Trust But Verify: Assessing Preparation Instead of Participation

Joel MooreToday’s guest contributor is Joel D. Moore of Monash University Malaysia.

Discussion sections (‘tutorials’ at my institution) are frequently my most and least favorite part of teaching. When they work well, they can be more than the sum of their parts. Informed by the week’s readings, students will drive discussions in unexpected directions, critiquing the work and applying it to new examples. Small group activities will be dynamic and student-led, leaving participants with a deeper appreciation of the material and their own preconceptions.

When they fail, they fall to the lowest common denominator. Unprepared students waste valuable time derailing conversations, trying to hide the fact that they haven’t done the readings. Well prepared students become resentful when, class after class, their peers scramble to extract Cliff’s Notes versions of the material from them. The best outcome to be hoped for class is that students come away with a basic understanding of the essential arguments in the readings.

Other than avoiding the dreaded after-lunch time slot for sections, I’ve not been able to do much to ensure that a section runs smoothly. Some classes just worked and some didn’t. Some students simply don’t seem to be motivated by the threat of a poor participation grade or the promise of a vigorous discussion.

Last Fall, I tried a new strategy: grading preparation instead of participation. I allowed students in my States and Markets class to self-report their level of preparedness and claim a commensurate grade for each class session. I would then spend the first 10-15 minutes of the session calling on three random students (assisted by an on-screen random number generator) to verify that they were prepared. After the verification portion of the class was finished, I led the section as usual — sometimes with discussion and sometimes with activities. Continue reading

Already Closed Minds

CrybabyTaking Simon’s recent post about encouraging student feedback in a different direction:

Yes, students often perceive and understand differently than I do, and I agree that removing barriers to their acquisition of knowledge as an important part of my job. But in many cases students are as different from one another as they are from me, and some of them are simply not interested in learning.

For example, I’m still using the Quality of Failure essay in all my courses as an end-of-semester exercise in meta-cognitive reflection. Compare these quotes from essays written by two students in a course that just ended:

When I realized that we only really went over the homework in class, I mentally decided that I didn’t really want to participate because I had already written my response and it had already been graded.”

While I feel that I have achieved my goal of learning about new populations, I also feel that this was achieved for other reasons than what I previously mentioned. For instance, the one thing that I never really took into consideration was the fact that discussions with my peers would end up being the most influential factor in learning what I did this semester.”

The first student decided early on that she would learn nothing from hearing about the perspectives of her peers during classroom discussions, while the second student was surprised to find that this aspect of the course was by far the most valuable.

The pedagogical “experts” might say that I should meet all students where they are and adjust to all the ways in which students define their interests. But I refuse to accommodate those who are too close-minded to try something that challenges their own view of themselves.

Beginner’s Guide to Simulations: Part 2, Benefits of Simulations

This is Part 2 of an ongoing series aimed at newcomers to using simulations and games in their classroom.  Part 1 introduced the series and focused on how to reduce the workload required in the design and use of these pedagogies.

Skepticism is a pretty standard attitude that we face when trying to convince instructors to try simulations and games in their classes.  Beyond the issues of workload and time that cause new adopters to hesitate, there is a more basic problem: convincing instructors that simulations and games have any place at all in a classroom traditionally dominated by lecture and discussion.

I won’t bury the lede: the ALPS team are all strong proponents of the value of simulations and games in the classroom.  That being said, we are also very aware of the limits of these pedagogies, and one of us publishes consistently on the failures of simulations.  So we are not die-hard true believers. I’m going to focus this post on highlighting some of the benefits of using simulations–such as increasing interaction, engagement, and skill-building opportunities– and then turn to a potential limit–the lack of solid evidence that they improve learning.

Continue reading

Encouraging student feedback

Durdle_Door_OverviewAs my American colleagues know, the UK is a socialist paradise and it’s one of the reasons they’re all coming over later this month (the other is our workshop, which you can book a space at here).

One of the many great consequences of our enlightened political choices is the notion of ‘bank holidays’, days especially chosen to have poor weather, so that us Brits can really indulge in moaning about rain. We love it.

This weekend past was, unfortunately, a very poor example, as the sun shone for a full three days, but I braved it all, to go on a short family break on the South Coast. This included a Sunday lunch in a small pub, where (it turned out) a recent graduate of my fine university was one of the people serving us. Continue reading

Ethical Exercise

Philosophers Football 2Here is an example of Michelle’s last post about activating prior knowledge — an exercise that also relates to my caution against relying solely on dense canonical texts to engage students.

In class, give students the following scenario:

You have a brother who has been living with you since losing his job a few months ago. Recently he has seemed unusually distracted. One day while rummaging through a hallway closet, you accidentally knock your brother’s coat onto the floor. A cigarette lighter with the letters “LS” engraved on it falls from one of the coat’s pockets. The next day, while listening to local news on the radio, you hear a story about a woman named Linda Smith who was found murdered a few days before. Police have asked the community for help with the investigation. Do you inform the police that your brother might be the murderer?

Continue reading

Is there anything new under the sun?

The sun, yesterday

The journey back from TLC is always a reflective one for me, not least because I’m sat in a airplane seat for a long time and I’d rather dwell on what I’ve been doing, rather than what I am going to have to do. This year is no different.

We talked in our podcast about what had particularly struck us from the Portland event, so I don’t want to go over that ground again. But I do want to work through one of the discussions that wove (weaved?) its way through different parts of the conference, namely the limits to what we can learn.

Continue reading

Our review of APSA TLC Portland… in a podcast!

That’s right, we’ve decided to practise what we preach and have done a bit of experiential learning (well, the others did – I’ve got history on this one).

Myself, Michelle, Amanda, Chad & Victor sat down after a long day to talk about what we’ve got from the conference, as well as to look ahead to some new projects we’ve got coming up.

So sit back, turn up the volume and enjoy 20 minutes of conversation.

We’d love to get your feedback, both on our thoughts and on our podcasting. If it’s something you’d like to see/listen to more of, then we’re biddable, especially now that we’ve seen just how easy it is to set up.