Thinking about classroom problems in general

The other three-phase

Amanda’s excellent post yesterday on students not reading put me in mind of a very useful conceptualisation of classroom situations that I was taught in my training, more years ago than I care to remember.*

In essence, the conceptualisation suggests that there are three phases in our pedagogic practice, and our movement through them reflects our increasing confidence and ability: and they look not so different from Amanda’s options.

The first phase is to centre everything on yourself, the teacher. You are the sun and everything revolves around you. If students don’t get it, then it’s because you did a bad job; likewise, their successful learning is down to you and your amazing classes.

If you like, this is the rollercoaster phase, with rapid highs and lows, where the euphoria is mixed with a heavy dose of nausea.

It’s obvious that this should be the starting point, because you’re new to all this and you’re discovering your own powers: it’s a very human instinct to work from oneself, because that’s what you know best.

However, this model is not only emotionally draining but it also runs into the (usually quite swift) realisation that you’re not the only agent in the learning-teaching nexus. There’s got to be a different way of looking at things. Continue reading

My Students Don’t Read: Responses to a Classic Classroom Problem

All experienced instructors have had this happen to them: You assign an interesting reading that is pivotal to a topic on the syllabus. You emphasize to the students how important it is that they complete that particular reading, as it will be the basis of the next class session’s discussion. Walking into class, you smile, anticipating a smart, informed discussion on a fascinating topic, and ask a basic question to get things going. And then, the silence, and the signs: the blank stares, the eyes that won’t meet yours, the walls and shoes and notebooks that suddenly are the most interesting things in the room. Your smile drops as you realize the horrible truth: none of the students did the reading.

Quickly you realize it’s not entirely true: a small handful of students, the ones you can always rely on, tentatively raise their hands. Others may have skimmed the reading, or tried to do it just as class started. Still others pull it out as you ask the question, trying to do in 30 seconds what they need a concentrated 10 or 30 minutes to do. Despite this, the vast majority of the class simply did not do as instructed.

What’s the dedicated instructor to do?

I have been teaching for more than ten years, and this happened to me twice this semester alone. In one case, only one student out in my intro to IR class had read Thucydides’ short Melian Dialogue that IR teachers the world over use as an introduction to Realism—even though they had weekly reading quizzes on the material. In my intro to American politics course, none of them had read Federalist Paper #84, which outlines the arguments regarding the inclusion of a bill of rights in the Constitution. In the moment when I realized that my students were not prepared for the reading-based discussion I had planned, I had a decision to make: how would I respond to their lack of preparation?

A few options immediately came to mind.

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ALPS is at ISA!

This week is the Annual Meeting of the International Studies Association in Baltimore, Maryland.  Most of ALPS will be attending, running workshops, participating in panels, and ready to talk all things pedagogy with our readers!  Please do find us, let us know you read the blog, and what else you’d like to see us cover in the future.

A few places you can find us:

Michelle Allendoerfer will be presenting a paper on the NGOs as Key Stakeholders in Human Rights Promotion panel.

Victor Asal can be found co-facilitating the ISA Innovative Teaching Workshop on Simulations on Political Violence and presenting papers on two panels: Conflict Processes and Understanding Change in World Politics (with Corina Simonelli) and Avenues of Violent and Nonviolent Contention (with Kristian Skrede Gleditsch).  He will also serve as a discussant on the Protecting Civilians and Preventing Violence in Peace Operations panel, and will play the role of Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah of Hezbollah in the ISA Syrian Civil War Simulation.

Nina Kollars will be on the roundtable on Disobedience, Resistance, and Transgression in Military Organizations and is presenting her work at the Barriers to Effective Cyber Operations panel.  She can also be found playing the role of King Salman bin Abdelaziz in the ISA Syrian Civil War Simulation.

Chad Raymond will be running the ISA Innovative Teaching Workshop on ‘Teaching the World with Authentic Writing Assignments’ and presenting a paper on the Pedagogy for Transformative Learning and Global Engagement panel, both with Sally Gomaa.

Amanda Rosen is co-facilitating the ISA Innovative Teaching Workshop on Simulations on Political Violence, playing the role of Egypt’s President Abd al-Fattah as-Sisi  in the ISA Syrian Civil War Simulation, and presenting two papers, one on the Universality of Rights Revisited panel, and the other on the Higher Education and Globalization panel.  She’s also a discussant on the Innovations in Assessment of Active Learning panel.

Teaching Trump

I’m struggling with how to approach my classes right now. I’m teaching introductory courses in international relations and American politics, and therefore the actions of the first couple of weeks of the Trump Presidency are highly relevant topics of conversation. Political Science professors often talk about what level of neutrality to maintain in their classroom—do you try to appear neutral, despite having clear political opinions? Or do you make your own perspective clear, and assure students of your fairness to their own beliefs?—but regardless of your politics, the hyper-polarizing nature of the new administration’s actions make the neutrality side harder and harder to justify, even as taking a partisan angle becomes more likely to shut down discussion.

