A Nicosian agenda for active learning

So I’m back from Cyprus, land of exceptionally large (and delicious) meals. And the mezze is probably a good metaphor for our ECPR workshop on active learning: lots of tasty and interesting things, but also a lot to digest. It’s fair to say that over the four days of discussion we made some progress, but also came to acknowledge that some substantial barriers stand in our way.

So take this as a first cut (or a second one, if you’re going to be picky).

As I noted in my previous post, our common goal for the workshop was to develop a better understanding of whether and how active learning works.

Our papers – from colleagues across Europe – provided just the kind of starting point that we needed, from simulations to stimulate school pupils’ interest in university to students making their own videos.

From that we’ve got three groups now working on pulling together symposia/special issues to showcase that evidence. Right now we’re pulling together some text to frame each of these, but we’ll be coming out to you – via this platform and at various L&T events in the coming months – to see if you have work that might fit in too.

With that in mind, it’s useful to sketch out the three projects right now. Continue reading

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 6

Another update, this time in relation to the Place Making Essay discussed in Part 2  of this series —

To backtrack a bit, and provide some context I probably should have supplied in Part 1, the objectives of this course are to:

  1. Introduce students to concepts and methods used by social scientists and others to explain globalization.
  2. Develop the skills needed to understand complex problems related to global interconnectedness.

Students’ essays did, with varying degrees of success, thoughtfully respond to the assignment’s two prompts:

  • How does the process by which an object is made affect its ability to create a sense of place for people who use that object?
  • Has globalization altered the meaning of places or of the objects within them? Why? If so, how have meanings changed?

I did not see much discussion about the ways in which globalization affects communities, in the sense of “place making.” In retrospect, this is another example of me assuming, incorrectly, that students will follow ideas down the rabbit hole like I do — examining the more nebulous systemic implications of narrowly-defined events. If I use this assignment in the future, I might change the prompt to something like:

  • People assign meanings to the physical spaces they use. How do these meanings change when built environments and the objects within them are globalized? How are people’s spatial interactions affected? Do communities benefit? Why?

Despite horizons in students’ writing that were narrower than I would have liked, I think the essay unexpectedly hit my second course objective, through the interaction with students in the ART 202 course and the IYRS Digital Materials and Fabrication program. These interactions required students in my course to communicate effectively with complete strangers who had, in many cases, unfamiliar perspectives and different goals. A prerequisite for learning how to solve problems that arise from global interconnectedness is actually connecting with people who are different, and that happened in this assignment.

Links to all posts in this series:

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 1

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 2

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 3

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 4

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 5

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 6

Changing Course on Globalization, Part 7



Grad Pathologies II: Breaking a Project into Reasonable Goals

Continuing on the theme of what I’ve learned in the last year of building my own business doing dissertation and academic coaching and freelance editing, at the invitation of the blog owner, Chad, I’m back for a two-part series on common problems that I’ve seen working with grad students on their dissertations. This is part 2 of 2. (Later there will be a two-part series on common faculty issues.)

The most common problem I saw with graduate students is a lack of midrange planning. The second most common problem that I see is difficulty in breaking projects into meaningful, doable tasks. It’s not uncommon to see “write theory chapter” on a student’s daily To Do list. The problem is, that’s not a helpful way to express the task. When are you done? What exactly are you writing? Is this really the thing you should be working on right now?

The solution to this problem is to think of your To Do list in terms of SMART goals. SMART goals are:

  • Specific They are precise in what they call for doing; you can tell exactly what the desired output form will be.
  • Measurable Goals should have a specific metric or target associated with them. You should be able to tell when you have completed a task.
  • Attainable The goal should be something you can reasonably achieve that day (or week, depending on what period you make your lists for), given the other commitments you have that day/week.
  • Relevant The goal should be directly connected to the weekly or semester goals that you have. If it’s not helping you reach your goals, should it be on your list?
  • Timely The goal should be the next logical step in the project, building toward the following logical step. It should be necessary for upcoming work, not just ‘for the future.’

So a better daily To Do list item for our hypothetical grad student would be “Write 300 words on scope section of theory chapter.” It tells us what part of the project, and where in that project, we should direct our attention. It tells us how much work we need to do to call this task “done.” Presumably, writing the theory chapter is one of the student’s goals for the semester, and this is the next section waiting to be written.

