Grading on Spec II

Blueprint And RulerEarlier this week students in my globalization course wrote draft statement of purpose essays for Fulbright grant applications. This exercise hit several objectives:

  • The writing task was authentic. Even though the vast majority of the class will probably never actually seek to be a post-graduation Fulbright award recipient, almost all of them write application essays for scholarships. Scholarship application essays have a nearly identical audience and purpose.
  • The exercise reinforced for students the idea that they can actively experience other parts of the world — instead of just reading about it — and will almost certainly benefit from doing so. In this I was assisted by the assistant director of our office of international programs. She visited the class to give a 15-minute overview of the Fulbright program and to provide an example of a recent alumna who just received a Fulbright award to do work in Colombia.
  • Students were incredibly engaged. For thirty minutes I heard nothing but the clicking of keys as students wrote furiously on their laptops. The resulting drafts demonstrated that students took the work seriously, perhaps because they were writing about their own interests and potential futures.
  • Grading was easy because I explicitly defined the essay as a first draft and employed my own version of specifications grading with the two-criteria rubric shown below.

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Equal Ground Game: Word Challenge

I owe 100% of the credit for this game to Ashley Rondini at Franklin & Marshall College.

The Game: Word Challenge

Potential Topics: Social Justice, Attribution Error, Levels of Analysis, Methods and Measurement, Bias and Hidden Assumptions

Materials: Envelopes, letters for each team (listed at the bottom of this entry), timer
Prep Time
: 5 minutes (mostly cutting squares and putting them into envelopes
Play Time: 5 minutes
Class Size: 6-100
Debrief Time: As long as you like, this one just keeps opening up the more you look at it. I bridged directly into my lesson. So… 15 minutes debrief and then to lecture.

How to Play:

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A Simulation in Global Development: Guest Post from Dr. Kevin Pallister

Guest Contributor Dr. Kevin Pallister of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth joins us today to introduce his new negotiation simulation, recently published in PS: Political Science & Politics (April 2015). Dr. Pallister can be reached at and is willing to share all of his simulation materials upon request.

Dr. Kevin Pallister — U-Mass, Dartmouth

Teaching undergraduate students about international financial institutions and issues of economic development can be challenging, especially in an introductory political science class with lots of non-polisci majors. Teaching a large (90-student) introductory international relations class a couple of years ago, I thought of how best to help my students learn about economic globalization and development. This led me to develop a negotiation-based simulation to teach students about the conflicts of interest and potential for cooperation on issues of international economic globalization and development. This was the first time I designed a simulation, and only the second time I had run a simulation in the classroom (after earlier in the course running G. Dale Thomas’ excellent “Isle of Ted” simulation).

This simulation is designed to teach students a number of key concepts in the areas of IPE, globalization and development, such as the role of power, collective action problems, bargaining tactics, and naming and shaming efforts of NGOs.

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Inclusive Teaching Strategies

Diverse BirdsI recently attended a workshop on diversity and inclusiveness in the classroom that included the following advice:

  • Attend to room logistics. We exist in physical space, and the organization of that space can produce a welcoming or unwelcoming environment. The arrangement of tables and chairs might facilitate student self-segregation according to gender, ethnicity, or physical ability.
  • Be explicit about equal participation in discussion and group activities. Often this means deliberately calling on the students who otherwise don’t talk.
  • Be aware of student non-verbals. Does student A produce negative facial expressions whenever student B speaks? Does student C appear mentally disengaged?
  • Use multiple outlets for students to voice their thoughts. Students who might be reluctant to express themselves verbally in class might be quite willing to do so in writing online.
  • Maximize diversity when forming groups. Create teams composed of students who have different genders, ethnicities, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Otherwise they will tend to group with people most like themselves.
  • Create and reinforce rules for discussions. This can include the use of a talking stick, tokens, or other devices to ensure that everyone in class has the opportunity to speak and be heard.
  • Model validating behavior in response to student words and actions — nod when someone else is speaking, use phrases like “thank you for that,” and be encouraging rather than sternly critical.

Teaching Identity

I am what I think I am?
I am what I think I am?

