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?
I’ve got an odd problem this week: too much information.
My class is on Britain and the EU and my students are drowning in material. As well as all the usual reading lists that exist, there’s also a mountain of stuff for non-specialist audiences, because of the looming referendum here in the UK.
Zendo is a methods game that is the subject of the very first post I wrote for ALPS back in 2011. Since then, I have used it regularly on the first day of my research methods course. Among its many advantages is that it helps reduce the anxiety students face on their first day of methods (a well-documented issue; at least six articles in recent years reference this concern) by having their first activity being a game. The game itself allows students to engage in hypothesis generation and testing and begin to understand issues of generalizability and scholarly collaboration. It is a great introductory activity, but its utility has been limited due to the necessity of purchasing the physical pieces required for play. Until now, that is! We now have a way of playing Zendo that requires no pieces and works for large classroom settings as well as small.
I’m back in the office after a fabulous week of learning & teaching-related events. OK, maybe the exam board I went to wasn’t fabulous, but it was certainly instructive.
However, the big thing was going out to Chisinau in Moldova – the world’s second-least visited country – for a workshop of INOTLES, to discuss how we implement all our fine work in the partner institutions.
As workshops go, it went well: sensible amounts of time of different activities, a healthy mix of presentation and discussion, all facilitated by a positive environment and (ahem) local produce.
But, as is usual in such situations, I got me thinking about how we run such meetings of academics, but least because I was also having conversations about the next European Teaching & Learning Conference (see my posts from the last one).
Asking for ideas about how to be more engaging, I came up with a bunch of very radical stuff. However, it lately transpired that I had been drinking and that very little of it was actually workable, so it was back to the drawing board on the plane home.
The one idea that did seem to have something to it was the notion of a ‘flipped conference presentation’.
Basically, you’d ask people to produce a paper (as usual), but to then record a podcast of their presentation to post online, so that people could watch before the conference, and then use the panel time for discussion.
This would obviate the situation we all know, of a panel that runs out of time for questions. It would also be a learning experience for many, so they could see how simple recording yourself can be, which they could then take into the classroom. They win, we win, lovely.
It’s something I’ve not heard of before, but a quick google search suggests that I’ve far from the first to have the idea – try Jack Yensen, for example, or this example from Michael Seery. And props to Daniel Lambach for the link to Rom’s piece in PS that I’d missed.
Of course, this is not without its challenges. Just as people don’t always read papers before a conference, they might not watch all the podcasts and then they have little to go on when they turn up to the panel. Lots of signposting beforehand might help, as might a panel structure where the chair ‘interviews’ the panellists on common themes in a first section of time, before opening up to questions from the floor.
Technical issues might also pop up. If it’s ‘something not working’ then a conference helpdesk would resolve it. If it’s ‘this is stupid’ then either you have to be flexible, or you could offer another way out.
However, my thought of a way out might not strike you as very desirable.
So, something to think about.
As you’ll note from the two examples of others doing this, it’s not a PoliSci thing, nor even a social science thing, but a pedagogy thing. Another good reason to cast your net widely.
I spent an hour last night trying to produce an app. I’m not really happy with what I produced, but I am happy I’ve tried.
Over the past month I’ve been working on a new project, ‘A Diet of Brussels‘. Basically, it’s podcasts about Britain and the EU. It’s an idea I’ve been thinking about for some time, but the surprising outcome of the general election meant that things suddenly took a new turn.
Perhaps that’s not the right way to express it, since it was more a case of throwing myself in the proverbial deep end, instead of trying to over-think things, which I’ve noticed is one of my less-good habits (alongside not using the word ‘bad’).
Fortunately, I had already secured the main piece of kit, namely a decent voice recorder, at a knock-down price, so I was ready to go.
A couple of hours practising recording in a manageable way and editing (with Audacity‘s excellent freeware) to up the production quality fractionally, and I had something that I could live with other people listening to.
Next step was building a platform. Fortunately, I’d already made a website before (this one, since you ask), so using Wix was quick and easy, as was the purchasing of domain names. Soundcloud provided the main platform for hosting the audio files themselves, and will be good for a few months yet on their free plan: iTunes also was easy enough to set up a mirror for the files, for the trendier end of my audience. Throw in a new Google account and then I could add in a Twitter feed and a Facebook page.
And off I’ve gone. So far, I’ve made 17 podcasts in about a month and am still to settle into a proper rhythm, mainly because once I sit down and start recording, it’s much easier to record a couple more while I’m there. Add to that lots of pushing online to people who will propagate further and I’ve got an audience that is small, but respectable. A huge help with this was a couple of name-checks in the Politico Europe daily Playbook email, so I guess I have to reflect on my previous words on said organisation, at least in part.
