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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Negatives of Nuance

Related to Simon‘s and Amanda‘s recent posts about failing to get the results one expects, here is a very simple example.

My first writing assignment prompt this semester for my course on economic development and environmental change read as follows:

Purpose of this response: learn about the nature of poverty and perceptions of the poor.

1. Read the rubric below.

2. Read/watch:

  • MRU: Basic Facts of Growth and Development.
  • Easterly, Ch. 1 and Intermezzo, p. 5-19.
  • Emily Badger and Quoc Trung Bui, “In 83 Million Eviction Records, a Sweeping and Intimate New Look at Housing in America,” The New York Times.
  • Hans Rosling, “The Magic Washing Machine,” TEDWomen, December 2010.

Answer the following question:

  • William Easterly writes “When those of us from rich countries look at poor countries today, we see our own past poverty.” (p. 19). Is this an accurate view of poverty outside and inside the USA? Why?

My intent in asking the question — which I thought was obvious from the “statement of purpose” that prefaced it — was to get students to think about the differences between how they think about the poor at home and about the poor in countries that they’ve probably only seen on the news, if at all. In other words, I wanted them to start thinking about why our perceptions of the poor often depend on where the poor are located.

Instead students wrote about wealth and poverty from a historical perspective — that the USA once had a low level of economic development, as measured by GDP or income per capita, and that’s where other countries are today. The USA developed into a high-income, industrialized society, so probably other countries, even the poorest ones, will eventually do the same. There was no real discussion of the nature of poverty in the USA or why it exists.

So I need to a better question, something like “Are the causes of poverty in the USA the same as in other countries? Why?” or “If the USA is an economically-developed country, why does it still have poor people?”

Beyond the Essay: Briefing Memos

Today we have a guest post from Vincent Druliolle, an assistant professor at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. He can be reached at Vincent[dot]Druliolle[at]gmail[dot]com.

Undergraduates are repeatedly told that what they study is somehow relevant for practice, yet most assignments are structured as academic essays—even though only a handful of them will end up opting for an academic career. A few years ago, I decided that my students should have the opportunity to develop non-academic writing skills, and started assigning a briefing memo about an ongoing conflict.

The briefing memo is indeed a format widely used in government, international organisations, consultancies, and NGOs. However, because of the large range of topics and theoretical perspectives covered by my module and the limited number of teaching weeks, I had to find a way of integrating such an activity into my small-group seminars. I came up with the idea of making the memo a preparatory activity for my in-class simulation on peacebuilding and transitional justice.

The briefing memo differs from the traditional essay in both content and format. It is policy-oriented, because it is aimed at practitioners and decision-makers, and it presents information in a concise and attractive manner. It requires critically analysing source material beyond the standard academic literature, selecting what’s most relevant, and presenting it in a way that can convey the complexities of the conflict analysed.

Most students have never written a memo, but I don’t give them any guidelines. Instead, I ask them to look up examples that they can use as models. I prefer to ask the students to present their memos in class and discuss the difficulties of writing it. The first seminar of the simulation is thus about comparing and learning from the work of one’s fellow classmates. For class discussion, I recommend selecting at least a very good memo, a (very) bad one, and a few with significantly different formats and/or content. The greater the variety of memos, the better. I want the students to learn from each other, so I adopt the role of a facilitator, asking them to explain why they’ve chosen a given format and/or content, and fostering a class discussion about these aspects.

Many students admit that, as I warn them beforehand, it’s difficult at the beginning to figure out how they have to write the memo. Instead of assessing it at this stage, I ask the students to submit a revised version after the simulation that reflects what they’ve learnt from their classmates’ memos. Guidelines about how to write a memo can be provided at this stage or even afterward as part of a debriefing.

While writing the memo is an activity in its own right, in this case it is also a way for the students to acquire the knowledge necessary to participate in the simulation. They learn what information the memo should include because they have to put themselves in the shoes of the actors for whom the memo is written in the first place. In this way, the memo prepares students for the simulation, while the simulation provides an opportunity for them to reflect on the writing of the memo. And for the instructor, memos are quicker (and less boring) to mark than essays.

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.  

Crowd-Sourcing and Self-Instruction

Today we have a guest post from Matthew Wilson, assistant professor of political science at West Virginia University and a visiting researcher at the University of Gothenburg as part of the Varieties of Democracy Project. He can be reached at matthew[dot]wilson1[at]mail[dot]wvu[dot]edu.

