Using flipped classrooms when teaching research methods. Great, but how to prepare as an instructor?

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 Johan Adriaensen.

When teaching writing skills, our objective is not to have students explain what a good paper looks like, we want them to write a good one. Similarly, through our methodological courses, we hope students not only understand the logic of a research method, but that they can apply it in practice.

This need for practical application inevitably pushes us towards active learning pedagogies. One way to achieve this is through a flipped classroom model. This requires students to learn the essentials of theory at home so that contact hours can be devoted to practical applications and discussion. This enables the instructor to provide support where it is most needed. As a result, student engagement with the material is stimulated through learning by doing.

In her chapter, Kateřina Fridrichová elaborates on her experiences while applying this method in an elective course on research methods for Master’s students of international relations at Masaryk University in Brno. As I was familiar with the potential of flipped classrooms in teaching research methods through the work of Michael Touchton, I formulated myself a set of questions on the practice of teaching in a flipped classroom as opposed to their effects on students (which are also analysed in the chapter).

Firstly, I wonder how to best facilitate the learning process during students’ self-study? Fridrichová referred to the use of general readings and short explanatory videos. To ensure the students get prepared in advance, she requested summaries of the readings from students. Unfortunately, despite an elaborate assessment of student and teacher experiences, we learn little about the need, perception or effectiveness of pre-recorded lectures and/or the short explanatory videos used by Fridrichová (and how to determine which topics merit such support).

Second, I ask myself how to organize the in-class sessions so as to improve learning?  As common in flipped teaching, there was still scope for ‘mini-lectures’ in her class to address issues requiring further explanation. These were then followed by various practical applications and exercises. I particularly liked the idea of working with data collected from the students. The exercises were diverse, well-designed and also appropriate for a method as QCA which is commonly applied to small and medium-N.

Thirdly, I remain puzzled about the implications in terms of preparation and workload for the instructor. Fridrichová’s honest and open reflection highlight the importance of preparation for the class sessions and in particular how to cope with small class sizes. The shift from traditional teaching practices to a student-led, active teaching format often necessitates a different type of preparation to keep the class engaged. In her case, the small group of students (4) further complicated this challenge. 

While the initial time-investment seemed to be significant, the rewards seem more than worth the effort. The impacts on her students were diverse ranging from greater confidence in applying the method, greater engagement during class, the scope for peer-learning and an appreciation of applying the theory in practice. Having read the chapter, my interest in flipped teaching has only increased.

The links between teaching and impact

Yesterday I found myself on the campus of another university, attending an advisory board of a research project.

One of the key topics was about impact – taking the work into the community of users.

As we talked about this, I was struck by the way in which there are a lot of parallels between this and teaching.

Most importantly, both impact and teaching need to be focused on the needs of your audience from the outset: it cannot simply be a function of what you want to do.

That means understanding your audiences, reflecting on their needs and tailoring what you have to offer. It’s easy to do the most convenient thing, but that might not be the most useful thing you can do.

Secondly, there has to be a recognition that there is more than one way to skin the proverbial cat and that your choice of activity is not pre-determined.

This implies a willingness to explore options and to try out new things that might work better. In the case of this project, we talked a lot about blogging and the options it might open, both in of itself and as a gateway to other activity, but the principle is the same for any other form of working.

Finally, there needs to be a tolerance of failure. Just as not every single student responds positively to our teaching, so not every person targeted for impact work demonstrates interest.

Failing in these cases obviously requires adjustment and different approaches, but it is not intrinsically a problem: there are always limits to what we can achieve in working with others. What matters is our response and adaptation.

Seen together, both teaching and impact work should remind us that we operate in collective environments: we alone cannot – and should not – take everything on our own shoulders, but rather rather need to work with others to find common cause.