When I struggle on these sorts of issues, I turn to fellow educators, who are producing excellent work struggling with this and other aspects of teaching about the exceptional nature of the 2016 election and the Trump Administration. This is particularly helpful while I’m still sorting through my own thoughts and considering the approaches I want to take. Under the cut are some thought pieces I’ve seen freely available around the web on these issues to give you a place to start in case you too are struggling with Teaching Trump. Few of them offer specific lesson plans, though, and so for those, I turn to the ALPS community, either as comments or in the form of guest posts, to start building specific lectures or lesson plans to engage students on this extraordinary time. Continue reading

Specifications Grading #5: End of Term Report and Reflections

Well, my first experience with specifications grading is almost over, and with the semester drawing to a close, it’s time to reflect on the experiment. Find my first entry on specs grading here, and previous entries on this experiment can be found here, here, here, ad here. But now, here are my top 5 take-aways and lessons learned from specifications grading:

 

#5: Specifications Grading is more work up front, but much less at the end and moving forward

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Conferences done right: POD 2016

Hi ALPS land!  I recently attended the 2016 POD Network conference in Louisville, KY, and while my recollections may be due to bourbon-fueled fantasy, I’m pretty sure that they schooled us American political scientists in how to run a conference.  Now, granted, they had only about 950 people whereas our national conferences draw thousands, but I still think that we have a lot to learn about how to make a weekend very productive.

My continual problem with conferences is that there is rarely a reason to attend traditional panels.  Usually they consist of four or five presentations of papers made available on a website,, discussant comments aimed at the papers rather than engendering conversations, panelist responses to those comments that, again, focus on what they tried to do in the paper, and, if the chair has managed to keep everyone to their time limits, perhaps 5 minutes of Q&A.

This is a waste of our time.  There, I said it.

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Specs Grading Update #4: On poor syllabus design, late work, and the woes of grading

It’s time for another specifications grading update! These posts are my attempt to be highly transparent about the benefits and challenges of using this method in my research methods class this semester, with all the trials and tribulations and the reflection and changes they prompt here on display.  Check out Posts 1, 2, and 3 if you haven’t already, or for a deep dive into the ins-and-outs of specifications grading as a system, take a look at our extensive discussions on the subject over the last year.

Today’s topics: requiring so much that I set up my students to fail; dealing with late work; and how all that grading is going. In other words, let’s talk about how even extensive reflection and consideration can result in basic syllabus mistakes that pose unacceptable challenges to students.

Let’s start with this basic question: Why in the world did I require 21 assignments? Yes, pedagogically speaking, this made sense: these assignments, collectively, added up the basic knowledge required of an introductory methods course. They covered topics such as writing research questions and hypotheses to measurement, ethics, sampling, correlation v. causation, and everything else. Back in the summer, I spent a lot of time considering whether to require everything, or allow students to complete some smaller number or percentage of the total.

This student just failed my class due to poor syllabus-making on my part.
This student just failed my class due to poor syllabus-making on my part.

Here’s the problem: if a student completes twenty assignments with a satisfactory or higher score, but misses assignment #21 because they forgot or overslept or had a family emergency, then according to my syllabus they fail the course outright. Sure, the tokens help with this, letting students get a 24 hour extension per token, up to 72 hours—but what if they don’t have enough tokens in the bank, or they completely forget for a week or more? These students FAIL THE COURSE.

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A great loss to our community

Dr. Danielle Langfield
Dr. Danielle Langfield

This week the ALPS team is mourning the loss of Dr. Danielle Langfield, who passed away of natural causes on September 26, 2016.  Dr. Langfield was a celebrated teacher and scholar at Marist College, where she was an assistant professor of comparative politics, as well as a former VAP at College of Wooster, and an occasional guest contributor to ALPS.  Her work on the use of real-world cases in simulations was published recently in Journal of Political Science Education. She was a passionate teacher and many of her students since her death have called her an inspiration and cited the incredible impact she had on them.  It is a great loss to the entire political science profession and the scholarship of teaching and learning community.

Audio Assignments, Oral Communication, and Accessibility

I’m taking a break from specs grading this week–not because I don’t have anything to write about, but actually because I’m too busy writing specs and grading homework modules to write up everything that’s going on.  Plus we are in the midst of a search, and I’m buried in applications.  I’ll be back on topic next week with my thoughts about grading, and some micro adjustments I had to make to the course as a result of my reflections.

When I’m not talking about specs grading, I try to share some quick and easy ideas for teaching that can make a big difference. These often fall into the vein of James Lang’s Small Changes in Teaching, both his book and his series over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed (definitely worth checking out!).

Today’s idea is about using audio and oral assignments in the classroom.

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