Sometimes, existing teaching materials can be too narrow or too broad. This was the problem that I encountered when designing a lower-level undergraduate course on Latin American Politics. Many textbooks on Latin American politics are organized around conceptual issues with specific chapters on topics such as economic inequality or race. However, I wanted students to also learn about the unique paths by which countries in the region developed, without limiting the discussion or using a handful of countries to characterize the rest.  Rather than cobbling together different materials myself, I saw this as an opportunity for active learning.

My idea was to create teams of students with each team seeking out information on a different country outside of class. This approach drew on distributed learning, which aims to decouple learning from the classroom constraints of time and place, by creating a learning objective outside of class that differs from but contributes to what students learn in class. The approach also reflected crowd-sourcing, where a good is produced by many people performing relatively small tasks. The assignment therefore had to involve a large number of students.

Students listed their top three preferences for countries and I matched them up as best I could. I aimed to control the quality of sources and focus of the assignment, while at the same time encouraging students to teach themselves by conducting independent research.  I personally vetted the content that students used by selecting five books that covered each of the roughly twenty countries—for a total of 100 books—and placed them on hold in the university library.  I also required each student to submit a list of ten additional online sources for my approval.

The assignment had two parts, for which students received separate grades.  First, students had one month to consult the source materials and document major events that occurred in their respective countries. I created a spreadsheet with four tabs that corresponded to heads of state, conflicts, laws, and important documents.  For each, students had to skim the respective material and fill in basic information about the event, denoted by column headings:

  • The year in which an event occurred (when)
  • The event (what)
  • The actors involved (who)
  • The source(s) consulted

I discouraged students from providing any sort of explanation.  Moreover, I was purposely vague about what constituted an event to encourage them to seriously consider what mattered. I graded students’ spreadsheets in terms of thoroughness; in large part, this was determined by comparing the spreadsheets of students who were assigned the same country.

In the second step, I grouped students into teams according to the country they had researched, and each team created a combined, revised timeline that described in only a few sentences each event that had been included. I checked the accuracy of the content in the timelines with the help of graduate research assistants, and each team received a grade on its combined timeline. At the end of the course, I consolidated students’ timelines into a single manuscript, added public domain images, and handed the final product back to them.

The results of this assignment were quite positive. It enabled me to complement the country-specific knowledge students were acquiring outside of class with lectures on more general themes. Each student became a “country expert” and therefore almost always had something to contribute to in-class discussions, which in turn improved their essay responses. Students were motivated to work on a project that was not the standard research paper. Overall, the distributed learning, self-instruction, and collaboration with teammates enhanced students’ performance in the course. I will definitely use this technique in the future. Additional details can be found in my article about the assignment in the Journal of Political Science Education.

Changing a Course on Development, Part 7

I’ve been a fan of the quality of failure essay since Amanda introduced me to it several years ago, and I’ve tweaked it several times with varying degrees of success. In an attempt to avoid a mistake I made with it last semester, I have altered the assignment yet again by shortening the instructions considerably:

Read:

In a 2-3 page essay, analyze how you learned in this course. What actions helped or hurt your learning? Which components of the course most enabled you to better understand ideas or apply them in new ways?

Note that I have moved significantly away from the assignment’s original theme of failure. I am doing this for two reasons. First, in other courses this assignment has produced a lot of commentary from students about what I will label the superficial aspects of failure — as in “at the beginning of the semester I promised myself that I would get an A++ on every assignment but I failed at this because I didn’t manage my time well.” Second, I am curious to find out whether students regard the SCAMPER-based game design exercises as worthwhile, but I’m not going to influence their thoughts by explicitly asking about it.

Links to the full series of posts on redesigning this course:

Changing a Course on Development, Part 6

My general approach to teaching is to emphasize the upper levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Creation and evaluation are important. Memorization, not so much. While game design gives students the opportunity to create something connected to course content, they should also evaluate whether what they’ve created is on target. So, as promised in my last post, here is the relevant assignment, due after students play the games that they have designed:

1. Read the rubric below.

2. In the form of a 3-4 page, double-spaced essay, evaluate the game you played that was designed by another team. How well did the game:

Work independently, do not discuss your essay with other students.