Comparative Politics 2019, Part 2

In addition to creating new writing prompts for my comparative politics course this year, I have re-arranged the order in which students encounter different topics. Last year’s version of the course was sequenced as follows:

  • Methods
  • Theory
  • State and Nation
  • Democracy
  • Authoritarianism
  • Political Transitions
  • Political Economy
  • Resistance, Rebellion, and Revolution
  • Gerhkania simulation

This time around the sequence is:

  • Theory
  • Nation and State
  • Democracy
  • Methods
  • Authoritarianism
  • Political Transitions
  • Resistance, Rebellion, and Revolution
  • Political Economy
  • Gerkhania simulation

Why the change? Last year I found myself explicating about research methods used in comparative politics before students had any significant exposure to what actually gets compared. Instead of encountering puzzling real-world situations that might have excited their curiosity, they had to fixate on the mechanics of doing a most similar systems design or a qualitative comparative analysis.

This year these assignments won’t begin until the second third of the semester. I won’t have to rush through my material on methods, and I will have more opportunities in class to ask students “What kind of research design might allow us to compare these cases in a way that allows us satisfactorily answer the question?”  

Teaching and the day job

Today’s one of the biggest in British politics and UK-EU relations for a long time (and given recent history, that’s a pretty high bar), and I’ve got lots to be doing on that.

But I’m writing this blog.

At the end of the week, I’m putting in my paperwork for promotion, where I know that I’m going to be judged primarily on my ‘proper research’ outputs.

But I’ve spent a week putting together L&T panels for conferences.

I’ve got a draft paper on Brexit that needs me to sit down and do some more work on it, to get it closer to submission.

But I also need to do some reading for the supervision of my doctoral student, working on pedagogy.

Why?

Victor put it nicely here: L&T scholarship matters, whether or not others realise it.

On my (purely anecdotal) evidence, I have given a lot more people direct help and advice on L&T than on anything else I’ve done, and through the wonder of teaching, that has shaped a stack of lives.

So even when there’s a lot of other stuff to be getting on with, don’t not get on with this too.

Comparative Politics 2019, Part 1

In line with the first and third bullet points in my post last year about teaching comparative politics, I’ve tried to make the relationships between course learning objectives, readings, and writing assignments more transparent to students. I’ve done this in part by making writing prompts refer more explicitly to what I want students to learn. For example, here is last year’s assignment about Venezuela, which I placed in the section of the course about democracy:

Read:

  • Scott Mainwaring and Timothy R. Scully, “Latin America: Eight Lessons for Governance,” Journal of Democracy 19, 3 (July 2008): 113-127.
  • Uri Friedman, “How Populism Helped Wreck Venezuela,” The Atlantic, 4 Jun 2017.
  • Moisés Naím and Francisco Toro, “Venezuela Is Falling Apart,” The Atlantic, 12 May 2016.
  • Juan Cristobal Nagel, “Venezuela’s Constitutional Crisis,” Caracas Chronicles, 12 January 2016.
  • Meridith Kohut and Isayen Herrera, As Venezuela Collapses, Children Are Dying of Hunger,” The New York Times, 17 December 2017.

Of Mainwaring and Scully’s eight lessons, which is most relevant for Venezuela? Why?

Answering the above question requires reading the Journal of Democracy article, which is good. Yet the question also demands that students apply a general framework to a specific context that is totally unfamiliar to them. A few newspaper and magazine articles aren’t enough to give students a clear sense of what is happening in Venezuela’s political system. The end result is a badly-constructed rhetorical situation likely to generate answers that aren’t relevant to the learning objectives behind the assignment.

Here is the 2019 version of the assignment, which I have placed in the section of the course on political protest:

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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.

The Difference Between Good and Bad?

One last post about teaching my redesigned course on development last semester:

Is the ability to follow directions what distinguishes the excellent from the average student?

Writing assignments in my courses require students to synthesize information from a variety of source material into a single, cohesive argument. Exams are no different. My instructions for the final exam included “refer to relevant course readings” and “see the rubric below for guidance on how your work will be evaluated.” The rubric contained the criterion “use of a variety of relevant course readings.”

I assumed that these statements would translate in students’ minds as “my exam grade will suffer tremendously if I don’t reference any of the course readings.” Yet nine of the fifteen students who took the exam did not use any readings, despite having written about them earlier in the semester. Four others only referred to a single reading. Only two students incorporated information from several different readings.  

Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think I’m at fault here.



Life Planning

For most academics, the gears of course planning grind exceedingly fine. We tinker with projects, lectures, and assignments, trying to create what we imagine as the ideal learning experience. But that’s frequently not what we do outside of the classroom.

