More Changes to a Course on Development, Part 2

My original design for this course included a design thinking component organized in two stages. In the first stage, teams applied SCAMPER to California Water Crisis, a freeware board game. Although the subject of water scarcity was quite relevant to the course, the game’s mechanics were not the most engaging. This should have made it easy for students to think of significant SCAMPER-based improvements, but their recommended changes were relatively superficial. The graded writing assignment tied to this activity also left much to be desired.

In the second stage, students were asked to apply SCAMPER to an existing game other than California Water Crisis. Two problems popped up here. First, teams chose very simple games to modify — think Chutes and Ladders (and without even any awareness of its Indian origins or its connection to British imperialism). Second, although I specifically directed them to place the new game in a specific context, like a city, this didn’t happen.

This time around, I’ll be having students play Stop Disasters and Wingspan. Teams will have to apply SCAMPER to one of these two games. Although they both connect well to the course’s subject, neither game is ideal. Stop Disasters is problematic because it is Flash-based. Wingspan requires, where I work, a significant departmental budget outlay of $100 per game, and I have to purchase five of them. Given the dimensions of Wingspan’s box, transporting all five at once could be a problem. The campus building in which I work is not ADA-compliant (my office, perhaps appropriately, is at the top of what originally was the servants’ stairwell).

Instead of selecting something different for the second design round, teams will stick with whichever of the two games they chose for the first round. While students will be free to choose any subject related to the course for the new game they are designing, it will have to be set in the city in which the university is located. I hope to locate some online data visualizations — maps of flood zones, public transportation routes, property tax assessments, etc. — to help students with this.

After the initial SCAMPER-based redesign, each team will play another team’s game. In an individual writing assignment, students will evaluate the games they played according to the game design principles referenced in the same assignment from last year. I will provide each team with the feedback it receives from the other students.

For the next phase, teams will, I hope, use SCAMPER as a means of applying feedback to improve their game designs. Then there will be another round of play testing, with another written evaluation. I might make this second evaluation a mechanism by which teams earn points on the quality of their games, as assessed by other students. That could heighten students’ investment in the design process. I will probably also need to include a means for students to evaluate the work of their teammates on this project over the semester — something I do regularly in my other courses.

The Business of Small Colleges Is . . . Not Business

Four recent news items that I believe are additional evidence of a trend that is going to poke a large hole in the finances of many small, private colleges and universities in the U.S. — a hole that is going to help make some of these institutions insolvent:

First, an online program will replace the residential MBA at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Second, Iowa Wesleyan University has signed an articulation agreement with Kishwaukee College, a community college located three hundred miles away in another state, whereby students complete three years of study at Kishwaukee and obtain a bachelor’s degree in business from Iowa Wesleyan with a fourth year of online courses.

Third, Linfield College is shedding approximately one-fifth of its tenured and tenure-track faculty positions. Undergraduate enrollments at Linfield’s main campus and in its online programs have declined precipitously, while the size of its nursing program in Portland has been flat. My guess is that the college’s leadership has decided to radically shrink its liberal arts curriculum and focus on offering degrees in business in addition to nursing.

Fourth, as described in this New York Times article, data indicates that there is often an inverse relationship between the cost of a graduate program and its quality.

Business programs, both undergraduate and graduate, have been cash cows for small U.S. colleges and universities for decades. But in 2019, why pursue this field of study at a small, struggling, largely-unknown college when one can get the same degree online at less expense from a much larger, better-resourced, nationally-reputable state university? Iowa Wesleyan has been in a death spiral for some time. The chances of its articulation agreement attracting enough business degree-completion students to pull the school back from the brink are slim to none. The same is true of an institution like Linfield College. Offering business degrees at a higher price than more-prestigious competitors does nothing to differentiate either institution in the market.

More Changes to a Course on Development, Part 1

The coming fall semester marks the second iteration of my “new” course on economic development and environmental politics. In the spirit of continuous improvement, I am making more changes. The complete original series of posts on how I built the course is here.

I am reducing my learning objectives slightly by eliminating an assignment on market externalities. I might return to the topic in the future, but last year I was not able to do it justice. Given the overall architecture of the course, it fell into the category of “what students don’t absolutely need.” I can keep it in my back pocket as something I can always lecture about at an appropriate time.

