Flipping the Research Methods Classroom, Part 1

Today we have the first post in a series on building a flipped course by Natascha van der Zwan and Alexandre Afonso. Both are assistant professors at the Institute of Public Administration at Leiden University, the Netherlands. They can be reached by emailing Natascha at n.a.j.van.der[dot]zwan[at]fgga[dot]leidenuniv[dot]nl.

Since I have started teaching graduate courses on research methods, I have struggled with the way in which such courses are usually taught. Why do we still teach research methods from textbooks? Most academics will agree that you learn best how to do research by simply doing it, and the traditional lecture format, where students are rather passive, seems inappropriate to achieve this.

For this reason, my Leiden colleague Alexandre Afonso and I have spent the last two years developing a new way of teaching research methods to our students, transforming our existing course into a flipped classroom using blended learning. The flipped classroom was developed with the financial and material support of Leiden University’s ICTO program and the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs. Alexandre and I will describe what our flipped classroom consists of, how we set it up, and our experiences teaching it. Continue reading

Getting Rid of Everything But the Kitchen Sink

This post was inspired by the ideas that Erin Baumann, Harvard, and John Fitzgibbon, Boston College, presented at the APSA Teaching & Learning Conference two weeks ago. They pointed out that instructors, myself included, often begin the course design process from the content-centric position of what we want students to learn. We collect resources for student consumption that illustrate principles and facts that we think are relevant to the subject of the course. Content for learning triumphs over the process of learning.

When engaging in this sort of scavenger hunt for content, a potentially much more useful question to ask is “What don’t students need?” The value of this approach hit home during a redesign of my course on economic development. I’ve taught this course for years at a variety of universities, and while I always make it a practice to update the readings, the learning objectives with which they were associated remained a fairly static and not very well thought out conglomeration. For the fall 2018 semester, the course is being consolidated with another course on environmental politics, and I’ve been forced to think hard about how I can adequately serve both subjects simultaneously.

I concluded that my existing course design wasn’t very elegant. Though I was fairly satisfied with what students were doing in terms of assignments and exercises, my predilection for the subject material had caused me to fall into the trap of “it would be nice if I covered . . . ” rather than ruthlessly restricting my syllabus to only the most essential content.

I needed a new design process, so I tossed everything about the existing course into a spreadsheet. Then I identified old and new topics — learning objectives actually — that I thought were critical to the new course, and deleted everything else. Same for readings — I discarded whatever didn’t narrowly correspond to the now smaller number of learning objectives, and found a few new ones that did.

I’m sure students will be pleased with the shorter reading list, even though their ability to skip over the most important, more-difficult-to-digest material in favor of breezier newspaper and blog articles has been greatly reduced. I’m happier because the course will be less of a bugaboo to teach given the pared-down content.

And Now For Something Else Completely Different

The effects of too much time spent sitting in front of a computer put me in the market for a standing desk converter — one of those table-top contraptions that are adjustable in height, enabling the user to work sitting down or standing up. Like me, you’ve probably been seeing them increasingly frequently in your travels and have wistfully wondered, “Do I deserve to enter the ranks of the office equipment elite?” Luckily our crack library staff came to my rescue. They permitted me to test drive one and take this inexpensive Ikea hack back to my office for my own use.

I then researched various commercially-available models to get something for my home. I was drawn to products made by Varidesk, Eureka Ergonomics, and FlexiSpot. My search narrowed my options to one model from each company. One was priced at US$400 and two were priced at US$300. I scrutinized the design of each to gauge durability and convenience. I read comparative analyses written by professional reviewers.

Then serendipity struck: a standing desk unit sold by Staples, the office supply retailer, looked remarkably familiar. I compared dimensions and appearance, and yes, it was an exact match to one of the previously-described models, but priced at only US$200. So I bought the thing and am now using it to type this post.

It occurred to me that the process I used to make my decision is the same type of analytical thinking that we want our students to become proficient at — cast a wide net to gather the best information one can find, evaluate it according to context, and render a judgment. It’s one of the skills that we say students will develop if they take political science courses. So now I’m trying to figure out how to turn my experience into an assignment, to make the connection between what gets learned in an academic setting and the ability to apply it elsewhere more obvious to students.

The Inverted U-Curve of College Prep

Two editorial pieces caught my eye recently. The first is an Inside Higher Ed essay on uselessly punishing high school students with the message that preparation for college means taking the maximum available number of Advanced Placement (AP) and dual-enrollment courses. The essay refers to a 2013 study at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill that found that first-year college performance among students who had taken six or more college-level courses during high school was the same as or worse than those who had taken fewer such courses.

The second item is about research on the deteriorating mental health of college students in the USA, UK, and Canada. Parenting, social media, and a hyper-competitive view of college admissions have led children to adopt perfectionist mindsets, which too often translate  into paralyzing fear, anxiety, and depression. As college students have become more narcissistic and less empathetic, they have become less able to productively manage stress.

It seems like too many teenagers are being set up to fail by the very systems that are supposed to ensure their collegiate success. And once these teenagers enroll in college, it becomes the faculty’s responsibility to deal with the results.

Yet, if your university is anything like mine, there is an institutional disconnect between college admissions and college instruction. The process of applying to and entering college provides admissions offices with a treasure trove of data that isn’t shared effectively with faculty members. I am not informed which students in my classroom may have already been identified as academically or otherwise at risk. This ignorance makes me less likely to pay closer attention to the students who are most likely to botch the transition to college — a situation that can give rise to very expensive outcomes for both students and the university.

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 2

On at least two occasions over the semester, my class will be meeting with students who are enrolled in an art course. The art students will be creating objects with 3-D printers and CNC cutters at the nearby IYRS School of Technology & Trades. The interviews will form the basis for a writing assignment in my class that I hope illustrates globalization’s effects on design, production, and trade — something that I am calling the Placemaking Essay. Here are my directions for the assignment:

1. Review course readings on terroir, Irish pubs, McDonald’s, and trade.

2. Read the rubric.

3. Write an 2-3 page essay, based on your interviews with ART 202 students and observations of their work, on the following:

  • How does the process by which an object is made affect its ability to create a sense of place for people who use that object?
  • Has globalization altered the meaning of places or of the objects within them? Why? If so, how have meanings changed?

Make sure to clearly define your use of terms like “place” and “community.” Cite course readings as you would for a reading response.

This essay also connects to a reflective writing assignments my students will be completing at the end of the semester. I’ll save the details on that for later.