Getting Rid of Everything But the Kitchen Sink

This post was inspired by the ideas that Erin Baumann, Harvard, and John Fitzgibbon, Boston College, presented at the APSA Teaching & Learning Conference two weeks ago. They pointed out that instructors, myself included, often begin the course design process from the content-centric position of what we want students to learn. We collect resources for student consumption that illustrate principles and facts that we think are relevant to the subject of the course. Content for learning triumphs over the process of learning.

When engaging in this sort of scavenger hunt for content, a potentially much more useful question to ask is “What don’t students need?” The value of this approach hit home during a redesign of my course on economic development. I’ve taught this course for years at a variety of universities, and while I always make it a practice to update the readings, the learning objectives with which they were associated remained a fairly static and not very well thought out conglomeration. For the fall 2018 semester, the course is being consolidated with another course on environmental politics, and I’ve been forced to think hard about how I can adequately serve both subjects simultaneously.

I concluded that my existing course design wasn’t very elegant. Though I was fairly satisfied with what students were doing in terms of assignments and exercises, my predilection for the subject material had caused me to fall into the trap of “it would be nice if I covered . . . ” rather than ruthlessly restricting my syllabus to only the most essential content.

I needed a new design process, so I tossed everything about the existing course into a spreadsheet. Then I identified old and new topics — learning objectives actually — that I thought were critical to the new course, and deleted everything else. Same for readings — I discarded whatever didn’t narrowly correspond to the now smaller number of learning objectives, and found a few new ones that did.

I’m sure students will be pleased with the shorter reading list, even though their ability to skip over the most important, more-difficult-to-digest material in favor of breezier newspaper and blog articles has been greatly reduced. I’m happier because the course will be less of a bugaboo to teach given the pared-down content.

Collaborative Reading – Follow-Up Thoughts

Today we have an update from Colin M. Brown, College Fellow in Government at Harvard University. He can be reached at brown4 [at] fas [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

In a post last year, I talked about the potential of using annotation software like CritiqueIt to make the reading process more collaborative. In short, by creating a single copy of the reading that students can mark up together online, there’s the potential for creating discussion prior to and during class, and also for getting students to see course readings as statements in a dialogue.

My first use of CritiqueIt was promising, but I’m less satisfied after having further used it in two undergraduate seminars plus a graduate-level, continuing education course.

Two things have continued to work, probably still making the tool a net positive. First, as a diagnostic tool CritiqueIt makes class prep easier, because it gives me a window into what students find interesting or are struggling with. Students indicate their interest implicitly or explicitly, and they also seem relatively fine with using their comments to signal that something doesn’t make sense—especially useful when they’re having difficulty with something I didn’t expect. Second, they seem to like it. Students seem to perceive it as a cool new gimmick, and I seem to get credit for trying it.

However, while CritiqueIt lets me know what students want the conversation in class to be about, it hasn’t generated a conversation among students on its own. Students have posted a few responses to other students’ annotations, but the kind of exchange I mentioned in the original post hasn’t happened consistently. Students seem to be completing the assignment because it sends me a signal that they have, in fact, engaged with the reading. This provides me with feedback for me, as mentioned above, but was not my ultimate reason for using the tool.

Since I want students to see political science writings as part of an ongoing exchange of ideas, there are three changes that I’ll be implementing next semester, thanks to insights from my colleague Daniel Smail, who has been experimenting with the same tool in his history courses:

  1. Build CritiqueIt into the entire semester. Students need time to get used to the tool, and the expectation that it’s an integral part of their work.
  2. Assign early readers. If everyone reads the night or morning before class, there’s less incentive to start a dialogue that none of their peers will respond to. By dividing up the collaborative readings and having one or two students make their annotations three or four days before class, there will be more time for students to jump into the conversation.
  3. Work CritiqueIt into summative assessment. This also normalizes the use of the tool, and gives students the incentive to develop better commenting skills. Students will need several days to virtually hand the document back and forth so this has to be accounted for in scheduling other assignments. But giving them a longer piece of journalism on the broad course theme and having them react to it, and then to each other, knowing that their comments will be graded on some explicit rubric, might be a better way to tease out their ability to respond critically to arguments—and actually use something they learned from class.


The First Day of Class: Remix

As classes start up again for the fall semester, this might be a good time to revisit some great ALPS posts on how to approach the first days and weeks of the term.  We recommend:

Start the way you finish–A reminder that active learning–regardless of when you may have scheduled a simulation or other activity–begins on day one.

Picture it! A game for the first year students that teaches students to create and read maps while learning how to get around campus.

Close reading a syllabus–why not quiz your students on the syllabus to incentivize them to read it thoroughly?

Government in our lives--an idea for starting that first class session of American politics.

Today’s lucky winner is… and The other side of presenting–two posts that look at how to approach student presentations, from requiring all students to show up ready to present on the day’s topic to teaching students how to be the audience for a presentation.

