Trying to up my game

At the end of last month, I came to the end of my term with UK in a Changing Europe. The programme, which aims to bring the fruits of social science research on UK-EU relations to a public audience, was a great occasion for me to bring insights from my pedagogic work to public and political communication.

Part of that was thinking about different ways to package data and information.

Obviously (since you’re reading this) there’s the blogging, but also Twitter, podcasting, vlogs and graphics. Plus all manner of face-to-face events and formats.

Now that I’ve stopped with quite such a full-on public engagement role, I want to try and bring some more of that experience back into the classroom.

My first port of call has been the graphics, because they remain one of the less-explored avenues to date.

When I started out, shortly after the 2016 referendum, I haven’t really got the hang of it [shock]: I think this is one of my very first efforts:

Click through and you’ll see lots and lots of words and not a huge amount of structure: I’m trying to cover all the detail here, but of only some elements.

However, I also notice that the very next day, I also produced something with lots of empty spaces:

Simple, yes, but not very helpful beyond some groupings.

Since then I’ve produced dozens of the things, with not much more to go on than informal feedback and personal reflection: I’d suggest that this might not be the best way to go about it. Taking a course/workshop would have saved a lot of time all round.

For me, the first big thing was thinking about how to move away from what are essentially lists (like the two above), to a format that makes real use of the visual component to relate elements to each other.

The second was about working more to produce content that met the needs of the people using this: I’ve pitched different graphics to those without any substantial knowledge and to those working closely with the material.

That’s all been well and good and I’ve had a handful of graphics get really big audiences, mainly by virtue of trying to break down somewhat complicated things into simpler summaries (e.g. here and here). Getting retweeted by key influencers also matters, so do think about tagging people in too.

But my changing status has also been an opportunity to revisit what I do, including the template, which was essentially a expedient let’s-use-the-university’s-poster-template choice back in 2016.

What’s new?

The past couple of Mondays, I’ve been posting my new efforts. Here’s the first one:

As you see, it’s not massively different: a simpler title banner, clearer details on dates, versions and sharing rights, plus my Twitter handle and a link to a PDF version (i.e. all the stuff I should always have had in).

The colour was horrible and won’t be used again, but the format does highlight my efforts to try and take the reader through the subject matter.

And as for sticking with PowerPoint? Well, I know how to use it, even if it’s not the most elegant or high-powered.

Next steps

But this new formatting isn’t the core of what I want to do: I’m going to bring this into the classroom.

As you’ll recall, I flipped my Intro to the EU class last year, with somewhat mixed results. A big part of the issues was students not seeing what the point of the contact time previously used for lecturing was.

Enter graphics.

I’m planning to use that lecture time briefly for any Q&A on the flipped lecture (as before), but much more for getting the group to generate graphics on a key question.

Given there’s about 120 of them, that’ll need some snow-balling of groups and for me to investigate some software for sharing graphical content, but I think it’ll be good for getting more active and reflective skills developed by students.

We’re still at early days on this, but I’ll report as it evolves.

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.

Triggering debate

One of the persistent problems of teaching politics is that it’s not a steady target: things keep happening.

Niche (and better than a photo of a bus)

There has been much discussion of this, both generally and on this blog, but it’s something that come back into my consideration of late as I think about how I’m teaching.

In the past weeks, I have several classes that have started from a specific trigger. That’s either been a news event, or some material that I’ve come across that prompts a question (and a discussion).

Last week, my students sourcing some campaigning materials from the 2016 referendum and then used them in class to consider what that told them about framing and rhetoric more generally.

Tomorrow, I’m running a public event where people can ask any question about Brexit of me and my colleagues: there we’ll find ourselves very much wherever the audience want.

This connection to events (and to symbols) is important. Firstly, it helps those we’re helping to learn to see how academic study fits with the world in practice. And secondly, it provides a hook on to which we tie ourselves as we explore the issues surrounding it.

