Another post on changes this year in my comparative politics course:
As usual, students are reading a lot of academic journal articles, especially from the Journal of Democracy. Although the writing in this journal is very user-friendly — concise sentences, little jargon — students lack the kind of familiarity with the genre that I do. Identifying and evaluating the elements of the author’s argument is a skill that gets better with practice, and the undergraduate students that I see need a lot of practice.
I regularly assign journal article analyses in my graduate courses. My original instructions for this assignment were too long so I simplified them. But I can’t assume that the process of analyzing the argument made in a text is immediately understandable to the average undergraduate. Years ago, I used an in-class exercise in textual analysis in an attempt to give undergrads some training in this skill. An actual example of the exercise can be found here. But I was never quite satisfied with the results.
On the first day of class this semester, I tried a new exercise, in part to prepare students for Seymour Martin Lipset’s “The Social Requisites of Democracy Revisited: 1993 Presidential Address,” from American Sociological Review 59, 1. This article includes an abstract that handily functions as a summary for the reader. Journal of Democracy articles don’t have abstracts, so I redacted it. I projected the article’s introduction on the wall screen and asked the class to examine each paragraph in sequence to identify Lipset’s subject (which is stated at end of the first page and beginning of the second page).
I then divided the class into groups of two or three students each, and gave each group copies of a different section of the article. Each section presents a particular set of characteristics that, in Lipset’s opinion, facilitates the institutionalization of democracy. I asked students in each group to identify the characteristics discussed in the section that group had been given. Each group then reported its findings to the class, which I wrote on the board.
The exercise seem to work well in terms of demonstrating how to pull apart a journal article’s argument, and it made the first day of class a lot more productive than it usually is. The challenge will be to engage students in this type of exercise using articles that have a more complex structure.
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.
I’m on a train, heading into London, where I’ve got a meeting.
I’m not planning to do any teaching today, nor even to give a presentation or a briefing.
And yet, on a quick check through my bag, I’ve got the following on me:
My laptop, including the power cord and the adaptor for connecting to output devices;
My voice recorder, should I want to record a podcast;
My workbook, where I keep notes on what I’m doing;
Post-it notes; and,
Board marker pens
In short, I’m ready and poised to do a whole bunch of teaching-type activity.
Partly, this is because I hate re-packing my bag each time I leave the house, but much more it’s because I’ve found myself in situations too often when I don’t have the things I would like to have on me.
I do wonder if this is because I’ve had my professional development during a period of rapid technological change, when resilience really mattered.
When I started out, it was all acetates and overhead projectors, unless they were broken, in which case it was the blackboard.
And then data projectors arrived, if you could get the computer booked out and then get it to connect to the projector.
I spent several years working with a dual system: a computer with powerpoints and a bag full of acetate (plus some chalk, just in case, because, well, I’m me).
(and yes, I do still have those acetates filed away, somewhere in my office)
Nowadays, even though I’ve not had a tech problem for several years, I still try to be prepared should one occur. In fact, the last time it did happen, I was giving a keynote at a conference, and I just had to wing my talk without my slides for the first half: unpleasant, but not fatal.
The message here is that your teaching can be delivered in more than one way, but to make that possible, you need to be ready and able to use those different ways when needed.
If you don’t want to learn by bitter practical experience (ahem), then I offer this technique: sit down and consider what you do and what could go wrong. That might include technology problems, or problems with the room you’re in, or too many/few people turning up, or not having the time you thought you did, or any of that.
Now think about what you can do about it.
In pretty much every case, there’s plenty you can do, adaptations you can make. I’ve not yet had a class that had one of these problems that I could get something useful out of, from the time only one person turned up to the time when none of the lights worked. Or the time my train got really delayed (like now).
And before you worry too much, just remember that most of the time things work just fine.
And that’ll be in part because you’re ready for anything.
As my day-job stumbles from one bizarre episode to the next, it’s been great to have the relative stability of my teaching.
Yesterday was our last class of the semester, so we spent a bunch of time on wrapping things up.
In so doing, it occurred to me that I’ve not been particularly systematic about this, so I tried this time to make sure I went around the houses.
First element was to try and draw out the overarching learning outcomes from the module: the stuff that’s been there most of the time, but which hasn’t necessarily been at the forefront of any one session.
When we focus on individual sessions, it’s easy to also focus our attention on the specific outcomes, without making the connections up to the higher-level points.
