Data Visualization in the Classroom

Today’s post is guest-authored by Alexander Von Hagen-Jamar, a postdoctoral researcher with the STANCE research program, in the  Department of Political Science at Lund University. His research and teaching focus on international relations, international security, state building and capacity, and empirical methodology.

In 2013, I spent two trimesters teaching at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. While there, I had the opportunity to design a course about any subject I wished (within my expertise). I choose to organize the class topically around the consequences of violent political conflict. The other core learning goal was skill-oriented: I wanted to help the students develop applied quantitative literacy in context, and through doing so, encourage them to think deliberately about communication in a variety of mediums. To do that, I designed a series of assignments, centered around a group data visualization assignment. Continue reading

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.

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).

Continue reading