In many ways this is analogous to the use of theory to anchor our debate: in that case, we seek out master-ideas that pull together disparate phenomena and – hopefully – make them cohere. In the event-led model, we’re focusing on a phenomenon as a site of interaction for multiple concepts and ideas.

Putting it like that makes me think about why it’s important to have a balance between the two approaches. It’s good to have a rounded set of perspectives on any one event, but equally it’s important to see the structural processes that transcend it.

It might be that in the appreciation of the mixture of specificity and sameness of the world around us that we can gain the fullest understanding.

Something to talk about with class, perhaps.

GIYF, apparently

Long story

This academic year I’ve encountered a problem that wasn’t previously one I’d seen.

On several occasions, students have been in touch to say they can’t access materials, or links in reading lists are broken.

That’s bad, on my part, but a quick type into Google pulls up the correct link and/or material.

Most of me assumes that search engines are a staple of modern life, so I struggle to understand why one wouldn’t just check on one if you couldn’t find what you wanted.

But a bit of me also worries that this is symptomatic of some kind of learned helplessness: by being in the habit of just being given stuff, one loses the ability to find stuff for yourself.

I know we go around the spoon-feeding debate in education pretty regularly, but this seems like an odd case, given that we could expect using search engines to be a much more pervasive thing.

I need to follow this up with students and I’ll come back with any feedback, but I’d also welcome your thoughts too, both on causes and solutions.

From quality teaching to satisfaction

As UK universities get more fully into their new academic year, it’s also the time to dust down action plans for improving student satisfaction.

Predictable photo

I’ve discussed the National Student Survey (NSS) before here, but the key point is still that while this survey measures how satisfied students are, that isn’t the same as whether they have got a high quality educational experience.

To put it differently, the things that we might learn most from are not necessarily those which are most enjoyable, or even the most satisfactory.

In my own professional experience, I have taken a lot from unsatisfactory experiences that have generated frustration or annoyance and then (critically) self-reflection and thus improved practice.

This isn’t to say that education should be unsatisfactory, but rather to point up that there’s not a necessarily linear correlation between satisfaction and learning outcomes.

The problem is that satisfaction is easy to measure, and notwithstanding that everyone in the sector knows it’s not the same, it becomes a proxy for learning.

If we assume that just railing against the system isn’t going to work, we have instead to think about how we can work it to best effect (i.e. getting to a learning environment for our students that optimises learning outcomes).

Here, once again, the route has to be through sound pedagogic principles, rather than through targeting specific questions on the NSS list.

That doesn’t mean that timely feedback – to pick one obvious example – isn’t important, but rather that we should be framing it as important in supporting effective learning – as part of a wider system of dialogue and support with students – rather than just good-in-itself.

This matters because the NSS isn’t an exhaustive list of What Matters in Education. As instructors, we should be considering the totality of what our students encounter during their time with us.

Crucially, that means having an understanding of the relationships between different elements of that provisions and the trade-offs: increasing feedback might mean having fewer assessment points, which might compromise our ability to monitor understanding and progress, for example.

Moreover, it’s only be having such an overview that we will be able to effectively engage in the silent arm of student satisfaction: expectation management. If we don’t understand what we are trying to achieve, how can we hope to communicate that to our students?

In short, we all know that teaching to the test is A Bad Thing for our subject material, but it’s also true elsewhere too.

Branching out

So, almost overnight, I seem to have developed a profile on Twitter as a commentator on voter ID.

I was on a radio programme last night, talking about Brexit stuff, but the following debate was on the proposals to introduce free ID cards for voters, to combat personation.

Since I knew this was coming up, I’d done some prep, but didn’t get to talk about that on the programme, so I tweeted it out on the way home:

So far, so media tart-y.

But for me it’s been a good micro-illustration of how we teach.

We take material that we know something about, arrange it to make sense, share it and then discuss it with others.

Here, even more than other areas of work, I’m happy to be corrected and to be forced to explain my working/logic.

