Teaching EU online communication through simulation – the twitcol case: Guest post by Jon Worth

Guest author Jon Worth works across Europe, offering consultancy on a range of subject areas. This post was originally posted on his own blog and is reproduced with his permission.

wOb93E7uFor the first time in the academic year 2015-16 I am a member of the faculty of the politics department at the College of Europe in Bruges. My own MA is from the College of Europe (in 2003-04) and it is good to be back there as a teacher this time. The College operates a system of a kind of flying faculty – we are called upon to run courses or seminars, but are not actually based in Bruges. My own course is a short, optional one entitled Online Communications in EU policymaking, but this post concerns my contribution to a compulsory course for all 96 politics MA students run by Pierpaolo Settembri andCostanza Hermanin – the EU legislation simulation game.

The basic idea of the simulation game is relatively well known – each student gets allocated a role, and all of the aspects of an EU legislative negotiation are played out by the students playing these roles. Pierpaolo is the author of a book about how to use these sorts of games to teach about the EU. Continue reading

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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Enough with the problems. Give me solutions!

Florentine in practical application of political thought shock!
Florentine in practical application of political thought shock!

This past week, I got to fly down to Florence, to take part in a workshop on studying the European Union, hosted by the European University Institute and the College of Europe (my alma mater). With a beautiful setting and Italian food and drink aplenty, it was certainly a very convivial environment.

At the same time, we ended up covered a lot of the same ground that all of us have covered many times before. We talked about how multi-/inter-disciplinarity is good, but difficult to actually achieve; we talked about how some basic concepts remain poorly conceptualised (‘euroscepticism’ this time); we even talked about the difficulties of sharing good practice in learning & teaching.

In short, we were good academics: long on the problems, much shorter on the solutions (or even, a solution).

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Teaching about Variables

The concept of a variable is something that students in my methods course have trouble understanding. The difference between a variable and a constant, what a value is or how a variable can be measured in different ways with different sets of values–all of these things they find very confusing and abstract. I have two ways of dealing with this. First, I ask them to imagine they are in a room filled with toys for children with a series of unlabeled toy boxes lining the walls. It is their task to put the toys away (note: you can make this an interactive, hands-on experiment either by bringing in some toys yourself, or in a brilliant stroke of work-life balance, asking your students over to clean up your kid’s playroom/bedroom). Ask them how they organize the toys as they put them away. They tend to volunteer answers like ‘by size’, ‘by age range’, ‘by color’, ‘by purpose’. You can point out that the organizing system is the variable, and the labels they put on the actual toy boxes–large, medium, small, or educational toys, or toys for infants–are the values that the variable can take. Start with this example, and then whenever you are working with a variable, you can replace the toys with the variable in question. Toys can become regime types, with toy boxes labeled ‘democracy’ or ‘authoritarian’, or they can become ‘vote choices’ with candidates names appearing on the imaginary labels. Just as a framework for understanding this central concept, this thought experiment can work really well.

A more active way of doing this (besides my obvious joke about having your students tidy your house) would be to bring in a deck of cards and pass out a card to each student and then invite them to group them together any systematic way they choose, with the rule that there must be at least one group and that to start, at least, each group must have at least two cards. Once they are done, they have to tell you the category by which they chose to organize the cards, and how they would label each group. Write the method on the board, then have them do it again three or four times. With a deck of cards, there are a lot of organizing systems–by suit, by number, by face card v. number, by color, by odds and evens–by the end of the exercise, they see how you can gather multiple variables about the same information or data points, and that you can measure them in different ways. For example, if they organize by number, they can do cards from 1-3, 4-6, and 7-9 or from 1-5 and 6-10 (I usually leave out face cards with a small group).

From either of these, you can then easily define variables and values and start talking about them in a political context or move into discussing hypotheses or measurement. I’ve used the toy box example in three different sections with great success; I just tried the card example and the students definitely seemed less confused then in the past when I’ve tried to work with them on this building block of methodology.

More fun with playing cards

I love it when a great idea pops into my RSS reader and I can put it into action immediately. This week, I shamelessly stole this idea from this ProfHacker post: Playing Cards in the Classroom for Student Collaboration.  What a fantastically brilliant and simple idea!