I am keeping the meta-prompts for assignments because, in my opinion, they serve as cues to students about the learning objectives. I don’t have any direct evidence that the meta-prompts actually register in students’ minds, but they might help.

As previously discussed, in-class quizzes did not work well. Students performed poorly on them, they consumed an excessive amount of classroom time, and they were a pain for me to grade. This time the quizzes will be timed at ten minutes, reside on our Canvas LMS, and consist of machine-graded multiple choice questions. I’ll have immediate feedback on students’ understanding and will be able to revisit subjects as needed. Each quiz is scheduled for the class after the corresponding learning objective has concluded.

In my next post, I’ll discuss changes to the design thinking aspect of the course.

Hate Group Presentations? Here’s an Alternative

Today we have another guest post from Susan Allen, associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi. She can be contacted at shallen [at] olemiss [dot] edu.

Enrollment at the University of Mississippi has grown substantially over the last few years, with my upper division undergraduate courses now often exceeding sixty students each. To shepherd such a large number of students through the research process so that they could eventually write compelling papers, I initially tried using group presentations My hope was that presentations would challenge students to be creative (an explicit grading criteria), improve their ability to speak in front of a group, strengthen their ability to summarize important aspects of their work, and allow students with diverse strengths and weaknesses to step up.

What I got, however, were painful classes of undergraduates awkwardly reading their Power Point slides, mismanaging their time, and complaining noisily about the entire experience – both as participants and as witnesses of their classmates’ efforts.

Enter the research conference, an alternative suggested by a friend in psychology. In addition to writing research papers, groups create posters that are presented at a conference session.

Two class periods are designated for our research conference, and half the class sets up on each day. When possible, I also ask two or three graduate students to join me to interview the students about their work. Students who are not presenting are expected to rank and comment on the day’s posters. The ranking criteria, each on a 1-10 scale, are clarity, creativity, research quality, and group participation. The highest-ranking poster for each session generates extra credit for its designers. Only students who submit rankings for the other students are eligible to earn these points.

I had no idea what to expect for the first iteration of the research conference. The quality and style of the posters varied greatly, but not the enthusiasm with which the students spoke about their research. I was amazed by how excited they were about what they’d learned.

Since then, both poster and paper quality have improved. Designing the posters forces students to boil their work down to its essence, which translates into better organization and flow in their papers. On my end, I’ve learned how to provide clearer directions for and better examples of poster design. While poster printing imposes a cost on students, our library provides this service for a nominal fee. Students also have used local copy shops.

For me, the biggest benefit is being able to hear students talk about their work and learn from them about the development of their topics, how they collaborated, and what sparked the interests of individual students. When I face that stack of research papers at the end of the semester, I don’t dread it nearly as much as I used to because I’ve seen and heard their authors’ sales pitches at the research conference.

Just What Is Your Best Exam Format?

Now that I’m done with hours upon hours of post-semester meetings and painting my house’s front door, I can comment on Simon’s recent post about open-book exams.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

One’s choice of exam format reflects two questions that are often in conflict. Will the exam give students a reasonable chance of demonstrating whether they have acquired the knowledge that they were supposed to have acquired? Can the instructor accurately, impartially, and practically assess the exam results? For example . . .

  • Oral exam: great for testing exegetical ability on the fly, but extremely tiresome and unfeasible if the instructor is teaching more than a couple dozen students in a course.
  • Multiple choice questions: very easy for the instructor to grade, minimizes student complaints, but encourages binge and purge memorization.
  • The timed essay exam, whether open- or closed-book: also tiresome to grade, often susceptible to instructor bias, and, perhaps most importantly, reinforces the unproductive notion that writing (and thus thinking) does not need to be a careful, deliberative process.

How does all this affect me? Over the years I have moved away from formal exams and toward a final culminating assignment — such as a take-home essay question that I reveal in the last week of the semester — intended to test how well students are able to apply concepts to an unfamiliar situation. But lately I’ve become disenchanted with this format, too.

