(Trans)formative Assessment in Teaching

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 DilemmaModel 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.

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Teaching Election Results

The 2018 midterm elections are over in the US, and it was a night of mixed results.  The Democratic Party took control of the House of Representatives, winning at least 27 seats previously held by the Republican Party, while the GOP increased their majority in the Senate, toppling North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and my own state of Missouri’s Claire McCaskill.  

While clearly not as momentous an election as 2016, or the Brexit referendum, or many other elections, the midterms were still an important point to take stock of the impact of Trumpism on American politics, and whether Democrats who were somewhat over-confident in the fall of 2016 could manage to overcome pro-Trump sentiment, a strong economy, congressional district gerrymandering, voter suppression efforts, and the other structural reasons why succeeding at the polls can be difficult. 

Teaching the results of American elections is a frustrating enterprise.

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Unexpected Teachable Moments

I had two unexpected moments in the last week completely outside of the classroom that led to (or will, in the future lead to) great teaching moments.

Last week I was recording a script I’d written in a studio, for a project I’ve been working on for two years.  In the lecture I was reviewing cross tabulation tables, and the example I had looked at 2016 presidential vote choice and gender.  Unbeknownst to me, someone in the control room changed the text on the teleprompter so that every time I used the words ‘man’ or ‘women’ they used ‘male’ and ‘female’.  Rather than stop the recording, I just started changing the words back as I spoke, which led to some awkwardness (man-Clinton voter does not roll off the tongue the same as ‘male Clinton voter’).  Finally the folks in the control group stopped me, and I explained that the original text used man and woman deliberately, and that changing it without speaking to me was an issue. I was talking about gender, not sex, and I wanted it to stay consistent.  This paused the recording for a few minutes, and during the lull I explained to the camera operators why this was important enough to stop for. We had a really nice conversation on the difference between sex and gender, and this turned into what we sometimes call ‘teachable moments’.  Script corrected, I continued recording.

The second moment was completely different.  Today I had jury duty. For those of you outside the US, this is when we get called to the courthouse to sit and wait until you are called into jury selection for a trial.  Sometimes you just sit in the waiting area for a day or two and are dismissed; other times you get put on a case right away, and spend the next day or two answering questions from the attorneys while they pick and choose who to put on the jury itself.  Sometimes they case will settle or be dismissed while jury selection is going on

I don’t mind jury duty.  Its one of the only things asked of me as a citizen, and I do see it as a civic duty. Since I teach American politics, I’d like to have the experience of actually serving on a jury, but that has yet to happen, and many of my legal friends indicate it’s unlikely to ever happen. Since I already had guest lecturers lined up this week for my daytime class, I didn’t request a postponement, and headed downtown this morning to serve.

Walking into the building, right after I passed through security, a police officer noted that I was carrying a heavy bag, and I stopped and chatted with him for awhile.  It turned out this was the sheriff himself, and he used to be a public school teacher in his early career.  Soon we were exchanging business cards, and he agreed to come talk to my students during our lesson on the judiciary next semester.  Did I teach him anything in our short conversation this morning? No.  But I’ll be able to create a great teachable moment for my students in a few months, all because I stopped to chat with someone rather than doing what I normally do, which is plug in my headphones and hurry on my way.  I’m not going to suddenly change my ways or anything, but sometimes an unexpected but nice conversation can serve as a reminder of the good things in this world.

Badges and recognizing success

Badges are not exactly a new concept, but like many ideas that come from games, they are still not widely known in the world of higher education and learning.  As many of us know from playing sports or participating in Scouts-style programs as children, badges are physical marks of achievement given to those that show competency at a particular skill or for doing well in a competition. In video games like World of Warcraft, meeting a particular goal is called an ‘achievement’.  Each achievement you earn flashes across the public chat, allowing for recognition, and some of them come with special items or titles in the game.  Defeat the Lich King, and you not only get to bask in the glory of victory, but you earn the title ‘Kingslayer’. While typically meant as a form of visible recognition for an achievement, earning achievements or badges can motivate behavior and can be seen as credentials in their own right.

Motivation, recognition, and credentialing skills–sounds like what we want to do in the classroom, right?

Success in online teaching: working with your LMS

I’m teaching my online graduate research methods course this fall, and as it is a 9 week course it starts next week.  Since each new section of the course is cloned from the ‘master’ version of the course, every time I teach it, I have to go in and manually update the due dates for assignments.  Most of the syllabus simply says that things are due in Week 3 or Week 6, and the weekly assignments are listed on an ‘activities’ page for each week, but many of the assignments have due dates too, and those need to be changed. It’s tedious but doesn’t take too long.

I’ve noticed in the past that students sometimes miss assignments.  There are 3-4 each week, a mix of discussions, quizzes, and other assignments, plus scaffolded project components, and I will occasionally have students that miss an assignment or two.  I’ve been teaching this course for years, and rather ironically never noticed until today that there was something systematic about the assignments that students tend to miss.