And finally, because every class benefits from a bit of lego, take a page from Susherwood’s playbook and think about using lego in your classes.


Happy Fall Semester!

Reading for What? And for Whom?

A bit more on what I refer to as the reading problem, inspired by the cultural anthropologist Angela Jenks and a recently-rebroadcast episode of the On Point radio program.

Perhaps reading something else while on Mt. Sinai would be more useful.
Perhaps reading something else while on Mt. Sinai would be more useful.

Reading has been fundamental to learning for the last 5,000 years, but it’s still an activity that a lot of students avoid whenever possible. So we, as teachers, create a variety of carrots and sticks to get students to read and to read in ways that are beneficial. These carrots and sticks include specifications grading systems, plain old rubrics, and even software tools. I personally expend a lot of mental effort on designing writing assignments that I hope help students improve their analytical reading skills.

Wrapping up my annual summer course on the Middle East inspired me to take a step back from assignment design and look at a more basic question: what should students be reading, given who they are and why they have enrolled in the course? My Middle East course is a bit peculiar: it’s online, only seven weeks long, and for graduate students. A large portion of the students have military or government experience; many of them have worked and even fought wars in some of the locations they study in the course. They tend to be working professionals looking for both a deeper understanding of their interests and a credential that will help them advance their careers. They are not future professors or undergraduates fulfilling a general education requirement.

People often choose required readings for a course on the basis of “coverage” — we define Topics 1 through N as essential to the study of Subject Q, and look for readings that we think address 1 to N. For a survey course on the Middle East, these topics — at U.S. universities — are usually:

  • The brief introductory geographic and pre-modern historical overview.
  • A basic understanding of Islam and its supposed sociocultural effects.
  • The decline of the Ottoman and Safavid empires and European imperialism.
  • Post-independence state-building.
  • The Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • Oil and the USA.
  • Something about “political Islam” (whatever that is), terrorism, and ongoing instability.

For my course, I have always used Westview Press’s A History of the Modern Middle East, by Cleveland and Bunton. It’s a brilliant, well-written synthesis of politics and history. However, the text of the newest edition — excluding notes and index — has crept upward to 556 pages. I also like to assign Reza Aslan’s 266-page No God But God for the topic of Islam.

The length of these two books means that I am not able to assign other readings that might be more pertinent to my students’ interests and futures. For example, while I think it is important for people to know some basic information about the Ottoman era, I don’t think it is necessary for these students to read 200 pages about it. They could very well be better served by reading something that will provide them with a better understanding of the politics behind the Arab Spring and its aftermath, like Rage for Order by Robert F. Worth, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux — which itself clocks in at 272 pages. 

All of this means that I’m now thinking about which topics are the most and least important to my students, rather than the topics that I think must be included to “cover” the subject. It also means that Ellen Lust’s 900+ page The Middle East, from CQ Press, is just too big for students in this course. Instead I am looking at shorter histories, such as James Gelvin’s The Modern Middle East (370 pages), or books that focus on the contemporary period, like James Barr’s Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East (359 pages).

If anyone has any recommendations, please comment.

Grading on Spec III

The first-year seminar I mentioned in my last post will have twenty-two students; each will be (or should be) submitting at least thirty-five reading responses during the semester. While the reading responses make students read and write about what they’ve read, I have to grade them within twenty-four hours of submission if my feedback is going to have any effect. To make grading these writing assignments as easy as possible, I’ve used a form of specifications grading with a 2 X 2 rubric.

I’ve noticed that any long-form comments I make about what a student submits — besides compliments like “Good work” — almost always relate to mechanical errors in the student’s writing. I see spelling mistakes, disagreement between the singular and plural, incorrect verb tenses, and other problems that detract from the ideas students are trying to express. My rubric hasn’t included a criteria for writing mechanics, hence the perceived need for me to type something in the tiny comment box when grading.

I’ve decided to add that criteria to the rubric to further reduce the amount of time spent grading. The rubric now looks like this:

30 point rubric

Since each reading response will be worth 30 points rather than 20, I will probably also boost my grading scale for the course from 1,000 to 2,000 points.

Previous posts on specifications grading herehere, and here.

Critical Reading with CritiqueIt: A Guest Post from Colin Brown

Our latest guest post is from Colin M. Brown, PhD, a Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard University.  He shares with us a great tool for teaching students how to critically engage with texts in a meaningful way.

Active learning has shown effectiveness in teaching concepts, but what about in instructing college students how to read effectively? One unavoidable problem in political science remains teaching students how to read actual works of social science. We expose students to original research and “great books” in our field as a way of simultaneously teaching the course content and also teaching how to read a particular style of social science argument.

This is well and good, and like writing, reading is a skill where students will learn mostly by doing. But are there things we can do to assist the process of learning how to read analytically?

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