Scales of Injustice

ScalabilitySimon Fink discussed the scalability of an EU simulation in terms of its duration. I’m running into a scale problem in terms the number of participants. For the second year in a row, I’m using Statecraft in an introductory international relations course. Last year I had thirty-four students; this year I have only thirteen. The buzz of activity in this year’s classroom is noticeably less than it was last year; however, last year it was obvious that, with teams of five or six students, often one or two students weren’t very engaged in the proceedings. I have seen this passivity happen in other simulations as well.

This suggests that, absent highly-structured roles for individual team members and a clear system of individually-based rewards and penalties, many simulations probably have a sweet spot for group size — perhaps three students per team. If one student is absent, then there are still two others present to collaborate. If all three are present, the group is still small enough for everyone to want to participate and for no one to be able to hide.

Unfortunately I find it extremely inconvenient to wait until I have a firm idea of class size before deciding whether to use a particular simulation. I also don’t want to build a syllabus around a few simulations and then have to discard them when enrollment goes up or down. This makes a simulation’s scalability in terms of number of participants very important to me.

Getting students to talk in class

In the follow-up to last week’s post on making a first impression – which prompted many comments at the conference I was attending – I thought it might be useful to think about this hardy perennial.

Getting students to talk is one of those topics that new teachers find rather difficult (along with its counterpart “how do I shut them up?”), mainly for the reasons I discussed before: the feeling that no one will ever do what you want them to.

With that in mind, I’ll consider the three main ways you can approach this.

The first way is to force them to talk. Obviously, this doesn’t mean getting them in a head-lock, but rather saying something on the lines of: “John, tell us what you think.” Not a question, but a statement.

This is the classic of school rooms the world over. You look around and you see maybe a face that’s eager to contribute, or looking suitably thoughtful, or even someone looking confused, and you want to get that student talking, so that their ideas – good or bad – are shared. Maybe you even pick someone who you know will kick the hornet’s nest, or someone who never speaks. I had a lecturer who used to point at someone at points during his lectures, with the words “stand up and tell us what I’ve been talking about for the past 15 minutes.”

In all these cases, you are trying to use students as a proxy for your own debate, the one you imagined happening when you planned the session. That’s fine, but with a reluctant class, your direction ends up being the only direction, especially if you move to more closed questions (“John, tell us why Usherwood’s ideas are wrong,” for example). In short, it’s an option, but one that you want to keep relatively rare.

The second way is to ask them to talk. This moves us to the world of “can anyone suggest why Usherwood’s ideas are wrong?” It’s a question that invites an answer and thus a discussion between you and them.

The advantage is that you now have the possibility of getting a response from everyone in the room, and thus some momentum. The downside is – clearly – that you will tend to get the usual suspects talking: the confident and the opinionated. If you are interesting in raising the whole class’ standard, then this will only go so far.

Which leads to the third model, encouraging them to talk.

Both of the first two models suffer from a particular problem: you. They both are focused on you and your ideas. Why would someone want to offer an opinion or contribution if they feel that the response is likely to come from you, delivered in front of the whole class?

In this model, you are trying to decentre [no, it’s not a word, but you understand] yourself from this. This means trying to encourage students to talk to each other, with you on the side-lines.

One of the great things about politics/political science is that there is a multiplicity of ways to address or answer most questions, so there is scope to let debate range freely and in its own fashion. You become the cattle-herder, occasionally prodding here and there, often just watching.

Sounds great, but how do you do this?

Take yourself out of the equation, where possible. You can do this by pre-arranging for students to start things with a presentation (including some questions for debate), or by giving the group a task to work on in small groups. The more one can encourage students to take the lead, the more likely they are to open up. Hence, you might just sit and watch, or possibly ask how you can help, rather than producing opinion, which quickly takes the position of gospel.

