Flipping the Research Methods Classroom, Part 1

Today we have the first post in a series on building a flipped course by Natascha van der Zwan and Alexandre Afonso. Both are assistant professors at the Institute of Public Administration at Leiden University, the Netherlands. They can be reached by emailing Natascha at n.a.j.van.der[dot]zwan[at]fgga[dot]leidenuniv[dot]nl.

Since I have started teaching graduate courses on research methods, I have struggled with the way in which such courses are usually taught. Why do we still teach research methods from textbooks? Most academics will agree that you learn best how to do research by simply doing it, and the traditional lecture format, where students are rather passive, seems inappropriate to achieve this.

For this reason, my Leiden colleague Alexandre Afonso and I have spent the last two years developing a new way of teaching research methods to our students, transforming our existing course into a flipped classroom using blended learning. The flipped classroom was developed with the financial and material support of Leiden University’s ICTO program and the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs. Alexandre and I will describe what our flipped classroom consists of, how we set it up, and our experiences teaching it. Continue reading

Engaging Students, Part 2: Lecture Summaries

Transitioning from passive to active learning in our courses can be a daunting task.  At ALPS we focus quite a bit on games and simulations, and one of the chief concerns raised by newcomers to these pedagogies is the loss of control an instructor must face as they move away from a lecture model.  This week’s technique is aimed at instructors who want to dip their toes into the active learning pool, rather than cannonballing off the diving board.

Let’s talk about the lecture summary.

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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).

Continue reading

Engaging Students

Two interesting posts came across my RSS feed yesterday that provide empirical evidence about two different ways of better engaging students.  And if there is one thing I love, it’s empirical evidence for pedagogical best practices.

Is this view from the back of the room?
Is this view from the back of the room?

First, the Chronicle of Higher Education had this post on the Benefits of No-Tech Note Taking.  Or, as I call it in my classes, the “laptop ban”.  The author shares her experiences and cites two studies. One highlights the empirical evidence on the benefits of long-hand note-taking for conceptual understanding.  The other looks at the drawbacks of the sorts of multitasking that laptops enable.  A few years ago I banned technology in my classes based on my intuition that students were less engaged and not likely to be taking better notes.  The simple act of getting rid of laptops meant the students are more likely to look at me or each other, an important first step in being engaged.  While students can be disengaged without a laptop in front of them, the ban removes one point of distraction.  And the evidence suggests it does so while improving student learning through better note-taking.

Second, over at the Quantitative Peace blog, Michael Touchton discusses his efforts to flip his undergraduate quantitative methods course.   Those of us interested in assessing our active learning efforts often struggle with identifying a control group to compare to our active learning treatment.  He does that here and published this paper with his results. In brief, he finds that the flipped classroom works.  Using face-to-face class time for assignments and to provide mini-lectures to address common problems, enhanced student learning, particularly of higher-order learning objectives, and student motivation.

The common theme is that engaged students learn.  Taking notes longhand encourages students to process information and reframe content in their own words rather than transcribing verbatim.  It also limits distractions.  Flipping classrooms provide greater opportunities to engage students in the classroom.

Field of Dreams

A follow-up to Simon’s post about field trips:

Dream FieldI too am a fan of changing the physical environment in which students learn. I’ve gone long on two occasions — twelve-day study abroad programs in Egypt — but it’s immensely complicated for the instructor. You never know when a revolution might break out. Also, because of time and money required, the practice frequently excludes students for whom such an experience would be the most beneficial.

Going short, at least in the USA, is also often problematic. I can hold an audience captive for only fifty or seventy-five minutes, depending on the day of the week that the class meets. We can’t go very far on foot or on public transportation in such a short period of time.

There is another version of the field trip that is much more convenient: the campus presentation or lecture. Yet like most of my colleagues, I expected students to attend these events for their own good, and I was dismayed when they didn’t.

Over the last two years my attitude has changed, for three reasons:

  1. If we claim that these events are opportunities for learning, then why shouldn’t they contribute toward students’ grades? I should be sending the message to students that I am not the only person who matters in their college educations.
  2. Assignments based on attending campus lectures do not in any way detract from what I do in the classroom. Students normally don’t remember much of that anyway, and getting a different perspective on the same topic, or a related one, might spark some thinking that would not otherwise occur.
  3. I place responsibility for success on students by calculating the course grade on a 1,000 point scale with assignments and quizzes that are in total worth about 1,2000 points. Campus presentations become just one more option for students to improve their grades, and they occur with such frequency that I can usually connect three or four of them to the subject of a particular course. If a student can’t attend an event because of some other commitment, it won’t automatically negatively affect the student’s performance in the course.

Since I’m a believer in writing as a way of thinking, students have to write about the content of a presentation to earn anything toward the course grade. My standard instructions for the assignment are to discuss the following in no more than two pages:

  • What was the presenter’s argument?
  • What evidence did the presenter use to support his or her argument?
  • Was the presenter’s argument convincing? Why?
  • How could the presentation be improved?

This is my way of ensuring that the student’s written product contains specific details about the presentation. I make these assignments worth ten points, or one percent, of the final grade.