My students are more interested in learning about individuals than in concepts—this is the USA, where ideas are filtered through the “me, me, me” lens of personal experience, whether real or imagined. Teaching abstract concepts tends to be difficult, but moving from specific biographical examples to institutions and principles is usually easier than going in the reverse direction. Here’s an example from the second day of my comparative politics course, when I introduce political identity:

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Just What Is Active Learning?

Cultivating that personal myth of superstar teacher will only take you so far.
Cultivating that personal myth of superstar teacher will only take you so far.

Videos of lectures are neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for active learning. The classroom is not flipped if the instructor, rather than the student, remains central to the student’s learning process. The more we make students’ learning dependent on something we provide, whether it be didactic classroom lectures, online videos, worksheets, or Socratic dialogue, the more we reflect Paulo Freire’s banking model of education, in which “the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor.”

I’ve been reminded of these principles by recent discussions with colleagues, some of whom have concluded that active learning and lecturing in the physical classroom are mutually exclusive. There is plenty of evidence indicating that a lecture, if organized and delivered in a way that engages students,  is just as effective as other forms of instruction. Similarly, an absence of lectures does not automatically make the classroom environment conducive to learning. Assuming otherwise illustrates the prevalence of the Dunning-Kruger effect in academia.

I’ve also been reminded about what “active learning” really means by my university’s evaluation of teaching instrument, which is distributed to students in the last few weeks of every semester.

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Refugees in the Neighborhood

FugeesYesterday in my first-year seminar, I made up on the spot a role-playing exercise about refugees. I divided the class into three groups:

  • A northern Kenyan village of 400 farmers and livestock herders.
  • 1,100 refugees migrating from South Sudan.
  • A humanitarian aid organization.

I told the refugees that their goal was to cross the border with Kenya and that they could only take with them what fit into a small box that I had grabbed from my desk before class (a box that had contained business cards, approximately 7″ X 4″ X 2″). They had to decide what to put in the box and determine the route to take into Kenya.

The Kenyans were told that 1,100 South Sudanese had arrived without food, water, or shelter — tripling the village’s population. These students were tasked with identifying the pre-existing needs of their village and how the refugee influx would affect village conditions.

The humanitarian aid workers got to select which NGO they were part of, and they chose Doctors Without Borders. I arbitrarily assigned them a budget of $20,000 to operate a medical clinic in the village. These students had to decide what forms of medical care they would supply and who would receive it.

Refugees chose to carry identity documents, money, photos, pocket knives, and snacks. All of them assumed that rural East Africans don’t have cell phones. I pointed out the implicit bias in this assumption.To identify a route, the refugees required a demonstration of how to use Google Maps — never underestimate the digital illiteracy of supposed digital natives. They ignored the possibility of paying people to drive them across the border.

The staff of Doctors Without Borders decided to treat both the refugees and villagers at an 80:20 ratio in terms of the clinic’s budget. They also agreed that the limited resources at their disposal necessitated a system of triage. Severe injuries and illnesses simply could not be treated in a cost-effective manner and those individuals would be left to die. Unfortunately one of the refugees had gotten shot in the chest while crossing the border and the lower right arm of the wealthiest villager was traumatically amputated when he tried to clear a jammed piece of agricultural machinery. Malaria was not judged to be worthy of treatment either because of its low mortality rate.

The villagers were upset that Doctors Without Borders was providing aid to people who were causing a shortage of clean drinking water. They also resented not being asked by wealthy foreigners what kind of aid was most needed in the village — better seeds, a reliable supply of electricity, and irrigation equipment.

Did students get any significant benefits from the exercise? I don’t know. The back and forth conversation that occurred when I questioned students about their decisions seemed useful.

I think the exercise easily could be improved by adding some structure. For example, I could provide the NGO workers with a list of different types of aid — tents, jugs of drinking water, antibiotics — the number of people helped by each type, and associated costs. This would allow me to establish specific unintended consequences for various choices.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC), a non-profit organization that assists refugees around the world, operates a news feed on Medium that could function as a source of preparatory readings.  For example, there is “What refugees ask when they arrive in Europe” and “What’s in my bag? What refugees bring when they run for their lives.”

Perhaps I should make these adjustments and run the exercise a second time.