If you’re interested in dissertation or academic coaching, the summer is a great time to start. It gives you a chance to develop and solidify new or better habits before the chaos of term time arrives. Feel free to take a look around my website at http://www.leannecpowner.com/coaching/  and if you’re interested, drop me an email at Leanne@leannecpowner.com . The initial consultation is free. You can also follow me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/LeanneCPowner/ or Twitter @LeanneCPowner for free daily writing tips.

Does Active Learning actually work?

I’m continuing my on-going project to find stupid places to write blog-posts, I’m coming to you from 10668m, somewhere over the Austrian Alps, heading to the ECPR’s Joint Sessions in Nicosia.

Once I’m there, I’ve got three full days of discussing whether Active Learning actually works, with a workshop of colleagues from across the EU. Reading through the draft papers makes for much reflection.

And with that in mind, this is a preliminary set of thoughts, which I’ll revisit next week once we’ve had those discussions.

On a personal note, it’s nice to see my various articles being cited, although less positively it’s mostly in the context of how little we know about this subject: too much still rests on the “I tried it and I liked it” approach (to use one colleague’s citation of Chin).

The challenges appear to be three-fold. Continue reading

ISA 2018 San Francisco Report

I’m just back from the International Studies Association’s Annual Meeting in San Francisco, and it was a pedagogy bonanza! Great attendance at the pedagogy panels (even those held at off-times) and excellent discussion all around. One thing I love about us pedagogy types is a commitment to leaving plenty of time for Q&A and discussion, since everyone in the room has some expertise to share.

Victor Asal and I ran a new Career Course on Teaching the Intro Class. We focused on both intro to IR and comparative politics, covering such topics as what to do on Day 1, reading/text options, writing good exams and written assignments, classroom management, and of course, games and other activities to teach the material. Our participants had a ton of great ideas and insights.

On the panel on Theory and Practice in IR Teaching: Effectiveness, Political Engagement, and Active Learning, Marcelo Valenca of Escola de Guerra Naval discussed the changing nature and approaches toward pedagogical training in Brazil. He pointed particularly to the impact of the pedagogy workshops held by the College of Wooster’s Jeffrey Lantis, Kent Kille, and Mathew Krain as being instrumental in bringing change to that country. The Wooster Three were mentors of mine when I was in graduate school, so I wasn’t surprised but still pleased to learn about the far-reaching impact of their efforts.

I presented a paper on using a game-version of the television show Survivor to incentive my students to complete the readings, pay attention to current events, and learn geography. The results on the geography front were…not what I expected. Students who took a single, traditional Map Quiz performed much better than this students in the game that had regular, weekly practice in geography! But as we’ve said many times before, failure can be a useful learning tool and this has prompted me to really investigate the key variables about the game that may have hindered learning, so more on that in the future.

An audience member on that panel (Ian Manners, University of Copenhagen) pointed out the utility of using student-created learning modules as a way of engaging students in learning content at a high level. I love this idea, and i’m going to use it in my seminar on sex, marriage, and violence in the fall.

Finally, some conference news: ISA is holding its first Innovative Pedagogy Conference on November 15th in St. Louis, the day before ISA’s Midwest meeting. There will be a plenary, keynote speech by ISA President Patrick James, a graduate student teacher training certification session, and 8 workshops on subjects such as faculty led study abroad programs, designing curriculum, research literacy, civic engagement, assessment of active learning, publishing in the scholarship of teaching and learning, designing simulations, and using simulations and games to teach political violence. At least two members of Team ALPS (myself and Victor Asal) will be there, so please join us!

ISA now has a Professional Resource Center which includes a syllabi archive and a great site for finding some good simulations to use in your classes. You do have to be a member to access the PRC but consider sending in your materials for inclusion!

Finally, a note on submitting to ISA: the two sections that tend to sponsor ALPS-style papers and roundtables are Active Learning in International Affairs (ALIAS) and International Education. I’m section program chair for the latter, and talking with the program chair for ALIAS, we not that we don’t get a ton of first-round submissions. If you’ve thought about presenting a paper or organizing a panel or roundtable relevant to either section, please do so–we are eager for more submissions for next year’s conference in Toronto. There are also opportunities for Innovative Panels, Career Courses, and Flash Talks–check out ISA’s website for more details. Some topics that I know are of interest to my section include best practices in study abroad, transformations in higher education (particularly from a comparative perspective), the challenges of being a faculty administrator of international programs, and curricular design features for IR programs.

That’s it for now! As usual, conferences spur me into thinking in new directions for my pedagogy, and I’m excited to start putting some of these ideas into practice.