At one level, we’re all working like this: offering up ideas and conceptualisations of some thing, then testing that in dialogue with other people and (hopefully) producing a more robust outcome.

So far, in this case, that’s been really interesting for me to work through my argument and to think about how it fits with other areas of research.

And that’s why I love teaching: it really makes you think.

You don’t wanna do it like that

A quick check through the vellum parchments indicates that I’m now teaching second-year undergraduates for the first time in nearly a decade.

It turns out they are like any other group of students, albeit with the relatively fresh memory of taking my flipped module last semester.

More interestingly, I’m also teaching my first new module in a similarly long time: on European integration and disintegration.

This has posed two immediate challenges.

Firstly, that first year module was an introduction to the European Union, so how do I differentiate the two for my students?

Secondly, deliver the module at all?

My answer has been to work with what I’ve got. And what I’ve got are many of the raw materials that the previous instructor on the module very kindly left me (thank you, Roberta).

Rather than try to build up a module from scratch, I’m going to follow the existing model relatively closely this time around.

Partly that’s expediency but much more it’s because it’s not the way I would have tackled the subject.

If that sounds odd, then consider that much of the module deals with critical perspectives on the subject matter and I want students to see that I am tackling what might be nominally the same material in a fundamentally different way.

Yes, I could have wheeled out a bunch of classes that were essentially ‘more of the same’ as last semester, but I very much don’t want to do that.

Moreover, because it’s not my structure or activities, it forces me to engage more fully with the material, because I have to be confident enough to be able to help students learn it.

Again, the irony is that it’s exactly because I wouldn’t teach this way normally that I want to teach this way: I will learn something from the experience, both substantively and pedagogically.

As I seem to be saying to a lot of people recently, I have no monopoly on good practice, and there is always something new to be learnt.

Quite how that plays out remains to be seen.

Assume absolutely nothing

Perhaps my most reliable observation to date on negotiations and teaching negotiations is that time matters.

Furniture on castors, so it must be active learning…

You give students (or negotiators) a deadline and it has huge impacts on their activity: most obviously, it creates an ever-increasing social pressure to ‘reach an agreement’.*

That’s why it was really good to have spent this past weekend being shown that this is simply an arbitrary way of behaving.

I was running a workshop for faculty at the American University in Cairo, as a guest of their Department of Political Science (and supporting by funding AUC recieved from APSA), talking about active learning and simulations.

A big part of what I tried to do was to let colleagues try out activities first-hand, so they could really see the potential that each of them contained for their own teaching.

One of my activities was a crisis game: it gives not enough time to try and reach a conclusion, with (what I would consider) inevitable effects of the kind outlined above.

This time? Nothing. Zip. Diddly. Squat. Nada.

Every other time, there has been at least one person keeping an eye on the time, either from the off or mid-way through as they recall I’ll not letting them go on forever.

In the AUC case, not only was there was there precisely no acknowledgement of the passing of time, but even when I let them run on for an extra 5 minutes, there was still nothing.

We talked about this.

Largely, we talked about cultural norms. The group was almost entirely Egyptian, but with plenty of experience of living and working in Europe and the US. They suggested that time is treated much more flexibly (certainly, I was not really following my timeline for the rest of the workshop), so its constraining power is that much weaker.

For my part, I noted that failing to decide by a deadline is also a decision, in the sense of creating choices with consequences, so they and their students might reflect on how that plays out.

But still the main takeaway for me was that you really, really can’t assume anything when you teach, because it might turn out your assumption isn’t held by everyone.

To pick another example, what might seem fun or unremarkable to you might feel uncomfortable to others: consider the times you’ve encountered someone with a different of personal space to your own.

Of course, all of this is a valuable learning moment: it invites us to consider what else we might be simply assuming about the world and about others. For political science, that’s a crucial insight because of the profound differences in the fundaments of individuals’ worldviews, which generates political interaction and events.

Something for me to take some time to think about.

