Modeling “Good” Writing

Today we have a guest post from Colin Brown, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Political Science at Northeastern University. He can be reached at colin [dot] brown (at) northeastern [dot] edu.

A few weeks ago, Shana Gadarian made a point on Twitter about explicitly teaching writing that I strongly endorsed. Getting our students to write better will, at minimum, make our job easier. If we’re lucky, it might actually promote better thinking.

For upper-level students, very open-ended prompts sometimes lead to really creative and insightful thinking—and a dissertation is of course the vaguest prompt of all. But our expectations often rest on implicit assumptions about what we think of as “good” political science. Amanda Rosen has written about this in the context of transparency. As she points out, telling students “write a five-page essay” doesn’t acknowledge that essay means different things in different fields, and many of our students will not yet know what this even means in political science.

Clarity is critical for essay prompts, especially for introductory students. While long, detailed instructions might help point students toward what they should think about, students new to a field often don’t have the context to know what is most important in a long prompt. To them, any sentence with a question mark might appear to be equally important—causing them to focus on what we thought was a minor point and producing a disconnect between what we want to assess and what we actually assess when our implicit expectations aren’t met.

Here are what I think were a failed and a relatively successful attempt to do this in my past semester’s intro comparative politics class. Students told me that while the instructions were explicit in the first, it was hard to know where to start and which parts to emphasize. With the latter prompt, they said it was not only clear what to do but why they were doing it.

One question I’ve found to be a bit polarizing in talking with colleagues is whether to provide model papers or templates. Is it a better way to make our aims clear, or does it cause students to just parrot back the template? I’ve always found myself on the side of providing models. Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say, I Say has solidified my thinking for why. They identify common rhetorical devices that mirror the most common academic ways of thinking, which they into templates that, for example, force students to write down the most obvious counterarguments. Experienced writers have read enough in the field to be able to pick up on these techniques implicitly, but beginners by definition have not. Graff and Birkenstein argue, and I think rightly, that this goes beyond rhetoric to actually learning the ways of thinking. Some students may not learn how to think about the flaws in their own argument, or even that they need to, until they are forced to write them with this kind of template.

In my own teaching, I’ve found it hard to explain in an abstract sense the need for clear writing over “beautiful” writing—and what students think is “beautiful” writing often feels cluttered and verbose to us. But when students see each other’s models and observe how much they actually understand from clear writing versus what they think is “good” writing, they start to self-diagnose their own excessive prose.

One challenge is that writing for politics requires some discipline-specific skills that might be more or less amenable to templates. Sarah James, George Soroka and I have a forthcoming JPSE piece on adapting tools from K-12 and composition studies for political science writing. But defining what we actually want from “good” political science writing seems often more folk wisdom than clearly defined—Ian Anson’s 2017 article on meaning-making is a notable and valuable exception—so as part of showing students what we want, there’s room for us to make this clearer to ourselves.

 Sarah, George and I will be leading a workshop at APSA TLC 2020 on implementing rubrics to improve student writing—Friday Feb. 7 @ 4:15 pm.

Writing as Learning

My last post discussed writing as a professional endeavor. Today: writing as a device for learning; i.e., why and how we as teachers assign writing to students.

Generally we present our students with some form of expository writing task. Perhaps we call it thesis-driven, discipline-oriented, argumentative, or research-based. Regardless of the label, there is an assumption of students locating relevant primary data by means of different methods that they understand how to use, evaluating the data in an appropriate manner while being aware of their own assumptions, reaching some conclusion, and effectively communicating all of this to an audience.

That’s the ideal. The reality? Students often don’t know how to find primary data, or which methods are best suited for analyzing it. They may not even know what methods are. They assume there is either one right answer, or that all possible answers are equal, because they don’t understand that some answers can be more strongly supported by data than others while even better answers await discovery in the future.

And so we default to assignments that direct students to preferred secondary or tertiary sources (a “text”), tell them to organize their explanations as competitions between two artificial, diametrically-opposed positions, or, sometimes, encourage them to dredge up arguments that arrive at positions they already favor. Students learn to hang evidence on a predetermined conclusion rather than derive a conclusion from the evidence.

This type of deductive exercise has been used by teachers since the age of the agora to build students’ rhetorical skills. Today, unfortunately, it can produce people with a facile ability to argue any position at any time without veering from a worldview that they hold to be sacrosanct.

So what’s the solution? I don’t really have one. Too few of the students I encounter are willing or able to draw reasonable conclusions from evidence they have independently located, so writing exercises that involve inductive reasoning get chucked out the window. It’s frustrating.

Why does no one come and talk to me anymore?

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans of Maastricht University.

I’ve always considered myself an approachable teacher; someone students can come to with questions or worries or just for a talk. And from what I hear, I am considered to be approachable.