You might also try doing nothing. This can be taken a very long way – ask me about my Doing Nothing game one day – but if you work on the basis that no one likes a silence, then you might practise being strong and letting someone else fill that silence. That’s not easy to do, especially if you’re starting out, but some moments of awkward shuffling can be very powerful for you. If you want to avoid a reputation as someone who just gives students everything on a plate – and I’d suggest you do want to avoid that – then showing that you are led by their contributions can be a good way to encourage them.

This is all rather schematic, so I’d like to hear your ideas on this too. And if we all feel we’ve solved this one, then we can turn to shutting them up.

Big data, higher education and the paradox of size

I appear to be one of the last people still around at work, so I’m remedying that by taking a couple of weeks leave, but I thought it might be useful to explore one of the aspects of new technology that doesn’t always crop in our discussions, namely big data.

This is the time of year when lots of data becomes available to British universities: profiles of new students, student satisfaction, competitor analysis and the rest. I’m seeing more of it than before as I get ready to step up to my new role next month, but it’s all stuff that has really taken off in recent years across the sector.

From a managerial perspective, this is all really useful, pulling together lots of different strands to highlight general trends and patterns that might otherwise be missed. An article in The Guardian this week showcased several very interesting uses of data within institutions to identify issues, sometimes even before they became issues. Some of those uses are ones that I would want to find out more about and see how we could use them here.

However, I have to note a certain ambivalence on my part here.

Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting one of my counterparts from Reading University, which is about 20 miles away from here. Emma is a regular reader of this blog (hello there!) and we discussed some of the things we each do. One of the things that became evident was that we work with rather different sized groups of students.

For us, the luxury of small group sizes means that we can do a lot more in the way of individualised support and direction than would be possible with the kinds of numbers that Emma has to look after. True, the pay-off is that there are some things that we can’t do, because we’re too small – including this MUN module, which has been very positively received by students – but the basic approach has to be different.

What does this have to do with big data?

The issue is essentially one of perspective. Big data tells me to look at high levels of aggregation to see what works, but my practice tells me to focus on individuals. I know that when I get a percentage figure for ‘Politics’ on some report, I know that each student will count for a noticeable percentage individually, and I’ll have a good idea who the students are with any problems and why.

Perhaps the resolution of this is to marry up the two approaches: take the lessons of big data and aggregation, but then apply them in a moderated fashion, suitable to the needs of our students. Indeed, I would hope that we would do this for all data – big or not – if we are to be truly student-focused and -led in our teaching.

Whodunnit?:Mysteries and Teaching Critical Thinking

I recently returned from a trip to the UK where sadly susherwood’s and my schedules were not compatible enough to arrange a meetup.  While I was gone a new reality competition started up in the US called ‘Whodunnit?’.  A cross between the game Clue and CSI, contestants on the show are ‘killed’ one by one with the remainder investigating the scene to determine how the crime was completed.  Those who come closest to understanding the details of the crime are safe from harm, and those who mess it up are in danger of becoming the next victim.

The execution of the show does not really live up to the excellent premise, but watching it made me think about the use of mysteries to teach critical thinking in the classroom.  The inductive nature of being given a series of clues and pieces of evidence and trying to piece together events is quite useful training for students, and the use of mysteries gives it a fun edge that makes the answer worth knowing.  Any class that attempts to teach critical thinking could take a break to consider a mystery, although perhaps the best place for this is an undergraduate methods course.  I’ve posted before about Zendo, another critical thinking game that works great in methods.

I thought about assigning students to watch the show, but then remembered the fundamental rule of this blog: active learning is almost always better than passive learning.  So why have them watch a show when I can have them act it out?

If you want to try this, there are a few ways to go about it.  One would be to have students play the board game Clue.  This has limited applications though since the number of players is generally quite small, maybe 6-8.  Another option would be to give the students the details and evidence from a mystery–an episode of a mystery-themed show, or a short story or novel–and have them try to solve the crime.  Mystery buffs might spot the similarities though, particularly if you use a well-known case.

