The Change All Around, Part 2

An ideal teaching environment

In my second post about factors that are affecting my teaching this semester, I’m going to zoom out to the institutional environment. When the spring semester ends, I will have taught seven distinct courses, two of which were online and in two sections each, so a total of nine classes for the academic year. I am also a department chair, for which I receive one course release each semester. My contractual teaching load is seven courses per academic year, so as calculated by the university, the overload teaching and department chair duties boost my workload by 57 percent. Yet in relation to my salary, I am only compensated an additional 18 percent.

Economically this is irrational, so why do it? Continue reading

Online Learning Teams

John RothgebToday we have a guest post from John M. Rothgeb, Jr., professor of political science at Miami University of Ohio. He can be contacted at rothgejm[at]miamioh[dot]edu.

Do online learning teams help students recall facts and/or analyze political problems? Instructors often use online chat rooms and discussions as convenient tools for engaging teams of students in the process of writing, reading, and reacting, helping them recall information, and giving them opportunities for analyzing problems.  Despite much agreement about the benefits of online teams, there is little evidence supporting their value.

I collected data on this subject from four sections of my introductory world politics course. Two sections from 2014 with a total of 75 students employed online learning teams, and two sections from the Fall of 2015 and Spring of 2016 with a total enrollment of 86 did not.  The classes met at the same time, the same days, in the same classroom, and received the same lectures.

The learning teams were created by randomly assigning five or six students to groups, with each group given its own online chat room.  Students received careful instructions regarding the use of chat rooms.  They were required to post chat room comments at least twice each week, first with a response to the week’s assignment and second with their reaction to other students’ posts. This activity counted for ten percent of the final grade. Students in the sections that did not use online learning teams were instructed to study material on their own.

I assessed students’ learning with in-class exams on conceptual definitions and a take-home essay in which they used theory to analyze an historical event—for example, applying deterrence theory to the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1990.

A chi square analysis showed that students’ grades on exams and the paper assignment did not significantly differ between the sections with the online learning teams and those without. The findings imply that the online learning teams had no effect on student performance.

These results invite reflection as to why online teams did not lead to evidence of superior factual recall or analytical ability.  More than two-thirds of students across all sections earned a B or better on the exams, indicating good recall. While fewer students earned an A grade on the analytical paper, only a small number earned grades below a C+. Perhaps the lectures, problem exercises, and readings that were part of all course sections were enough to generate this result.

Further research should explore the relative efficacy of online teams and weekly study guides. Given that my research did not control for variables like a student’s prior GPA, year in college, major, or extra-curricular activities, it also might be useful to include this kind of data in future investigations.

For additional information, please refer to John M. Rothgeb, “The Efficacy of Learning Teams: A Comparative Analysis,” Journal of Political Science Education 9, 3 (2013): 336-344, or contact him at the email address listed above.

Zendo Revisited: A Simple Methods Game for Large Classes

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.

Continue reading

Engaging Students, Part 1: Quotes

Hello ALPS world!  I’ve been letting Chad and Simon do all the talking lately, and we can’t have that!  I’m back with the new year and ready to share more ideas on how to make our classes more active.  My focus is going to be on techniques, large and small, aimed at engaging students and improving learning, all which you can apply in your classes without a lot of extensive planning.  Many of these ideas are published, but that doesn’t mean they are widely known, so my plan is to feature some of them on this blog.  Try those that appeal and let us know how they work!

This week’s technique comes from Elizabeth Barkley’s (2010) book, the aptly named ‘Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty’.  What I like about this book is that it talks about general tips and strategies for improving engagement as well as specific techniques.  Each of the techniques is explained and categorized, has step by step directions, examples, and ways to vary the technique or apply it in an online environment.  It is a great resource for promoting active learning in your classes. Today’s technique is the fourth in her book, called ‘Quotes’.

Continue reading

Holiday Greetings

Some holiday cheer as the calendar year winds down:

Should I fix you some sandwiches?
Should I fix you some sandwiches?

The College of Saint Rose has seen its enrollment decline by 15 percent since 2008. In an attempt to balance its budget, it has eliminated twenty-three academic programs. More than ten percent of its full-time faculty are slated for termination. Programs scheduled for closure include bachelor’s degrees in philosophy, religious studies, sociology, geology, Spanish, and economics.

Burlington College continues to teeter on the edge of abyss, for reasons I discussed in August and December of 2014. Burlington’s full-time undergraduate enrollment shrank by one-third from fall 2014 to fall 2015, to 123 students. The college has announced a $2,000 reduction in tuition for the next academic year. In reality the college is just cutting its discount rate in the hopes that a lower sticker price will appeal to a larger number of potential students. Unfortunately these are the same people who have the greatest need for financial aid.

