New year, new me. Not

You’ll be happy to know that I have no recommendations to offer this new year, except to say that January is an absolutely awful time to start changing your life.

That’s true for most people, but it’s very much so for academics.

Our year doesn’t run from January, and the past few weeks have been a brief pause in the gallop from semester to semester.

I have my ‘to-do’ list sat in front of my monitors in the office and it’s not a pretty sight. Plus, I notice, it doesn’t even include all the stuff I need to do.

Plus, everyone else is back at work now, so that email inbox is filling up nicely.

So what can we do?

This shouldn’t be cause for getting down though.

In these days, before it really gets going again, there’s still some space to take stock and to look ahead across the coming months.

It’s like standing on a little hillock, looking across the plain and trying not to get too concerned about the marshalling armies preparing for battle on the land you are about to tread.

Key point to remember here is that you’ve made it through the first semester and through the start of the academic year.

Semester two is more of the same, not whole-new-ballgame territory. Plus you probably also get it broken up by Easter. Plus the days are getting longer again.

So keep your chin up and think about what’s been good so far and about how you’ve avoid/manage the bad stuff.

And for that alone, it’s a happy new year.

Mastering Research Proposal Writing: Innovation through the Combination of Traditional Lectures and Active Learning

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Markus Siewert.

Throughout the course of their study, every student has to write a research proposal. In the old days students used to be confronted with this task at the very end when preparing their Bachelor or even Master thesis. The good news is that in the social sciences we have largely moved beyond this state of affairs since the courses that offer guidance on how to craft a research design have become standard in almost every curriculum.

Yet, everyone who teaches introduction to research design or project-based courses – like I do on a frequent basis – knows that helping students to master drafting a coherent research proposal can be a real challenge. In her chapter ‘Design Your Own Flying Carpet’: Helping Students to Master Research Proposal Writing, Ivana Rapošová, based at Masaryk University, presents an innovative design for a course session whose main goal is to meet this end through the fruitful blend of brief lectures and student-led activities.

The core objective of the session is to guide students step-by-step through the process of coming up with a road map for their research. The session starts with a brainstorming of potential research ideas and blind spots followed by a short debriefing and peer-to-peer feedback.

Based on this, key guidelines for drafting a research proposal are introduced focusing on aspects like formulating an appropriate research question, justifying the research, deriving a suitable research strategy, embedding the research question in the context of the state-of-the-art, etc. At each step, students are presented with small tasks allowing them to put the abstract rules into practice straightaway and to revise their research design along this way.

The chapter moreover offers empirically-grounded reflection on the achieved learning outcomes, both from the perspective of the students and the course instructors. Although the evaluation lacks robustness due to the small number of observations, Rapošová convincingly discusses the added value and potential benefit of her innovative design. Here, a valuable avenue for future research would be to test the effects of an active learning design against traditional frontal teaching in a quasi-experimental setting.

In sum, Rapošová’s chapter is a stimulating read on a topic of utmost importance for us as researchers and teachers as well as for our students. I, for my part,will definitely implement this approach in one of my next classes.

Enhancing Student Participation


This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Sarah Holz.

As a teacher who aspires to student-centered learning, increasing student class participation and involvement in seminars is a central concern for me. Reading Michal Tkaczyk’s book chapter offered some insightful and thought provoking ideas for me because the chapter addresses the question in how far enhanced student participation, interest in the subject matter, and the acquisition of key concepts are linked.

In his chapter, which is part of the newly released online book Early Career Academics’ Reflections on Learning to Teach in Central Europe edited by Gabriela Pleschová and Agnes Simon, Michal Tkaczyk offers insights into the findings from a teaching innovation introduced in a seminar on semiotic analysis of media contents. The innovation aimed at (1) improving student knowledge-acquisition, (2) enhancing their skills to apply key concepts of semiotic analysis and (3) promoting student participation.

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Mixing media

On set of my latest lecture capture…

Having given up on the blindfolds, I’ve now moved to some less radical activities in my class this semester.

Part of that includes making more use of media in sessions.

Video

A big part of that took place before we started teaching, when I recorded some more videos to upload to our virtual learning environment.

This is Flipping 101: giving a lecture online, then using class contact time for more interactive activities. Given that I’m teaching negotiation, that seems particularly sensible and I’ve been doing that for some years now, but this time around I’ve embraced it more fully.

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This year’s novelty

Come on, live a little

One of the things I like most about having an interest in learning and teaching is that it never stands still; there’s always another angle to explore.

Moreover, those angles aren’t always ones I know much about, so it’s an opportunity for me to broaden my knowledge and experience in ways that I might not even have thought possible.

For that reason, I often sign up for pilots and trials at work, because maybe it’ll prove useful.

(not always though: I once had an unhappy few weeks with an interactive whiteboard, about which I’ll say no more)

With all this in mind, this year I’m going to be trying out a tool for writing exams on laptops in exams.

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In the deep midwinter

So, we’re striking here in the UK.

Obviously, it’s not the weather for it, but that’s not really the point. Instead, the scale of the changes being proposed by universities to the national pension scheme calls for a strong response.

Part of that response is education. I’ve now been part of several discussions with people who didn’t realise that striking means not getting paid, for example.

One key group to involve in this education is students. My department, as well as many others I’m aware of, has organised meetings prior to the strike action, to allow students to ask whatever questions they might have.

Just to make the point, this matters for several reasons.

Firstly, students are the group most affected by strikes: their growing weight in universities’ calculations (through student satisfaction surveys and consumerisation of education, it must be noted) mean that it through disruption of classes that the staff union sees the most effective leverage.

Secondly, students are part of the university community. Even if they weren’t directly affected, they work in symbiosis with staff, so it’s important they can feel they understand what’s going on. With universities focusing on messages solely on the efforts to minimise disruption of classes, there’s a communication gap that deserves to be filled.

And thirdly, one of the key messages of higher education is surely that we never stop learning.

Casting my mind back a few years, our department was threatened with extensive cutbacks, as part of an organisational review. You, the academic community, done sterling work in giving support in opposing this, but just as important was the role our students played. The thoughtfulness and informed nature of their interventions proved not only very helpful in the specific instance, but also in giving them a learning moment. We still see the echoes of that with those students still with us.

And so it is here. Our meetings with students have been marked by them talking through the issues themselves, rather than just taking what we say.

Our students don’t all agree a common line on the strike, and that’s fine, because we now feel much more confident that they are discussing from a position of reflection and understanding.

Civics doesn’t have the same kind of tradition it does in the US, but moments like these should remind us that we are all part of a society and of a polity: if we don’t act, then others will act for (or on) us.

It should also make us think about the conditions under which cooperation makes more sense than competition: that alone is more than enough for a day on the picket line.

UPDATE – Here’s a piece that captures much better these points.

Beyond the mountains

As part of the various discussions on learning & teaching at UACES last week, we held a roundtable on the INOTLES project that I’ve been involved with for the past few years.

We were talking about the difficulties of designing pedagogic materials for use by others, and I gave the example of the photo above.

It’s from my summer holiday in Croatia (yes, we had a lovely time, thank you for asking).

Most days, we would sit on the beach, swim a bit, read a bit, generally laze about. But I would also find myself asking what was on the other side of the mountains that I could see.

At one level, I know exactly what’s there. I have a map, guidebooks; I’ve even possibly spent some time on Google Earth, flying over the terrain.

But at another level, I have no real idea what it’s like. I’ve never visited (having found that the beach was a perfectly lovely spot); I’ve never even talked to someone who has been over the mountains.

And that’s rather the situation I find with designing materials for others to use.

I feel I had a good grasp of what’s important in any given pedagogic method, the core elements that must be present for it to work, and I feel confident that I can communicate that to others.

But I also know that without actually experiencing the situation of the end-user, it’s very hard to make something that is very useful (rather than just functioning), because there are a wide variety of factors that come into play.

To come back to the INOTLES project, one of the big challenges was re-adjusting my understanding of the situation of our partners in Eastern Europe. While I was worrying initially about aligning assessment with game-play in simulations, they were worrying about a lack of furniture in their classrooms.

Problematically, this is not an easy situation to resolve. When we create materials for sharing, we always do with a number of assumptions that are more or less implicit. Even if we could list all those assumptions, it’s not immediately obvious how they might impact on pedagogy (the presence/absence of furniture might be a good example).

Perhaps the best we can do is be alive to this issue and to be open to discussion with end-users about how they see things and what adjustments might be suitable. In short, talking with each other might be the way forward, to take us to the edge of the mountains.

Designing curricula when you have a blank sheet of paper

Opportunity, or bear-trap?

One of the more challenging challenges in my professional life has been curriculum design. I’m currently on my fifth major project, effectively designing an entire programme from scratch.

For those of you from countries/institutions when you don’t get to handle such things, I offer you a mixed greeting. On the one hand, you’re missing an amazing opportunity to contextualise your teaching within a much bigger picture. On the other, it’s a massive pain in the neck to do.

Here in the UK, we have prescribed degree structures: universities validate a package of modules/courses, which together make a named degree. There are options (some of which might come from other degrees), but there’s almost no mixing-and-matching by students to build a major, in the American style. It’s good in that it provides clearer progress and development (plus shorter time-to-completion), but at the price of the limited options for intellectually-curious (or uncertain) students.

Usually, this is a task undertaken by a team from the lead department, but in my case that’s only happened the first two times. All the rest have been for degrees that the university didn’t offer beforehand,  which opens up a whole new can of worms. Continue reading

Follow up on Model Diplomacy

A while back I put out a plea for new simulations for my Introduction to International Politics class. I asked specifically about the Council on Foreign Relations’ Model Diplomacy simulations and got some useful feedback (on that and others). In case others are interested, I figured I’d post a follow up.

I decided to structure my course around two sets of simulations. First, I planned on a series of four different one-day Model Diplomacy simulations, at key times during the term. I replaced my group debate assignment with these. Since I centered the group debate assignment around current events as a way of applying course material to a contemporary question, the Model Diplomacy simulations were a reasonable replacement since they, too, focus on a current event. Continue reading

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.