The winter holiday break is a good time to take stock of one’s life and position oneself better for the future. Although it’s never too late, the sooner you begin taking charge of your personal affairs, the better. So, some basics:

I ask these questions because, if your experience has been anything like mine, you didn’t get trained in personal financial management while in graduate school, and you probably haven’t utilized whatever training might be available through your employer.  

Happy Holidays 2018

Last month I wrote about the multi-year death spiral at Iowa Wesleyan University. My 2017 column for Inside Higher Ed discussed four broad signs that a small college or university is headed toward failure. But how can a faculty member employed by a tuition-dependent institution like Iowa Wesleyan get a firmer grip on his or her employer’s financial health?

One way to do this is to calculate the percentage change over time in a school’s annual total expenses per full-time equivalent (FTE) undergraduate. The larger the expansion in expenses per student, the worse the school’s financial condition and the lower the chances of its long-term survival. 

Is this measurement the only sign of serious trouble? No, but it’s a good rule of thumb that is simple to calculate. Enrollment data can be obtained from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Not-for-profit colleges and universities report their operational expenses on Line 18 of IRS Form 990, which are available from organizations like ProPublica or Charity Navigator.

I decided apply this rule of thumb to several colleges and universities that suffered declining enrollment, eliminated academic programs, or were otherwise reported as in financial difficulty.  My analysis uses data from fiscal years 2011 through 2016. Why use this time span? Prior to FY 2011, colleges and universities were trying to cope with the immediate effects of the Great Recession, which, as I have previously argued, accelerated what are probably near-permanent changes in undergraduate enrollment. It seemed fair to give schools six years after the economy had begun to stabilize to adjust to the new normal. Finally, when I began my analysis, the most recent publicly-available federal tax filings were from FY 2016.

Below are my results, ordered from the smallest increase in expenses per FTE undergraduate to the largest. I bear none of these schools any ill will. Many have histories of serving marginalized populations. But I predict that at least half of them will close within the next five years. 

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Dib, dib, dib

I promise to not panic

I’m on a train, heading into London, where I’ve got a meeting.

I’m not planning to do any teaching today, nor even to give a presentation or a briefing.

And yet, on a quick check through my bag, I’ve got the following on me:

  • My laptop, including the power cord and the adaptor for connecting to output devices;
  • My voice recorder, should I want to record a podcast;
  • My workbook, where I keep notes on what I’m doing;
  • Post-it notes; and,
  • Board marker pens

In short, I’m ready and poised to do a whole bunch of teaching-type activity.

Partly, this is because I hate re-packing my bag each time I leave the house, but much more it’s because I’ve found myself in situations too often when I don’t have the things I would like to have on me.

I do wonder if this is because I’ve had my professional development during a period of rapid technological change, when resilience really mattered.

When I started out, it was all acetates and overhead projectors, unless they were broken, in which case it was the blackboard.

And then data projectors arrived, if you could get the computer booked out and then get it to connect to the projector.

I spent several years working with a dual system: a computer with powerpoints and a bag full of acetate (plus some chalk, just in case, because, well, I’m me).

(and yes, I do still have those acetates filed away, somewhere in my office)

Nowadays, even though I’ve not had a tech problem for several years, I still try to be prepared should one occur. In fact, the last time it did happen, I was giving a keynote at a conference, and I just had to wing my talk without my slides for the first half: unpleasant, but not fatal.

The message here is that your teaching can be delivered in more than one way, but to make that possible, you need to be ready and able to use those different ways when needed.

If you don’t want to learn by bitter practical experience (ahem), then I offer this technique: sit down and consider what you do and what could go wrong. That might include technology problems, or problems with the room you’re in, or too many/few people turning up, or not having the time you thought you did, or any of that.

Now think about what you can do about it.

In pretty much every case, there’s plenty you can do, adaptations you can make. I’ve not yet had a class that had one of these problems that I could get something useful out of, from the time only one person turned up to the time when none of the lights worked. Or the time my train got really delayed (like now).

And before you worry too much, just remember that most of the time things work just fine.

And that’ll be in part because you’re ready for anything.