Another One Bites The Dust

Postscript to my February 14 post on colleges and universities in financial trouble: the College of New Rochelle, whose enrollment woes I profiled in 2017, will probably close this summer. Details are contained in this Inside Higher Ed story.

According to its federal tax filings, the College of New Rochelle had a negative net operating margin for every single fiscal year from 2011 through 2016. During this period its operational expenses per FTE undergraduate increased by almost 45 percent. The increase for fiscal years 2012 through 2016 was nearly 53 percent.

New Rochelle is yet another example of a private, non-profit college that did not sufficiently reduce its operational costs when enrollment plummeted after the Great Recession. Expenses per student ballooned until the college became insolvent.

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?

Pinning you down

There’s not much that separates PoliSci academics from others in most aspects of pedagogy, but one that is quite notable is the question of “what’s your politics?”

The reasons for this should be pretty clear, so I’ll not get into that, but instead will offer some thoughts, because we get this kind of thing on our side of the Atlantic too.

As the various respondents to Carolyn’s tweet suggest, the very question speaks to a set of assumptions, which can be usefully exposed and explored.

However, that can be a deflection, rather than an answer, so it still behoves us to consider what answers we can give.

It’s something I’ve had to chew on a lot in recent years, given my work on Brexit: “how did you vote?” is now getting overtaken by “what do you think we should do?”

The fact that I genuinely don’t know what we should do is neither here nor there, because the rest of what I’m offering people is what I claim to be impartial and fair insight into assorted issues, so if I’m seen as speaking for any one party then my whole work is compromised.

This is, of course, the problem we all face: politics gets seen as a clash of interests with no objective truth to be defended, thus meaning we must all be on one side or another.

Without wishing to get lost down an ontological or epistemological hole on this one, I think it’s possible to mark out a more segmented view of politics: we have our own views, but the consequence of those is limited, especially if we are reflective about these.

Thus I can acknowledge how I voted in the referendum, while also stressing that my interest now is in helping others to reach an informed and considered set of decisions about what comes next. It helps that this is my heartfelt belief – process matters much more than outcome to me right now.

But we can also communicate such messages in different ways in our classroom.

Promoting and defending a range of perspectives on contentious issues; fostering a space in which different views can be discussed with respect and tolerance; acknowledging the limits of what evidence (and anecdote, for that matter) can tell us.

These elements often prove to be much more meaningful in conveying the values of academic inquiry and debate and the interplay between facts and opinions than any “what’s your politics?” discussion.

Still doesn’t make it that much easier when you get asked, though.

Never take it for granted: Making innovation and active learning work

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Heidrun Maurer.

Innovation and active learning are nowadays often too easily welcomed catchphrases in Higher Education, whose successful implementation is taken for granted. Stanislava Kováčová from Masaryk University aimed at testing the added value of active learning herself.

To her own surprise, her experiment did not show any significant indication that her students had learnt more after active learning than after traditional lectures. In her contribution “Does active learning work? The experiences of Brno and Tehran psychology students” she presents collected data and reflects on how her students experienced passive lecture-focused and active student-focused learning. She tests three hypotheses: if students in an active learning environment participate more, gain higher level of content knowledge, or engage more. While the results are not statistically significant, they suggest counterintuitively a tendency for lecturing to be more effective practice than active learning.

Stanislava´s contribution encourages all of us to think more carefully of how to measure the success of the teaching methods that we employ. Her attempt showcases tellingly the complexity of measuring learning, but also how important it is to think about the methods of data collection. In Stanislava´s case, institutional policies made it difficult to gather reliable, comparable data. In addition, one needs to consider the right moment to test the effect of learning tools, especially when it is not only about content but also skills: is it right after the class, at the end of term, or years after?

Furthermore, measuring the effect of learning must depend on the objective(s) that we set for our teaching innovation. Stanislava had decided to assess participation (“students asking questions”), knowledge (“students being able to answer questions”), and engagement (“students taking notes”), but those criteria will vary depending on the expected outcomes of the innovation. It is generally a good reminder that we should not innovate for innovation´s sake, but that all attempts to improve the learning experience have to start from a concise definition of what is meant to change and why.

Stanislava´s project also reminds us that it is not just a question if we use active learning tools but how we apply and integrate them into our students´ learning. It seems like a plausible explanation that students in Brno and Tehran were overwhelmed with the task and would have needed more attempts to get used to switch from a more lecture-based system to actively engaging with the exercises. Another explanation could be that the exercises that we sometimes use are not achieving what they are meant to achieve, and they would need a different design altogether. Especially for colleagues unfamiliar with active learning there is a tendency to design active learning exercises that are too prescriptive and too narrow, as they do not allow students to engage in researching and asking their own questions.

Last but not least important, the reflections of Stanislava´s project even more tellingly emphasise what we must not  ignore when employing active learning pedagogy: students´ skills like active listening, processing information and taking notes must not be taken for granted and should also be actively – or even more concisely –  encouraged and trained in an active learning environment.

Active learning pedagogy can help us a great deal to design tools to engage students, facilitate their learning, and train them as researchers. But applying active learning effectively asks for a different mindset, and its successful application looks easier than it is often made out to be in practice. Adding a few exercises in a traditional curriculum is often not enough to harness its full potential.

As with learning more generally, it can only work with practice, critical reflection, and sometimes, trial and error.

Effective Active Learning: The Importance of Sound Pedagogical Design

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Alexandra Mihai.

Active learning refers to a large range of teaching strategies and methods that put the student at the centre of the learning process. From debates and group discussions, to simulations and problem-based learning, this versatile approach has the students’ active engagement at the forefront, while teachers play the role of a coach or facilitator. Fujdiak captures in her chapter a very interesting instance of active learning being employed in an International Security Policy course. Her two goals are to find out what students think about the methods used and to assess whether they were contributing to a deeper understanding of the topic. In order to do that, Fujdiak analyses student feedback from “minute papers”, enhanced by her own classroom observations.

The active learning approach was introduced in the second part of the course. The main aim was to complement the series of lectures from the first part and to get students to engage with the topics, which would in turn lead to a more effective learning experience. For this part of the course the large class was split into three seminar groups of 26 students each and the classes were conducted by seminar leaders, one of whom was Fujdiak. Throughout the six seminars she used various learning activities such as group discussions in various formats, brainstorming, mind-mapping and role play. The chapter contains annexes detailing the activities and their perceived impact, as well as a visual representation of the findings.

By analysing students’ qualitative feedback via content analysis and through her own observations, Fujdiak could draw a few conclusions concerning the impact of her active learning activities.

First of all, students found the student-student interaction very useful and their overall engagement in class increased. Two seminars received mixed ratings: one where the guest lecturer did not employ active learning at all and another one where the activity was not planned very well in terms of timing. This shows that students are very fine observers insofar as the activity design is concerned. Moreover, the more familiar they get with active learning the higher their expectations are, this being mirrored in their degree of engagement with the respective tasks.

In her chapter, Fujdiak emphasizes some of the most important aspects of active learning. In order for this teaching approach to fulfil its main goals, it is crucial to put a considerable amount of effort into class design, with a focus on providing students a clear structure and instructions. Moreover, effective learning activities need to be meaningfully integrated in the overall course design.

It would be interesting to see whether some of the activities would have a bigger impact if they were to take place in alternation with the related lectures, and not in a separate part of the course, somewhat in isolation. As Fujdiak herself explains, this is not always a choice one has; she, like many other early career academics, had to operate within a pre-defined course structure. Her varied active learning activities and her reflective study are a proof that teaching innovation can also occur under rather rigid external conditions. The important thing is to establish clear learning objectives, be receptive to students’ needs and feedback and be bold enough to try out new ways of engaging students in their learning.

From formative feedback to assessment outcomes

For reasons best known to others, it’s the end of our first semester here, so that means coursework grades are going back to students.

I was even more interested than usual in this event this time around because something unusual happened with my class: they came to talk with me about their assessment.

I know that might seem mundane, but despite my best efforts my office hours have often resembled one of the remoter oases in a desert: potentially of use, but rarely visited by anyone.

I’d love to tell you what was different this semester, but I genuinely have no idea: I did the things I usually did, so maybe it was a cohort effect. Or not.

In any case, I reckon I sat down for discussions with most of the students and emailed with several others. In those exchanges we typically covered both generic guidance on what was required and specific discussion on students’ plans.

Of course, the big question is whether that helped the students to do better.

At this point, I’ll note that my class had about 35 students and it’s a one-off event so far, so I’m alive to not over-reading the outcomes. Against that, the marking has been confirmed by the second marker.

That said, the main positive outcome was that the bottom half of the class moved up quite markedly. In previous years, I’ve always had a cluster of students who simply didn’t ‘get’ the assessment – a reflective essay – and thus came out with poor marks. This time, I had only a couple of students in that situation, and they appeared (from my records) to have not attended most of the classes, and hadn’t come to talk.

Put differently, the tail was severely trimmed and the large bulk of students secured a decent grade.

What didn’t appear to happen was an overall shift upwards though: the top end remaining where it had been previously.

Again, I’m not sure why this might be. Without another cohort I’m not even sure if my guidance actually did anything for anything.

Quite aside from the specific instance, it does underline for me how little me know about the ways in which our teaching practice does and doesn’t impact on student learning.

In this case, I don’t really know how one could ethically test the impact of formative feedback and support, given the multiple variables at play. If you have an idea, I’d love to hear it.

Using flipped classrooms when teaching research methods. Great, but how to prepare as an instructor?

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Johan Adriaensen.

When teaching writing skills, our objective is not to have students explain what a good paper looks like, we want them to write a good one. Similarly, through our methodological courses, we hope students not only understand the logic of a research method, but that they can apply it in practice.

This need for practical application inevitably pushes us towards active learning pedagogies. One way to achieve this is through a flipped classroom model. This requires students to learn the essentials of theory at home so that contact hours can be devoted to practical applications and discussion. This enables the instructor to provide support where it is most needed. As a result, student engagement with the material is stimulated through learning by doing.

In her chapter, Kateřina Fridrichová elaborates on her experiences while applying this method in an elective course on research methods for Master’s students of international relations at Masaryk University in Brno. As I was familiar with the potential of flipped classrooms in teaching research methods through the work of Michael Touchton, I formulated myself a set of questions on the practice of teaching in a flipped classroom as opposed to their effects on students (which are also analysed in the chapter).

Firstly, I wonder how to best facilitate the learning process during students’ self-study? Fridrichová referred to the use of general readings and short explanatory videos. To ensure the students get prepared in advance, she requested summaries of the readings from students. Unfortunately, despite an elaborate assessment of student and teacher experiences, we learn little about the need, perception or effectiveness of pre-recorded lectures and/or the short explanatory videos used by Fridrichová (and how to determine which topics merit such support).

Second, I ask myself how to organize the in-class sessions so as to improve learning?  As common in flipped teaching, there was still scope for ‘mini-lectures’ in her class to address issues requiring further explanation. These were then followed by various practical applications and exercises. I particularly liked the idea of working with data collected from the students. The exercises were diverse, well-designed and also appropriate for a method as QCA which is commonly applied to small and medium-N.

Thirdly, I remain puzzled about the implications in terms of preparation and workload for the instructor. Fridrichová’s honest and open reflection highlight the importance of preparation for the class sessions and in particular how to cope with small class sizes. The shift from traditional teaching practices to a student-led, active teaching format often necessitates a different type of preparation to keep the class engaged. In her case, the small group of students (4) further complicated this challenge. 

While the initial time-investment seemed to be significant, the rewards seem more than worth the effort. The impacts on her students were diverse ranging from greater confidence in applying the method, greater engagement during class, the scope for peer-learning and an appreciation of applying the theory in practice. Having read the chapter, my interest in flipped teaching has only increased.

The links between teaching and impact

Yesterday I found myself on the campus of another university, attending an advisory board of a research project.

One of the key topics was about impact – taking the work into the community of users.

As we talked about this, I was struck by the way in which there are a lot of parallels between this and teaching.

Most importantly, both impact and teaching need to be focused on the needs of your audience from the outset: it cannot simply be a function of what you want to do.

That means understanding your audiences, reflecting on their needs and tailoring what you have to offer. It’s easy to do the most convenient thing, but that might not be the most useful thing you can do.

Secondly, there has to be a recognition that there is more than one way to skin the proverbial cat and that your choice of activity is not pre-determined.

This implies a willingness to explore options and to try out new things that might work better. In the case of this project, we talked a lot about blogging and the options it might open, both in of itself and as a gateway to other activity, but the principle is the same for any other form of working.

Finally, there needs to be a tolerance of failure. Just as not every single student responds positively to our teaching, so not every person targeted for impact work demonstrates interest.

Failing in these cases obviously requires adjustment and different approaches, but it is not intrinsically a problem: there are always limits to what we can achieve in working with others. What matters is our response and adaptation.

Seen together, both teaching and impact work should remind us that we operate in collective environments: we alone cannot – and should not – take everything on our own shoulders, but rather rather need to work with others to find common cause.

Teaching and the day job

Today’s one of the biggest in British politics and UK-EU relations for a long time (and given recent history, that’s a pretty high bar), and I’ve got lots to be doing on that.

But I’m writing this blog.

At the end of the week, I’m putting in my paperwork for promotion, where I know that I’m going to be judged primarily on my ‘proper research’ outputs.

But I’ve spent a week putting together L&T panels for conferences.

I’ve got a draft paper on Brexit that needs me to sit down and do some more work on it, to get it closer to submission.

But I also need to do some reading for the supervision of my doctoral student, working on pedagogy.


Victor put it nicely here: L&T scholarship matters, whether or not others realise it.

On my (purely anecdotal) evidence, I have given a lot more people direct help and advice on L&T than on anything else I’ve done, and through the wonder of teaching, that has shaped a stack of lives.

So even when there’s a lot of other stuff to be getting on with, don’t not get on with this too.

New year, new me. Not

You’ll be happy to know that I have no recommendations to offer this new year, except to say that January is an absolutely awful time to start changing your life.

That’s true for most people, but it’s very much so for academics.

Our year doesn’t run from January, and the past few weeks have been a brief pause in the gallop from semester to semester.

I have my ‘to-do’ list sat in front of my monitors in the office and it’s not a pretty sight. Plus, I notice, it doesn’t even include all the stuff I need to do.

Plus, everyone else is back at work now, so that email inbox is filling up nicely.

So what can we do?

This shouldn’t be cause for getting down though.

In these days, before it really gets going again, there’s still some space to take stock and to look ahead across the coming months.

It’s like standing on a little hillock, looking across the plain and trying not to get too concerned about the marshalling armies preparing for battle on the land you are about to tread.

Key point to remember here is that you’ve made it through the first semester and through the start of the academic year.

Semester two is more of the same, not whole-new-ballgame territory. Plus you probably also get it broken up by Easter. Plus the days are getting longer again.

So keep your chin up and think about what’s been good so far and about how you’ve avoid/manage the bad stuff.

And for that alone, it’s a happy new year.