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.

Does Size Matter? The Perils of Small Classes

JawsSome of my courses this semester have such small enrollments that team-based projects and classroom activities have become problematic.

Balloting in presentation competitions is one minor example that I have apparently fixed. I regularly hold classroom competitions in which teams of students present on a topic and then select the winning team by voting with Monopoly money (see here, here, and here for more details). When voting, students come to the front of the room and place their money on placards with team numbers written on them — the only rule being that students cannot vote for their own team.

In the first two competitions in one course I noticed little variation in the sums of money received by different teams, even though some presentations were clearly superior to others. I asked the class about this unlikely result. I found out that in such a small class where everyone has interacted in some fashion with everyone else, students did not want to risk publicly embarrassing badly-performing peers or be judged as cruel, so they distributed their money evenly across teams regardless of presentation quality. My solution? Create a ballot on Google Forms through which students can anonymously select the best-performing team. After the last presentation of the day, I email students the link and they submit their responses. Students’ votes now better reflect the quality of the presentations. I also find that it’s easier to tally results with a spreadsheet on Google than to count paper money.

I don’t know a similarly-easy solution to other size-related problems. I recently used an ICONS simulation for the first time (more on that experience in a future post) in a class with only eleven students. Six nation-states comprised the simulation’s actors, so five states were represented by two students and one state by just a single student. If the latter student had been absent on either of the days I ran the simulation, or if two students from the same team had been absent, the exercise would have been wrecked.

In the same course, I had organized a significant portion of classroom time around a sequence of eight topics. For each topic, a student team was supposed to give a mini-lecture and then lead the rest of the class through an activity for some active learning-based peer-to-peer instruction. Then in the subsequent class, students take a quiz on the topic to reinforce the previously-presented material. With only eleven students, I could form only four teams, which left me with the task of delivering the content for half of the topics in the syllabus — defeating the main purpose of the exercise for fifty percent of the time.

Given that my students have priorities in life that often conflict with attending class, I now believe that teams should contain at least four or five students. With only two or three students, there is too high a probability that most or all members of the team will be absent on any particular day. This in fact happened yesterday: only a single member of two different teams attended class.

But if I increase the size of teams in a class with ten to twelve students, that means only two or three teams. Such a small number of teams is too few to expose students to multiple perspectives on a particular topic by means of competitive presentations. It is also too few to adequately incorporate peer instruction across an entire semester, unless the teams that exist are responsible for teaching multiple topics, and this increases the risk that students will be exposed several times to a terribly-performing team.

Why not return individually-completed projects and presentations? I prefer to avoid this option, because it gives students the message that collaboration is unimportant. As I’ve said before, group work matters. For example, individual writing assignments mean that I am the only person who ever reads what students write, which diminishes the authenticity of assignments and leads to lower quality work. And while it may be possible to squeeze as many as six individually-delivered presentations into a 50- or 75-minute time block, a class with six or fewer students doesn’t meet the minimum enrollment requirement at my university. It probably doesn’t at yours either.

Teaching with social media

Facebook_like_thumbReading Casey’s post, I have been reflecting on my own use of social media in the classroom. Here at Surrey, we’ve long been active in this field, because we recognised the value of developing new spaces of communication as a way both of getting more from our teaching and of preparing students for the world outside the classroom.

The value of that has become clearer over time, not least in the facility that our graduates have demonstrated in using those media to make themselves more attractive to employers and to support the community of learning they developed during their time with us. For our part as educators, we have see real benefits from connecting and engaging with a far wider community than might have been possible in the bad old days of the 2000s (sic).

But all of this raises a number of questions, not least of which is the matter of how one gets to a situation where social media can reasonably be brought into the classroom.

In part, this is a transitional issue, since usage of social media becomes more and more pervasive. Certainly, as everyone seems to be using social media, so the pressure to join in becomes ever higher, and the barriers ever lower: the amount of technical expertise needed to use Twitter (for example) is minimal, even if optimal use still requires some work.

However, we have to recognise the limits to this: I still encounter groups of students who have no experience at all with particular media (including my own class, last week). Precisely because there are so many platforms to choose from, there remains a distinct possibility that your students won’t use (or know how to use) the platform you want. Put it like this: none of us use Pinterest.

