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.
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.
Today I’m attending ISA’s inaugural Innovative Pedagogy Conference in St. Louis. Victor and I are doing a workshop on using games and simulations to teach political violence, showcasing activities like Survive or Die!, Prisoner’s Dilemma, Model Diplomacy, identity exercise, and others. But I’m most interested in reflecting on the session offered by Matthew Krain and Kent Kille of the College of Wooster on Assessment and Effectiveness in Active Teaching in International Studies. Their framework for formative assessment (that can, in fact, be transformative) is very helpful as an overall approach to teaching.
I’m doing some training on negotiation in Belgium this week, building on what the organisers imagine is my expertise in this subject and Brexit.
Of course, when I said ‘yes’ to the offer six months ago, I had to hedge against making too many promises that reality might break all too obviously.
What I’d not banked on was finding myself just a day or two beforehand still not being sure what might happen by the time I found myself in front of the group.
With that in mind, I made a little negotiation exercise that tackles Brexit, but at a distance, to protect against the vagueries of it all. The text of the scenario is below and you’re welcome to comment on, and use, it as you see fit.
Back in July I wrote about a new writing assignment that I would be inserting into the undergraduate course that I’m now teaching. As is my standard practice, the directions for the assignment included a statement that students should refer to the rubric accompanying the assignment for an indication of how their work would be evaluated. I also instructed students to write about some of the concepts discussed by Tomer Perry in his series on best practices in game design (I put links to the relevant blog posts in the assignment directions).
Here is my mistake: the rubric did not have any criteria specific to the game design principles that students were supposed to address. When grading students’ essays, I didn’t think it was fair of me to penalize them for not writing about something that I had failed to include in the rubric. This was a reminder of a lesson I have learned repeatedly over the years but occasionally forget.
The 2018 midterm elections are over in the US, and it was a night of mixed results. The Democratic Party took control of the House of Representatives, winning at least 27 seats previously held by the Republican Party, while the GOP increased their majority in the Senate, toppling North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and my own state of Missouri’s Claire McCaskill.
While clearly not as momentous an election as 2016, or the Brexit referendum, or many other elections, the midterms were still an important point to take stock of the impact of Trumpism on American politics, and whether Democrats who were somewhat over-confident in the fall of 2016 could manage to overcome pro-Trump sentiment, a strong economy, congressional district gerrymandering, voter suppression efforts, and the other structural reasons why succeeding at the polls can be difficult.
Teaching the results of American elections is a frustrating enterprise.
After last week’s class discussion about participation, I decided to run an exercise that made it really easy to show the marginal benefit of preparation.
I told students to prepare for a meeting about putting together an agenda for another negotiation, and gave them all specific roles, plus some rules of procedure.
(For those who are looking for Brexit sims, this was a Council working group, putting together an agenda for the Commission to take to the UK to discuss the Political Declaration).
Because it was about formulating an agenda, I hoped that students would see they didn’t need to get too deeply into substantive positions, as long as they could frame the general areas to be covered.
Plus, but giving clear roles and rules, I incentivised everyone to push out their own draft agendas prior to the meeting. In so doing, I hoped they’d see that even a small amount of preparation could have big effects.
As promised in my last post, here are the results of the survey of students’ study habits in my course on economic development. Sixteen of seventeen students in the class completed the survey (after repeated reminders); a good response rate although not statistically-significant sample.
When in class, I . . .
write notes on a laptop: 25%.
write notes on paper by hand: 75%.
do not write notes: 0%.
For quizzes, I usually prepare by (choose all that apply):
re-reading assigned articles and book chapters: 18.8%.
reviewing notes taken during class: 100%.
reviewing notes taken when I read assigned texts the first time: 12.5%.
doing nothing: 0%.
While I was pleasantly surprised at the number of students who said they take notes — especially handwritten ones — in class, I told the class that highlighting or underlining is an unproductive study technique. It doesn’t engage the motor and language areas of the brain like writing does. Also, when reviewing prior to a quiz or exam, often one has no memory of why one marked a sentence in a text as important. Whether students will heed my advice, I don’t know.
I had two unexpected moments in the last week completely outside of the classroom that led to (or will, in the future lead to) great teaching moments.
Last week I was recording a script I’d written in a studio, for a project I’ve been working on for two years. In the lecture I was reviewing cross tabulation tables, and the example I had looked at 2016 presidential vote choice and gender. Unbeknownst to me, someone in the control room changed the text on the teleprompter so that every time I used the words ‘man’ or ‘women’ they used ‘male’ and ‘female’. Rather than stop the recording, I just started changing the words back as I spoke, which led to some awkwardness (man-Clinton voter does not roll off the tongue the same as ‘male Clinton voter’). Finally the folks in the control group stopped me, and I explained that the original text used man and woman deliberately, and that changing it without speaking to me was an issue. I was talking about gender, not sex, and I wanted it to stay consistent. This paused the recording for a few minutes, and during the lull I explained to the camera operators why this was important enough to stop for. We had a really nice conversation on the difference between sex and gender, and this turned into what we sometimes call ‘teachable moments’. Script corrected, I continued recording.
