Exam Study Skills Advice

If you’re like me, you are finding that more students need help with basic study skills than previously. You might also find it difficult to explain learning strategies that for many academics have been automatic behaviors since elementary school. Loleen Berdahl of the University of Saskatchewan has created a handy screen-capture video about studying effectively for final exams, available here, just in time for the end of the semester in the USA and Canada. Feel free to share it with your students.

Registration Deadline TLC 2020

A reminder that the early bird registration for the 2020 APSA Teaching and Learning Conference is December 14.

As I have said before, this conference is not the standard sequence of tedious, badly-attended panel sessions. Attendees join a working group on a particular topic for the length of the conference. There are also hands-on workshops between sessions. And this TLC will convene in glorious Albuquerque, New Mexico, where in 2011 a conversation led to the creation this blog. Full conference details are at the APSA’s TLC webpage.

Debating the Sokovia Accords

Today we have a guest post from Adam Irish, Assistant Professor of Political Science California State University, Chico. He can be contacted through his faculty webpage at https://www.csuchico.edu/pols/people/tenure-line-faculty/irish-adam.shtml.

(Jason Halley/University Photographer)

International relations (IR) textbooks often relegate the topic of international law to a few pages or subsume it within the general topic of cooperation. Beyond defining the different sources of international law, little effort is made to compare those sources or connect international law to domestic laws. Moreover, international law tends to be discussed mostly in terms of treaties or framed as primarily an enforcement problem.  International law deserves more nuanced coverage than current introductory textbooks suggest.

To address this issue, I have developed a debate to promote critical analysis of international law’s varied sources. This debate is adaptable, scalable, and links well to IR issues. Best of all, it sparks student interest because it draws on a popular MARVEL movie—Captain America: Civil War

The storyline of Captain America: Civil War follows the creation of the Sokovia Accords as a response to the killing of civilians by superheroes.  States wrote the Sokovia Accords in order to monitor and, through the United Nations, regulate the activities of superpowered individuals. In the movie there are six scenes relevant to the Sokovia Accords.  Students can view the entire movie or use publicly available YouTube video clips to watch the relevant scenes: intro fight scene part 1 and part 2, grieving mother scene, initial presentation, first debate, second debate, and prison scene. A version of the Sokovia Accords text is available on the MCU fandom page.

I recommend introducing the debate after exploring topics like the treaty making process (i.e. negotiation, ratification, implementation, and compliance), the two-level game model of IR, the importance of ratification for legal obligation, or variations in the criteria to enter into force.  Students should be reminded that, under international law, failure to follow the accords is more likely to generate tort liability (requiring compensation) than a criminal prosecution. 

Two teams of students (~2-4 students per team) debate the following resolution:

Resolved: The Sokovia Accords are the best legal instrument to regulate the use of force by superheroes.

The remainder of the students in the class serve as judges. Before the debate, each team should submit a short summary of its arguments to the instructor and judges. The debate itself is divided up into five sections:

  1. Opening Statements. Debaters sit in front of the class with their team. Flip a coin to determine which team starts and after Rebuttal Planning reverse the order. If possible, meet with student teams before to discuss rhetorical techniques, dividing up the speaking, and responding to judges.
  2. Questioning by Judges. Judges ask questions of each team. In classes leading up to the debate draw attention to how arguments are questioned.
  3. Rebuttal Planning & Judges’ Conference. Each team is excused to the hallway to plan.  Ask the judges: Which arguments are they most interested in? Which are most/least compelling? How they plan to push each team during the next phase?
  4. Rebuttals and Questioning. Each team rebuts arguments and answers questions. Judges may interrupt to ask for clarification or questions.
  5. Closing Statements & In-class Debrief. Each team makes an uninterrupted closing statement. Time permitting, de-brief by focusing on the experience rather than arguments. What did students think was the most challenging aspect of the debate? When are debates most effective? What did they most like about the activity? Then applaud the efforts of the debate teams and remind the judges to send in their rulings before the next class. 

Debating the Sokovia Accords will get students to compare the different sources of international law and re-engage with previously covered topics.  To promote further investigation of the connection to domestic laws, tell students that the United States has yet to ratify the Accords. This small change generates questions about the interaction of domestic laws and rights with international treaties seeking to establish treatment standards (for example, the Sokovia Accords allow for indefinite detention). 

If students are able to review additional material, a recent article by Verdier and Voeten (2015) provides an explanation for customary international law not based on reciprocity, which can be used to examine the effects of violating an international law on the community. Pevehouse and Goldstein’s (2017) textbook provides a basic overview of some alternatives to treaty law on pages 216-217. Finally, to create a courtroom feel to the debate, abridged versions of cases can be added on custom (The Paquete Habana, Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons), general principles (Italy (Gentini) v. Venezuela, Prosecutor v. Tradic, and Corfu Channel Case), jus cogens rules (Roper v. Simmons, Prosecutor v. Furundžija), or even cases concerning the state responsibility (US (Chattin) v. Mexico, Mexico (Mallen) v. US).