That fed into the two major part, namely the assessment.
In my case, students have a single piece of work to do for assessment, which requires them to integrate their reflection and learning from the whole module, so talking about those kind of things is doubly-useful.
In both cases, I tried to start from students’ questions and concerns: I’ve been touching on key points throughout the module, but I know from long experience that often that’s not enough. Just because you think you’re clear, doesn’t mean you are.
That’s particularly relevant here, as the assessment is a personal reflection, so I want to emphasise that only each student can determine what is central in that, since they known themselves better than I can.
Finally, I encourage students to give feedback.
No session is perfect – or even close – but the more feedback you can get from students, the better. That can be through the formal channels your institution uses, or more informally in class.
I didn’t use it this time, but the ABC system can also work well for generating ideas.
They don’t know it yet, but as I bump into students in the coming period of time, I’ll be asking for their views on how it all went.
Which just leaves the last task: putting my paperwork in order now, so that I have less to scrabble through next autumn. Much as there’s a temptation to just park your stuff on a shelf somewhere and forget it, it’s hugely more efficient and effective to sort it all out now, while it’s still fresh in your mind.
In short, practise what you preach to your students.
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 Marcus Walsh-Führing.
Encouraging active learning and increasing engagement can be a big
challenge for teachers, especially when it comes to improving participation in
the classroom where students are learning in a secondary language. As
demographics are changing in classrooms, I find myself re-evaluating my
teaching methods to maximize learning outcomes and came across Godwin Awuah’s
chapter, Using group work to improve participation and overcome fear of foreign
languages among non-native English speakers, in the book, Early career academics’ reflections on learning to teach in Central
Europe, Gabriela Pleschová and Agnes Simon (eds.). This chapter will help
educators with teaching concepts or theory by introducing a new teaching tool to
the classroom setting.
In his chapter, Awuah describes an experiment whereby he compares
activity-based to lecture-style learning in a classroom setting comprised of non-native
English speakers. In his study, the author distinguishes between types of group
activities by focusing on the impact of learning outcomes for students. He
conducted his study of classroom participation with topic maps which allow for
direct observation of student learning and the utilization of quasi-experimental
techniques to evaluate findings.
In his findings, learning outcomes were accomplished with topic maps,
but there was strong evidence that a combination between topic maps and group
work strengthen students‘ conceptualization of subject matters. In addition, topic
maps created a working environment that was non-threatening by encouraging
peer-to-peer engagement in working on ideas in a systematic way. Topic maps created
a framework for students to work through the problems presented in the assignment
to gain the necessary knowledge for understanding learning outcomes.
The author observed that group learning with the help of topic maps
improved participants’ engagement by 70% and positively impacted students’
assessment scores with a mean net difference of 25%. He also noticed that
participants with a stronger command of the English language engaged more
actively in classes and assisted their fellow students with signs of
difficulties in the language component of the assessment.
I believe that the hands-on approach with topic maps offers a valuable
supplement in combination with a lecture-style lesson plan. As an instructor,
this teaching strategy will allow me to observe the impact of my learning
outcomes while, at the same time, reinforcing key terms and lowering barriers
for non-native English speakers in the classroom.
As the world becomes more globalized, the challenges laid out in Awuah’s
chapter will become more frequent. To address these problems, we as teachers
need to find innovative and tested tools that will enhance our teaching
Awuah proves through direct observation that topic maps result in a
higher number of students producing more comprehensive class engagement. The
article helped me understand how how to better present complex concepts to
students who are non-native English speakers. Awuah’s chapter is a perfect read
for all educators who are looking for a teaching strategy that is backed up by
Next semester, I plan to incorporate topic maps in my ‘ Introduction to
Comparative Politics‘ class to explain the complexity between the state and the
nation state. The incorporation of group work with topic maps will help non-native
English speaking students better conceptualize the idea of the state through
interaction and hands-on engagement.
A few years ago, I had a student who kept walking out of class.
He did this because he’d decided that, in several of the various negotiation scenarios into which I had placed him, his optimal strategy was to literally walk away from the table.
During the semester, he did this about four times, usually to snippy comments from his classmates.
We talked about it a fair bit, as a group, because I felt it was really useful to unpack the merits and demerits of this approach, which I’d not seen before (or since, for that matter).
