Mid-Semester Ruminations

Thinking things over.
Thinking things over.

A few thoughts on my teaching, having just passed the mid-point of the spring semester:

Students have almost to a person stopped taking notes. I don’t know if this phenomenon is caused by a lack of will, ability, or a combination of both, but I suspect it has its roots in the K-12 system. Or my employer is simply drawing students who are not as academically well-prepared for college. Ten years ago perhaps a quarter of my students wrote notes in class. Now I’m lucky if it’s one out of fifteen. I refuse to periodically collect and somehow grade students’ notebooks. An alternative might be open-notebook, end-of-class quizzes. It’s additional work on my end — more stuff to grade and I would need to think of question or two while teaching — but it might be a way of generating the desired behavior. Continue reading

Zendo Revisited: A Simple Methods Game for Large Classes

Zendo is a methods game that is the subject of the very first post I wrote for ALPS back in 2011. Since then, I have used it regularly on the first day of my research methods course.  Among its many advantages is that it helps reduce the anxiety students face on their first day of methods (a well-documented issue; at least six articles in recent years reference this concern) by having their first activity being a game.  The game itself allows students to engage in hypothesis generation and testing and begin to understand issues of generalizability and scholarly collaboration. It is a great introductory activity, but its utility has been limited due to the necessity of purchasing the physical pieces required for play.  Until now, that is! We now have a way of playing Zendo that requires no pieces and works for large classroom settings as well as small.

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Equal Ground Game: Word Challenge

I owe 100% of the credit for this game to Ashley Rondini at Franklin & Marshall College.

The Game: Word Challenge

Potential Topics: Social Justice, Attribution Error, Levels of Analysis, Methods and Measurement, Bias and Hidden Assumptions

Materials: Envelopes, letters for each team (listed at the bottom of this entry), timer
Prep Time
: 5 minutes (mostly cutting squares and putting them into envelopes
Play Time: 5 minutes
Class Size: 6-100
Debrief Time: As long as you like, this one just keeps opening up the more you look at it. I bridged directly into my lesson. So… 15 minutes debrief and then to lecture.

How to Play:

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A Simulation in Global Development: Guest Post from Dr. Kevin Pallister

Guest Contributor Dr. Kevin Pallister of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth joins us today to introduce his new negotiation simulation, recently published in PS: Political Science & Politics (April 2015). Dr. Pallister can be reached at kpallister@umassd.edu and is willing to share all of his simulation materials upon request.

Dr. Kevin Pallister — U-Mass, Dartmouth

Teaching undergraduate students about international financial institutions and issues of economic development can be challenging, especially in an introductory political science class with lots of non-polisci majors. Teaching a large (90-student) introductory international relations class a couple of years ago, I thought of how best to help my students learn about economic globalization and development. This led me to develop a negotiation-based simulation to teach students about the conflicts of interest and potential for cooperation on issues of international economic globalization and development. This was the first time I designed a simulation, and only the second time I had run a simulation in the classroom (after earlier in the course running G. Dale Thomas’ excellent “Isle of Ted” simulation).

This simulation is designed to teach students a number of key concepts in the areas of IPE, globalization and development, such as the role of power, collective action problems, bargaining tactics, and naming and shaming efforts of NGOs.

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The Perils of Small (Online) Classes

Shrinking ManA few months ago I wrote about a few of the effects of small class sizes in my undergraduate courses. I’m experiencing related problems in my online graduate courses, where per-class enrollments have dropped to only about a half dozen students.

With so few students, there is no actual conversation in weekly discussions. I fully understand and accept the fact that several factors probably diminish student contributions to discussions — these courses are online, asynchronous, and convenience for students is paramount. However, people did respond to each others’ discussion comments in previous semesters when enrollments were higher.

This is the first time that I’ve explicitly tied discussion posts to a rubric — at least two posts per week, with the first before midnight on Wednesdays, with cited examples from the reading assignments, to earn full credit — rather than vaguely categorize them as evidence of course participation. But making my assessment of students’ contributions to discussions more transparent should encourage rather than discourage posts, if it has any effect at all.

In sum, students are occasionally acknowledging the existence of their classmates but decide to forego interacting with them. They might be reading each others’ discussion posts, but there is no way for me to tell if this is in fact happening; if they are, they aren’t writing responses. Overall it seems unlikely that much social learning is occurring.

Review of How College Works, Part 2

A continuation of my review of How College Works, this time in the form of advice to students:

College is a place where people matter. The college experience, and the benefits you derive from it, are a function of “who meets whom, and when” (p. 16). But given the constraints of time and space, you won’t be able to meet everyone. You will need to maximize your ability to make the right friends and find the right mentors — the people with the perspectives, interests, and drive that are the most helpful in motivating you to work toward personally-meaningful accomplishments. 

