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).

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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.

A Simulation for the Flipped IR Classroom

Today we have a guest post from Tricia Stapleton:

FlipI recently joined the Social Science and Policy Studies Department at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), a science- and engineering-focused school. The curriculum is heavily-focused on project-based learning and to facilitate at least three major projects over a student’s WPI career, semesters are split in two. That means I have one 7-week term (approximately 25 contact hours) to teach a full course. For new classes, prep isn’t as difficult because I’m building the course from the ground up. But for my Topics in International Politics course, which I’ve taught about a dozen times in a traditional format, I struggled to cut the course material down. At WPI, there were a couple of workshops about the flipped  classroom, and I considered implementing it as a way to maximize my contact hours with students.

We’ve written before about the inverted or flipped classroom pedagogy (for example: here, here, and here, so I won’t rehash the details of how to do it. But I will follow up on Chad’s post about finding useful activities for students to complete during class time.

I used a simulation for the second half of the term to get students more engaged with the material – Brock Tessman’s International Relations in Action: A World Politics Simulation. A brief review of the game can be found on the PaxSims blog. I selected this simulation because even though it was already well-developed in terms of structure it also left room for tweaking. In addition, it worked well with the intro textbook I use for the course, Goldstein and Pevehouse’s International Relations. Students had to complete individual and group background reports on their objectives and strategies for the game. During the game, each team completed an assessment sheet at the end of each round, which linked the session’s work with the course reading and IR theories and concepts. At the end of the simulation, students had to complete an individual report, assessing their own strategies and accomplishments, and a group report and presentation that assessed their work as a team.

Overall, the students loved it! Over 97 percent of the students recommended that I keep the simulation in the course on the evaluation instrument that I created. The majority of the students selected “interesting,” “worthwhile,” and “fun” when given a choice among positive and negative descriptors of the game. On my end, I found the student reports to be insightful, and they displayed unprompted links between game play and course content. However, I’m currently in the process of developing different assessments to determine levels of student learning. At the moment, the strongest benefit of flipping half of my class is that students were very engaged with IRiA. I also had a lot of time in class to work with students in small groups on any issues they were having with the content, so that goal of the flip was accomplished.

Innovation for innovation’s sake?

I’ve been meeting new colleagues in recent weeks, as new contracts begin and as I get geared up for the start of the academic year. Couple that to interviewing people for new posts and I’m getting to talk to a good range of people about their teaching.images

One of the things I’m always interested in is what people do. Everyone’s got something that’s a bit different and I certainly don’t presume to know it all, so I ask. A student-led pedagogy here, a piece of group work there: all interesting stuff.

This is by way of a prelude to a recent discussion, where I was asking someone about how they’ve innovated their teaching. Their reply was that they ‘don’t innovate, actually.’

This rather disarmed me, especially as it transpired they were doing some great things with feedback (maybe to discuss in another post), but it raised an important question: do we innovate for innovation’s sake sometimes?

Here at the ALPS blog, we love talking about new stuff. That’s partly because it offers new ways to engage students, partly because it gives us new material to write about, and partly because… well, because it’s new and different.

At the same time, I think we also recognise that new-ness isn’t, in of itself, a sufficient reason to use a particular technique. Our primary interest is in doing things as well as possible. That might mean trying out something new, because we don’t know if it works, but it also means not throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

To take the obvious example, lectures are not the unambiguous evil that they sometimes get painted as. As a method of presenting a package of ideas to the audience, with some capacity for real-time interaction, they are great. They let you tailor your content in a way that you can’t do in a flipped classroom and, when they are done well, they can be a thing of joy to be part of.

The difficulty comes – as so often – in the stickiness of practice. We do the thing we did before, because we don’t have time to change, or because we have no incentive to change, or because it’s ‘good enough.’ I’m just as guilty of it as the next person.

Seen as such, it’s not so much a lack of innovation that’s the problem, as it is inertia.

Perhaps the answer here is to do a bit of the old jujitsu and use the problem to find a way to deal with it. Rather than asking ourselves: “what can I do that’s new?”, we should be saying “what can I tweak to improve?” Rather than working from a clear sheet each time, we can build incrementally on existing practice to make something a bit better. For most people, most of the time, such a gradual approach is both lower in cost and likely to produce useful outcomes.

Of course, for some, more radical solutions are needed, but if there is a culture of tweaking and refinement, then that will be accompanied by a culture of (self-)reflection and an awareness of the limits to any one approach.

The real challenge here is to build that culture and to then support it. It needs buy-in from all teaching staff and a habit of sharing ideas and problems. That’s certainly not easy but it looks more manageable than asking for permanent revolution.

So then: Brit argues for pragmatic approach. Not so surprising, is it?