Another End of Semester Reflection

A few thoughts about the semester that is about to end:

Not quite.

First, the “open notebook” in-class quizzes did cause many more students to take notes than in the past. However, creating the quizzes — with most of the questions based on prior class discussion — was a pain. Same for  printing and grading them. For three undergraduate courses with small enrollments, the task wasn’t very complex, nor did it require a lot of effort, but it did become yet one more thing I had to organize throughout the semester. Also I gave fewer quizzes than I originally anticipated, which forced me to alter their weights in the final course grade. I’m now thinking that I could deliver the quizzes more easily and frequently through our Canvas LMS — they would be machine graded. But I would still need to invest in designing questions and building each quiz throughout the semester. A more rigid, pre-planned system for class discussions would allow me to generate all the quizzes before the semester starts, but I really don’t want to do this because it would move me back in the direction of lecturing. Continue reading

Ethnography of Consumption – A Twist

Buying is believing

The spring semester is ending here, and as usual everyone is dragging themselves across the finish line. There is not much left for students to do in my globalization course, but — given the structure of the U.S. higher education system — we still have to meet in the classroom. So, in search of something to fill time, I created an activity based on the last paragraph in my response to Leanne’s scavenger hunt exercise.

I collected some random products from home, all branded: running shoes (Saucony), cell phone charger cord (Samsung), bag of lentils (Jack Rabbit), hand towel (Cannon), and a tote bag to transport everything (London Review of Books). In class I laid all these items on a table and lied about getting them from a friend. I then told students to examine everything and write an answer to “What story is the owner of these things trying to tell others about the kind of person he or she is?” Students had already completed ethnographies of consumption, so they had some understanding of the connection between identity construction and consumption choices.

After five minutes, I grouped students into teams to create presentations, which they delivered during the second half of class. I got to listen to them unknowingly analyze my self-image as practical, value-oriented, and health conscious. (I would have been just as happy with other adjectives.) Once the last team had presented, I revealed that the items were my own by plugging my cell phone into the wall socket with the charger cord.

As a last minute invention, this activity worked fairly well. Students got to practice collaborating, communicating to an audience, and applying concepts. And all I had to do was bring a tote bag to class.

Parliament Game with the Gray-Tufted Banderwot

Gray-Tufted Banderwot

A few years ago, Simon invented a game to model coalitions in the European Parliament (also described here and here). I decided to try it in my comparative politics as a lesson in how legislatures function. After some confusion as students figured out what to do, they clustered into two coalitions; the outcome loosely resembled a two-party/median voter system. But I had forgotten to remove the high-value cards from the deck before starting the game. The class has only fourteen students, and the distribution of card values was so great that it was difficult for students to accumulate influence points.

I decided to run the game again in the next class, after removing face cards from the deck. Influence points were calculated the same as before. But I added a twist. Each student received additional instructions that varied according to the value of his or her card: Continue reading

What You Say Is Not What They Hear

I was recently reminded that although we like to think we clearly communicate our intent to students, this is not always the case. My globalization class is reading One White Face by Hilary Corna, an autobiographical account of a young college graduate who travels to Singapore on a whim and stumbles into a job with Toyota. I assigned a written response to this question:

The author writes that in her quest for normalcy, she “had become more and more abnormal.” What was the most significant abnormal decision she made after arriving in Singapore? Why? Define what you mean by “significant.”

I asked the question to get students to think about the ways in which an unfamiliar environment forced the author to evaluate her thinking from a new, and therefore abnormal, perspective. However, students understood the question differently. Their responses focused on the word “decision” and for the most part ignored “abnormal.” Most of them wrote about decisions that would be typical of any recent U.S. college graduates instead of pressures to adapt to new cultural norms.

To make the purpose of the question more transparent — in case I use the same book next year — I revised it to: Continue reading

Advising as Active Learning

This way to commencement.

It’s now advising hell, er, season, at my university. If you are outside of the USA, you might be unfamiliar with this phenomenon — it’s when undergraduates come to faculty for advice about which courses they should register for in the upcoming semester.

Students often approach the process passively  — if I let them, they will simply ask me “What should I take?” Many are also under the misapprehension that a path they believe is “pre-med” or “pre-law” is necessary for gaining entrance into a graduate program (it isn’t). Or they are convinced that a “minor” — a small cluster of courses on some topic — is in and of itself a career credential (it isn’t). Notice that the actual learning that might or might not occur in these pre-packaged bundles of courses is not what the students are worrying about.

To be fair, the underlying purpose of the curriculum — to function as a vehicle for learning — is fairly opaque. For example, at my university sixteen distinct student learning outcomes are assigned to courses that fulfill general education requirements, courses required by academic programs might have an equal number of additional outcomes, and there is now talk about creating a third layer of outcomes at the institutional level. Yet there is no comprehensive, well-tuned effort to capture and evaluate the data necessary for determining whether these outcomes are being met. If faculty are unable to point a student to course X as a reliable means of learning Y, it’s doubtful that students can do it.

In an attempt to work around these problems, I require students to bring to a meeting a draft of a four-year plan in which they’ve listed what courses they think they’ll be taking and when. The document, which gets revised over time, serves as a tool for a much deeper conversation, for two main reasons.

First,  the process of drafting an academic schedule for which the endpoint is graduation illustrates that choices have consequences. For example, playing a sport is the highest priority for some students, and they like to avoid enrolling in courses that conflict with practice sessions or matches. But some courses are often taught only in particular semesters at particular times. With the four-year plan, students see the longer-term effects of their decisions, and that they bear ultimate responsibility for how they choose to invest their time, money, and effort.

Second, the four-year plan is an entry point for a discussion about how the title of a course, the curricular requirements that can be fulfilled by successfully completing it, and the degree to which the student will find the course interesting and challenging are frequently completely independent of each other. Given that people usually learn more when they are both interested in and challenged by what they are studying, I tell students to take people, not courses, whenever possible. While I can make suggestions about this, it is up to the student to actively perform the necessary due diligence.

The Change All Around, Part 3

Here is my third post about environmental factors that are affecting my teaching this semester. My previous posts on the subject are here and here. This time I thought I would explore my situation from the standpoint of student behavior.

First item is this screenshot of the Canvas LMS gradebook. I use a grading system in which each assignment is worth a certain number of points, and a student’s final course grade is a function of the total points he or she has earned by the end of the semester. Individual assignments do not receive letter grades and are not graded on a percentage basis with a 0-100 scale.

I inform students — both verbally in the classroom and via text in the syllabus — that the percentage columns in the gradebook are absolutely meaningless in terms of their course grade. Yet they still fixate on these figures, and get dejected whenever they see a number that they perceive as conflicting with their self-image. (I attribute the innumeracy and the construction of a fragile self-identity to parenting and the K-12 education system.) Continue reading