Democracy
  • Methods
  • Authoritarianism
  • Political Transitions
  • Resistance, Rebellion, and Revolution
  • Political Economy
  • Gerkhania simulation

Why the change? Last year I found myself explicating about research methods used in comparative politics before students had any significant exposure to what actually gets compared. Instead of encountering puzzling real-world situations that might have excited their curiosity, they had to fixate on the mechanics of doing a most similar systems design or a qualitative comparative analysis.

This year these assignments won’t begin until the second third of the semester. I won’t have to rush through my material on methods, and I will have more opportunities in class to ask students “What kind of research design might allow us to compare these cases in a way that allows us satisfactorily answer the question?”  

Comparative Politics 2019, Part 1

In line with the first and third bullet points in my post last year about teaching comparative politics, I’ve tried to make the relationships between course learning objectives, readings, and writing assignments more transparent to students. I’ve done this in part by making writing prompts refer more explicitly to what I want students to learn. For example, here is last year’s assignment about Venezuela, which I placed in the section of the course about democracy:


  • Scott Mainwaring and Timothy R. Scully, “Latin America: Eight Lessons for Governance,” Journal of Democracy 19, 3 (July 2008): 113-127.
  • Uri Friedman, “How Populism Helped Wreck Venezuela,” The Atlantic, 4 Jun 2017.
  • Moisés Naím and Francisco Toro, “Venezuela Is Falling Apart,” The Atlantic, 12 May 2016.
  • Juan Cristobal Nagel, “Venezuela’s Constitutional Crisis,” Caracas Chronicles, 12 January 2016.
  • Meridith Kohut and Isayen Herrera, As Venezuela Collapses, Children Are Dying of Hunger,” The New York Times, 17 December 2017.

Of Mainwaring and Scully’s eight lessons, which is most relevant for Venezuela? Why?

Answering the above question requires reading the Journal of Democracy article, which is good. Yet the question also demands that students apply a general framework to a specific context that is totally unfamiliar to them. A few newspaper and magazine articles aren’t enough to give students a clear sense of what is happening in Venezuela’s political system. The end result is a badly-constructed rhetorical situation likely to generate answers that aren’t relevant to the learning objectives behind the assignment.

Here is the 2019 version of the assignment, which I have placed in the section of the course on political protest:

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The Difference Between Good and Bad?

One last post about teaching my redesigned course on development last semester:

Is the ability to follow directions what distinguishes the excellent from the average student?

Writing assignments in my courses require students to synthesize information from a variety of source material into a single, cohesive argument. Exams are no different. My instructions for the final exam included “refer to relevant course readings” and “see the rubric below for guidance on how your work will be evaluated.” The rubric contained the criterion “use of a variety of relevant course readings.”

I assumed that these statements would translate in students’ minds as “my exam grade will suffer tremendously if I don’t reference any of the course readings.” Yet nine of the fifteen students who took the exam did not use any readings, despite having written about them earlier in the semester. Four others only referred to a single reading. Only two students incorporated information from several different readings.  

Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think I’m at fault here.

Life Planning

For most academics, the gears of course planning grind exceedingly fine. We tinker with projects, lectures, and assignments, trying to create what we imagine as the ideal learning experience. But that’s frequently not what we do outside of the classroom.

The winter holiday break is a good time to take stock of one’s life and position oneself better for the future. Although it’s never too late, the sooner you begin taking charge of your personal affairs, the better. So, some basics:

I ask these questions because, if your experience has been anything like mine, you didn’t get trained in personal financial management while in graduate school, and you probably haven’t utilized whatever training might be available through your employer.  

Happy Holidays 2018

Last month I wrote about the multi-year death spiral at Iowa Wesleyan University. My 2017 column for Inside Higher Ed discussed four broad signs that a small college or university is headed toward failure. But how can a faculty member employed by a tuition-dependent institution like Iowa Wesleyan get a firmer grip on his or her employer’s financial health?

One way to do this is to calculate the percentage change over time in a school’s annual total expenses per full-time equivalent (FTE) undergraduate. The larger the expansion in expenses per student, the worse the school’s financial condition and the lower the chances of its long-term survival. 

Is this measurement the only sign of serious trouble? No, but it’s a good rule of thumb that is simple to calculate. Enrollment data can be obtained from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Not-for-profit colleges and universities report their operational expenses on Line 18 of IRS Form 990, which are available from organizations like ProPublica or Charity Navigator.

I decided apply this rule of thumb to several colleges and universities that suffered declining enrollment, eliminated academic programs, or were otherwise reported as in financial difficulty.  My analysis uses data from fiscal years 2011 through 2016. Why use this time span? Prior to FY 2011, colleges and universities were trying to cope with the immediate effects of the Great Recession, which, as I have previously argued, accelerated what are probably near-permanent changes in undergraduate enrollment. It seemed fair to give schools six years after the economy had begun to stabilize to adjust to the new normal. Finally, when I began my analysis, the most recent publicly-available federal tax filings were from FY 2016.

Below are my results, ordered from the smallest increase in expenses per FTE undergraduate to the largest. I bear none of these schools any ill will. Many have histories of serving marginalized populations. But I predict that at least half of them will close within the next five years. 

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