Return of the Information Diet

Returning to a topic I mentioned at the end of a post from 2014:

Spring has sprung in this part of the world, sort of, and there are four weeks left in the semester. So, in addition to (slightly) warmer weather and more daylight, the workload is ratcheting up — giving me a stronger urge to procrastinate. I compensate by doing some spring cleaning. And simplifying my information environment does allow me to be more productive.

So far I have I unsubscribed to a half dozen mailing lists — that generate emails I don’t read or that announce events I never attend — and deleted perhaps a few hundred electronic files. I’ve also started weeding through paper files in my office. A photocopy of a policy from 2012? There’s either a new policy, or the old policy is available online, so into the recycling bin it goes. And I’m setting aside books for eventual sale on eBay. The end result? I waste less time searching for what I’m trying to find and am less distracted.

And on the subject of distraction, I have been deliberately shutting down my email for long periods of time during the day. As a department chair, I have a “respond within twenty-four hours” policy with students, but for the most part they email to schedule in-office appointments so that I can sign forms (we lack modern conveniences like electronic signature capability for even the simplest bureaucratic tasks). I propose a few potential times in my replies and the appointments get scheduled with little fuss. Other faculty prefer to have appointment sign-up sheets on their office doors, an equally efficient method. But the bulk of the email I receive from official university sources can either be immediately deleted or does not require my immediate attention.

Another aspect of this process for any faculty member who will eventually be applying for tenure or promotion: when sorting through files, whether paper or digital, set aside material that demonstrates your contributions to the university and to the discipline. Store it in a safe, marked location. In my case, the material includes that classroom observation report from a senior colleague in 2015, the smattering of appreciative emails from alumni who enter graduate school, and the advertising flyers for campus presentations of my research. All of it goes into a box or a backed-up digital file folder for me to sort through once I start putting my application together and need reminders of all that I’ve accomplished. Until then, I can forget about it.

The Not-So-Pop Quiz and Absent Students

More thoughts on the management of extremely small classes . . . especially those that convene at 8:00 a.m. Mine has only ten students, and recently attendance has sometimes been as low as 40 percent, which empirically demonstrates that a substantial portion of the class thinks regularly attending class is unimportant.

I am not one of those professors who penalizes students’ grades for non-attendance — my students are legal adults with their own lives and get to suffer the consequences of their decisions. I also don’t give many in-class exams. For the subjects that I teach, I believe that writing is a better assessment tool than tests composed of multiple choice questions.

I also believe that reading and writing before class, and discussion during class, are in and of themselves critical for learning. But, to borrow a phrase from Lenin, what is to be done?

Last night I remembered the physics exams I had as an undergraduate. Often students were allowed to bring along a single sheet of paper with notes written on it, to reference during the exam. The real purpose of the “crib sheet” was to get students to review their notes and identify for themselves the concepts and processes that were important for an understanding of physics. Also the act of writing and rewriting to make the most critical information fit on a single piece of paper helped strengthen memories of this information.

I decided to employ a similar method. This morning I announced that class on Tuesday of next week would include a quiz. I explained in detail the format of the quiz, its intent, and the fact that it would be an extremely low-stakes event — worth only 10 points out of an available total of 1,200 from all other assignments. I gave each student a blank 3 X 5 note card to write notes on; they can use the card during the quiz.

The downside is that I now have to create and grade a quiz. But even if the entire class decides to show up, I will still have only ten quizzes to grade. A reasonable trade-off, in my opinion.

I’ll report on how this goes next week.

Grad Pathologies I: Lack of Midrange Planning

Some of you may have noticed my absence from ALPS for the last few months. I’ve been busily building my own business doing dissertation and academic coaching and freelance editing. At the invitation of the blog owner, Chad, I’m back for a two-part series on common problems that I’ve seen working with grad students on their dissertations. (Later there will be a two-part series on common faculty issues.)

The biggest, most frequent problem I observe in graduate students (and to be honest, in faculty too) is a lack of midrange planning. The military, into which I married, captures it best with the concepts of strategic, operational, and tactical planning. Strategic planning is overall goals and big picture thinking. We academics are pretty good at this: finish this paper by the conference, collect this data so we can write the next paper, complete the dissertation. We’re also pretty good at the hands-on tactical planning: the daily to-do list is a good example of tactical planning.

Where we fail badly is in connecting the two steps: the operational level. Operational planning makes our daily task lists meaningful towards achieving our strategic goals. It’s about planning ahead and thinking ahead so that our strategic goals are realized on the timeline we want. Operational planning allows you to finish the conference paper before the night before it’s due by getting you started on it well in advance of the deadline, in reasonable amounts.