Links to the full series of posts on redesigning this course:

Changing a Course on Development, Part 5

In my last post in this series, I discussed integrating the SCAMPER technique with student game design via a writing assignment and in-class presentations. I’m a firm believer in the benefits of iteration when it comes to learning, so I’m including a second round of game design. For the second round, students will again use SCAMPER, but this time they will actually build new games. Here is the preparatory writing assignment:

Problem

People frequently do not understand the relationships between economics, politics, and the environment. Games are powerful learning tools, but there are few high-quality games about these relationships.

Solution

Design a game that illustrates a relationship between economics, politics, and the environment.

Apply SCAMPER to an existing game other than the California Water Crisis game  — for example, Risk, Mahjong, Settlers of Catan, or Monopoly — to design a framework for a new game. Choose a topic of interest. Put the game in a specific context, such as “the effects of sea level rise in Boston” rather than “climate change.”

Audience

Write a proposal to Hasbro’s Product Development Division in which you discuss the new game you have designed by using SCAMPER on an existing game. Identify the topic of the new game, what features of the existing game will change, how they will change, and why these changes are beneficial.

After students have submitted their individual proposals, I will again cluster the class into teams. The members of each team will discuss their ideas, decide on a single design to pursue, and create and deliver in-class presentations. I’ve devoted a subsequent class session for teams to physically construct the games and another one for students to actually play the games. Debriefing will occur via another writing assignment, which will be the subject of my next post.

Links to the full series of posts on redesigning this course:

Changing a Course on Development, Part 4

Despite varying degrees of success in my first-year seminar — which I decided to stop teaching — I’m going to again have students design board games based on course content. But I’m going to organize this process differently than before. 

There will be two rounds of game design and each will use SCAMPER, an acronym for a design thinking technique that I will demonstrate with an in-class exercise. In the first round, each student will complete a writing assignment that applies SCAMPER to the California Water Crisis (CWC) game used by Andrew Biro. Here is what SCAMPER looks like in this context:

  • Substitute: what part of the game can be substituted for some other part?
  • Combine: can two separate processes in the game be integrated into one?
  • Adapt: can an aspect of some other game be adapted for use in this game?
  • Modify: can a process that is part of the game be modified, enhanced, or simplified?
  • Put to other use: can a part of the game serve some other function within the game?
  • Eliminate: can any part of the game can be removed/omitted?
  • Reverse: what happens if some process in the game is reversed?

Here are the directions for the first round’s writing assignment: Continue reading

Changing a Course on Development, Part 3

As a follow-up to Part 2 in this series, here are specific examples of how culling learning objectives and readings led to better alignment with assignments.

My old version of the course included the topics of poverty, aid, economic growth,  economic geography, corruption, and ethnic conflict. For the new version, I abandoned the last three of these as learning objectives. This allowed me to discard corresponding chapters from William Easterly’s The Elusive Quest For Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics (MIT Press, 2001), plus other, shorter readings.

The old course had content organized under headings like “economic institutions” and “economic behavior.” While I am intricately familiar with these terms, students are not. As learning objectives, they are too broad. “Barriers to entrepreneurship” is more useful. As I mentioned in Part 2, students will see each of these objectives as a meta-prompts for reading responses, which are also now more specific. For example, in the portion of the syllabus where I am still using Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo (Public Affairs, 2011):

Old assignment A

Why don’t the poor create their own microfinance institutions, instead of “waiting” for outsiders to do it for them?

New assignment A

Purpose of this response: learn about the role of insurance in mitigating economic risk.

  • Bannerjee and Duflo, Ch. 6, p. 133-156.
  • Gardiner Harris, “Borrowed Time on Disappearing Land,” New York Times, 28 March 2014.
  • Brooke Jarvis, “When Rising Seas Transform Risk Into Certainty,” The New York Times, 18 April 2017.

Can insurance help Bangladeshis minimize economic risk? Why? What about people living in Norfolk and Houston? Why?

Old assignment B

  • Bannerjee and Duflo, Ch. 10 and Conclusion, p. 235-274.

Is the pessimism of the Acemoglu and Robinson development model correct? Why?

New assignment B

Purpose of this response: learn about the effectiveness of public policy in a changing natural environment.

  • Bannerjee and Duflo, Ch. 10 and Conclusion.
  • Richard Conniff, “The Vanishing Nile: A Great River Faces a Multitude of Threats,” Yale Environment 360, 6 April 2017.
  • Community Water Solutions, “Empowering Women Entrepreneurs to End the World Water Crisis,” 5 April 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zUBOLzfrQo.

Will small, decentralized, community-based changes lead to large-scale sustainable economic development? Why?

Links to the full series of posts on redesigning this course: