If at first you don’t succeed…. try, try again

Over the years, I have tried to incorporate a blog assignment into my Introduction to Comparative Politics class. I think this is the fourth attempt and I might finally be close to a format that works.

The most recent iteration of this assignment, which I did last fall and revised for this semester, centers on the students selecting a country for the entire semester. I have them fill out a preference survey and then assign, to avoid overlap. I call the assignment the Country Expert Project and it involves a couple of components. First, the students write a short reflection paper before they start the blog posts. They are supposed to talk about what they already know about the country (sometimes the answer is “very little”) and why they picked it. This serves as a baseline, because they will also end the project with a reflection on what they learned about their country and what surprised them. Another small assignment at the beginning requires them to read a handful of academic blog posts; we then discuss blogs as a genre and how it is different than a research paper.

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Keeping up with current events in the classroom

How do you include current events in your courses?

I’m teaching Introduction to Comparative Politics this semester and I just can’t keep up with all the relevant current events. Every morning, I scroll through my Twitter feed, full of examples that I can be using in class. My students tend to be very engaged with the news and I want to tap into this excitement by integrating more current events into class, but I just find it overwhelming.

What, in particular, are some of my challenges to integrating current events into a political science course, particularly an introductory course?

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Do you have 2 minutes to improve your teaching? Watch one of these videos.

When I talk to other instructors about using more active learning in their classes, I regularly hear concerns about the time it takes to plan activities.  My number one piece of advice is to liberally borrow ideas from others. And, in fact, one of my favorite things about the active learning community in higher education is how many great ideas are already out there, just ripe for the taking.  

Image description: an illuminated clock in the dark.
Photo by Denilo Vieira on Unsplash

My university had its annual Teaching Day a couple of weeks ago and the keynote speaker was Claire Howell Major.  Among the many other insightful elements of her presentation, she shared a resource that was new to me: the K. Patricia Cross Academy. One of the primary elements of the website is a library of videos presenting teaching techniques.  Each video is short – just 2-3 minutes long – and presents a very practical and concise summary of a teaching technique.  The videos are clearly developed with the busy instructor in mind; each technique is presented with quick tips on how to use it in class. There are currently 39 techniques on the website. Some might be old hat to active learning pros, like the Think-Pair-Share, but there were some ideas that were new to me like the “Update your classmate” writing activity which I plan to use soon. Many of the techniques will be familiar to readers of my favorite book, Student Engagement Techniques (which I’ve already talked about here, here, and here), which isn’t surprising when you see that Elizabeth Barkley and her frequent co-author Claire Howell Major are the instructors behind the project.

In just 2 short minutes, you can find a new idea to engage your students.

Social Capital and M&Ms

Social capital is a “fuzzy” concept but serves as the foundation for some key comparative politics theories that we cover in my Introduction to Comparative Politics course. To help my students get a better grasp of the concept, I borrowed an activity from economics: the ultimatum game.

Briefly, I have the students pair up and distribute a handout to keep track of offers in the game. The students first need to allocate roles: proposer and responder. I tell them that the student whose middle name starts with an earlier letter in the alphabet is the proposer, just to randomize it somewhat. The proposer makes an offer of a division of some resource. Because candy is a (near) universal motivator, I use M&Ms and Skittles (I let the pairs decide which candy to play for, but I like to offer skittles for lactose-free students). I distribute 50 candies per pair and they play 5 rounds; in each round, the proposer makes an offer to split 10 candies. The responder can only accept or reject the offer. If the responder rejects, neither get any (they go back to me). If the responder accepts, then they divide the candy.

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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.