What Do Students See?

What do you conclude about the organization of this course, specifically the quizzes, based on the image below — part of the homepage for the course website?

The document containing the course syllabus is formatted in a similar manner.

To me, the course obviously contains a series of topical units, each ending with a quiz that tests knowledge of that unit.

Given the number of students who are emailing me questions like “What will Quiz X cover?”, it’s not so obvious to many of them. Apparently students don’t know how to read a syllabus, even when they do read it.

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.

You don’t wanna do it like that

A quick check through the vellum parchments indicates that I’m now teaching second-year undergraduates for the first time in nearly a decade.

It turns out they are like any other group of students, albeit with the relatively fresh memory of taking my flipped module last semester.

More interestingly, I’m also teaching my first new module in a similarly long time: on European integration and disintegration.

This has posed two immediate challenges.

Firstly, that first year module was an introduction to the European Union, so how do I differentiate the two for my students?

Secondly, deliver the module at all?

My answer has been to work with what I’ve got. And what I’ve got are many of the raw materials that the previous instructor on the module very kindly left me (thank you, Roberta).

Rather than try to build up a module from scratch, I’m going to follow the existing model relatively closely this time around.

Partly that’s expediency but much more it’s because it’s not the way I would have tackled the subject.

If that sounds odd, then consider that much of the module deals with critical perspectives on the subject matter and I want students to see that I am tackling what might be nominally the same material in a fundamentally different way.

Yes, I could have wheeled out a bunch of classes that were essentially ‘more of the same’ as last semester, but I very much don’t want to do that.

Moreover, because it’s not my structure or activities, it forces me to engage more fully with the material, because I have to be confident enough to be able to help students learn it.

Again, the irony is that it’s exactly because I wouldn’t teach this way normally that I want to teach this way: I will learn something from the experience, both substantively and pedagogically.

As I seem to be saying to a lot of people recently, I have no monopoly on good practice, and there is always something new to be learnt.

Quite how that plays out remains to be seen.

Does A River Really Run Through It?

Do students experience the curriculum in the manner intended? Probably not. The curriculum in the department that I just finished chairing includes a sequence of courses common to all three of the department’s majors — one course each at the 200-, 300-, and 400-level. All students are supposed to take the 200-level research methods course when they begin their respective majors, in part to identify a topic of interest before doing a semester of study abroad, an internship, or some other field experience in the junior year where the topic is researched. The 400-level course is the senior capstone, where they are supposed to compile the findings of the work they’ve already done and generate a finished report.

The reality? A fair number of seniors start the capstone not having previously selected a topic. They then have a single semester to identify their topic, design and complete the necessary research, and write about it — a situation that promotes a less than ideal final product.

The obvious solution to the problem would be to devote the 200-level course to having each student create their own research design, begin the data collection and analysis in the 300-level course, and tie everything up in a nice little bow in the capstone.

But there are complications. Each of these three courses is taught by a different instructor. Sometimes students don’t take the 300-level course until the senior year. And the university’s general education requirements — a distribution model — reinforce the preconception held by students that knowledge exists in discrete boxes and that courses have little or no connection to each other. While some of this could be prevented by imposing hard prerequisites, such a system would exclude many of the students who enter the department because they’ve changed major or added a double major. Given the small size of these academic programs, we want to encourage, not discourage, enrollment.

Assume absolutely nothing

Perhaps my most reliable observation to date on negotiations and teaching negotiations is that time matters.

Furniture on castors, so it must be active learning…

You give students (or negotiators) a deadline and it has huge impacts on their activity: most obviously, it creates an ever-increasing social pressure to ‘reach an agreement’.*

That’s why it was really good to have spent this past weekend being shown that this is simply an arbitrary way of behaving.

I was running a workshop for faculty at the American University in Cairo, as a guest of their Department of Political Science (and supporting by funding AUC recieved from APSA), talking about active learning and simulations.

A big part of what I tried to do was to let colleagues try out activities first-hand, so they could really see the potential that each of them contained for their own teaching.