* – Yes, I know that’s not what good practice suggests you should do (you should instead by working out whether what you can achieve within a negotiation is better than what you can outside it). But it’s what people very, very often do anyway.

Attend to this…

Like the devoted parent that I am, I went to a parents’ evening at my kids’ school last week, to make sure I was up-to-speed with things.

Among the other messages, there was one that got a lot of air-time. We were told several times that even a short absence could have a detrimental effect on academic performance, so parents and children alike needed to do everything they could to get in.

Apples don’t work either…

Now, it might be helpful to note that one of my children missed about a third of last school year, due to illness, so I have skin in this game.

Plus, during those absences, the school didn’t make a big thing about that detrimental effect, so I went to do some checking.

This goes back to research done for the government in 2015, which was press-released as:

Even short breaks from school can reduce a pupil’s chances of succeeding at school by as much as a quarter, research reveals today (22 February 2015).

The research, based on extensive pupil absence figures and both GCSE and primary school test results, highlights the importance of clamping down on pupil absence to ensure more pupils regularly attend school, and ultimately leave with the qualifications needed to succeed in modern Britain.

It shows 44% of pupils with no absence in key stage 4 (normally aged 16) achieve the English Baccalaureate – the gold standard package of GCSE qualifications that includes English, maths, science, history or geography and a language – opening doors to their future. But this figure falls by a quarter to just 31.7% for pupils who miss just 14 days of lessons over the 2 years that pupils study for their GCSEs, which equates to around 1 week per year, and to 16.4% for those who miss up to 28 days.

Let’s leave aside the dubious stat in the opening paragraph and consider why a school head reading this might feel that this proved attendance was essential.

Then read this from an education studies Professor, who points out attendance and performance are correlated, but likely not causally, with other factors such as more generic life-chances.

Now, I’m clearly going to want to hear what the academic says, because it gives me more hope that my child’s education won’t suffer too much, but it does raise a bigger issue for us in higher education: do students need to come to class?

My usual response to this has been a utilitarian one: classes are the easiest way to access the material and reflective space needed to do well in assessment, so if you’re lacking motivation, this is the least-cost option.

That’s not really a rally cry though, is it?

Instead we need to think about how we can make contact time a positive and enthusiastic option. If we can get students to want to attend, rather than simply feel they have to, then we’re likely to get better engagement, and thus learning.

At the same time, we need to be making sure that we help with incentives.

So for my course on negotiation, the assessment is reflective writing about the experiences the student has had in class, as contextualised by wider reading: hard (i.e. impossible) to do if you’ve not been in class (although I have had a couple of students try (and fail)).

The challenge comes in having to acknowledge that students have individual ways of learning, which may or may not fit with others’: I’ve seen several excellent pieces of assessment over the years from students who have been very largely absent from class.

That’s fine, although it does raise a question of whether other students suffer from not having that person in the class to stretch or challenge them. But if that’s not a learning objective, then it’s not a learning objective.

At the end of the day, this comes down to making sure we are clear about what we, as educators, want to achieve with our students. Once we have that, then we can think more about structuring incentives to engage, which then in turn might produce environments conducive to attendance.

But to start at the other end of that chain isn’t going to solve things by itself.

SPABC: the flipped panel format

Last week I wrote up our gladiatorial format for conference panels: kind of working, but needs some re-thinking on a number of fronts.

This time, I’m going through the flipped format, which I think has a lot more immediate promise.

For those too lazy to follow links back, the original idea here was to try out some different ways of running panels, because they’re often, well, boring. Perhaps changing things up might improve that.

So happy…

The format

This is just like a flipped classroom, but for conference panels. The presenters were required to record a video presentation of their paper and upload it to a public location – YouTube was suggested: no limits on length, content or approach. The videos were then publicised by my and the conference organisers.

Then, in the panel itself, each presenter was limited to 5 minutes of speaking and a maximum of 2 slides. The idea is to free up much more time for interactive discussion than usual.

