Transparent Teaching in Action: Sometimes you aren’t as good as you think you are

In the last few months I’ve been interested in transparent teaching. Basically, transparency is a commitment to all of your students to be transparent about your expectations for a class, particularly when it comes to course assignments. Transparent teaching requires being clear and precise about 3 things in an assignment:

  1. Purpose–explain to the students WHY you are asking them to do this assignment.  Don’t just assume they know how it connects to the material.  Talk to them about the skills and knowledge they will gain and how that is relevant to the course, major, program, or other aspects of their lives.
  2. Tasks–be explicit about the tasks students must follow to complete the assignment.  Sometimes we tell our students to ‘write a 5 page essay’ but don’t realize that many of our students might not know what we mean by an essay–it means different things in different fields, and not all of your students will have taken a polisci class before. Of the three areas, this is where we tend to be the most detailed in our assignments, but even here we can probably be more clear about exactly what we want than we area.
  3. Criteria for Success–the students need to know how their work will be evaluated to determine whether they have successfully completed the assignment or not.  This might mean a rubric, or just a list of what you are going to be looking at.  But one of the most important elements–and the one I messed up on–is it provide examples of successful work.  This might be student work, or something written by a professional working in the field. Want students to write a strong literature review? Show them what a strong one looks like, and talk to them about what makes it strong.  Contrast it with unsuccessful or weak work.  Better yet, give them the examples and the rubric, and have THEM score the work, so they understand how the criteria is applied.

Yes, all of that takes time.  But we owe it to our students to give them every chance to achieve success in the work we assign them.  If we think it is valuable for them to do this work, then we need to give them the detail and time it takes so that success is entirely in their hands.  Plus, doing this has wider benefits.

Research by the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) team at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas has shown that increasing transparency in our assignments doesn’t just impact their work on those assignments. It leads to big gains in student confidence and sense of belonging in college, particularly for disadvantaged populations who come to college less prepared.  At UNLV, they saw a 20% increase in retention for these students who participated in classes where just two assignments were transformed to become more transparent. I led a project at my university last spring on transparency, and while I’m still evaluating the data, those who participated indicated they found the training sessions and transformation process very useful.  If you want to attend a training on TILT, review their extensive resources, or read the ongoing research, head to their Resources page.

So here I am, someone who has trained on transparent teaching, conducted multiple trainings myself, and doing research in the area.  I’ve also used specifications grading in the past, which is in the transparent teaching wheelhouse.  I’m a pro, right?

Yeah, right.  Every time I think I’ve ‘got’ something when it comes to teaching, I end up learning how much more I have to learn.

I’m teaching a new course this semester called Sex, Marriage, and Violence, and I’m running it largely as a seminar.  Students have to write weekly papers on the readings and pose discussion questions that form the basis for class.  In the syllabus I included a purpose statement for these papers as well as a rubric, and the instructions (I thought) were clear: I wanted a full APA style bibliographic entry for each article or chapter, a 1-2 sentence summary of their main claims or findings, a 500-1000 word analysis of the themes, debates, gaps or issues raised by the readings for the week, and 1-2 discussion questions.

The first papers showed up on Monday, and all but one of them failed to follow this format.  Only a few did the bibliographic entries or summaries; some put the summaries in the main body of the paper (something I explicitly said not to do); only a handful gave discussion questions at the end; and a few wrote essentially annotated bibliographies, with no effort to compare or synthesize the readings.

A couple of students messing up is probably their fault; almost everyone messing up is clearly mine.

The good news is that this is fixable.  Because this is an assignment that starts early and repeats weekly, I was able to catch the problem in week 2.  This is an advantage of using smaller stakes assignments throughout the class–there is less harm to the student if they are completely off base in their efforts, and you have a chance to teach them how to improve. 

To fix this, I recognized a key mistake on my part: while I had provided a rubric, I had not provided an example of successful work.  So I drew up a 2 page outline of a paper.  I didn’t write an entire paper myself.  But the outline showed them the formatting I wanted to see in the paper, such as showing them that I wanted the bibliographic entires and summaries BEFORE the paper proper, and the discussion questions AFTER, not embedded in the text.  And I wrote an example of a thesis statement based on the readings for Week 2 along with a single paragraph showing them how to analyze one of the readings according to that theme.  Drawing up this document took me about an hour, but the students SO appreciated it.  They now had a visual aid to see what I wanted with examples, not just a list of requirements and criteria.  I also allowed them to resubmit their paper by the next class, and throughout the course, will ask students to keep anonymized versions of their work so I will have student-written examples to show future classes.

All of this goes to show that even when you are trying to be transparent, sometimes you might not be able to anticipate what kind of information or models the students need to really understand what you want them to do. When that happens, it is typically OUR fault as instructors, not theirs as students. Now, some students will get it wrong no matter how clear you are, but there are definitely times when we are wrong when we think we are being clear.  I’ve sometimes thought that the ‘provide examples of successful work, and show students why it is successful’ is optional, but on reflection I think this is perhaps the most important thing we can do*. This was an important wake-up call for me that even when I think I’m doing a good job, I can still get it wrong. 