In such cases, either you have to train people up – as I’ve done for my Twitter negotiation – or you have to use a Bring-Your-Own-Device model, where the substantive content can be accessed via multiple platforms. The latter is more flexible for students, but requires much more technical expertise on your part.

Surrey’s approach has been to create a more general environment in which social media are mainstreaming into different parts of our provision. That means active Twitter and Facebook pages, which get used to connect prospective and current students, programme information and specific content within modules. By trying to link together elements, we raise the overall visibility and introduce the different platforms to users.

A good example of this is our use of hashtags in Twitter, to highlight particular campaigns: currently, our #PoliticsMonth events are bringing in a range of activities to the university, and students can not only see those more easily, but also contribute more easily. When I chaired a hustings for the general election for our Politics Society last month, I could gather questions from the floor using the event hashtag, which meant more efficient gathering and organising of their input to the panel. A similar system could be set up for large classes, with the lecturer getting instantaneous feedback to their device during lectures, which could then be fed more seamlessly into the content.

Likewise, the encouragement of students to use social media to talk with each other and with teaching staff provides a rapid and accessible means of supporting student learning: a tweet or a Facebook post can be read by others who might be in the same situation. In terms of general student support, this has been a great boon, especially for our students out on professional placements, often overseas.

The keystone in all of this is then a degree of engagement by staff. If they don’t use social media, and use it often, then it’s very hard to get students to do the same.

In that, I have been very fortunate to have the group of colleagues I do, since we have had a very high level of buy-in to the social media work. That has covered Twitter, Facebook, blogging and other platforms. Importantly, it’s also required a maintenance of activity over a long time-frame.

Indeed, that time-frame is effectively open-ended: we’re about three years into this and we’ll carry on as long as necessary. That needs someone to keep reminding people to do it, until it becomes almost second-nature: certainly, many of my colleagues use social media very reflexively, which is easy for them and reinforces the message about the value of doing it for others.

Even without the kind of massive investment that some other units have made into this field – LSE is a good example of what can be achieved online – I would hope that our example will show how even a modest application of effort can have significant pay-offs.

Multiple and Parallel Worlds: Simulations in Large Classes

For faculty that teach in large classrooms with several hundred students, lecture can seem like the only possible method of instruction. Discussion, let along simulations and games, are seen as better employed in TA-led sections, where the number of students is much more manageable. This may seem especially true for some of the games we discuss on ALPS, such as Diplomacy, which in its classic version is meant for only 7 players, and even in teams becomes unwieldy with more than 21.

At first glance, not the most appealing environment for gaming and role-play. Source.

There are simulations that can work really well in a large classroom setting. A Model United Nations, for example, run as either a General Assembly or split into committees, can be great with 200 students. The same principle holds for any organizational simulation, such as a Model Congress or Model European Union. The Hobbes Game also works regardless of the number of students.

But in other games, 200 students is about 170 too many. Groups are too large, there are high incentives for free-riding, or lots of dead time where students have to wait for others to act. Running one large game in this kind of environment is likely to be unsuccessful, if the game itself is not easily scalable.

Luckily, there is a trick to managing this problem. It involves the use of multiple or ‘parallel’ worlds, where instead of running a single version of the game, you run multiple simultaneous versions, with students split into several smaller groups and each group plays its own self-contained version of game. If you wanted to play Diplomacy, for example, you could bring in several game boards and run 3 or 4 different games at the same time, with a TA adjudicating moves for each independent game. In a UN Security Council simulation, you can run 2 or 3 different security councils, all working on the same issue.

There are several advantages to this. First, it lets you use games and simulations meant for smaller groups in a manageable way, whether during sections or during the main lecture meeting. Second, it lets students see how the same exact starting point can lead to very different results, and allows them to discuss the reasons for those differences (structure? social? individual ability?). It also creates some neat opportunities that smaller versions of the game may not have. For example, in Diplomacy, you could allow teams representing the same country in different game worlds to talk strategy with each other. Students can then see how the same strategy or goals can have vastly different effects depending on the actions of other teams and players.

So if you teach large classes and want to try out a game or simulation in your class, consider the parallel worlds model. It’s a great way to bring some more active components into the classroom!

For more on this, check out Jason Keiber’s paper, “Dividing Up the Game: From Serial to Parallel
presented at the 2013 APSA TLC.