How it unfolded on the day

Compared to the gladiator format, no-one really seemed bothered by the format: the audience didn’t have to do anything different, and the presenters had done their heavy lifting well beforehand.

The flipped presentations were all ready a week beforehand, hosted on a variety of platforms: lengths ranged from 35 to 55 minutes, so well beyond what we could normally do in the panel. Links here, here and here.

We did have a late addition to our panel, who presented in the conventional 15 minute format, but we still fitted all four papers into 45 minutes (including introductions/explanations of the format).

Feedback from the audience

The audience seemed pretty happy with the format, both in the discussion and in the short survey I ran afterwards.

They liked that there was more time to discuss and that they could refer back to the full presentation later on (only a few had watched the presentations either in full or in part beforehand).

However, there was repeated pleas for this to have been made clearer beforehand: several requested links sooner. To put that in context, all panellists tweeted about it for a week beforehand; the conference organiser added links to the abstracts in the programme and mentioned it in the general emails sent out to all delegates; plus we told lots of people about it in person.

Which highlights that academics aren’t necessarily as different from students as they sometimes believe.

More consequentially, when asked to rate whether this format was more engaging and/or more informative than the usual format, the survey respondents were rather tepid, rating it only slightly better on both metrics. This compared to a much higher rating for the gladiatorial format, which might be down to the interaction of the latter, or to the substantive content (L&T for the gladiatorial; Brexit for this one).

Feedback from the presenters

This format needs planning by presenters: you can’t just rock up on the day and wing it [ahem].

Because our conference was early September, and I had annual leave beforehand, I needed to get my presentation together in July, plus think about how to do the short version in person.

I was lucky that my university has a lecture capture system that I could use on my computer: giving a mix of my talking head and my slides (OK, it took a couple of attempts to make it look as it should): colleagues didn’t have that and so either had to try some editing of bits of video, or just have a disembodied voice over the slides.

Unlike the others, I also decided I’d not recycle my slides into the panel presentation, but would make one new slide to capture the core idea of the paper. That worked very well for me, but it might have been tricky to do for others.

However, we all felt it worked, making us got to the point in the panel (even if that might be tough in such a short time). Yes, it’s clearly more work than a normal panel, but there was a strong feeling that it was more useful for us too.

Looking at tracking stats, I can see my presentation has been accessed over 70 times already, which is well above the number of people in the room. Sure, that tracking also says not many of them watched the whole thing, but I’m still getting a bigger footprint than usual.

So, does it work?

Yes, yes it does. With some tweaks.

If I did this again – and I really think I would – then I’d add some more guidance on all the elements.

The video presentations might have some (generous) time limit to them: 45 minutes seems plenty, especially if you consider you’d normally have 15 to deliver it. If there were some free video capture software – suggestions, anyone? – that allowed face-and-slide capture, then that would also recover a big barrier.

On the panel presentations, I’d reinforce the rule on time and slides, and maybe ask that people didn’t recycle slides from the video, in order to get them to consider how to pull together the main aim of the paper into one place. Maybe it’s not always possible, but it’s worth a try: I certainly got to think about my paper rather way because of it.

As for promotion of the format, I struggle to see what more could have been done this time. Perhaps the solution would be to have a series of panels in a conference using this, so that more people knew about it: maybe one per session, leaving a collection of papers for the conference organisers to promote and archive.

Of course, you then need a bunch more people to buy into it, but it’s not the most difficult thing. Maybe you offer some kind of inducement to encourage people.

The limit is that if everyone does it, why bother going to the conference at all? That’s why I’d pick-and-mix across substantive topics, so it show-cases the conference, rather than replacing it.

Further ideas

One option we discussed in Lisbon was using this as part of a virtual conference or workshop.

You could pre-record full presentations and get participants to watch ahead of a webinar debate/chat: that way you don’t have to keep people sitting on their arses for ages while just listening, but instead you can pitch them into debate quite quickly.

If you’re thinking about carbon footprints – and you should be – then this might be one way forward.