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.

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.

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.

More On What Students (Don’t) See

A recent meeting with a student inspired a follow-up to my last post about how students do and do not respond to information in a course syllabus. A month into the semester, the student said that he hadn’t been regularly submitting assignments because he was broke and reluctant to ask his parents for money to buy textbooks.

Here is the relevant section the syllabus:

Readings

  • This course requires a basic digital subscription to The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com.  Use your university email address for the academic discount.
  • Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, Public Affairs, 2011.
  • Several chapters from William Easterly, The Elusive Quest For Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2001, available for free as an e-book from the library.
  • Articles on the library’s journal databases, or at indicated webpages.

Here is what I had to explain to the student:

  • The New York Times gives free access to up to ten articles per month, and an unlimited number of articles can be read by using the library’s computers.
  • Poor Economics can be checked out from the library at no cost and the book’s full text can be found as a free download after a few seconds of internet searching.
  • As stated in the syllabus, The Elusive Quest For Growth is also available for free via the library’s catalog.

The student’s reaction when I said this? Astonishment. All he had seen — or rather, bothered to investigate — was the price of Poor Economics at the campus bookstore, because that’s what was listed there as the required book for the course.

I can accept a small amount of responsibility for this situation because I discarded the syllabus quiz when I completely retooled the course in 2018. But mostly it seems to be an extreme case of learned helplessness. I was a first-generation college student for whom the expense of college was a major concern, and I have met many people over the years who, like me, found the cost of textbooks prohibitive — long before the existence of rental textbooks, digital editions, and eBay. Our first stop at the beginning of every semester was the library to see if required textbooks were available for check out or on reserve. We also searched local used bookstores, or borrowed books from other students.

So, next year, the syllabus quiz returns, and it will include questions about where to find books.

What Do Students See?

What do you conclude about the organization of this course, specifically the quizzes, based on the image below — part of the homepage for the course website?

The document containing the course syllabus is formatted in a similar manner.

To me, the course obviously contains a series of topical units, each ending with a quiz that tests knowledge of that unit.

Given the number of students who are emailing me questions like “What will Quiz X cover?”, it’s not so obvious to many of them. Apparently students don’t know how to read a syllabus, even when they do read it.

Does A River Really Run Through It?

Do students experience the curriculum in the manner intended? Probably not. The curriculum in the department that I just finished chairing includes a sequence of courses common to all three of the department’s majors — one course each at the 200-, 300-, and 400-level. All students are supposed to take the 200-level research methods course when they begin their respective majors, in part to identify a topic of interest before doing a semester of study abroad, an internship, or some other field experience in the junior year where the topic is researched. The 400-level course is the senior capstone, where they are supposed to compile the findings of the work they’ve already done and generate a finished report.

The reality? A fair number of seniors start the capstone not having previously selected a topic. They then have a single semester to identify their topic, design and complete the necessary research, and write about it — a situation that promotes a less than ideal final product.

The obvious solution to the problem would be to devote the 200-level course to having each student create their own research design, begin the data collection and analysis in the 300-level course, and tie everything up in a nice little bow in the capstone.

But there are complications. Each of these three courses is taught by a different instructor. Sometimes students don’t take the 300-level course until the senior year. And the university’s general education requirements — a distribution model — reinforce the preconception held by students that knowledge exists in discrete boxes and that courses have little or no connection to each other. While some of this could be prevented by imposing hard prerequisites, such a system would exclude many of the students who enter the department because they’ve changed major or added a double major. Given the small size of these academic programs, we want to encourage, not discourage, enrollment.

Storytelling with GIS

Another example of why it’s good to consult with librarians:

For the last several years in my globalization course, I’ve had student teams create and deliver presentations on their commodity chain analyses and ethnographies of consumption. Generally students build Powerpoint files for these assignments; occasionally someone uses Prezi. Simple rubrics make grading this work very easy. But the end products aren’t going to make recent graduates stand out from the competition when interviewing with prospective employers. It’s also difficult to convey the content of the entire project in a single presentation without showing a mind-numbing number of slides. Enter the storymap . . .

One of our librarians, a specialist in digital scholarship whom I’ll be working with next semester, introduced me to the digital storytelling tool from Esri,* a.k.a. the Environmental Systems Research Institute, which allows a person to create a multi-media presentation with ArcGIS. Rather than describe what this looks like, I’ll show you:

My task now is to reconfigure the project’s different assignments so that students complete their own storymaps by the end of the course, and figure out how to evaluate them.

*I have no financial interest in this company.