Meet the Press

Today is the second of a series of posts by a guest contributor, Casey Delehanty, doctoral candidate in political science at Florida State University

Meet the Press 2In my previous post, I argued that larger classes are an opportunity and not a drawback for using simulations: existing roles can be expanded and made more intricate, lending more depth. Large classes also allow instructors to experiment with new roles that can further deepen a simulation while taking some of the work off of the instructor’s hands. In this post, I will share some of my experience with one of these roles: media actors.

Roles for media actors can fit into almost any preexisting simulation and enhance students’ experience in multiple ways. First, making the media a playable actor can help demonstrate the idea that information is limited and that biases held by media actors can drive opinions and behavior. Second, introducing a media actor can bring more “eyes” to events within the simulation, which encourages students to more fully embrace their roles and allows the instructor to more easily keep tabs on a larger classroom via news updates. Finally, media actors can create a written record of events during the simulation, which serves as a reference during debriefs.

Meet the PressHere are some tips on using media actors in simulations:

Embrace technology: In my simulations, I allow media actors to create Twitter accounts, which are displayed in real time at the front of the classroom for all to see (a helpful suggestion picked up from the 2014 APSA TLC Simulations and Role Play Track). This feed allows the entire class to be aware of important events happening around the classroom, and it forces media actors to roam freely with smartphones to cover the latest news.

Make the media relevant: In larger simulations, instructors must often adjudicate the various events from a simulation session and release the results to the classroom. When operating a simulation with media actors, make sure to release as much simulation-related information through the media as is possible. This reinforces the political importance of the media and can help to empower the actors themselves to adhere more closely to their roles. Instructors can also strategically release information through the media that can keep other actors within the spirit of the simulation. For example, if the leader of State X is acting out of character, the instructor can ask the media to cover the growing unrest of State X’s citizenry, encouraging its leaders to react to their constituents.

Create multiple perspectives: While many of the above-described tasks can be accomplished via one media actor, it can also be helpful to create multiple media sources with differing perspectives. This eases the burden on any particular media actor and introduces competition to the media landscape. Differing media perspectives can be included ex-ante within actors’ position descriptions.

Allow room for creativity: Beyond the Twitter feed, I allow each media actor three minutes of “air time,” wherein they can command the attention of the class to present “the news.” Uses of this space can vary from interviews with notable figures in the simulation to investigative pieces on the plight of the downtrodden. The “air time” allows people with media roles to showcase their creativity, inform fellow students, and add realism to the simulation.

Don’t be afraid to require a bit more: In my experience, media roles are some of the most sought-after positions within simulations. As such, instructors can lean on the media actors a bit harder to produce relevant material for the class (for example: a short bulletin-style news brief to be shared with the class). Generally, the same impulses that led students to desire a position as a media actor will drive them to put in a little extra work within the simulation itself.

Feedback is welcome. Questions can be asked by posting a comment here or people can email me directly: cpdelehanty[at]

Simulations for Large Classes: Problematizing Unitary Actors

Today is the first of a series of posts by a guest contributor, Casey Delehanty, doctoral candidate in political science at Florida State University.

Large ClassAs an instructor at a large state university, one of the main challenges of active learning exercises is employing them in large classes. Many existing simulations are designed for classes of 10-30 students, and adapting them to larger classes can be intimidating. Despite this, I encourage folks to think of large classes as an advantage rather than a hindrance. Rather than presenting students with the necessarily simplified world of a small simulation, you can introduce students to even more complex concepts. Here are a few tricks I have picked up from using simulations in classes with 50+ students:

Simulations or games built with smaller classes in mind have to make certain assumptions about the internal decision-making structures of the actors involved. A larger class offers the ability to add internal political structures that introduce students to the notion of juggling domestic interests versus international possibilities. This notion does not have to be limited to simulations of state actors; non-state groups can also be assumed to have internal decision-making structures.