The option I’m toying with for this fall is to use a commercially available murder mystery party case. These are essentially role playing games, where each player is given a character to portray and they can trade information with each other both before and after the crime is committed.  The downloadable games contain all the pieces necessary to play and depending on the game can be run for as few as eight people or as many as 80 (more if people play as teams).

I like the role playing option because it’s highly interactive and requires the students to participate in gathering the information as well as analyzing it.  They also will not necessarily know when they have all the details of the case, which is more true to actual research, and can provide some interesting insights into ‘satisficing’ in this regard. The game could be a required element of the course or done entirely as extra credit.  My recommendation would be to require no more than participation in the exercise, and then award extra credit for correctly identifying the murderer, figuring out how the murder occurred, good game play, acting, and if you want, costumes.

Just remember that if you try something like this, the debriefing process afterward is essential to help students see the connection to the skills and content at stake–otherwise it will seem at best like a fun but pointless academic exercise.

If you try something like this (or have done already) I’m eager to hear about your experiences!

Any Questions?

We’re back in full swing now for classes and one issue that’s been playing on my mind of late is that of interaction and, more particularly, students asking questions. Or rather, not asking.

When I ask if there are any questions in a class, I’m asking in a genuine fashion, because I appreciate that it’s not an automatic process of comprehension. Moreover, if one person has a question or doesn’t understand, they are rarely alone in this. For me, it’s an excellent opportunity to be led by students’ needs, rather than my own. Not for me, the sigh of relief that no one’s going to challenge me on what I’ve said.

This is not to take it to the (probably (hopefully) apocryphal) story I was once told of a lecturer, who was in the habit of turning up to lectures, starting off with “any questions?” and if no asked him anything, then he’d say “then I have no else to add” and would stalk off again. Nor am I trying to do what one of my professors from my youth used to do: every 15 minutes, pick someone out randomly from the class, make them stand up and summarise what had been said. This achieved little except to make people very careful about where they sat.

So when I get a group that has no questions, I get concerned, because it suggests to me that they’re not really engaged.

I know that much of this is about structure and that the passive environment of the lecture (especially) makes that very difficult, but I do struggle a bit to see how I can overcome this. Partly, it has to be about being accessible to students, in the sense of them feeling comfortable raising a hand. Partly, it has to be about creating opportunities to let students talk more generally. The difficulty comes in balancing that with the need to communicate certain information in the session: there is some notional limit to how much students lead, when we take the learning process as a whole. Even in problem-based learning, there is still educator input, albeit as a procedural level.

This is where I’d usually offer a solution, but I don’t think I have one yet, so I’m more than willing to take advice or listen to good suggestions.

Location is Everything

Sometimes something as simple as changing our environment can make a big difference in our teaching.  I’ve experienced this twice over this summer in two completely different ways.  First I’ve traded out (too) sunny, (too) hot St. Louis for cool and rainy London, via an exchange program at my university that allows me to teach at our campus here.  The two classes (sorry, ‘modules’) I’m offering are both repeats for me, but they have been sincere creative challenges.  Adapting to a new location required a lot of reflection on my courses and how well they would meet the needs of a different set of students.  Turns out, they required quite a bit of revision: classes here meet for four hours, not two; six weeks rather than sixteen; and Americans are the minority nationality.  Usually I find myself using American politics examples to keep my St. Louis students in familiar territory, and often have to criticize the US to generate their critical thinking skills; here, I had to avoid the too-easy American example, and found myself in the odd position of defending the US to challenge the constant critical stream from my students.  Combine this with learning new technology systems, administrative tasks, and a new campus and city, and its been as much a learning experience for me as my students.  Changing it up a bit in terms of my personal location has done wonders for reinvigorating my teaching.