*There are those who question providing examples of successful work lest students simply copy it.  I completely understand the critique, but i think with creativity on our part, this can be overcome. Often I am demonstrating formatting and technique, not content, so as long as you change the content out, there’s little risk of copying.  My go-to example is to make arguments about why cats are better pets than dogs, and I can illustrate the expected structure of an essay, a bibliographic entry or citation, a thesis statement, and using evidence to defend a claim using this very non-political example.

Another point here is that providing a structural template for students who aren’t strong writers is super useful to them.  I’m fine with them imitating my structure–I’m teaching them how to write a strong paper.  I encourage students who have more advanced writing skills to branch away from the suggested structure in my outline/template to find their own style.  

Model Diplomacy: Smart, easy to use foreign policy simulations

Model Diplomacy is a series of free National Security Council simulations put out by the Council on Foreign Relations. Michelle used it in her class last year, and I decided based on her positive experience to try it in my intro to IR class this year.  In this post I’m going to explain the basics of Model Diplomacy, discuss my experience using it, and give my recommendation.  Spoiler Alert: I loved it.

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ISA 2018 San Francisco Report

I’m just back from the International Studies Association’s Annual Meeting in San Francisco, and it was a pedagogy bonanza! Great attendance at the pedagogy panels (even those held at off-times) and excellent discussion all around. One thing I love about us pedagogy types is a commitment to leaving plenty of time for Q&A and discussion, since everyone in the room has some expertise to share.

Victor Asal and I ran a new Career Course on Teaching the Intro Class. We focused on both intro to IR and comparative politics, covering such topics as what to do on Day 1, reading/text options, writing good exams and written assignments, classroom management, and of course, games and other activities to teach the material. Our participants had a ton of great ideas and insights.

On the panel on Theory and Practice in IR Teaching: Effectiveness, Political Engagement, and Active Learning, Marcelo Valenca of Escola de Guerra Naval discussed the changing nature and approaches toward pedagogical training in Brazil. He pointed particularly to the impact of the pedagogy workshops held by the College of Wooster’s Jeffrey Lantis, Kent Kille, and Mathew Krain as being instrumental in bringing change to that country. The Wooster Three were mentors of mine when I was in graduate school, so I wasn’t surprised but still pleased to learn about the far-reaching impact of their efforts.

I presented a paper on using a game-version of the television show Survivor to incentive my students to complete the readings, pay attention to current events, and learn geography. The results on the geography front were…not what I expected. Students who took a single, traditional Map Quiz performed much better than this students in the game that had regular, weekly practice in geography! But as we’ve said many times before, failure can be a useful learning tool and this has prompted me to really investigate the key variables about the game that may have hindered learning, so more on that in the future.

An audience member on that panel (Ian Manners, University of Copenhagen) pointed out the utility of using student-created learning modules as a way of engaging students in learning content at a high level. I love this idea, and i’m going to use it in my seminar on sex, marriage, and violence in the fall.

Finally, some conference news: ISA is holding its first Innovative Pedagogy Conference on November 15th in St. Louis, the day before ISA’s Midwest meeting. There will be a plenary, keynote speech by ISA President Patrick James, a graduate student teacher training certification session, and 8 workshops on subjects such as faculty led study abroad programs, designing curriculum, research literacy, civic engagement, assessment of active learning, publishing in the scholarship of teaching and learning, designing simulations, and using simulations and games to teach political violence. At least two members of Team ALPS (myself and Victor Asal) will be there, so please join us!

ISA now has a Professional Resource Center which includes a syllabi archive and a great site for finding some good simulations to use in your classes. You do have to be a member to access the PRC but consider sending in your materials for inclusion!

Finally, a note on submitting to ISA: the two sections that tend to sponsor ALPS-style papers and roundtables are Active Learning in International Affairs (ALIAS) and International Education. I’m section program chair for the latter, and talking with the program chair for ALIAS, we not that we don’t get a ton of first-round submissions. If you’ve thought about presenting a paper or organizing a panel or roundtable relevant to either section, please do so–we are eager for more submissions for next year’s conference in Toronto. There are also opportunities for Innovative Panels, Career Courses, and Flash Talks–check out ISA’s website for more details. Some topics that I know are of interest to my section include best practices in study abroad, transformations in higher education (particularly from a comparative perspective), the challenges of being a faculty administrator of international programs, and curricular design features for IR programs.

That’s it for now! As usual, conferences spur me into thinking in new directions for my pedagogy, and I’m excited to start putting some of these ideas into practice.

Missing Class: What to do when you have to cancel

Welcome back to the start of another academic year! I know we are all excited about the start of classes, but today I want to talk about what happens when you CAN’T hold class. We’ve all faced this dilemma: a sudden illness, a flat tire, bad weather, an inconveniently timed conference, an invited talk, jury duty—something comes up, planned or unplanned, that requires us to miss class for a day, a week, or longer. What are our options when this happens?