One of my activities was a crisis game: it gives not enough time to try and reach a conclusion, with (what I would consider) inevitable effects of the kind outlined above.

This time? Nothing. Zip. Diddly. Squat. Nada.

Every other time, there has been at least one person keeping an eye on the time, either from the off or mid-way through as they recall I’ll not letting them go on forever.

In the AUC case, not only was there was there precisely no acknowledgement of the passing of time, but even when I let them run on for an extra 5 minutes, there was still nothing.

We talked about this.

Largely, we talked about cultural norms. The group was almost entirely Egyptian, but with plenty of experience of living and working in Europe and the US. They suggested that time is treated much more flexibly (certainly, I was not really following my timeline for the rest of the workshop), so its constraining power is that much weaker.

For my part, I noted that failing to decide by a deadline is also a decision, in the sense of creating choices with consequences, so they and their students might reflect on how that plays out.

But still the main takeaway for me was that you really, really can’t assume anything when you teach, because it might turn out your assumption isn’t held by everyone.

To pick another example, what might seem fun or unremarkable to you might feel uncomfortable to others: consider the times you’ve encountered someone with a different of personal space to your own.

Of course, all of this is a valuable learning moment: it invites us to consider what else we might be simply assuming about the world and about others. For political science, that’s a crucial insight because of the profound differences in the fundaments of individuals’ worldviews, which generates political interaction and events.

Something for me to take some time to think about.

* – Yes, I know that’s not what good practice suggests you should do (you should instead by working out whether what you can achieve within a negotiation is better than what you can outside it). But it’s what people very, very often do anyway.

Storytelling with GIS

Another example of why it’s good to consult with librarians:

For the last several years in my globalization course, I’ve had student teams create and deliver presentations on their commodity chain analyses and ethnographies of consumption. Generally students build Powerpoint files for these assignments; occasionally someone uses Prezi. Simple rubrics make grading this work very easy. But the end products aren’t going to make recent graduates stand out from the competition when interviewing with prospective employers. It’s also difficult to convey the content of the entire project in a single presentation without showing a mind-numbing number of slides. Enter the storymap . . .

One of our librarians, a specialist in digital scholarship whom I’ll be working with next semester, introduced me to the digital storytelling tool from Esri,* a.k.a. the Environmental Systems Research Institute, which allows a person to create a multi-media presentation with ArcGIS. Rather than describe what this looks like, I’ll show you:

My task now is to reconfigure the project’s different assignments so that students complete their own storymaps by the end of the course, and figure out how to evaluate them.

*I have no financial interest in this company.

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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Attend to this…

Like the devoted parent that I am, I went to a parents’ evening at my kids’ school last week, to make sure I was up-to-speed with things.

Among the other messages, there was one that got a lot of air-time. We were told several times that even a short absence could have a detrimental effect on academic performance, so parents and children alike needed to do everything they could to get in.

Apples don’t work either…

Now, it might be helpful to note that one of my children missed about a third of last school year, due to illness, so I have skin in this game.

Plus, during those absences, the school didn’t make a big thing about that detrimental effect, so I went to do some checking.

This goes back to research done for the government in 2015, which was press-released as:

Even short breaks from school can reduce a pupil’s chances of succeeding at school by as much as a quarter, research reveals today (22 February 2015).

The research, based on extensive pupil absence figures and both GCSE and primary school test results, highlights the importance of clamping down on pupil absence to ensure more pupils regularly attend school, and ultimately leave with the qualifications needed to succeed in modern Britain.

It shows 44% of pupils with no absence in key stage 4 (normally aged 16) achieve the English Baccalaureate – the gold standard package of GCSE qualifications that includes English, maths, science, history or geography and a language – opening doors to their future. But this figure falls by a quarter to just 31.7% for pupils who miss just 14 days of lessons over the 2 years that pupils study for their GCSEs, which equates to around 1 week per year, and to 16.4% for those who miss up to 28 days.