In terms of learning, there are several big things here.
Most obviously, this is a form of experiential learning: I’ve got my hands metaphorically dirty in a number of new activities, in a way that ties together my L&T work with my other research. In the past month, I’ve managed to advance my skills and my thinking in ways that certainly wouldn’t have happened otherwise. As someone who other talks about getting students to do this, it’s only right that I should remind myself that this actually works.
I’m also reminded that things are never quite as difficult as one thinks they’ll be. Before I started, I thought that the quality of recording was going to be critical (hence the recorder) and it left me a bit hamstrung. I could blame listening to Serial for excessive expectations, but then I remembered that I’m not a professional broadcast journalist, but an academic, and just got stuck it. Now my model is that I’ll get better as I do more: classic active learning again.
The value of strong networks has become evident too. My logo comes from the most amazing glove-puppet you’ll ever meet, Berlaymonster, and the support from colleagues in Brussels and the UK has been invaluable in making this get as far as it has. I know that when I’m done with this post, I can ask for help with the app I was trying to make last night and get it.
And finally it’s all making me think about the value of patience. If you think you’ll change the world with your first effort, then you’re likely to be sorely disappointed. Instead, these things that time: this very blog has taken several years to get to where it is today (insert punchline here), just as our individual reputations have taken time to develop as they have.
But time is also about timing: I got lucky with the election result (even if it wasn’t one I personally cared for) and I got even luckier with the name-checking. I have the advantage that I know this project is fixed-term (until the referendum happens) and I know that because I’ve started now I’ll be much better placed when more people get interested nearer the time. And given that the key aim of the project is to help inform people about what’s what, that has to be a good thing.
In the last few weeks of class this semester we’ve been discussing life-long and life-wide learning: I’m really glad to be actually doing some of that.
On Friday I was teaching students about barriers to learning, including over-stimulation and overload of information.
This morning, I turn on my desktop to find a dozen journal updates, another dozen updates from news sites I subscribe to, a pile of interesting/important stuff to read/digest about Thursday’s general election, as well as all the rest of my work. Outlook reminders ping into life even as I type (including the one to write this).
I was on the verge of saying that this is a particularly bad time, between the different things happening around me, but actually it’s fairly typical. and I guess it’s not unfamiliar to most of you.
In short, there’s a hell of a lot of information out there and more and more of it is heading towards you.
I’d love to give you some good advice here. Something about filtering, or prioritising, or deep breathing, or mindfulness, or some such. But I won’t, because I don’t think I do any of these things. Probably the sum-total is to regularly read Oliver Burkeman’s This column will change your life on The Guardian website (and then promptly forget it all).
So why tell you this?
To remind you that you have to handle this and that students probably have to handle it too. Maybe not so much on the academic side, but quite likely more on the social/personal side. If we don’t have an appreciation that their education is only one part of their lives, then we might be better able to design and run learning environments for them that engage and stimulate.
As always, there are different paths open to you (and them). I realise that I rely on a number of different filters to pick up new research (e.g. Google Scholar alerts, Twitter lists, journal update emails) and on routine to produce content (e.g. blogs, academic writing). These work (most of the time) for me, but other things might work for you: I’ve tried having a commonplace book (or Evernote, for a digital equivalent), but never quite clicked with it, for example.
Data management is a key skill for our students, as we can testify, so we should be having those kinds of discussions with students.
But now my colour-flagged email list grows longer. At least, I tell myself, it’ll all be much quieter next week, once this election has passed and everything’s sorted for another five years. Maybe lying to myself is also a part of it.
Today sees the launch of a major new venture in reporting the European Union: US-based Politico has opened a large Brussels office.
American readers will be more familiar with Politico than those elsewhere, but essentially the new bureau aims to provide coverage of the EU without getting lost in the national contexts that most European media operate in.
I mention this partly as a public-service announcement, for those looking for more detailed reporting on the EU, which has previously been rather patchy. The last best source was The European Voice – originally set up by The Economist, before going it alone – which Politico bought out and has now rolled into its new venture. On a first glance, there is a lot of material available to stimulate debate and discussion.
However, I also mention it, because it provides a good opportunity to help students develop their critical reading skills. Politico does fill a gap, but it remains the gorilla in the room, with a staffing base far in excess of other outfits. Some concern has been raised in the previous months about whether such a dominant position risks abuse of that position, but it in terms of killing or promoting certain stories or in terms of framing debate.