Meanwhile Arizona State University (ASU) and edX have reported a few of the results from the inaugural year of their MOOC-based Global Freshman Academy. Of the 34,000+ people who registered for the Academy’s three MOOCs, only 323 are now eligible for earning academic credit. Some people might say that a completion rate of less than one percent makes the initiative a massive failure. But it’s highly doubtful that the majority of the people who registered for the MOOCs did so to obtain academic credit. It’s also unlikely that the MOOC participants on average were as motivated as the typical student on campus. It could even be the case that many of those who registered for the MOOCs were not as academically prepared for college-level courses as the average ASU first-year student.

As I’ve written previously, I see MOOCs as an extremely low-cost, low-risk, and convenient alternative to much of what happens in many university classrooms. ASU and edX are starting small, gathering data, and iterating. Soon they will be offering a full year’s worth of college courses at a price that is less than half of what Burlington College and College of Saint Rose are charging.

Graded Online Discussions: Update

Switchboard OperatorsBack in August I complained about the lack of student discussion in two sparsely-enrolled online graduate courses. I’m now past the mid-point in two other such courses, and I thought I’d post an update.

When teaching online, I frame each week’s discussion around a question that relates to the week’s reading assignments. Now that I explicitly grade the discussions using a feature of the Canvas LMS, I see comments that are much more on point and thoughtful, so to me there is no reason to revert back to the old format in which I really just tallied the number of comments made by each student.

In contrast to the summer courses, I’m getting a lot more discussion. I believe class size is the driving factor, not the season. In my current courses, there are still some students who post comments rarely or not at all, but in absolute terms there are more people in each course who are willing to carry on a conversation — which leads to more conversation.

In the first week of these courses, I did notice what appeared to be an upper bound on class size for productive discussion. Students who commented later in the week repeated ideas that many of their classmates had posted earlier. There is little chance for originality after reading fifteen responses to the same question. I solved this problem by switching on another Canvas feature, “users must post before seeing replies.”

Cleaning up other people’s mess (in a good way)

3175714614_321ac67ede_bA few weeks ago, I wrote about simulating the Greek crisis. I suggested then that one issue in doing this was the difficulty of carrying things over from year to year in the classroom: students change, curricula change, you never quite know whether it’s still going to be relevant, etc.

As Amanda rightly pointed out in an email to me some time later, you can perfectly well do it, with a bit of thought. So it’s with that bit of thought that I am now doing it.

Last year I created my first online asynchronous simulation for the INOTLES project in which I participate. As you’ll see from the post, it’s a simplified recreation of the East European situation, with a friendly (if ponderous) EU-like structure on one side and a confident (if worryingly so) Russia-like country on the other.

I played this with my students too, with the upshot that the ‘Russians’ produced a surprising success in sealing a deal with the ‘East Europeans’ (largely over a misunderstanding, but let’s not pretend that doesn’t happen in real life too). I put the simulation back on the shelf, mused on what had happened and then basically forgot about it.

Until Amanda’s email. There’s no reason why this year’s students can’t pick up where their predecessors left off.

It’s a fictional scenario, with all the requisite information provided. Since it allows for a wide-ranging set of actions, there is no obvious end-point or stable equilibrium. Indeed, one might imagine that some students might take the opportunity to revise the actions of the past, just because they can. Certainly, given the rather devil-may-care approach to a second round of the Hobbes games in class yesterday, that looks like a rather likely outcome.

I’ll quote Amanda at some length here:

Whenever we do a simulation, it tends to be a new run of an old game–how neat would it be to have the simulation just continue, with students acting as the newly appointed representative for that country and having to work with old agreements produced by students who are no longer in power?  I find the idea really interesting, not only for the sense of realism it brings to ongoing negotiations, but also for the real-world skill of having to step into a job vacated by someone else and having to figure out what the prior office holder did and how to incorporate their decisions into your own

Amanda’s last point is perhaps the crucial one: we all have to pick up other people’s stuff and deal with it – it’s a basic stable of professional life – so getting to experience that is a useful opportunity for personal development.

Indeed, in this game the original conceit that it opened with no particular situation is clearly unrealistic, so we’ll learn about path dependency directly.

Amanda’s one concern was about record-keeping: how to capture what had happened, so that we can pick it up again. Well, I’ll admit that this isn’t a big issue in this case. The final agreement reached ran to a full four lines of hand-written text and there was nothing else to share. I’m hoping that this time around we’ll have clearer sight of the next year, so that paper-trails can be left, with all the joys that brings.

As usual, this is all new territory for me, so I’ll be reporting back as we progress.