The second moment was completely different. Today I had jury duty. For those of you outside the US, this is when we get called to the courthouse to sit and wait until you are called into jury selection for a trial. Sometimes you just sit in the waiting area for a day or two and are dismissed; other times you get put on a case right away, and spend the next day or two answering questions from the attorneys while they pick and choose who to put on the jury itself. Sometimes they case will settle or be dismissed while jury selection is going on
I don’t mind jury duty. Its one of the only things asked of me as a citizen, and I do see it as a civic duty. Since I teach American politics, I’d like to have the experience of actually serving on a jury, but that has yet to happen, and many of my legal friends indicate it’s unlikely to ever happen. Since I already had guest lecturers lined up this week for my daytime class, I didn’t request a postponement, and headed downtown this morning to serve.
Walking into the building, right after I passed through security, a police officer noted that I was carrying a heavy bag, and I stopped and chatted with him for awhile. It turned out this was the sheriff himself, and he used to be a public school teacher in his early career. Soon we were exchanging business cards, and he agreed to come talk to my students during our lesson on the judiciary next semester. Did I teach him anything in our short conversation this morning? No. But I’ll be able to create a great teachable moment for my students in a few months, all because I stopped to chat with someone rather than doing what I normally do, which is plug in my headphones and hurry on my way. I’m not going to suddenly change my ways or anything, but sometimes an unexpected but nice conversation can serve as a reminder of the good things in this world.
(for those benighted souls unfamiliar with Eurovision, the title’s from a song, so it’s fine. Really)
I ran into a bit of roadblock yesterday in class.
The students had been undertaking a negotiation on drawing up a joint statement by a number of groups and we were talking through some of the debriefing points.
I suggested that they’d taken things much as they came, whereas if they’d come with an agenda, or some text, had pushed to become chair or rapporteur, or generally had been more forceful, then they’d have been much more successful in securing what they wanted to achieve.
This produced, well if not quite uproar then at least debate.
Various individuals argued that given the dynamic of the group, anyone who came in with A Plan would risk marginalising themselves for the rest of the module, as others would be resentful to them.
It was pointed out that they’d managed to produce a text, so why do things differently?
And they also highlighted that they had other modules to study for, so there was a limit to how much time they would or could put into preparing, not least because of the way I assess.
That assessment is based on self-reflective writing, so I’m not judging their ‘success’ in negotiating per se,
The discussion was a useful one, at least for me.
The root of it all largely appeared to come down to students taking my comments as a striving for perfection, rather than as a relativistic statement.
As we continued to talk, I tried to underline that I wasn’t asking that everyone did everything, but rather that doing a bit more than others would produce much of the same effect.
To take the example from the session, one student became the effective chair because they’d happened to say something at the outset of the session. It required no additional preparation, and because that individual also offered to write up the statement, they gained huge influence over the outcome.
Just a little bit
And this is perhaps the point for the rest of us.
There’s a tension in what we teach our students between the notional perfection of How Things Should Be and How To Do Better Than We Are Now.
That’s probably most pronounced in questions of methodology: how systematically and perfectly should one pursue a methodological approach and where can one cut corners (and to what cost)?
But it’s true of all our work. I’ve seen enough theory to know that there are almost endless levels of refinement of theoretical positions to know that perfection is never truly possible in a practical setting.
With that in mind, perhaps we have to ask ourselves how we tackle this tension in our classes. To counsel perfection is one thing, but do we not then set up students for some level of failure? But if we don’t strive to do the best we can, do we risk not helping students to maximise their potential and their practice?
The answers to these questions will vary from place to place, but a starting point has to be an understanding of what we aim to achieve with our students.
In my case, I’m going into the coming sessions with some new ideas to help draw students more into the kind of logic that I discussed with them, to see if that addresses the dilemma.
And if it does, then we’ll move onto the next line of the song: “A little bit more”.
Earlier this year I wrote a series of posts on redesigning my course on economic development. As part of the redesign, I added ten in-class quizzes as a way to reinforce students’ learning of important concepts. From my perspective, the quizzes are simple — a maximum of four questions, many of which can be adequately answered with short phrase or sentence. For example:
Why do the rural poor tend to have more children than the urban rich?
However, students’ scores on the first four quizzes have been quite low. I started wondering if bad study habits were causing the terrible quiz performance. Not being able to read students’ minds or observe their behaviors outside of class, I decided to do something unusual: ask them. I created an anonymous online survey with Google Forms. Here are the questions:
When reading assigned texts, I . . .
write notes about important ideas as I’m reading.
highlight, underline, or otherwise mark important ideas as I’m reading.
do not write notes or mark up text as I’m reading.
When in class, I . . .
write notes on a laptop.
write notes on paper by hand.
do not write notes.
For quizzes, I usually prepare by (choose all that apply):
re-reading assigned articles and book chapters.
reviewing notes taken during class.
reviewing notes taken when I read assigned texts the first time.
I’ll publish the survey results next week.
Links to the original series on redesigning this course: