My students don’t turn up: Responses to another classic problem

This

As I looked out across the lecture theatre yesterday afternoon, I did wonder what had happened to the two-thirds of the class that weren’t there. The sun was shining outside, but still.

Following on from Amanda’s post, I wanted to think about why this happens and what we can do about it.

Causes

  1. It’s the timing. Oldest one in the book, this: “it’s too early/too late/the other side of campus from my other class/the only thing I’d be coming in for/etc.” It’s easy to mock this one, but you remember feeling the same way when you studied: some times just feel more difficult than others. And just because I like teaching at 9am on Monday doesn’t mean my students like it. In yesterday’s case, it wasn’t even the usual slot, because I’d had to move times to avoid a clash with research commitments.
  2. It’s the room. Provision varies across campuses, even the most well-endowed ones. Sometimes rooms aren’t what they should be for the task in hand.
  3. It’s the other commitments. Another classic: I’m aware that yesterday’s class came a couple of hours before a deadline for most of the group and I’m guessing that some people decided they needed to focus their energies on that. Going off and enjoying the sunshine falls in this category too.
  4. Personal issues. I’m also aware that several of my class have been in touch to give valid personal reasons for their absence, due to ill health and other personal issues. This is a standard environmental factor for all of us, but sometimes it can be more substantial than others.
  5. It’s the class. Sometimes it’s not them, it’s you. Your class might not be very exciting or relevant or well-designed or it might be redundant because of other stuff you do. If you take all the other causes above as par for the course, then you can’t ignore this.

Solutions

1-4 All these things aren’t necessarily in your control, so you need to work with.around them as best you can. That means working with colleagues and your timetabling service to find time slots that make sense within the various constraints that exist. It means reporting faults with rooms promptly. It means coordinating assessment deadlines (that can be another post by itself). And it means ensuring students get appropriate and timely pastoral support.

Which leaves the class.

Think about how your class works, both in of itself and as part of a broader course. Is it offering something useful and something engaging? Note that these are two different things. Hopefully none of us teach stuff that isn’t useful – at least in our own minds – but the engagement aspect is more easily overlooked: there’s often an attitude that it doesn’t have to be engaging, because it’s important. Research methods is a good example of this: you have to do it, so it doesn’t matter how we do it.

If you’re aligning your teaching properly, then students will know what they’d doing at any given moment, and why they’re doing, and that they’ll be assessed on it. But if you’re flipping and/or providing powerpoints with all the key information on them (as I am in this present case) then are you undermining the need or desire to attend class?

This is one of the more tricky aspects of alignment, namely that you want to reinforce key elements, but then students take that as redundancy. If there is a solution, then it’s that we don’t tackle those key elements in the same way each time, but instead approach from another angle. Instead of just ploughing the same furrow again and again, you’re marking out criss-crossing tracks that join up into a mesh of knowledge and understanding (and mixed metaphors).

There’s more to be said on this, but I just wanted to get the ball rolling. If you have thoughts about this, then we always welcome comments and guest posts.

Pedagogical Defense: Avoiding Soul Crushing Writing Assignments

Recently I’ve been working on decoupling/narrowing what I expect in my writing assignments. For those of us who teach 70+ students at a shot and do not have TAs , the prospect of grading their papers is not only daunting…it is SOUL CRUSHING.

Even if their work is well-intentioned with good editing and citation, most undergraduate student work is still under development in nearly every area: structure, readability, sophistication of hypotheses, strength of argument, etc etc etc…

In prior courses I’ve laid out complex rubrics with several categories, points, and lots of very specific feedback. The net result was not only that I hated reading blah papers, but now I had tons of blah feedback to provide which tended to overwhelm and demoralize my students more than help.

This semester I’m trying a different tack with my first-year students: Two developmental criteria per paper ONLY, plus an invitation for creativity. The first criteria is to advance the some aspect of their writing’s quality of thought, the second, to advance one aspect of formatting, the third is to save my soul.

Example: My most recent assignment is an early attempt at synthesizing and discussing the work of more than one author. (Preparatory work for eventual literature reviews) PLUS…and remember this part…I don’t want to have my soul crushed trying to read them all. Note the areas where I’m trying to stop them from killing my soul.