Still, I am noticing something that worries me. I have been having open office for about 9 years now, but fewer students have been showing up. Weeks go by when no one comes, even in periods when I am teaching and coordinating courses.

I know that I am not the first one raising this issue. It is even the topic of students’ research! But I still believe that students can learn from meeting with us for input and feedback, whether this concerns a relatively simple question or my assessment of their paper.

So, why does no one come and talk to me anymore?

Turnout during open office hours again was low during the first weeks of this year, when I coordinated and taught a first-year course on academic research and writing. At the end, students write a short paper. These are randomly distributed among teaching staff, myself plus 10 other colleagues – together we teach 25 problem-based learning groups of about 12 students. As soon as results are out, all students, whether they have failed or passed, are invited to meet with the person who marked their paper to discuss the assessment during scheduled open office hours.

This year I asked colleagues to inform me about the number of students that had shown up. The table below shows the data for those who failed the course. Interestingly one colleague had to do her open office hours via Skype; no less than 7 out of 9 students showed up. Yet, there is some research that suggests that using technology does not make a huge difference.

Number of failed students Number of failed students attending open office hours
Patrick95
Colleague 1 72
Colleague 296
Colleague 394
Colleague 4124
Colleague 594
Colleague 61711
Colleague 7159
Colleague 8174
Colleague 9156
Colleague 1097
Total12862

Why did so few students show up?

I decided to ask some simple questions to the students themselves during a session in our mentor programme. The approximately 100 students who attended (out of nearly 300) might not be representative of the group of students that does not turn up in my office. But I still learned something interesting.

Of the 86 students completing questions via an online survey tool, 36 had failed the course and 29 had attended the open office hours. Those who attended, generally did so to get clarification regarding their paper’s assessment.

Of those who did not attend, some simply stated that they passed the course and saw no need to discuss the feedback. Others referred to having been sick, stressed and/or busy with the new courses – when asked, quite a few of these students did not write to staff to ask for another appointment.

Asked why they thought others had not come, some answered that these must be lazy students or that they missed motivation because they knew what they had done wrong.

But quite a few answers touched upon something that we might all too easily overlook, namely students’ expectations regarding feedback opportunities. These answers did not just concern not knowing what to do with feedback. For instance, one student wrote that students who did not show up might be “insecure and/or uncomfortable with getting feedback”. Another student wrote that “you have limited time with the tutors and tutors often have a lot of work and not much time for you”.

Could it be that low attendance during open office hours is due to barriers to students’ engagement with feedback or, more generally, a lack of feedback literacy?

This is something that I want to explore in more detail. I have already briefly discussed this with our academic writing advisor, and we may want to see whether we can specifically address this issue in a forthcoming curriculum review.

But what about solutions for the here and now? There are many ways in which open office are organised, but what works best?

One colleague suggested changing times. Admittedly, my open office hours are Wednesdays from 08:30-09:30, but this never was a problem – and the feedback open office hours during the aforementioned course were scheduled in the afternoon. Elsewhere in cyberspace people have been suggesting other solutions, including a rethink of faculty office space. I’d love to squeeze in a couch, but my office is rather tiny.

On Twitter someone suggested that the wording ‘open office hours’ is unclear to students and that ‘student drop-in hours’ may make more sense. So, the name plate next to my door now mentions my student drop-in hours and so does the syllabus of an upcoming course.

Let’s see what happens. I hope students will come and talk to me again. The door’s open, simply turn up at the stated time!

The Article Summary

(Photo credit: Joanne H. Lee, Santa Clara University)

Today we have a guest post about teaching the research process by Anne Baker, assistant professor of political science at Santa Clara University. She can be reached at aebaker [at] scu [dot] edu.

Getting students to use academic articles for research papers can be a challenge. In my experience, many students, even those in upper-level courses, are not familiar with search engines such as JSTOR, Lexus Nexus, or Political Science Complete. And if students do happen to use Google Scholar, they frequently rely on excerpts from sources instead of entire articles that they might not have access to. So, what can be done to replace these habits with better practices?

In my advanced writing course on the presidency, I have developed a class activity which provides students with skills they will need if they are going to successfully locate and utilize academic references for their research papers. First, I want them to be able to use the library’s website to access search engines. Second, I want them to understand that research is an iterative process. Sometimes you don’t find what you need for a variety of reasons and you should be able to determine what those reasons are—whether its human error, the need for a wider search net, or that no one has written on the topic (this last possibility always surprises the Google generation). Third, students need to become acquainted with the literature on the presidency, including the subfield’s primary journal, by discovering how research practices in political science have changed overtime, even in a subfield which remains largely qualitative.