For the classroom, too, it can make a difference.  Forcing the students to get up and actually move their desks may be a chore, but the physical environment does affect the way students interact in the classroom.  In  groupwork, make the students get up and move their desks so they face each other and are physically separated from other groups.  If playing a game, make them move all the chairs to the side so they can’t stay seated and thus avoid interaction.  And in discussion, sit in a circle (yes, us too) so that they are forced to talk to each other, rather than individually interacting with the professor.  Better yet, if the class is small enough, change the environment entirely and move out of the classroom.  An informal setting at a cafe, park, or study room can shock students out of the classroom norms and get them to really engage with each other.

I was lucky enough to have a small graduate class this summer, just five students after the first class.  This is a discussion-based seminar, so the next class, a sunny day, we sat outside on the campus lawn.  I drew on the back of a sheet of paper when the blackboard would have been used (later I borrowed a student’s Ipad.  I need one of those!).  From then on, we met at the cafe on campus.  The informal setting helped the students relax and they ended up talking to each other, rather than to me–and this never prevented me from taking control of the conversation as needed.  It also made asking ‘hey, what do YOU think?’ seems less of an instructor’s demand for participation than a normal, conversational request for the quiet person’s thoughts.

Do I mind about mind maps?

I’ve always had an ambivalent relationships with mind maps*.  Despite the frequent suggestion from various quarters about how great they are, lots of freeware online and their obvious value in helping to visualise relationships within a subject, I have tended to find them rather problematic.

This has been for two main reasons.  On the one hand, it tends to impose a hierarchy of organisation, working out from a central node, which tends to make the incorporation of cross-cutting themes at best tricky and at worst a complete mess.  On the other, I find that my way of understanding a subject tends to be more linear: I need a starting point to build an argument and a position.  As result, mind maps haven’t figured very much in either my teaching or my research.

However, that’s been changing a bit during this semester’s teaching.  One of my classes is a Masters module on EU policies, which I teach to a small group of about half a dozen students.  This has allowed me to get us all around a table to talk with either other, rather than a more formal arrangement.  In the second half of the module, we’ve been looking at individual policy areas and this is where the mind maps have shown their value.

This is my effort for the EU’s Common Security & Defence Policy and is my copy, essentially representing my notes for the class.  As we talked about the policy area, I re-created much of this diagram with additional points, working on an A1 flip-chart sheet.  as you can see, the map allows me to piece together some ideas and gives some focus to sub-sections within the topic.

From the students’ point of view, this has helped in capturing a relatively complex field and (particularly) in getting to understand how they might tackle the second phase.  This is a student-led session where they propose changes to the policy area in order to improve its operation.  The mind map lets them get a better sense of what the problems are and how potential changes might impact.

I’m still not totally sold on mind maps, but I can see that sometimes they are a very helpful tool.

    • This is exactly the kind of sentence that gives academics a bad name with the rest of the population.

Using Oral Exams in Political Science

Happy New Year to all.  I hope our collective breaks have been enjoyable and that we are reinvigorated for the start of spring term!  I know I could use a couple of extra weeks, but instead I’m finishing up a paper and getting ready for SPSA next week.

I’m a fan of oral examinations in our field.  One of the challenges students face in a written exam is interpreting exactly what we mean in the questions that we ask.  Language that, to us, appears clear and obvious, to them is vague and confusing.  This is even more the case for multiple choice questions, when there is not only a stem to interpret, but four or five possible choices.  No matter how clear we are, students–even, perhaps especially, those who are very prepared for the exam–can overthink the options and choose the wrong answer.  Another problem with written exams is that its not exactly a skill set that students need after graduation.  I can’t imagine many situations where, outside of formal education and standardized entrance/exit exams, they will be asked to prove their knowledge on the basis of prewritten questions that they do not know ahead of time.  I doubt many of us actually grade students on the sentence structure and grammar, so as an exercise in writing its not particularly useful either.

Oral exams, on the other hand, can accomplish the same goals as written exams–testing students’ knowledge and understanding of the material–but have some additional benefits.  As an interaction between professor and student, they can help us dig through the BS that fills exam answers and figure out whether the student really knows what they are talking about.  It also can help us clarify the question or ask it in a different way to help a struggling or confused student better understand what is being asked.  Finally, its pretty decent training for the post-school world, where you may have to defend a political argument before peers or supervisors in the course of a conversation.

