Conferences done right: POD 2016

Hi ALPS land!  I recently attended the 2016 POD Network conference in Louisville, KY, and while my recollections may be due to bourbon-fueled fantasy, I’m pretty sure that they schooled us American political scientists in how to run a conference.  Now, granted, they had only about 950 people whereas our national conferences draw thousands, but I still think that we have a lot to learn about how to make a weekend very productive.

My continual problem with conferences is that there is rarely a reason to attend traditional panels.  Usually they consist of four or five presentations of papers made available on a website,, discussant comments aimed at the papers rather than engendering conversations, panelist responses to those comments that, again, focus on what they tried to do in the paper, and, if the chair has managed to keep everyone to their time limits, perhaps 5 minutes of Q&A.

This is a waste of our time.  There, I said it.

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Specs Grading Update #4: On poor syllabus design, late work, and the woes of grading

It’s time for another specifications grading update! These posts are my attempt to be highly transparent about the benefits and challenges of using this method in my research methods class this semester, with all the trials and tribulations and the reflection and changes they prompt here on display.  Check out Posts 1, 2, and 3 if you haven’t already, or for a deep dive into the ins-and-outs of specifications grading as a system, take a look at our extensive discussions on the subject over the last year.

Today’s topics: requiring so much that I set up my students to fail; dealing with late work; and how all that grading is going. In other words, let’s talk about how even extensive reflection and consideration can result in basic syllabus mistakes that pose unacceptable challenges to students.

Let’s start with this basic question: Why in the world did I require 21 assignments? Yes, pedagogically speaking, this made sense: these assignments, collectively, added up the basic knowledge required of an introductory methods course. They covered topics such as writing research questions and hypotheses to measurement, ethics, sampling, correlation v. causation, and everything else. Back in the summer, I spent a lot of time considering whether to require everything, or allow students to complete some smaller number or percentage of the total.

This student just failed my class due to poor syllabus-making on my part.
This student just failed my class due to poor syllabus-making on my part.

Here’s the problem: if a student completes twenty assignments with a satisfactory or higher score, but misses assignment #21 because they forgot or overslept or had a family emergency, then according to my syllabus they fail the course outright. Sure, the tokens help with this, letting students get a 24 hour extension per token, up to 72 hours—but what if they don’t have enough tokens in the bank, or they completely forget for a week or more? These students FAIL THE COURSE.

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A great loss to our community

Dr. Danielle Langfield
Dr. Danielle Langfield

This week the ALPS team is mourning the loss of Dr. Danielle Langfield, who passed away of natural causes on September 26, 2016.  Dr. Langfield was a celebrated teacher and scholar at Marist College, where she was an assistant professor of comparative politics, as well as a former VAP at College of Wooster, and an occasional guest contributor to ALPS.  Her work on the use of real-world cases in simulations was published recently in Journal of Political Science Education. She was a passionate teacher and many of her students since her death have called her an inspiration and cited the incredible impact she had on them.  It is a great loss to the entire political science profession and the scholarship of teaching and learning community.

Audio Assignments, Oral Communication, and Accessibility

I’m taking a break from specs grading this week–not because I don’t have anything to write about, but actually because I’m too busy writing specs and grading homework modules to write up everything that’s going on.  Plus we are in the midst of a search, and I’m buried in applications.  I’ll be back on topic next week with my thoughts about grading, and some micro adjustments I had to make to the course as a result of my reflections.

When I’m not talking about specs grading, I try to share some quick and easy ideas for teaching that can make a big difference. These often fall into the vein of James Lang’s Small Changes in Teaching, both his book and his series over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed (definitely worth checking out!).

Today’s idea is about using audio and oral assignments in the classroom.

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Specs Grading Update #3: On Partial Credit, Following Directions, and the Awesomeness of Tokens.

I really thought I’d have little to write about on this subject until the midterm, but it turns out this specs grading experiment is requiring all kinds of reflection and micro-adjustments on my part, and thus I have plenty to share this week.

See my previous posts on converting my research methods course to specs grading, and insights from the first two weeks. Up this week are three reflections following the first few weeks of class and the grading of the first few assignments.

For those new to specs grading, see more general posts here, here, here, and here.

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Specifications Grading in Practice, Weeks 1 and 2

Week 1 of my newly-transformed specs grading course, research methods, is in the history bin, and I have much to report. As you may recall, I decided to overhaul my research methods course with this new system over the summer, and am teaching it for the first time this semester. Here on ALPS I will be chronicling my experience with the course, sharing with you the ups and downs over the course of the semester.

Check out my initial post on Day 0 here, and previous posts on specs grading here here, here, and here.

So how did my first two weeks go?