Option 1: Just cancel class

The easiest option is to just cancel class, no strings attached. Students often love this option as it’s a free snow day, although they may later regret it if it means some material gets left out or rushed. And that’s the real downside to this option: we put a lot of thought into what content to cover in our classes, and missing a session entirely means either dropping a topic or rushing through several topics to find that time again. Plus, there is an obligation of a certain number of contact hours with students that we should adhere to. There are so many other options out there that this one is by far the least advisable, and may in fact be explicitly forbidden by university or department policy.

Option 2: Have a proctor show a video or give an exam

Ask a TA, department office worker, research assistant, or another trusted individual to watch the class while they do an activity without you. This is not a guest lecture (see below), as the person is not being asked to deliver content, but instead to handle the logistics behind an activity that students can do without you. If you know about a missed class in advance, consider scheduling an exam for that day. Alternatively, you can have the class watch a video or film that the proctor can easily set up and run for the students. In that case, I advise having the students complete some kind of assignment to ensure they show up and pay attention—perhaps a video guide they fill out in class, or participating in an online discussion after the fact.

Option 3: Use the time for an out-of class assignment or site visit

If you know in advance that you will miss class, consider scheduling an out-of-class activity for that time. For an intro class, maybe you can have a librarian give the students a tour of the library and go over the available resources germane to your class. Or give them this time to work on a group project, conduct a survey or field observation, or some other project. Perhaps the timing is fortuitous and there is a conference or other relevant campus event that the students could attend.

Option 4: Online lesson

Another option is to put a fully formed lesson online for the students in your learning management system. Typically this would consist of putting some form of PowerPoint, podcast, notes, or videos online with an accompanying assignment such as required discussion, quiz, or problem set. You can also set up a time where you will be available to answer questions via Skype, Vidyo, or another web conferencing system. An online lesson is also a great option if you fall behind in class—just move a topic or two online, and you will quickly catch up. I tend to use audible ( a free audio recording software) to record a lecture that is linked to PowerPoint slides, put that up, and then ask students to take a quiz on the material and participate in one or two relevant discussions. Once you have the lecture recorded, you can use it again in a future class.

Option 5: Schedule a make up class

You can also try to schedule a make up class. This is probably the best option in terms of content delivery and contact hours, but can be difficult logistically, particularly if you have students with job, family, and other personal obligations. With a large class, this may be completely out of the question, but it is doable with a small class. I did this once with a research methods class, but ended up having to schedule two separate times for students to come so I could make sure everyone could attend. That meant I had to deliver the same material twice, on a Thursday and Friday evening. I haven’t done this since, honestly—now I would just do an online lesson on this material or arrange a guest lecturer to cover the class. But check your university guidelines–some schools require that missed classes be made up.

Option 6: Arrange a Guest Lecture/TA

The final option is to ask a TA or colleague to deliver a guest lecture to your class, either on the subject for that day or on a relevant topic within their expertise. This is more than just proctoring: you are asking your colleague to essentially stand in for you on that day and run the class. This semester, for example, I’ll be guest lecturing in a research methods class while a colleague is on his honeymoon. It’s easy for me to do this, since this is a class I teach all the time, and it helps him out—and of course, he immediately offered to do the same for me if I need anything covered now or in the future. Building up social capital by helping out your colleagues means that one day when you need to miss class, they are more likely to be eager to help you out. A few years ago, another colleague of mine injured his back and was bedridden for a few weeks. We dug out his teaching materials and took turns teaching his class for him so the students were not left adrift.  When I know in advance that I’ll be missing a class for a conference or other travel, this is the first option* I turn to—I only look to the others if I can’t find someone to step in.

Obviously missing class is never ideal, but since it invariably happens, it’s important to know the range of options we have to ensure our students still have the opportunity to learn the material. What have you all done when you’ve had to cancel class? What options are missing here?

*Ok, second. If I can realistically schedule an exam during that time, I’ll do that. But often the timing does not work out for that option.

The 20 Minute Change Up: Revisiting a Classic Approach

Back in graduate school I was fortunate enough to be chosen as a Graduate Teaching Fellow. This program aimed at training a graduate student in a given department to be a trainer and resource for other graduate students who may want to develop their teaching abilities outside of the open view of their more research-oriented advisors.  I spent a summer in training, learning how to conduct peer evaluations, train teachers, and just in general learning good pedagogical principles.

I was reflecting on that experience recently, and remembered one of the articles I read then that made a big difference on how I approached teaching. It is one I shared widely with my fellow graduate students at the time. It is a simple but powerful idea, a cornerstone of the active learning approach, that is a great starting point for new teachers, and a good reminder for those of us that have been teaching for awhile: the 20 minute change up.

Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish (1996) note that studies of attention spans show that  lapses occur every 15-20 minutes.  Students simply have trouble focusing on a presentation for a longer period.  They therefore recommend changing things up every 20 minutes by introducing some kind of active component.  This can be as simple as posing a question to the classroom, showing a video, having students engage in think-pair-share, or generate exam questions based on the material.  The original article actually lists more than two dozen different techniques of changing things up.  Certainly, games and simulations fall into these categories as well, but those require more time and investment on the part of the instructor (and frequently, the students).  The Change Up ideas are all small ways to incorporate active learning principles into your classes immediately.

 

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