Students who comprise actors that are expected to multi-task in a simulation can be assigned distinct roles to perform. However, a major problem in larger classes is the tendency of some students to free-ride. It is imperative to make roles specific, varied, and incentivized to avoid the following pitfalls:

First, students often do not immediately understand how their roles fit into the overall simulation. As much as this may be obvious to you as the designer, students often need some time fully grasp their role within a larger system of interlinked pieces and what actions they should take in order to maximize their effectiveness. It can be helpful to give students guidelines about possible actions they can take and strategies they might want to pursue. I create advisory guides that are no longer than one page to orient students to the simulation (“your role can determine the fate of X”) as well as giving them some ideas as to how to be effective (“should you want to accomplish goal X, you might want to explore paths A, B and C”). While it is important not to reveal too much and let students find their own path, limited class time makes this kind of advice necessary.

Second, students often obtain the impression that their role is being adequately performed by others within the simulation. This tendency in and of itself can lead to a lecture on free-riding, but it can sometimes alter the balance of a simulation. Moreover, shirking tends to be contagious; if one student is sitting to the side checking Facebook, etc. it will be much more likely for others to do the same. It is therefore important to make student roles unique, so that each student is solely responsible for a single aspect of an overall mission. It can sometimes be beneficial to assign more than one student to a specific role, but I avoid assigning the same function to more than two students in a simulation.

Third, students often lack incentives to play their roles effectively when forced to compete with one another. Sometimes students would rather depart from their role than perform actions that might put them at odds with another student. This can be very damaging to an otherwise effective simulation given that competitiveness between students is often designed as an institutional constraint. To solve this problem, I introduce goals tailored to each actor or group of actors for students to achieve, with “bonus points” as a reward. These goals often compete and conflict with those of other actors, and it is nearly impossible for any one actor (or group of actors) to achieve all of their goals. Instead, these goals function as a tool to incentivize certain behaviors within the simulation. I separate these points from other forms of assessment, since I don’t want the competitiveness of some students to adversely other students’ grades. Instead, I award bonus points for goal completion. These points are, of course, almost insignificant when it comes to students’ final grades, but I find that they generate much more competitive behavior. Students are suckers for points.

Can we do all our learning & teaching using Lego?

Off the back of the great response to my post last week on The Lego Movie (apologies again to Borja Garcia for ruining his enjoyment of said film), I have obviously returned to the subject, albeit in a slightly different way.

While searching for the official movie website, I stumbled across Lego Serious Play. ‘Stumbled’ here should of course be understood as ‘spent ages browsing the online shop, buying a kit, then browsing some more.’ That box has now arrived, so the next step of my investigation continues.

Of course I have even more Lego on my desk. Don’t you?

Essentially, LSP is a system for promoting team interaction and creativity, using the bricks to allow people to visualise and manifest their ideas in a way that lets them explore new ideas. That’s the website’s take on it, anyway.

I’ll freely admit I’m not so sure about this, not least because I’ve still to see it in practice, but I’m willing to have a bash at it.

As readers with long memories might recall, I’ve been using Lego in the classroom for a long time. Some years ago, I made a video explaining different voting systems, using Lego squares, because it made it all much easier to visualise. Similarly, my negotiating class get to use Lego to explore the difficulties of communication, because it allows for very subtle usage.

Whether and how LSP might fit into all this is still unclear to me. The core development attribute seems to be about creativity, which does not easily fit into an applied module in a degree programme. That is actually rather a surprise to me – and probably a topic for another day – but it’s meant in the sense that creativity is a cross-cutting skill, so probably belongs in an early phase of a programme. Moreover, students rarely remain with the same group for any problem beyond one module/course, so even if team skills are developed, then some of them are lost as the group breaks up.

But even as I write this, I recall that I do have one group of students who will be together for a long period and – additionally – will be able to work as a single group: the first cohort of our Liberal Arts and Sciences programme, of which I am director and teacher for the first compulsory element.

My plan then is to use LSP to trigger a discussion about disciplines and about their relationship with each other. I’m not going to get into details just yet, since I’d like to try it out on them first, but essentially I’m using the Lego as a way into the subject, to distract them for the weightiness of it all.

Distracting students is something I really like doing, albeit with care not to get too distracted. Whether it works remains to be seen, but I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy the journey.

To come back to the question in the title, obviously we shouldn’t do ALL our teaching using Lego, but if we can recognise the value of multiple paths to learning and scope for using everyday objects to create an environment for problematising and challenging students, then that can open our eyes to large new areas of pedagogic practice. In essence, Lego is a means, not an end, and we should never lose sight of that.