Simon’s post prompted me to think back to my own days as a student. Exams in physics, mathematics, and engineering consisted of, essentially, solving a variety of puzzles — full marks required both supplying the correct solution and documenting how one arrived at it. The primary ability being tested was concept application. One prepared for these exams by working on practice puzzles involving the same concepts. Courses in political science, history, and whatnot had timed essay exams. To prepare for these, I would guess at likely questions and create outlines of essays that answered these questions. I would repeatedly hand-write an outline to memorize it, then turn it into prose during the exam. Even if my guesses weren’t entirely accurate, they were often close enough for the outlines to be very useful.

I’m now wondering if there is a way to turn the outline creation process into the equivalent of an exam. Something that gets graded, but not as part of a scaffolded research paper assignment.

Comparative Politics 2019: Looking Back

A few thoughts on my comparative politics course this year, now that the semester has ended:

Although I think my revised writing prompts made the intent of assignments more transparent, I forgot to preface each prompt with an overview of how readings related to the topic at hand. Also, for some assignments, it was obvious that students still weren’t reading items that I regarded as essential. If I don’t specifically refer to an author in the prompt, students often don’t read that author’s work. Since the relationship between the author and the question I posed was obscurely implied rather than explicit, I don’t have much justification for reducing students’ marks.

My Gerkhania simulation worked much better, in terms of student engagement, in a class of fourteen than it did in last year’s class of ten. Yet in each parliamentary session, students rapidly disclosed the roles they had randomly acquired to sort out how to construct coalitions that allowed the greatest number of them to “win.” I’m thinking of introducing two changes to the simulation next year that might reduce students’ tendency to default to rational actor behavior. First, keep students’ roles the same throughout the simulation, instead of randomly changing them for each session. This might cause students to develop a greater attachment to their fictional identities. Second, have students draft their own legislation instead of providing them with a a list of pre-determined bills.

Re-arranging course topics and pushing the qualitative comparative analysis deeper into the semester seemed beneficial, but many students still struggled with the assignment. They don’t, for example, understand concepts like “land productivity” and how measures like these can be used as independent variables. I need to continue separating the QCA into smaller components. Baby steps.

Identifying a Generational Zeitgeist?

Sometimes you discover something completely unexpected about how people perceive the world.

Back in February, students in my globalization course read the items below and wrote a response to “Is global trade a zero sum game — a process that causes some people to get poorer while others get richer? Why?”

  • Daron Acemoglu, “Economic Inequality and Globalization,” Brown Journal of World Affairs 13, 1 (Fall/Winter 2006).
  • Joseph Stiglitz, “The Globalization of Our Discontent,” Project Syndicate, 5 December 2017.
  • Branko Milanovic, “Why the Global 1% and the Asian Middle Class Have Gained the Most from Globalization,” Harvard Business Review Digital Articles, 13 May 2016.

Nearly the entire class wrote that global trade is a zero sum game. In class, students advocated for trade barriers.

Continue reading

Pre-Post Post-Its 3: Rubrics or Goobrics?

This post was inspired by an accidental encounter with an assignment rubric created by someone, or a committee, at my university. I do not know if the rubric is being used. I hope not, because it has 5 rows X 5 columns that contain a total of 860 remarkably ambiguous words, followed by a 362 word explanation — nearly four pages of information. No student is going to wade through such complex and lengthy verbiage for guidance on their work.

In contrast, I use a 3 X 4 rubric with 112 words. Much easier for students to decipher, but just as pointless if students don’t read it given that it is attached to about two dozen course assignments. So I decided to find out whether students do read it, with a third Post-It note survey, comprised of these items:

  • How do I feel right now?
  • I have read the rubric: a) before starting assignments, b) after receiving a grade for an assignment, c) both a and b, or d) I have never looked at the rubric.
  • For your answer to the previous question, why?

Similar to the previous Post-It note surveys, sixteen out of the twenty-one students present, or nearly 80 percent, stated that they felt badly in the one-word check-in. Twelve of these students wrote that they were tired. Three had neutral responses, and only two reported positive feelings. I’ll write more about this recurring problem in a future post.

For the second question, only two students commented that they had never read the rubric, but one of them wrote that they had already taken one of my courses and were familiar with it — so in effect 95 percent of the students who were in the classroom that day had used the rubric at some point. Nine students wrote that they read the rubric before starting to write, while ten students said that they had read the rubric both before and after completing an assignment.

Students’ answers to the last question included statements such as:

  • “So I know what to expect when my work is graded.”
  • “Wanted to know before [starting the assignment] how to do it, and after to see if I did anything wrong.”
  • “To make sure I can get the full amount of points.”
  • “That’s what you’re supposed to do.”

This is all good — the rubric seems to be serving its intended purpose and is not wasted effort or based on an incorrect assumption on my part.

Simulating the International Politics of Gender

Today we have a guest post from Susan Allen, associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi. She can be contacted at shallen [at] olemiss [dot] edu.

This semester I am teaching a course on gender and international politics for the first time. The first half of the course examines gender and representation, while the second half explores gender in international politics. I aimed to bridge these two sections with a simulation that I created on child marriage—something currently on the agenda of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and a likely topic at the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) this summer.

Students have been working in groups by regions of the world to expand their knowledge base beyond their own experiences. For the simulation, they became spokespersons for their designated regions. As additional preparation, students read about CEDAW and an excerpt from Women, Politics, and Power by Paxton and Hughes. I did not inform them beforehand of the particular issue that would be discussed as part of the simulation, other than to say that the activity would resemble a communication from CEDAW.

During the simulation’s first class session, students met in their regional groups to research child marriage, making use of GirlsNotBrides.org. Each group formulated a regional proposal for what it would like the full class to discuss in the next two sessions. During these classes, a graduate student and I questioned students about their proposals to ensure they remained faithful to their roles. The ultimate objective was to collectively produce a single proposal to be presented at the upcoming CEDAW.

Based on post-simulation debriefing papers, students had mixed feelings about how little official private information was they received prior to negotiations and how much they had to rely on their own research to formulate a regional proposal. Perhaps as a result, discussion on the first day was a little slow to develop and their proposals were not as well fleshed out as I expected. On the second day, the majority of the students participated enthusiastically (and perhaps chaotically).

One of the most interesting things about this experience for the students was that they failed to come to an agreement in the time allotted. Many of them were concerned that they had “failed” the activity. When we debriefed the following week in class after they had written their papers, many of the students offered interesting insights about the difficulty of creating a proposal on something that they as American college students thought was an “easy” issue. The experience highlighted some of the practical challenges of creating laws that codify gender equality.

Next time, I might provide students with slightly more structured guidelines, but I don’t think I’ll do anything to make it easier for the students to create a unified proposal. I think the challenge and failure were essential parts of the value of the activity.

A Tale of Two Conferences

With apologies to Charles Dickens.

I recently presented at nearly back-to-back conferences that were not, strictly speaking, devoted to my areas of expertise. While I think it’s always good to go beyond one’s comfort zone, the experience again illustrated a principle upon which Simon and I have occasionally commented: academic conferences often don’t reflect workplace realities. To wit:

The first conference, of the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA), was held in Washington, DC. Until you found out it wasn’t. I had immediately noticed from the call for proposals, unlike my wife/colleague, that the conference site was actually a 30-minute drive south, in Maryland. Public transit, including from the airport, took 90 minutes. While the hotel itself was gorgeous, its location represented additional expense and inconvenience for attendees, especially for those with limited or no financial support from their home institutions.

But the greater problem, in my opinion: it was the usual routine of presenting obscure research, completely unrelated to teaching, to mostly empty rooms. Hardly anyone who attended the conference has or will have a career that is entirely research-focused. In other words, the conference was organized to serve an audience that doesn’t exist.

The second conference, Eastern Regional Campus Compact, was a bit better in this regard, as one might expect from an organization whose mission is community engagement. But it still demonstrated the disconnect between conference format and audience. My contribution was an interactive workshop on teaching techniques, which drew a crowd of about fifty people, with some spilling out into the corridor — a clear sign of interest. The other sessions I attended, organized as traditional panels, attracted a half dozen or fewer people.

As I mention in the post at the link shown above, the economics of these kinds of conferences are backwards and not sustainable.