The tool for doing this is the Semester-At-A-Glance calendar. It’s a simple one-page calendar that shows four months at a time, allowing you to see everything that’s going on and budget your time to larger projects accordingly.

Briefly, the steps to using the Semester-At-A-Glance calendar are to identify your priority goals for the term – no more than two or three key things that you want to accomplish. Then, you begin breaking down those goals into weekly tasks or goals and assigning those to weeks on the calendar. (USE PENCIL!!) You can have more than one goal for each week, but the boxes are deliberately small for a reason. If you can’t get all of your semester goals on to the calendar at once, you need to rethink the reasonableness of your semester goals.

I will host a webinar on using the Semester-At-A-Glance calendar on Friday, April 20, at noon Central time (1 PM Eastern). You can find the URL for the webinar on my website, http://www.leannecpowner.com/coaching/ . I use Zoom.us for my webcasting, which will require you to download and install a small browser plugin to view the webinar. And of course, you can always download the most current Semester-At-A-Glance calendar from my website.

If you’re interested in dissertation or academic coaching, the summer is a great time to start. It gives you a chance to develop and solidify new or better habits before the chaos of term time arrives. Feel free to take a look around my website and if you’re interested, drop me an email at Leanne@leannecpowner.com . The initial consultation is free. You can also follow me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/LeanneCPowner/ or Twitter @LeanneCPowner for free daily writing tips.

Limits to public engagement

Surprise! Or surprise?

This week I’m at the PSA annual conference in Cardiff. Aside from getting to catch up with colleagues, there have also been some good discussions in sessions.

One of these was a plenary roundtable on “Bursting Filter Bubbles and Opening Up Echo Chambers: The Role of the Academic in Public Debate”, with speakers talking about how much progress British academics have made – more than in other countries – and all the potential that there is to be utilised: here are my live-tweets.

For me, as someone who spends a lot of time doing this kind of thing, it was great to see this becoming more of a mainstream activity.

However, as the session continued, a niggling doubt crept into the back of my head: is public engagement an unreserved good?

I’d be thinking about how to phrase this, when up popped a more specific instance on my timeline. To be clear, I know neither Leighton nor Morgan, but that’s not really relevant to my niggle.

In the end, I asked if there were any limits to public engagement; things that we shouldn’t be doing. As you’ll see from my thread, we ended up with a bunch of practical tips, rather philosophical considerations. Add to that my desire not to be that guy who ‘asks’ a ‘question’ that turns into a long statement (also it meant I’d get to save it for here), and the matter slid.

My concern is that while it’s wrong that expertise should be seen as irrelevant, that shouldn’t mean that everything ‘experts’ say should be taken as The Truth.

As a simple test of this, think of your academic colleagues and ask yourself whether they’ve ever talked bullshit. I know I have, and so too has pretty much everyone I’ve ever worked with, at some point or other.

That’s not a criticism by the way, just an observation that experts are experts in something.

This came up in an online discussion the other day, when someone complained about a famous TV physicist not understanding the difference between a customs union and the EEA: As I responded: expert in something not expert in something else. You don’t expect me to be able to explain the niceties of Hawking radiation, to flip this around.

But as we reassert the importance of experts there will always be a danger of mission-creep, especially in an area like politics. It’s all too easy to end talking about stuff we don’t really get. It’s easy for me to say no to offers to talk about American politics, when I get them, but less easy to do the same when invited to opine on aspects of British politics beyond Brexit (and sometimes even within Brexit).

And this is the second issue: opinion.

In my current role, I’m bound to be impartial and evidence-led. But I know colleagues with very strong normative positions on the things they research, and media channels that favour stylised clashes of opinion. Both those things make it easy to end up with partisan readings that don’t serve an agenda of expertise as being able interpretation.

You’ll cry foul at this point, because all research is interpretation: and you’d be right. But there are ways and means of communicating that in a transparent manner, most of them not very ‘media-friendly’.

If experts are to make the most of their opportunities then it needs to be done with a degree of self-awareness and self-effacement, separating clearly to those they talk with the split between evidence and interpretation.

That’s a tough ask, and one that I’ve not always got right, but in an age where it’s become all too easy to criticise experts as ‘establishment voices’ and reject them because of who they are, rather than what they say, we have to respond and react. Otherwise our marginalisation will continue and worsen.