I have students work in pairs and I provide them with two search terms related to the institution of the presidency (e.g. signing statements, executive orders, oath of office). I pick the search terms carefully knowing that some topics have no scholarship and represent dead ends and others have later but not earlier scholarship or vice versa. The first step of the activity provides instructions about how to first locate JSTOR on the library’s website and then how to access Presidential Studies Quarterly using JSTOR’s advanced search options. Helpfully, for the purposes of this activity, JSTOR only has copies of the journal until 2000. To access later copies, students have to use the Wiley database, which students have to figure out how to find.

For each search term, I have students locate one article published in the last few years and then another for 1995-2000—a total of four articles. Next, students identify the research question and method the authors used, noting whether it is qualitative or quantitative, the sources of data regardless of method, the type of analysis (e.g. text, interviews, statistical), and the date of publication. After they have their four articles and perform this analysis, I ask them to compare the results of both searches. Finally, we have a class discussion in which we explore road blocks and challenges encountered and review how the field has changed over time.

I have found that this activity makes students more likely to cite academic articles in their final research papers and use them more effectively to support their arguments. Students also exhibit a much better understanding of the subfield and are more likely to use the other search engines that they encountered while on the library’s website. And they learn that research takes time and requires shifting your strategies to find the information you need.

Storytelling with GIS

Another example of why it’s good to consult with librarians:

For the last several years in my globalization course, I’ve had student teams create and deliver presentations on their commodity chain analyses and ethnographies of consumption. Generally students build Powerpoint files for these assignments; occasionally someone uses Prezi. Simple rubrics make grading this work very easy. But the end products aren’t going to make recent graduates stand out from the competition when interviewing with prospective employers. It’s also difficult to convey the content of the entire project in a single presentation without showing a mind-numbing number of slides. Enter the storymap . . .

One of our librarians, a specialist in digital scholarship whom I’ll be working with next semester, introduced me to the digital storytelling tool from Esri,* a.k.a. the Environmental Systems Research Institute, which allows a person to create a multi-media presentation with ArcGIS. Rather than describe what this looks like, I’ll show you:

My task now is to reconfigure the project’s different assignments so that students complete their own storymaps by the end of the course, and figure out how to evaluate them.

*I have no financial interest in this company.

Does the Question Determine the Answer?

Regular readers of this blog know that I sometimes ponder the clarity of my assignment and exam prompts (some past posts on this subject are here, here, and here). Students sometimes don’t hit what, in my mind, the question targets, so I revise in the hopes of creating a prompt that is more transparent. But I don’t want prompts to be answerable with a Jeopardy-like regurgitation of facts. I want students to exert some cognitive effort to figure out how to apply concepts that are relevant to the question at hand.

Usually this situation occurs with my undergraduates, but I’m noticing it more frequently with master’s degree students. A recent example is an assignment from my graduate-level introduction to comparative politics course:

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Pay It Forward Assignments

Today we have a guest post from Loleen Berdahl, Professor and Head of Political Studies, University of Saskatchewan. She can be reached at Loleen [dot] berdahl [at] usask [dot] ca.

I am very excited to road test a new ‘Pay It Forward Assignment’ (PIFA) in my classes this fall. The PIFA requires students to create something that will help a student in the same class in subsequent years. It is inspired by David Wiley’s argument in favour of non-disposable assignments. My hope is that this assignment will inspire students to approach the material with creativity, and draw upon their own interests and personal strengths while they engage with class material. Ideally, the assignment will create a library of resources for future classes that can grow over time.

Here are the assignment’s instructions for students:

Have you ever mastered a topic and wanted to share what you have learned with other students? Have you ever wanted to demonstrate your mastery of a topic in a creative manner, rather than the usual format? Have you ever spent a tremendous amount of time on a class assignment and been disappointed to know that the only person who would read it was your professor? If so, the Pay It Forward Assignment (PIFA) is going to be fun and interesting activity for you.

The PIFA is an assignment that a student creates to share with future students. A great way to select the topic for your PIFA is to find something that you initially found difficult in the course. Once you have a good grasp of the topic, create a resource of some sort to help others. Some possibilities for your PIFA:

  • Graphic novella: create a graphic short story that explains a key idea.
  • Mind-map: construct a mind-map for a specific topic or a core idea.
  • Power-point slide deck: create a short series of lecture slides that teach a major point of a lesson.
  • News story video: present a key idea from a lesson as if it were a breaking story for a television news program.
  • Audio: create a short podcast that provides a tutorial on a key idea in a lesson, or that connects a key idea to a current issue in public debate.
  • Photo essay: use a photo or series of photos to illustrate a key idea in a lesson, and then use short amounts of text to explain how the photos illustrate the idea.
  • Checklist: create a critical reading checklist for students to use when assessing a research study, news story, etc., for trustworthiness. Go through an actual article and apply the checklist to demonstrate how it works.
  • Learning activity: outline a new learning activity for a lesson.
  • Lesson table summary: construct a summary table of the lesson’s key points and terms.
  • Linking our class material to another class: using text, audio, or video, explain how something from this class relates to something you learned in another class.
  • Relating lessons summary: using text, audio, or video, explain how the material in a particular lesson relates to the lesson that came immediately before it.
  • Social media activity: create a tweet-thread explaining a core concept covered in a lesson.

Hate Group Presentations? Here’s an Alternative

Today we have another guest post from Susan Allen, associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi. She can be contacted at shallen [at] olemiss [dot] edu.

Enrollment at the University of Mississippi has grown substantially over the last few years, with my upper division undergraduate courses now often exceeding sixty students each. To shepherd such a large number of students through the research process so that they could eventually write compelling papers, I initially tried using group presentations My hope was that presentations would challenge students to be creative (an explicit grading criteria), improve their ability to speak in front of a group, strengthen their ability to summarize important aspects of their work, and allow students with diverse strengths and weaknesses to step up.

What I got, however, were painful classes of undergraduates awkwardly reading their Power Point slides, mismanaging their time, and complaining noisily about the entire experience – both as participants and as witnesses of their classmates’ efforts.

Enter the research conference, an alternative suggested by a friend in psychology. In addition to writing research papers, groups create posters that are presented at a conference session.

Two class periods are designated for our research conference, and half the class sets up on each day. When possible, I also ask two or three graduate students to join me to interview the students about their work. Students who are not presenting are expected to rank and comment on the day’s posters. The ranking criteria, each on a 1-10 scale, are clarity, creativity, research quality, and group participation. The highest-ranking poster for each session generates extra credit for its designers. Only students who submit rankings for the other students are eligible to earn these points.

I had no idea what to expect for the first iteration of the research conference. The quality and style of the posters varied greatly, but not the enthusiasm with which the students spoke about their research. I was amazed by how excited they were about what they’d learned.

Since then, both poster and paper quality have improved. Designing the posters forces students to boil their work down to its essence, which translates into better organization and flow in their papers. On my end, I’ve learned how to provide clearer directions for and better examples of poster design. While poster printing imposes a cost on students, our library provides this service for a nominal fee. Students also have used local copy shops.

For me, the biggest benefit is being able to hear students talk about their work and learn from them about the development of their topics, how they collaborated, and what sparked the interests of individual students. When I face that stack of research papers at the end of the semester, I don’t dread it nearly as much as I used to because I’ve seen and heard their authors’ sales pitches at the research conference.

Identifying a Generational Zeitgeist?

Sometimes you discover something completely unexpected about how people perceive the world.

Back in February, students in my globalization course read the items below and wrote a response to “Is global trade a zero sum game — a process that causes some people to get poorer while others get richer? Why?”

  • Daron Acemoglu, “Economic Inequality and Globalization,” Brown Journal of World Affairs 13, 1 (Fall/Winter 2006).
  • Joseph Stiglitz, “The Globalization of Our Discontent,” Project Syndicate, 5 December 2017.
  • Branko Milanovic, “Why the Global 1% and the Asian Middle Class Have Gained the Most from Globalization,” Harvard Business Review Digital Articles, 13 May 2016.

Nearly the entire class wrote that global trade is a zero sum game. In class, students advocated for trade barriers.

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Information Literacy as Research Methods IV


R M Media Ltd, CC BY-SA license

As I mentioned in my first post in this series, my interdisciplinary methods course includes a research proposal assignment consisting of:

  • An introduction containing a research question, hypothesis, rationale, and context.
  • A one-paragraph abstract.
  • Two-page discussion of the design of the proposed research project, the types of data that will be collected, how the data will be analyzed, and how this process will test the hypothesis and provide an answer to the research question.
  • A bibliography of references.

The proposal is intended to prepare students for an actual research project that they will design, conduct, and report on before graduating. I’ve created three smaller practice assignments that scaffold different aspects of the final proposal. The first uses research on Bolivia; here are the instructions:

  1. Read the rubric.
  2. Read either a chapter from Jim Schultz and Melissa Crane Draper, eds, Dignity and Defiance: Stories from Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization, UC Press, 2008, or Isabel M. Scarborough, “Two Generations of Bolivian Female Vendors,” Ethnology 49, 2 (Spring 2010): 87-104.
  3. Read:
    Writing a Good Research Question
    What Makes a Good Research Question
    Constructing Hypotheses in Quantitative Research
    Forming a Good Hypothesis for Scientific Research
    Annotated Bibliography Guidelines

Write and submit the following as a single document:

  • A research question about the local effect of globalization in Bolivia.
  • A hypothesis derived from your research question.
  • A one-paragraph annotated bibliography entry for the item you read about Bolivia. Include the source’s complete bibliographic information.
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