Author Synthesis Assignment (see what I did there?)
Cocktail Party Script: (Soul Crush Avoidance Technique)

Imagine you’re at a cocktail party with three prominent scholars who have published research related to your question. (**Questions and sources were developed and vetted these in a prior class.) Write a script that details the conversation you would have with these authors.

Content: Your script must include…
1. Your question and why it is important
2. Each author’s research and insights and how they pertain to your question. NOTE: Accuracy and specificity get higher grades, vagueness and misinterpretation get lower values.
(Writing Development Emphasis)
3. Potential disagreements and agreements between each member in the party—including yourself.
4. Humor or Drama of some kind. (Soul Crush Avoidance Technique)

Formatting: Your script must focus on …
1. Careful attention to citation frequency, format, and accuracy. (choose any style you like but be consistent) (**Format Development Emphasis)

Dazzle me with your concision and creativity! No more than 6 pages. Focus on citation and accuracy. If you’re all freaked out about margins and font size you’re missing the point. 

I’ll post results next week. Wish me LUCK!

Public Health Simulation

This is a guest post from Sarah Fisher, Assistant Professor Politics at Emory & Henry College, written with Roger Yu, PhD Candidate in Biomedical Engineering at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 

Public health crises require coordination between scientists, government officials, and the public. This past summer, we had the opportunity to combine courses on biotechnology (taught by Roger) and international relations (taught by Sarah). We created a simulation to illustrate some of the challenges officials face when dealing with epidemics. Prior to the simulation, students in the biotechnology course learned about viruses and watched 2011 film Contagion. The international relations students focused on state responses to the recent Ebola crisis (some resources included the Stuff You Should Know podcast and discussion of Ebola songs).

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How Do We Know What We Know? Active Learning and the Scientific Method

Positivist epistemology can be the topic of a very boring lecture in an introductory social science or methods course. Fortunately, an activity borrowed from an elementary math class can alleviate the boredom by asking students to identify the sources of their own beliefs about unobservable phenomena and to explore questions about what constitutes an explanation.

The basic outline of this activity, which I use during the second class session of most courses I teach, is that unusual objects are concealed in opaque fabric bags. Small groups of students must attempt to describe and identify the object as thoroughly as possible without opening the bag. A recorder observes the group’s discussion and notes what data points they establish, how they negotiate rival hypotheses, and what threshold or pieces of evidence convinced group members about their findings. The process of investigation, discovery, and persuasion is repeated with several different bags, so that each group gets at least 3 objects. We then discuss what they learned about the objects, and as I reveal each item I link it to concepts in positivist epistemology such as what constitutes sufficient evidence, whether we ever can know for sure without being able to observe things, the role of context in defining the meaning of an observed act, and precision and accuracy in measurement.

This activity has been around for a while; I published it in PS: Political Science and Politics in 2006. Since then, it’s been picked up in history, linguistics, and psychology classes. The article goes through sources, ideas, and materials in more detail than I can here. The objects you use can vary, but I strongly recommend that you keep the two bags with film canisters or other containers (one with cotton balls inside, one without), and the bag with a piece of fabric ribbon. These objects allow you to get at issues of precision, accuracy, unobservability and authority most efficiently.

My own set of objects has evolved, and it shifts from course to course depending on the points I want to emphasize. My methods course, for example, emphasizes the difficulty of doing measurement across time and space. To raise this point, one of the bags includes the cake topper from my wedding – a simple engraved acrylic block intended as an executive award or paperweight. Most groups identify that it’s plastic and engraved and probably a paperweight… but without knowing what the engraving says, its context is completely unknown and the object’s significance is vastly misinterpreted. Out of its original context, our identification – coding – of that object was totally incorrect.

I’ve been using this activity for over a decade now and haven’t made any major improvements or changes to the version described in the PS paper. I strongly encourage you to give it a try: let your students’ own curiosity drive their understanding of how researching unobservables works.

Learning Outside the Box

How do we get our students excited about class material? How can we encourage students to apply class concepts to new and unique situations? One avenue for increasing student motivation and encouraging students to make connections between course material and the “real world” is through co-curricular activities. By co-curricular activities I mean any experiences that happen outside of class but complement the classroom learning experience. In my classes¹ this includes: speakers, on and off campus talks or events, course-related films, and theatrical performances.²

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