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.


Extending Simulations without Becoming Overextended

Today we have another guest post by Joel D. Moore of Monash University Malaysia. He can be reached at joel [dot] moore [at]

Simulations are hard work. Extended simulations that occur over multiple class periods are doubly so. Instructors must invest substantial effort to set them up and even more to monitor them once they are running. The decentralized learning that makes them so effective also makes it hard to fairly and transparently assess participants. Thus, instructors may be dissuaded from employing them despite their pedagogical benefits.

Social networking software (SNS) can reduce these burdens. With some slight customization, an SNS can be used to efficiently capture most forms of student interaction in a way that is easily accessed by the instructor. SNSs are equipped with user-centered messaging, chat, blog, group, event notification, and file sharing capabilities. SNSs also feature optional plug-ins that can be used to further enrich the experience. They can easily serve as a mechanism for simulation participants to communicate with each other, while allowing instructors to monitor events in real time with no additional work on the part of the students. Another benefit of using an SNS is that once one creates the architecture of a simulation, it can be redeployed instantly for a future class, or quickly modified for another simulation that has a similar array of roles. Continue reading

Follow-Up on Slack and Specification Grading

Today we have another post by guest contributor William R. Wilkerson, Professor of American Government and Politics at SUNY-Oneonta. He can be reached at bill [dot] wilkerson [at] oneonta [dot] edu.

Earlier this summer I wrote about two changes that I made to my five-week online summer course, Law, Courts and Politics: using Slack for class communication and specifications grading. Both experiments were a success.


Slack was a great addition. I found it easy to set up and to use. Students liked it. Thanks to the resources I noted in my earlier post, I created a simple structure: channel for each week was the home of announcements, files, links, and discussion — the center of the course. The introduction channel gave students the ability to practice and the questions forum got some use, especially early in the term.

Because Slack has excellent apps for all mobile and computer platforms, I hoped that it would encourage regular communication, which it did. Total posts in the weekly channels ranged from 62 in week 2 to 90 in week 4. I posted reminders and introduced topics, but most posts were from the students. Nine or ten students active each week; one student never posted in the weekly discussion forums. I was pleased that a group of students began posting mid-week and continued through the end of the week. Students picked up quickly on hashtags for topics and connecting to their fellow students via the @ symbol, which facilitated interaction. Posts were fairly long too, especially when you consider they were writing on their phones. I had expected phone use to result in short responses to comments, but that didn’t happen. Continue reading

Fixing Health Care? A Simulation in American Government

Today we have a guest post from Josiah Marineau, an assistant professor of political science at Campbellsville University. He can be contacted at josiah [dot] marineau [at] gmail [dot] com.

For my Introduction to American Government course, I designed a simulation of the legislative process in which students are tasked with debating different policy options for the U.S. healthcare system. The simulation is intended to  familiarize students to a key policy debate in contemporary U.S. politics.

The simulation will last two weeks. The first week will be preparation:  explaining the politics of the U.S. health care system, the main options for policymakers, and how the simulation  will work. Students will be introduced to the rules used in Model United Nations to govern debate and voting on bills. Students will use materials I provide to write policy position papers that advocate for a given policy solution to the challenges facing the U.S. health care system.

The simulation itself will run in the second week, over two class periods. Students will use their policy papers as the basis for debate and will give speeches in class in favor of or in opposition to proposed legislation. I expect them to form coalitions with other, like-minded students, and draft a bill that is amenable to a majority of the class.

As part of the debriefing, students will write a two-page memo reflecting on what they learned, what surprised them, what worked and what did not, and why. This memo will be due in the week after the simulation concludes.

I will grade the simulation as follows:

  • Quality of the policy position papers — 40%
  • Level of engagement in the simulation — 30%
  • Two-page reflection memo — 30%.

I will share the results of the simulation in a future post.

Making Games As Teaching Tools

Today we have a guest post by Dr. Andrew Biro, Head of the Department of Politics, Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at andrew [dot] biro [at] acadiau [dot] ca.

Chad Raymond recently wrote a couple of posts (herehere, and here) about having students create board games based on course content. I did something similar in my Politics of Water class last fall, as a capstone exercise in the last couple of weeks of the course. It was a fun way to end the course, and by inviting high school students to play the games, it gave my students the sense that they really could use games to engage in a teaching exercise.

Students worked in groups of 4-6 to design a board game that incorporated some “lesson” from the course. The course is rather eclectic. Topics include geopolitical conflicts over water, municipal water privatization, engineering mega-projects (big dams), and gendered access to water in the household. This gave students lots of choices, and they produced eight fairly diverse games. Continue reading

Using Slack for Online Teaching

Today’s post is by guest contributor William R. Wilkerson, Professor of American Government and Politics at SUNY-Oneonta. He can be reached at bill [dot] wilkerson [at] oneonta [dot] edu.

As I noted in my previous post, I am teaching Law Courts and Politics as an online course this summer. In the past, I have used email and the Blackboard LMS for communication in online courses. Students don’t respond to email as they once did, and while Blackboard has about every tool you could imagine, discussion forums are clunky and the mobile app is unsatisfactory. After listening to a podcast interview with political scientist Steven Michels, I decided to give Slack a try. My wife uses Slack at work as an officer of a professional association board and she had good things to say about it. Examples of teaching with Slack are described here and here.

Slack is an integrated team communication tool. Only invited participants can be part of a team workspace, and it has tools for group discussion that can be divided into forums that are called channels. Channels can be open to the entire team or part of the team. Slack also has features like direct messaging, file sharing, video conferencing, and tagging of individuals. The free version works great for most purposes and its apps are fully compatible across platforms. Continue reading

Specification Grading In An Online Course

Today we have another post by guest contributor William R. Wilkerson, Professor of American Government and Politics at SUNY-Oneonta. He can be reached at bill [dot] wilkerson [at] oneonta [dot] edu.

This summer for the first time I am teaching an online version of my judicial process course, Law Courts and Politics. I adopted a specifications grading system, something that has been discussed by people like Linda Nilson at Inside Higher Ed and Amanda Rosen on this blog. With specifications grading all assignments are graded on a satisfactory or unsatisfactory basis and course grades are based on assignment bundles.

My course is five weeks long with a distinct theme for each week’s lesson. Each lesson includes an online quiz made up of multiple choice and short essay questions on the textbook (Corley, Ward and Martinek’s American Judicial Process ), various discussion topics on the text, other assigned readings, video and audio, as well as a 600-750 word writing assignment. Each of these elements—quizzes, discussion, and the writing assignment, along with a summative assignment for those wishing earn a B or an A—are tied to course learning objectives. The grade bundles are as follows: Continue reading