Every college and university has established pathways that simplify the process of forming the social relationships that can result in a more rewarding college experience. These pathways can help you to “spend your time with good people” (p. 162). For example, joining an athletic team or a performing arts club introduces you to a number of individuals who spend a significant amount of time together, which will enable you to get to know all of them well. These people can then introduce you to their friends, and so on.

Map of How College Works
Student social networks at Hamilton College, p. 93

However, choices have consequences, and choosing one path often closes the door on others. The time spent on the field or on the stage is time that you can’t use to interact with other groups of people. 

In many cases, students end up on a particular path because of a series of small, seemingly inconsequential or even accidental decisions. You join the swim team, a teammate introduces you to her lab partner in chemistry class, and that person tells you about an internship option that you pursue the following semester. Or you decide to  share an off-campus apartment with three buddies who like video games. Your social circle narrows once you move off campus, you hang out more with your roommates, your grades suffer because you’re studying less and playing video games more, and you lose a scholarship.

A personal example: in my sophomore year of college I took a history course on the Vietnam War that partly fulfilled a requirement for graduation. I knew next to nothing about the subject and essentially took the course on a whim. It turned out to be so fascinating that I changed my major in my junior year and got to know some very interesting professors and students. Years later I enrolled in a PhD program, went to Vietnam, learned the language and did research, and had a bunch of experiences that I never would have had otherwise. These decisions, each made in the moment, resulted in a long chain of events that led me to where I am now.

The authors of How College Works list a few simple steps that students can take to improve the odds of finding this type of personally-fulfilling path through college (p. 163):

First, start meeting people early. Each person you meet can introduce you to other people; conversely, limiting yourself to one or two people limits how fast and far one’s social network can expand. The centrally-located freshman dorm where everyone lives with two or three roommates, in the midst of dozens of other students who share the same hallway, leads to much more social interaction than “apartment-style living” on the edge of campus.

Second, choose professors, not topics. Find out who the best ones are. Who attracts the most motivated students? Who do professors say that they would want teaching them if they were students? Ask the instructor of a course for a copy of last semester’s or last year’s syllabus. A syllabus should give you an idea of how learning in the course is supposed to occur in addition to what supposedly will get learned. Given how the course is organized, are you likely to be engaged with the professor, your classmates, and the material?

Third, spend time in physical locations on campus that are convenient to other students. This might be a cafe, the library, a commons area, or a performance space. Placing yourself where you will most frequently encounter others makes it easier to initiate and maintain social connections.

Fourth, regularly collaborating with people whose mental and physical energy is focused on a shared interest pays big dividends — in motivation, learning, and ability. Swim practice five mornings per week creates self-discipline and builds time management skills. The group ethnographic research project in that anthropology course coming up next semester offers training in interpersonal communication and public speaking.

Fifth, minimize the risk of getting stuck on what might turn out to be the wrong path by keeping some options open. Stay alert for ways to make new friends, get out of your comfort zone, and challenge yourself. Look for chances to learn practical problem-solving skills, gain leadership experience in a competitive environment, and work closely with professors and classmates. 

You will see only the parts of college that you actually use (p. 161), so none of the above matters if you are unwilling to seize any of the available opportunities. If for whatever reason this is your situation, don’t go to college. Wait. Admission to college doesn’t necessarily mean you are ready to enroll.

Review of How College Works, Part 1

How College WorksI recently read How College Works, by Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs (Harvard University Press, 2014). The book details the authors’ study of Hamilton College, a small, private undergraduate college in Clinton, New York. This review will focus on what the book has to offer for administrators and faculty. I’ll write a separate review that discusses the author’s recommendations to new college students.*

Chambliss and Takacs argue that the benefits students acquire from college are a function of institutionally-shaped campus-based social interactions. Encounters with professors and peers, especially early in students’ college experiences, result in social networks that affect what and how students learn. The “pervasive influence” of these relationships makes college “less a collection of programs than a gathering of people” (p. 5, emphasis original).

Schools need to increase the chances that students will form the social relationships that are most beneficial to them, which means deploying limited resources where they will do the most good. If your university decides, as mine recently did, to mandate a first-year seminar for incoming students, then it better staff those seminars with its most enthusiastic and engaging faculty members, regardless of their fields or departments. Doing otherwise sends a terrible message to new students: that they aren’t valued and should go to college somewhere else.

Maximizing the effect of the most talented instructors means getting them in front of as many students as possible, which might require that they be freed from particular departmental, research, or service obligations. It also means scheduling those courses for days and times when the largest number of students can enroll in them.

As the authors state at the end of the book, the fundamental task for institutions of higher education is to decide who the right people are and to create pathways that make it easy for them to connect with each other:

“Which professors can do the most good? For which students? And when? Which students do you want to bring to your campus, and which ones not? Who are the students you most want to support? Around which groups and activities do you want to build your institution’s culture?” (p. 174).

If these questions are answered effectively, students will feel like members of a community instead of customers. At the same time, the college or university will have identified its brand and the market in which it wants to compete.

*postscript: the review for college students is here.