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The First Day of Class: Remix

As classes start up again for the fall semester, this might be a good time to revisit some great ALPS posts on how to approach the first days and weeks of the term.  We recommend:

Start the way you finish–A reminder that active learning–regardless of when you may have scheduled a simulation or other activity–begins on day one.

Picture it! A game for the first year students that teaches students to create and read maps while learning how to get around campus.

Close reading a syllabus–why not quiz your students on the syllabus to incentivize them to read it thoroughly?

Government in our lives--an idea for starting that first class session of American politics.

Today’s lucky winner is… and The other side of presenting–two posts that look at how to approach student presentations, from requiring all students to show up ready to present on the day’s topic to teaching students how to be the audience for a presentation.

And finally, because every class benefits from a bit of lego, take a page from Susherwood’s playbook and think about using lego in your classes.

 

Happy Fall Semester!

Specifications Grading, Attempt 1, Day 0

Hello, ALPS readers! I’m back after a long summer and spring sabbatical, and am eager to get back in the classroom and talk all things pedagogy here on ALPS. I’m starting a new series where I outline in excruciating detail my experiences using Specifications Grading.  I’ll be sharing my materials, talking about the ups and downs, and reflecting on this unique grading system throughout the semester.

We’ve given quite a bit of attention to specifications grading in the past few months. I did a presentation on it at the ALPS workshop at the University of Surrey in May as I started working on adapting one of my own courses to this new system. I also consulted several former students and children-of-friends about what they thought of the system in abstract, and the general consensus ranged from “shrug” to “that might be cool.” Experts in analysis, my young consultants.

In a nutshell, Specifications Grading is a system where all assignments are clearly linked to course learning outcomes, given clear specifications on what students need to do to earn a passing mark, and graded on a pass/fail style system, where a pass is a high bar (typically a B). Assignments are bundled together by learning outcome, and course grades are assigned based on the bundles that students complete. So, higher grades go to students that either complete more bundles (achieving more learning outcomes) or higher-level bundles that demand students complete more complex work. The course also employs flexibility mechanisms such as tokens to let students revise or reattempt a failing assignment, forgive a course absence, or gain some other kind of benefit. This system is supposed to ensure that all students who pass the class are achieving the minimum learning outcomes for the course, but also puts their grade into their hands by removing the mystery behind grades (no longer 170 out of 200 points, but ‘excellent’ ‘satisfactory’ or ‘unsatisfactory) and letting them choose which grade bundle to achieve.

Check out our previous posts for more general information on Specs Grading, or check out this great community of scholars working with the system.. For this new series, I am going to write throughout the semester about my experience in adapting and teaching my research methods course to this system.

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Simulating the Bargaining Model of War

Dr. Kyle Hanes is our guest contributor this week.  An assistant professor of political science at Purdue University, he describes a game he created to simulate the bargaining model of war.  Full instructions on his simulation can be found in his October 2015 PS: Political Science & Politics article.

The bargaining model of war has become so central to scholarly work on interstate conflict that, I would argue, it should be incorporated into even introductory IR courses. The bargaining model’s logic is intuitive and compelling, but even treatments of it in introductory textbooks rely on formal notation that can confuse or alienate many students. I can still hear the crickets echoing through my classroom as I excitedly asked students to explain why “State B will accept any offer greater than 1 – p – c.”

In trying to cut through this notation to explain the bargaining logic and “incentives to misrepresent,” I would often fall back on the logic of gambling. Misrepresentation is, in effect, bluffing. And even if most students don’t host a weekly card game, the majority are at least vaguely familiar with the logic of bluffing in poker. Why does a poker player make a large bet with a weak hand? Doing so might allow them to win the pot without even having to show their cards. Ultimately, it’s the same reason why states exaggerate their military power or willingness to fight over a disputed piece of territory. Over time, I developed this metaphor into a simple, in-class card game that illustrates the core logic of the bargaining model of war. The game is fun, simple, and engages students directly in the bargaining logic. The game’s rules and parameters are extremely flexible, and can be adapted to highlight different components of the bargaining model’s logic.

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Teaching Methods: Reliability and Validity at the AP Reading

Last month I participated in the annual Reading of the Advanced Placement US Government exams. In May, over 300,000 students in US high schools took this exam, consisting of a series of sixty multiple choice questions and four free responses, usually in the hope of earning college credit or placement in a higher level course. The multiple-choice items are easily dealt with, but someone has to score the free response questions. Enter the AP Readers, a collection of several hundred college professors and high school teachers who voluntarily spend a week sitting in a convention center, scoring essays for eight hours a day, seven days straight. Sound awful? It gets worse: we actually score responses to the same essay question, over and over again. On a good day, I score about 450 essays, all answering the same question.

So why have I put myself through this tedious exercise for nine of the last ten years?

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