It’s obviously too early to tell, but as an exercise in asking students to reflect on how the media shape our understanding, we might ask them to look at the materials posted up and identify any patterns or themes in coverage. These could be compared to outlets such as EUObserver or the FT.
Such meta-criticality has to be part of our work with students if we want to fully develop their understanding of the world. Recognising that the media is part of that is thus no bad thing.
Reading Casey’s post, I have been reflecting on my own use of social media in the classroom. Here at Surrey, we’ve long been active in this field, because we recognised the value of developing new spaces of communication as a way both of getting more from our teaching and of preparing students for the world outside the classroom.
The value of that has become clearer over time, not least in the facility that our graduates have demonstrated in using those media to make themselves more attractive to employers and to support the community of learning they developed during their time with us. For our part as educators, we have see real benefits from connecting and engaging with a far wider community than might have been possible in the bad old days of the 2000s (sic).
But all of this raises a number of questions, not least of which is the matter of how one gets to a situation where social media can reasonably be brought into the classroom.
In part, this is a transitional issue, since usage of social media becomes more and more pervasive. Certainly, as everyone seems to be using social media, so the pressure to join in becomes ever higher, and the barriers ever lower: the amount of technical expertise needed to use Twitter (for example) is minimal, even if optimal use still requires some work.
However, we have to recognise the limits to this: I still encounter groups of students who have no experience at all with particular media (including my own class, last week). Precisely because there are so many platforms to choose from, there remains a distinct possibility that your students won’t use (or know how to use) the platform you want. Put it like this: none of us use Pinterest.
In such cases, either you have to train people up – as I’ve done for my Twitter negotiation – or you have to use a Bring-Your-Own-Device model, where the substantive content can be accessed via multiple platforms. The latter is more flexible for students, but requires much more technical expertise on your part.
Surrey’s approach has been to create a more general environment in which social media are mainstreaming into different parts of our provision. That means active Twitter and Facebook pages, which get used to connect prospective and current students, programme information and specific content within modules. By trying to link together elements, we raise the overall visibility and introduce the different platforms to users.
A good example of this is our use of hashtags in Twitter, to highlight particular campaigns: currently, our #PoliticsMonth events are bringing in a range of activities to the university, and students can not only see those more easily, but also contribute more easily. When I chaired a hustings for the general election for our Politics Society last month, I could gather questions from the floor using the event hashtag, which meant more efficient gathering and organising of their input to the panel. A similar system could be set up for large classes, with the lecturer getting instantaneous feedback to their device during lectures, which could then be fed more seamlessly into the content.
Likewise, the encouragement of students to use social media to talk with each other and with teaching staff provides a rapid and accessible means of supporting student learning: a tweet or a Facebook post can be read by others who might be in the same situation. In terms of general student support, this has been a great boon, especially for our students out on professional placements, often overseas.
The keystone in all of this is then a degree of engagement by staff. If they don’t use social media, and use it often, then it’s very hard to get students to do the same.
In that, I have been very fortunate to have the group of colleagues I do, since we have had a very high level of buy-in to the social media work. That has covered Twitter, Facebook, blogging and other platforms. Importantly, it’s also required a maintenance of activity over a long time-frame.
Indeed, that time-frame is effectively open-ended: we’re about three years into this and we’ll carry on as long as necessary. That needs someone to keep reminding people to do it, until it becomes almost second-nature: certainly, many of my colleagues use social media very reflexively, which is easy for them and reinforces the message about the value of doing it for others.
Even without the kind of massive investment that some other units have made into this field – LSE is a good example of what can be achieved online – I would hope that our example will show how even a modest application of effort can have significant pay-offs.
I try to model the information literacy skills we think are important for students to acquire. I also heed Nina’s caution against fostering learned helplessness. Yet I’m seeing students who lack even the most rudimentary technological skills like knowing how to download a document file so that they can read it off-line. This puts me in a bind.
My first thought was to specify the fundamental digital knowledge and skills that students must possess to get through any of my courses:
Regularly access your university email account and the online course management platform with your username and password.
Download files to a device, with names and to locations that enable you to easily find them later.
Save/save as/export files in required formats, with files appropriately named, to personal computing devices and the course management platform.
Proofread your writing without using automated spell-check features.
Back up work on external devices (USB drives) or cloud services like the course management platform, Google Drive, or DropBox.
Set the preferences in your course management platform account so that you are notified of course updates in a timely fashion.
