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 8

I want my final exam for this course to be its pièce de résistance — a vehicle for students to demonstrate how well they can apply their knowledge about the relationships between economics and the environment. I also want the application of knowledge to happen in an authentic, real-world context, where writing has a clearly-defined role, audience, purpose, and format. So here is the exam:

A Plan for Louisiana’s Future

Role

You are the Director of the Office of Planning and Budget for the State of Louisiana.

Audience

The governor of Louisiana

Purpose

Recommend to the governor whether Louisiana should either:

  1. Raise taxes to build the southern part of the state to a 10,000 year flood standard, or
  2. Stop all public infrastructure spending in areas unprotected by existing levees.

These are your only policy options. Write a 2-3 page rationale for choosing one of them. Discuss why your choice is economically best for the state. For evidence in support of your rationale, refer to relevant course readings and Continue reading

Travel Tips for the Upcoming Mini-TLC

Saturday, September 1, marks the first of APSA’s mini-Teaching and Learning Conferences at the association’s annual meeting. I’m assuming most of you who are attending the meeting have already decided whether to register for the mini-TLC, but on the chance a few people haven’t . . . here is the program schedule and general information. As is often the case, I will be leading one of the workshop sessions — on students learning course content by designing games.

Logistics might be more important to you at this point. I lived in Boston while in college and still visit regularly. I’m happy to answer specific questions posted as comments. For example:

If you’re staying in a conference hotel or nearby, take the MBTA Silver Line 1 bus from Logan Airport (free for arriving passengers) to South Station, transfer to the Red Line inbound toward Alewife. Go to Park Street station, then get on —

  • Any outbound Green Line train to exit at Copley station.
  • Any outbound Green Line train but E to exit at the Hynes Convention Center.
  • The outbound Green Line E train to exit at the Prudential Center.

The above makes the subway sound more complicated than it actually is. Copley, Hynes, and the Prudential are all within a few blocks of each other. Transferring between different subway lines is remarkably easy, especially since this is a public transit system in the USA. And the trip will cost you less than US$3. Here is the full MBTA subway map.

Other tidbits: Continue reading

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.

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, be 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.

 

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.

Managing Difficult Conversations

Today’s post discusses part of a previously-mentioned workshop on managing difficult conversations in the workplace. The workshop was led by Pamela Heffernan of Performance Management Associates. If you want to find out more about leadership development workshops like this one, she can be contacted at PHeffernan [at] PerformanceManagementAssociates [dot] com.

Difficult conversations can be managed effectively by following a process of preparation, engagement, exploration, and resolution.

To prepare, focus on the specific problem you want to resolve. Question your story; don’t rely on assumptions. What don’t you know about the situation that might be relevant? Also define your opening statement – the first words that will come out of your mouth – to frame the conversation around the issue at hand. This statement should be a maximum of two to three sentences and include an open-ended question that minimizes the other person’s defensiveness.

To engage, take a position of neutrality, talk with the person rather than at them, and ask questions to find out what you don’t know – what are the reasons the person is acting the way they are acting? Identify the person’s fear and address it: “I think you’re afraid of X. Is that correct?” Your task is to listen with curiosity. Only then will you be able to respond in an appropriate manner.

Next, explore potential alternatives. Focus on outcomes. What does success look like, and how do we get there? Ask “If you were in my shoes, how would you see this?” At this point you will probably know if the other person understands the impact of their behavior, wants to change, and is coachable, or if the person lacks the necessary self-awareness. In the latter case, the only choice, if you’re in a managerial position, as an instructor is with a student, is to require compliance.

Finally, develop a plan for resolving the situation. Establish agreement on who is going to do what when, and document it to hold the person accountable. A follow-up email becomes the launch point for the next conversation.

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

From Frying Pan To Fire?

A brief meditation on teaching in the era of Trump. From a comparative perspective. In more ways than one.

As someone whose income is in the world’s top one percent, I have the luxury of partaking in long-distance travel on a purely voluntary basis. Soon I’ll be vacationing outside the USA, a country where corrupt, narcissistic xenophobes are doing their best to undermine the rule of law, with the full approval of their supporters. My destination? A country where corrupt, narcissistic xenophobes are doing their best to undermine the rule of law, with the full approval of their supporters.

So yes, I see parallels, despite the geographic and cultural differences. The tribalistic nationalism. The sexism. The religious justifications. The cronyism. Most of all, the constant attempts to de-legitimize the very institutions that originally put these people into positions of power.

I know that I’m a bit more sensitive to the symbiotic relationship between popular prejudices and abusive government than many people, in part because my wife, as a Muslim and an immigrant, is classified as both a terrorist and a rapist in Trumpspeak. But history demonstrates that those who engage in idol worship and willful ignorance as a means to an end rarely see their expectations met.

And here is the connection to my teaching: the basic principle that I try to convey to students is that one benefits by comparing, as open-mindedly as possible, the familiar and the unfamiliar. Curiosity-driven analysis leads to unexpected insights, sounder judgments, and more satisfying outcomes in life. And it is quite acceptable to make mistakes along the way as long as one takes the time to try to figure out why things went wrong.

Unfortunately I am seeing an increasing resistance to this message among U.S. undergraduates. Far too many expect to be intellectually and morally validated solely on the basis of personal opinion. Far too few exhibit a willingness to consider the possibility that perspectives which differ from their own might have merit. If some students perceive my teaching as a threat to the comfortable psychological environment that they have constructed for themselves, I get labeled authoritarian, racist, sexist, or otherwise unprofessional — revenge for being told that their academic performance is not of the quality that they believe it to be. Who am I to tell them that they are not perfect?

This probably makes me sound like a disgruntled, insufferable elitist. But I wonder if we folks in the USA are in the midst of a disaster of our own making. Unstructured and unsupervised play during childhood has become the exception rather than the rule. Reality TV, online personae, and the War on Terror have been background noise for as long as today’s teenagers have been alive. Anxiety and depression are epidemic on college campuses. And now government by distortion, outrage, and caprice has been normalized. It’s probably only natural that many undergraduates think everyone has the right to their own immutable set of alternative facts.

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?