It takes a department…

Insert joke about Belgium’s space programme here

I’m coming back to the idea of soft ties and community building in education, having spent the weekend in Bruges, celebrating 20 years since my Masters degree.

For those of you not familiar with the College of Europe, it’s a Masters-only institution, teaching students on various aspects of European integration. It has a reputation as a training ground for those going to work in Brussels, in and around the European Union. Certainly, from my year, there are now many friends who are now senior people in European or national organisations, from ambassadors to heads of unit, professors to executive suite types.

I mention this not to brag – if anything, there’s a strong dissonance of seeing such people in such roles, when your lasting memory is of them having a food fight at a cheese fondue party – but to observe that our reunion was grounded in the very strong sense of community that we shared.

As students, the College insisted that we not only study together, but also live  and eat together, in the various residences that they provided. At the time, I’m not sure I appreciated being given 21 meals a week – especially come ‘sandwich Sunday dinner’ – but it meant that we got to spend a lot of time together, learn more about each other as people, rather than just classmates.

Obviously, such a model has very limited directed utility outside of seminaries, but the idea is a useful one. If we can build spaces for students to interact, above and beyond their direct study contact time, then we can open a range of inter-personal experiences that will serve them well, both personally and professionally.

Indeed, I would argue that this is also of value in narrower academic terms. If you’ve had a group of students that know and understand one another, then you will have noticed how much more quickly they can fall into discussion of the matter in hand. There isn’t the all-too-frequent getting-to-know-you phase, something that can be quite lengthy in a subject such as ours, where bear-traps of sensitive issues abound.

Instead, you have a group that can discuss and debate, while knowing the general lie of the land of opinions, and knowing how this conversation fits into all the other ones they have had. Thus it also acts as a partial antidote to the silo-ing of courses/modules that we all complain about.

Assuming you haven’t got a set-up like the College, then what can you do?

Most obviously, you can organise more time in and around classes: talks, socials, study groups. That doesn’t have to fall on you to arrange, but you can certainly facilitate. In my experience, you might have to put more work in of this at the start, but as you get students more involved, they typically want to do more themselves.

But you can also communicate the value of building such links between students. That means emphasising the benefit they can derive from talking to each other, about study and not about study. Of course, if you’re pushing active learning, then this is a much easier sell: you’re showing students that what they think matters.

And that’s the closing point to all this: you have to be sincere and consistent about all this. To go back to Bruges, the College holds its ‘sprit’ very close to its institutional identity and contrives to promote it in many ways – implicit and explicit – in its activity. It is in that mutual reinforcement that the message gains credibility and buy-in: every student who turns up in September has had their expectations adjusted.

How about yours?

The seminar and social media: Guest post by Samantha Cooke

As part of our guest post series, this piece by Samantha Cooke (Surrey) considers how to incorporate Twitter into seminar classes.

In 2014, I undertook a research project examining the use of social media in Higher Education, following experiences with lecturer and student engagement within a Security Studies module on which I was running seminars.

As someone who only had a Twitter account to keep up to date with the news, the regular use of Twitter alone was new to me. In this respect, the classroom served as a great environment for a newcomer to this social media platform as it provided a framework within which I was able to learn how everything worked. The findings of this project have since been published in Education and Information Technologies. Continue reading

Making assessment relevant

Insert metaphor here

Reading Martin’s post yesterday, just as I’m finishing my duties as an external examiner, makes me think about assessment formats.

Too often, we fall into the essay-and-exam approach: it’s simple, and easy and hardly anyone questions it. Of course, as the institution I external at is about to find out, I’m one of the people who does question it.

Assessment has a terrible reputation to deal with: in essence, it’s a hassle to do as a student, a hassle to set and mark as an instructor and the source of more academic complaints than anything else. No-one has a good word to say about it, it seems.

In our hearts, we know that it matters and that there has to be some kind of means of evaluating student performance, for their sakes and ours. But surely there’s a better way of doing it. Continue reading

Emotion & simulations

Since Chad was kind enough to pick up on the theme of my post last week – emotion’s role in what we do – it’s only polite to return the favour.

Chad’s issue is one that all of us who use simulations encounter. We’re trying to build a more manageable version of the real world, which means selecting particular aspects to focus on, and then our participants go and mess it all up by focusing on some other aspect. Chad’s finding that with the South China Sea, I’m finding it with my parliamentary dynamics game and you’re finding it with something else.

How to deal with this? Basically, in one of three ways. Continue reading

Introducing Computer Programming in Political Science Classes

Today’s post is a guest posting from Jane Lawrence Sumner of the University of Minnesota. Jane’s research and teaching interests are in international political economy and research methods.

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Undergraduate methods classes frequently use statistical software programs, despite students typically have little background knowledge in programming. While we seldom ask students to do anything that would require that background knowledge, the idea of having to program can be a roadblock for many students. In an attempt to alleviate this, I designed an activity to introduce my students to the fundamentals of programming in a non-technical way. The objectives of the course were for students to understand that programming primarily involves providing the computer with very good, very specific instructions to carry out the task at hand.

Students were split into small groups, and each group was given a piece of paper with a hand-drawn cartoon on it. They were told to write instructions about how to reproduce the drawing that they could then give to another student. After twenty minutes, they stopped. Each group stood with their backs to the whiteboard while they read their instructions to a student from another group, positioned at the whiteboard with a marker. Students were not allowed to modify their instructions and were deliberately unable to see the student with the marker so that they could not course-correct. The student with the marker was allowed to ask only one question: “can you please repeat that?”

Only one of the drawings actually resembled the original. Although the students enjoyed drawing and seeing the monstrosities emerging on the board, and loved the great reveal at the end of what the drawing should have looked like, the key pedagogical point came in the discussion at the end, when I asked students, “What made this difficult? What would have made it easier?” The points that emerged organically were the same objectives I’d set out to convey. Specifically: many, short, precise steps were easier to follow well than longer, more detailed steps. Students also determined that having a clear and constant reference point (like a coordinate system) would have made the direction and scale easier, that naming parts of the drawing for later reference was easier than repeating “the curvy line that ended up at the first straight line” over and over, and that if each step relied upon the subsequent step, things could quickly go awry.

Doing “Measurement”

I like to introduce measurement by doing it. My class on measurement starts with a wide collection of fruit lined up on the chalkboard ledge. I ask students to select three items from the collection and compare them on three dimensions. (I often provide a matrix of appropriate size on a handout or project one on the screen to give students a framework for their work.) We usually briefly discuss what some of the dimensions are that they could compare on: color, taste, size, weight, water content or density, sweetness, etc. After giving students about 5 minutes to complete their measurement matrix, we compare some of the measurements they made and discuss what measurement is: the systematic comparison, evaluation and assignment of values to objects or phenomena. They have just engaged in ‘measuring’ the fruit, even though no tape measures or scales were involved.

We then usually move on to a discussion of precision and accuracy in measurement, usually by discussing the ways in which they measured weight and color. Replicability looms large in this part of the discussion, with a focus on ways to reduce the subjectivity of measurement so that other student or researchers would obtain the same values that they did. How would we obtain reliable measurements of color? Color comparison charts (an external reference) are one option, but how would that handle the bicolored apple? Are there uses of the variable ‘color’ where the coarse measurement of red, yellow, green, etc., is sufficient? In some terms, I’ve numbered the items; we then discuss how the simple act of naming (classifying) the object as an apple or mango or whatever constitutes a form of measurement.

Just to complicate the comparison and discussion, I usually include at least one bicolored apple (red and green), one can of juice (often pineapple), some type of dried fruit, a tomato, a bell pepper, and an eggplant. (The latter three are technically fruit since they have seeds on the inside, even though most Americans think of them as vegetables.) A can of fruit cocktail is also a good ‘wrench’ to throw into the mix. Whether the dried fruit or the juice “count” as fruit is always a good discussion. If I can get unusual fruit like starfruit, kiwi, persimmon, or plantain, I like to include those alongside the usual suspects of apples, oranges, bananas, grapes, plums and the like. I typically spend no more than about $15-20 on fruit for the activity, and frequently far less in the summer.

When we’re done with the class, I usually invite them to take whatever fruit they want from the collection for snacking. I take home the rest and use it myself, or leave it in the department lounge for others.

“The internet’s broken…”

Pfft

Reading this piece of investigative journalism over the weekend, I was struck by the sub-text that if something’s not on the internet, then it doesn’t exist.

The author was investigating the use of micro-targetting of social media in the EU referendum and funding links to the US, and much of it turned on the absence of an online footprint of the various companies and entities.

This struck me as a marginal issue for two reasons: firstly, I’m a digital migrant, so I remember a time of card-filing and dusty archives; secondly, I work in a field where much activity remains resolutely off-line.

However, from the perspective of one of our students, things might look a lot different: we know that many of them seem to struggle to get beyond the first page of whatever Google search they have entered, so how do they cope with this kind of thing?

Three basic elements suggest themselves here. Continue reading