Use the library’s website and databases to locate assigned readings.
Contact the IT Help Desk, librarians, and other campus technology support services when you have questions about any of the above.
I could put that list on the first page of all my syllabi, but that essentially goes against what we at ALPS stand for. Reading a list once doesn’t change behavior, and my students don’t really read the verbiage on a syllabus anyway. The real reason for me to include such language in a syllabus (which is a perfectly valid one) is that it helps protect me when a student fails a course.
A better approach might be to format the list as a quiz at the beginning of the semester that is worth a tiny fraction of students’ final grades. The quiz questions could require some action by the student that demonstrates that he or she is actually able to perform the skill that is referenced by the question; for example, “download this one-page file, insert your name at the top, and then upload the new version as a pdf to this file folder.”
The above option assumes that students actually take such a quiz, and that they try to remedy any skill deficiencies that the quiz identifies. This may not happen. I re-instituted an open-book syllabus quiz in all my courses this semester and a few students chose not to complete it, while others scored badly. Given that I already see a loose correlation between students’ scores on the syllabus quiz and their overall course performance, a quiz on digital skills might provide additional support for my hypothesis that I can accurately predict any student’s final grade after only the first two weeks of a semester — but that’s a subject for another post.
Over the past few months, I’ve been playing an online, asynchronous game with a couple of different groups.
One of these is the INOTLES trainers that I’m training in the use of simulations, while the other is my final year undergraduate students here at Surrey.
As we come towards the end of the INOTLES cycle, I thought I’d finally share my game with you (Neighbourhood Game) and would talk about how it worked.
The game is essentially a simple model of the EU’s Eastern relations, with a three country Union, a big unhelpful country that likes to exert its influence, and a couple of smaller states in-between. In the attached version, I’ve put two players per country, but that can easily be expanded.
The gameplay is very open, with lots of options for activity, coupled to a long period in which to play (using a weekly cycle of posting on a forum).
The aim is to get students thinking about collective action problems in an international context, as well as to cope with the vagaries of online discussion: the INOTLES version has been running with players from six countries.
So how’d it go?
In a word, fitfully.
Online games require a hook, to keep people involved and active. My ability to do this with the INOTLES group was less than with my students (who I see every week for class), but in both cases the level of engagement has been less than with comparable face-to-face exercises. In short, the ability to coerce action is very limited.
That in turn highlights the importance of the game leader in motivating players: if you’re not pushing, then who’s going to do it for you? Again, the online nature of the game means that it’s easy to forget to prod people, and this is something that I’d say needs careful thought.
A second issue seems to be linked to the openness of the game play. Because players can do pretty much anything from writing a terse communique to launching world war 3, I’ve noted a certain hesitancy about doing anything. This ‘jam choice overload‘ problem is well-known in psychology, but raises an interesting problem for us. Too much choice might be inhibiting, but it also reflects the real world, so we might want players to feel inhibited. As always, this will depends much on what you aim to achieve.
Thirdly, while this is a fictional situation, it is also obviously close to the real-world (I took most of the data from real countries). This adds a different dimension to the game, as people apply what they know of that real-world into their actions. Thus Novy Putonova acts rather like Russia, Bigistan like Germany and the Squashed Republic like Ukraine. To be more accurate, people acted like they thought those countries act like. This offers lots of opportunity to get into a discussion about how we understand the real world: are Russians really that sneaky, to take one obvious example? Either way, it opens a door to discussion of the substantive material.
On the level of skills, there is also a lot to think about. How did people work in their teams? How did they deal with each new development? How much did they try to take control of what was happening? How did they cope with some groups being very passive/silent? Again, in all of this, the large range of possible actions meant that there was also a big question about why they chose to do what they did, and not something else?
This game has been a trial for me (in at least one sense of the word). It’s been my first effort in this type of game and, as always, I’m not totally happy with it.
On the plus side, players have played, and it’s shown that one can model an international system with some quite simple elements. Feedback to date from both groups has been positive and – importantly – I can see how I would change things in future.
On the down side, engagement has been relatively low (compared to face-to-face) and my input has been more than planned. The inhibition to take more drastic action in either game (they’ve largely been polite and pretty constructive) means that I don’t know how the more radical options might play out.
With my students, I now plan to use our final session before the Christmas break to play the game in class for a couple of hours, to connect it more strongly to the rest of the module, and to let me see how that changes the interactions.
If you’d like to use the game, please do – I’ve popped it up on my other website already. If you’d like to feedback on how it works for you, then I’d also love to hear about that.