I gave specific due dates to some, but not all, of my assignments.

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Electoral College Exercise

While I realize many of our readers are not based in the US nor teaching American government, the Electoral College is such an interesting oddity in electoral decision making that its a subject that may come up in Comparative Politics courses as well.  Certainly when I teach US politics I use quite a few comparative examples, as one of my themes of the course is how government arises from a series of decisions made by individuals and groups, none of which are or were set in stone.  Showing alternative models is a very useful way of doing this.

So here is a data analysis exercise that I use to teach the American Electoral College. It can be done either as homework or as an-in class as an activity after a basic introduction to the Electoral College and how it works (the basic premise of state-by-state popular vote, proportional votes based on number of seats in Congress, winner take all systems, and if no one wins a majority, the decision is made by the House with state-by-state voting).  

This exercise can be easily reformed for a final exam. Simply change the data and situations.  In the version below I use 9 states in a fictional world; in the exam version, I use about 20 states in a different world.  I never use the entire US or actual vote totals–this is largely to keep the math simple enough that it is not a test of arithmetic but of analysis.  Feel free to change the names of candidates and states to suit your own interests. 


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Joint PSA/APSA/ECPR/BISA Pedagogy Conference on Teaching Politics in an Era of Populism

While I am very much looking forward to the ISA Innovative Pedagogy Conference, I’m also excited to share the call for proposals for this new pedagogy conference on Teaching Politics in an Era of Populism, a joint effort by the Political Studies Association, American Political Science Association, European Consortium for Political Research, and British International Studies Association. I am on the planning committee and very excited about bringing together a wide cross-section of scholars to debate these issues.

The conference will be held in Brighton, UK on 17-19 June, 2019.  We are accepting a wide range of proposals, including: individual papers, panels, workshops, 10 minute pedagogical TED-style talks, roundtables (submit as an individual, not a group), and ‘open source’, which is an invitation to be as innovative as you like in what you propose.  Submissions are due November 5th.  You can find more information on the conference web site.

From the call:

“This conference aims to provide a forum in which political science educators from different countries and contexts can come together to explore these challenges and share their experiences and teaching practices. We welcome contributions which explore the challenges faced in national, international, or comparative contexts. We also welcome different approaches to understanding populism and the challenges that it may present to political science educators in different contexts.”

  • Can or should political science education be ‘politically neutral’? Should we nurture values of democracy, equality, and citizenship and, if so, how?
  • How can we support students in developing knowledge, understanding and skills relating to the complex nature of politics, society and government? What role might different approaches to teaching such as simulations, civic engagement and other pedagogies play?
  • What are the challenges of constructing a curriculum and developing learning resources in a period of rapid and sometime dramatic political change?
  • How can we collaborate across different national and educational contexts to support critical learning in political science and international relations? What best practices are there for collaboration in both pedagogical research and cross-cultural classroom experiences?
  • Are there practices or pedagogies from other disciplines that can be adopted or adapted to address these issues?

Free-riders or silent participants? Appreciating silence in active learning environments

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans & Afke Groen of Maastricht University’s Department of Political Science

We have been following the ALPS-blog discussion on students’ participation between Amanda and Simon with great interest. The situations they discuss are very familiar.

In Maastricht, learning takes place according to the principles of problem-based learning (PBL); through active participation and discussions in tutorials.

In the programmes that we teach in, we can grade students’ participation with a +0.5 on top of the exam grade for exceptionally good participation or a -0.5 for insufficient participation – a system introduced following discussions about the problem of ‘free-riders’.

We too see students who remain silent. We train students, encourage participation and discuss group dynamics, but students may not feel comfortable or skilled to live up to our expectations – certainly not in their first weeks at university.

Indeed, in the discussion between Simon and Amanda, the “problem” seems to be students who do not talk. Teaching is about “getting students to talk” and about “[getting] them to a point where they do the readings and are willing and able to talk about them”.

But to what extent is not talking a problem? Why doesn’t a student talk? And if it’s a problem, who’s problem is it?

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New books in teaching and learning

And now its time for a little self-promotion.  

I want to draw our readers attention to two new edited volumes they might find useful in their own teaching.  Full disclosure: I have chapters in both of them, so my recommendation is not without bias. Both are interdisciplinary in approach, which can be very helpful in furthering our own innovation as teachers.

The first book is Human Rights in Higher Education: Institutional, Classroom, and Community Approaches to Teaching Social Justice, edited by Lindsey N. Kingston and published by Palgrave in its Studies in Global Citizenship, Education and Democracy series.  Many of our classes touch on human rights, and this book offers different perspectives on how to bring a human rights and social justice approach to undergraduate education.  All of the authors are connected to Webster University, but are from different disciplines including philosophy, sociology, criminology, law, photography, and psychology.  The approaches look at fostering human rights education at the institutional level (considering campus culture, student affairs, and research programs), classroom level (through specific courses, study abroad, and projects), and the community level (conferences, teaching non traditional students, and legal outreach).  My own chapter evaluates an interdisciplinary course I co-created with professors in philosophy and education on the Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals that included a three day educational simulation of hunger and poverty at Heifer Ranch in Perryville, Arkansas.