Take a look at the post for a full description, but here’s a quick summary: you use a deck of cards to assign (or let students choose) a card at the beginning of the semester. Then, on any given day, you can make groups based on the cards, using various combinations. For example, you could divide students into groups by suit, by number, by a combination of color and number, and so on (the ProfHacker post lists a number of possible combinations). You can change groups as needed simply by using a different combination of cards to make new groups.

What I like most about this method of creating groups is that I have some control over the groups that form; for one, I can ensure that the groups are the same or different from a previous day, depending on my objectives for the group work. Having students count off or choose their own groups won’t always accomplish that.

I can also see a number of useful extensions of this method. If you want to assign roles to group members, you could attach a role to a card value (e.g. students with the 2 in the group will record the group’s work). You could assign cards to students rather than have them randomly select; this could give you the ability to form specific groups if you need. This could help mitigate some challenges of collaborative work.

The question that remains is: will the students remember their cards all semester?

Book Review: Student Engagement Techniques

My dog-eared copy of Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty.
My dog-eared copy of Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty.

This post-it note littered copy of Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Elizabeth Barkley can usually be found on my desk. I often recommend this book to instructors new to active learning or those just looking for some new ideas to adopt. The book begins by providing conceptual context for student engagement and learning, including background on active learning. Barkley includes fifty tips and strategies for promoting active learning, getting student “buy in,” and building a classroom community. These tips are useful, particularly if active learning is new to you or to your students.

But what really earns this book a spot on my shelf (or often on the floor next to my messy desk) is the fifty techniques described in detail, with practical tips for using the techniques.   The “student engagement techniques” (SETs) are divided by learning objectives. Each technique includes classroom examples, suggestions for online transferability, step-by-step directions, and advice. When I am looking for ways to get my students engaged with a particular lesson, I frequently turn to this book. And rarely do I walk away without an activity to adopt for that class.

One of my favorite techniques is “Jigsaw”. Briefly, students work first in “expert” groups “to develop knowledge about a given topic and to formulate effective ways of teaching it to others” (289). Then they move to new groups, comprised of a student from each of the “expert” groups and they teach each other. I find this is a useful way to construct group work. Since all students in the “expert” groups will have the responsibility of teaching their peers in the second set of groups, they have an incentive to stay engaged. In the second set of groups, everyone has to contribute since each group is made up of one “expert” from the original groups. This tends to be an effective way to engage quieter students and reduce free-riding.

As with any teaching book, many of the tips and techniques work best as a starting point. I do find myself modifying the techniques to fit my needs. That said, when I am struggling for a way to make material more engaging I always turn to this book first.

 

 

 

Book Review: Collaborative Learning Techniques

CoLTHere is a review of another practical guide for teaching:

Elizabeth F. Barkley, K. Patricia Cross, and Claire Howell Major, Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty, Jossey-Bass, 2005.

Collaborative Learning Techniques is organized much like Classroom Assessment Techniques and in fact there is some overlap in terms of content.

Methods presented in the book that I had used before required adjustment and iteration before they met my expectations. From this perspective I think that the book is most useful as a starting point for experimentation.

For example, in the technique of “Test-Taking Teams,” students (1) study course content as a team to prepare for an exam, (2) take the exam separately for individual grades, (3) discuss the exam among themselves, and (4) take the same exam together for a group grade.

I see the technique’s general applicability, but to me the initial joint study session is problematic for two reasons. First, given students’ wildly conflicting schedules, a joint study session will have to be held in the classroom to avoid inconvenience, which eats up time that might be more productively used in other ways. Second, some students have much better study skills than others and those students should not be required to devote time and energy on their lower-performing peers prior to an individually-graded exam. A better option might be for students to (1) study individually before the initial exam, (2) discuss how they studied with their teammates after they know their exam scores and are more receptive to altering how they study, and (3) collectively take the team exam. 

“Grading and Evaluating Collaborative Learning” was the most thought-provoking chapter for me. The authors state that:

“[s]ince achieving individual accountability while still promoting group interdependence is a primary condition for collaborative learning, it is most effective if grades reflect a combination of individual and group performance. One way to achieve this is to . . . ensure that individual effort and group effort are differentiated and reflected by a product that can be evaluated” (84).

I still haven’t quite figured out how to do this efficiently. Students often default to chopping up group tasks into discrete chunks. No real collaboration takes place and the final product can be disjointed and of uneven quality. Or there are free riders. Teammate evaluations help address this problem to some extent, but this assessment mechanism is summative rather than formative — it occurs at the end of the semester when it’s too late for a student to change his or her behavior.