We use an oral exam as the capstone project for our majors, called the Overview, so I instituted a mini-overview in my required methods class.  The Overview requires students to sit a 45 minute oral exam with two faculty members on a scholarly book, and face questions about the authors argument, values, and methodology and are asked to synthesize those with ideas and issues confronted in their coursework.  The mini-overview is a miniature version of that.  It acts as the midterm in my methods class, and students read a book chapter or article that I assign (the same one for each student) and sit a 15 minute oral exam with me.  In the course of the mini-exam, we focus almost entirely on methodology and analyzing the argument and I have students break down the variables, measures, methods, sources, etc.  Students also turn in an annotated abstract of 300 words for the piece, with the annotations noting the X, Y, theory, methods, and findings.

I only had 25 students in this class, so it is perhaps easier for me to do individual oral exams than it would be if I had 100 students.  Most of the exams were held during what would have been class time, so it did not take up too much of my time, and grading occurred immediately. If you have larger classes, you could consider training TAs to give these exams, as we trust them with grading anyway.

In general students performed better on this oral midterm than my previous group of students had on their written exam, and this was at least partly due to my ability to probe their responses for understanding, and encourage them to make vague responses concrete.  My first crop of students that underwent mini-overview take their capstone Overview this spring, so I will report back on its longer-term impact then.

Connections Exercise

This is the last week of classes, and I’m trying to get students to think about how what has happened inside the classroom can be used to understand a world of which they remain mostly ignorant. So I’ve come up with the following small group exercise, which I’ll probably give them about twenty minutes to complete:

Write a short narrative (not a bulleted list) that explains the connection between the following people, places, and things:

Free Trade Area of the Americas
Foreign Assistance Act Of 1961

 Correctly connecting eight of the above items earns one point toward your final grade for each person in your group. For nine, two points. For all of them, three points.

Since my students might find this post on Google, I’m not going to post the answer until later this week (please don’t reveal the answer if you know it).

Solving the Reading Problem: The Weekly Critique

One of the most common complaints that instructors have is that students do not complete the readings.  No matter how interesting or unique or provocative they are, many students fail to crack their books at all prior to an exam, and some of those who do fail to retain any of the information or arguments.  For those of us who use those readings as a foundation for a class session, this behavior can lead anywhere from mild irritation to downright aggravation.

One way to solve this problem in an upper level seminar is to turn the reading from a passive exercise to an active one.  Assign the readings by week, rather than by session, and have your students write an analytical response on the readings each week.  Each critique must also pose a discussion question at the end.  Papers are typically two pages, though that depends on the type and number of readings assigned.  They are posted the day before class and shared online in a discussion forum. The discussion questions and different perspectives can then be used as a basis for discussion that week.  Scoring is based on a check plus/check/check minus/pass/fail system (which loosely corresponds to A-F) but no comments are made by the instructor after the first week or two.

I tried this in Spring 2011 in my Environmental and Energy Security class, an upper level seminar with ten students, with great success.  All of my students came prepared to class having completed and thought about all the readings.  In addition, their writing occurred throughout the semester, allowing multiple grading opportunities and a chance to improve their writing.  The papers also made prep for class very easy: I facilitated a conversation and provided context, but the students drove the discussion.  Quiet students could be drawn in to the conversation without fuss, since their perspective was already public.  Finally, grading is minimal.  It only took a few moments to read through the critiques and see what level of effort and insight students brought to their papers.

The downside is that students will whine about having to actually do the readings and write every week. But in a class that is really built around the readings, my students came to appreciate being forced to do the readings and to think about them, and they liked that their work was brought so obviously into the class through the discussions.  It made them feel like their work was driving the course.  I was able to be a true facilitator and participant rather than just their teacher, and the critiques were cited as a positive on my evaluations rather than a negative.