I was remembering this case the other day, as my current group of negotiation students once again decided to hold a closed door meeting of principals, kicking out most of the class to the corridor outside.
As one student noted in the debrief: “why does this keep happening? Every time it does, it just really alienates people and makes it harder to reach an agreement”.
And that’s my question here: how and why do cohorts get stuck in patterns of behaviour?
During last September’s annual conference of the University Association for Contemporary European Studies (UACES) in Bath, Simon kicked off the teaching and learning afternoon gathering with a teaching and learning bingo.
I enjoyed this a lot. It was nice, active, fun. I got to meet new people and learned new thing about teaching and learning. Based on this (perhaps somewhat subjective) experience, I decided to hijack Simon’s idea and use it in two similar, but different settings. This is what happened.
Problem-Based Learning workshop Bolzano
Maastricht University is known for its application of Problem-BasedLearning (PBL). New staff have to attend a PBL introduction training session upon starting at our university. All teaching staff also need to complete the so-called University Teaching Qualification (UTQ) trajectory (this, in fact, applies to all higher education institutions in the Netherlands). One of my duties is to coordinate UTQ at my home faculty. And it was this – plus my teaching experience – that lead me to being invited to convene a workshop entitled ‘Tutors in problem-based learning from distant facilitator to approachable coach’ at the University of Bolzano early October.
Since I did not know any of the people there, I thought this would be a great opportunity to use the T&L bingo.
I adapted Simon’s bingo to my own needs. The instructions are relatively straightforward and the items of a diverse nature, including more light-hearted ones.
It worked surprisingly well. I got to know the participants, plus they got to know each other a bit better too. It also provided me with some input for the workshop (‘The one thing they’re hoping to learn more about today’). Considering it was a day-long workshop, this helped me to focus on specific points and also, towards the end, to check if everyone thought that we sufficiently covered their needs.
University Teaching Qualification workshop Maastricht
I already wrote that I coordinate UTQ at my home faculty. This year 13 colleagues have to complete the trajectory. The group of participants is very diverse in terms of disciplinary backgrounds and teaching experience, and included teaching assistants, PhD students and a professor. Not everyone knew each other, so once again the bingo seemed like a good idea. And once again, I thought I could use the input for the workshop.
This time too, I adapted the bingo to the setting,with specific questions about the topics that we were going to focus on during the day.
Even though there was some hilarity as to whether this was really a serious exercise (see this tweet),participants actively engaged in it. As they will be working together throughout this academic year, it was important that they got to know each other – the usual round of introduction is a bit boring, especially because it usually does not result in new information. Once more I included a question that gave me specific input as to the expectations for the day (‘Your colleague’s personal learning goal for today’).
What I learned
The good: after a bit of hesitation everyone got really involved. Some colleagues did their utmost best to talk to everyone; others decided for a longer talk when the issue at hand was interesting. Reason enough to do it again, though I’d probably want to explain the exercise better in order to avoid awkward moments at the start.
The bad: timing is an issue. In both cases, we took much more time than I had anticipated, as everyone really got into it and because I had encouraged them to try and talk to everyone. Next time I might consider using a timer or buzzer. Or perhaps offer a prize to the person who gets most boxes filled within a set time.
The ugly: I enjoyed it so much that I also got completely carried away. And subsequently lost track of time… As such, a timer is definitely needed! Someone needs to keep track of me too. I might ask one of the other participants to be in charge of time instead.
I’d love to try this exercise with students. I think it would make a great course opening. I mostly teach in a programme with +300 students, so they do not always know each other despite changing tutor groups every 8 weeks and every course. Plus it would be a great way to have them discuss a course topic in a more informal setting and get to know more about the course’s intended learning outcomes. Obviously, I would have to adapt the bingo to the course itself. I would include a debriefing so that we all get to know more about students’ pre-knowledge about the topic and our expectations of the course, the group and the tutor (i.e. me).
Today I’m attending ISA’s inaugural Innovative Pedagogy Conference in St. Louis. Victor and I are doing a workshop on using games and simulations to teach political violence, showcasing activities like Survive or Die!, Prisoner’s Dilemma, Model Diplomacy, identity exercise, and others. But I’m most interested in reflecting on the session offered by Matthew Krain and Kent Kille of the College of Wooster on Assessment and Effectiveness in Active Teaching in International Studies. Their framework for formative assessment (that can, in fact, be transformative) is very helpful as an overall approach to teaching.