The other book is Learning from Each Other: Refining the Practice of Teaching in Higher Education., edited by Michele Lee Kozimor-King and Jeffrey Chin and published by University of California Press.  The social scientists in this book offer innovative ways to approach curriculum design, classroom instruction, out-of-classroom experiences, and assessment.  One of the chapters, Jay R. Howard’s ‘Student Reading Compliance and Learning in the Social Sciences’ touches directly on previous ALPS conversations about encouraging students to do the reading, and is well worth a look. My chapter dives into the literature on simulations and games in the social science, evaluating data from published simulations in political science to determine whether concerns about simulations taking too much classroom time are valid (spoiler alert: I say no).  

There are lots of great books out there on pedagogy, but if you want some very recent work directly speaking to social scientists, you might want to check these two books out!

When students are unprepared for class

In line with Simon’s musings on whether or not he matters, I’ve been wrestling with whether all of my ideas about how to structure classes to get particular results actually work.  Do they matter?  

In one of my classes, only a handful of students were able to answer a pretty basic question: what is the main claim in this reading?  I’m sure many of us have experienced this before, but in line with my strategies on ensuring students do the reading, I thought I was well inoculated against the steady silence of puzzlement, for two reasons:

  1. Students have to write on all the readings each week.  Those papers include an annotated bibliographic entry for each reading, where in 1-2 sentences they must state the main claim of each reading.  Since about half the students wrote last week, they should know this.
  2. In this particular case I was asking about last week’s readings, which we had already discussed.  This was review!  I had mentioned these main points at least once before during our previous classes.

And yet, silence.

That’s not strictly fair.  A handful of students were able to answer my question for each of the readings.  But the bulk of the students just sat there, staring at me. First, let’s review Simon’s thoughts on getting students to talk, and then let’s consider the possible reasons for this, and how to solve them:

  1. They had not done the reading.  Since they only have to write 8 of the 12 papers, these students may have chosen not to write last week–and therefore didn’t bother to read.  
    • Solutions: require more papers. 8/12 was probably too generous, and it is clear that when students do not have to write, they don’t always do the readings very closely (often due to other legitimate commitments, such as work).
  2. They did the reading, but couldn’t remember it. Students may not take good notes when they read, and therefore can struggle with details.  They may also need training in how to identify key points so that they don’t miss the forest for the trees.
    • Solutions: teach students how to take notes on the reading.  Its an important skill, and we should not assume they already have it.
    • Continue to require the annotated bibliographies of the weekly readings so they build this skill over the course of the term.
  3. They did the readings, but were confused.  The readings I am assigning are a mix, but many of them are scholarly in nature.  Not all students in the class are majoring in the social sciences, and therefore may struggle with key terms. It was also a lot of reading–about 100 pages–and some of the chapters could have been split in two because they covered two widely different topics.  
    • Solutions: Review the syllabus to make sure that the mix of readings is appropriate in terms of amount and difficult.  
    • Take note of key terms and review them in class so that non-majors don’t feel lost.  
    • Continue to review the key point of each reading in class prior to discussion so that everyone is on the same page.  
  4. They may or may not have done the reading, but they did not make the connection between our discussions last week and the question of this week.  While I had mentioned the key points of the readings last week in passing, I didn’t make a point of it–I did not write them on the board, or encourage students to take notes of what I had said.  Often students don’t know how to recognize a key point that is made solely verbally.
    • Solution: anytime I mention a key point, make sure I put it on the whiteboard to signal to students that it is important.
  5. They may have known the answer, but chose not to speak up.  Even though I’ve encouraged my students to ‘fail’ in line with previous discussions on ALPS, many of them are afraid to say something wrong.
    • Solutions: whenever possible, use small groups to discuss the question first.  This allows students to check their answers with a small group of peers first, and then share them with the rest of the class if encouraged.  
    • Minute papers–where students take a minute to write down their thoughts–might also give them the time they need to choose the right wording for their responses.
    • Note who in their papers got the answer correct, and then cold call on those students to read their responses.  
    • Using encouraging language and thanking students for offering their response may also encourage quieter students to share their ideas in the future.  
    • Track and increase wait time.  What feels like an eternity to us in the silence is often mere moments, which might not be enough time to process the question and generate a response. There are plenty of strategies out there to do this effectively.

My takeaway: the students failure to answer my basic question is as much my failing as theirs.  We need to recognize the reasons WHY students can’t identify the key point of a reading, and exhaust all the structural and instructional tools and methods we have to get them to a point where they do the readings and are willing and able to talk about them.  Our job is provide the tools and training they need to succeed, and we should always make sure that any issues on the part of our students aren’t caused by a failing on ours.