Let’s leave aside the dubious stat in the opening paragraph and consider why a school head reading this might feel that this proved attendance was essential.

Then read this from an education studies Professor, who points out attendance and performance are correlated, but likely not causally, with other factors such as more generic life-chances.

Now, I’m clearly going to want to hear what the academic says, because it gives me more hope that my child’s education won’t suffer too much, but it does raise a bigger issue for us in higher education: do students need to come to class?

My usual response to this has been a utilitarian one: classes are the easiest way to access the material and reflective space needed to do well in assessment, so if you’re lacking motivation, this is the least-cost option.

That’s not really a rally cry though, is it?

Instead we need to think about how we can make contact time a positive and enthusiastic option. If we can get students to want to attend, rather than simply feel they have to, then we’re likely to get better engagement, and thus learning.

At the same time, we need to be making sure that we help with incentives.

So for my course on negotiation, the assessment is reflective writing about the experiences the student has had in class, as contextualised by wider reading: hard (i.e. impossible) to do if you’ve not been in class (although I have had a couple of students try (and fail)).

The challenge comes in having to acknowledge that students have individual ways of learning, which may or may not fit with others’: I’ve seen several excellent pieces of assessment over the years from students who have been very largely absent from class.

That’s fine, although it does raise a question of whether other students suffer from not having that person in the class to stretch or challenge them. But if that’s not a learning objective, then it’s not a learning objective.

At the end of the day, this comes down to making sure we are clear about what we, as educators, want to achieve with our students. Once we have that, then we can think more about structuring incentives to engage, which then in turn might produce environments conducive to attendance.

But to start at the other end of that chain isn’t going to solve things by itself.

SIFTing for the Facts

The Winnowers, 1855, Gustave Courbet

Anyone interested in teaching students how fact check claims should visit the Check, Please! starter course. Check, Please! is a free training course in how to use the SIFT method to evaluate the accuracy of online information:

  • Stop.
  • Investigate the source.
  • Find trusted coverage.
  • Trace claims, quotes, and media back to the original context.

Check, Please! was created by the company Notion (which I have no financial interest in) but as stated on the website’s homepage, the content is intended for reuse and revision.

Study: Students feel they learn more from lecture…but don’t.

Everyone should check out this important study by Deslauriers et al, published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and currently open access. It outlines an experiment at Harvard that tested direct learning in an introductory physics class compared to indirect reports of learning. The takeaway is that students reported they learned more during the lecture—but performed better on quizzes taken following active learning sessions. This has tremendous implications for how we do active learning research–and shows the dangers of relying on student reports of how they learn.

In the experiment, students attended 11 weeks of the introductory course together, and then in the 12th week were randomly assigned to two groups–one with an instructor giving a compelling lecture, and the other with a instructor running a session using active learning techniques. The instructors were both well versed in active learning approaches and had experience in giving great lectures. Students took a survey afterward reporting on their learning along with a 12 question quiz on the material (created by a different instructor to prevent teaching to the test). In the following session the instructors changed their method, so each set of students experienced both a lecture session and an active learning session. The material in the lecture and active learning sessions was identical, as was the handout. In the lecture, the instructor worked through slides based on the handout and solved problems with students passively observing and filling in the answers, while in the active learning session students worked in small groups to solve the same set of problems with the instructor offering assistance as needed. As the authors say “students in both groups received the exact same information from the handouts and the instructor, and only active engagement with the material was toggled on and off” (2).

Students reported greater frustration with the more disjointed nature of the active learning exercise, and thought they learned better from the flow of the lectures, but the researchers found that students performed better on the quiz instrument on the material in their active learning sessions.

We’ve often noted when reviewing research on active learning techniques that indirect measures of learning–that is, student reports on their learning–are not ideal, but this study shows us one of the dangers of relying on such instruments. Less than stellar support by students can derail efforts to increase active learning in a particular institution. We need to be more cautious, then, in how we examine and evaluate evidence that supports–or opposes–the use of active learning in the classroom.