Tinkering with Comparative Politics (Again)

Tinker ToysI’ve begun tinkering again with my comparative politics course, mainly because I’m still not satisfied with what students are getting from it. Previous discussions on this topic include:

So, yes, this course has been a source of frustration for a long time.

As I have noted previously, the essay templates that I created for last semester’s class didn’t work well. The templates were intended to be preparatory exercises for essays and presentations, but the application of theory required by the former was not evident in the latter. So maybe my template was badly designed.

For the next time around, I’ve created separate templates for each of the three theoretical perspective I want students to use as analytical lenses:

These new templates are more specific in what they ask for than the single older version. Perhaps this replaces a demand for creative thinking with an excessive level of step-by-step guidance, but I’m willing to live with that if the end product is better.

Instead of trying to get students to improve their essays by tacking on yet another writing assignment, I could simply drop the essays altogether and rely on the templates as scaffolding exercises for in-class team presentations. Each student would be at minimum accountable for choosing a theoretical perspective and completing the appropriate template at five separate points during the semester. There is a good chance that members of a team will select different perspectives and will need to decide on which one will make the strongest presentation. Teams will then compete against each as usual.

Abandoning the essays will reduce the amount of expository writing, but given their content in past iterations of the course, students weren’t learning much from them anyway. On my end, grading will be easier, especially if I convert the templates into an LMS-based fill-in-the-text-box format.

Flipping conference presentations

IMG_4059
Possible source of confusion

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.

Google Forms

Google Cookie MonsterAs I wrote in my post on the perils of small classes, this past semester I used Google Forms to create a digital ballot for presentation competitions. The ballot worked well — students could hide their votes from other students, and tabulating the results only took a few seconds on my part.

The success of the ballot led me to adopt Google Forms for end-of-semester teammate evaluations. This turned out to be a much simpler method of incorporating individual accountability into collaborative projects than the worksheets I had used previously in a first-year seminar and a capstone course. No time wasted in class while students complete evaluation forms, and no entering of numerical data into a spreadsheet. I create one form for the whole class, which I send out by embedding the link in one email. Google does the rest for me.

Some students failed to follow directions, but that happens regardless of whether an evaluation is on paper or electronic. As stated on the forms I created, I just deleted those responses from the results.

Presentation Fail Part II

Cat Xmas LightsA follow-up to my last post about presentations and the problem of transfer:

Last week students designed and delivered team presentations for the fourth time this semester. Most teams again did not communicate a coherent argument. Many of students’ essays submitted earlier in the week suffered from the same problem. I can’t tell if students simply ignored the essay template I had created — must I make this another graded assignment so it gets used? — or if they are incapable of using an outline to organize a piece of argumentative writing. Given that the essays are supposed to help students sort out their ideas before they begin collaborating on presentations, the presentations are garbage in, garbage out. 

From a more macro perspective, students appear unaware of the difference between haphazardly collecting facts about something and seeking information for something. Simply relaying what is described in the readings in the absence of an over-arching narrative muddles students’ messages to the point of incomprehensibility.

While being married to an English professor might make me more sensitive to the function of narrative than the typical undergraduate, it looks like students need some basic help with storytelling.

Effective storytelling persuades as well as informs. The ultimate goal is not to raise awareness but to motivate people to take action. This means a story should produce an emotional response in addition to communicating facts. As Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It’s quite possible that the unsatisfying results I’ve been getting from the essays and presentations are caused by the absence of an emotional hook. In these tasks, the application of theory to particular cases is supposed to supply the narrative arc, but students might not find this personally meaningful. They might not care about the answer they get when they ask themselves “so what?” 

Reframing these assignments in ways that encourage students to become emotionally invested in them will take some effort. At minimum I will need to make more explicit the connections between theoretical explanations and the consequences of policy decisions on ordinary individuals. 

A simple exercise that might help drive the connection home is a 100-word précis in which students state why something happened and why it mattered to who it happened to. But I don’t know yet how to integrate this with the theory essays.

Presentation Fail

More on this semester’s comparative politics course:

Blind MonkeyAfter doing the in-class exercise on how to produce a concise thesis statement, I created this template for students to use when writing essays in which they apply theory to historical events. We shall see if students take advantage of it on the next essay assignment.

Student presentations have also been problematic. My instructions for this task have been:

Your team’s presentation needs to discuss which theoretical perspective (rational actor, structure, or culture) best matches the readings for your theme for this geographic region. Include specific examples from the readings to support your argument.

Teams create their presentations after their members have individually written essays that accomplish the same function, a deliberate sequence on my part. However, the presentations have been terribly organized — no clear thesis statement and few to no examples drawn from readings that actually support whatever argument students think they are communicating.

It’s possible that my directions are still too broad and that students need more step-by-step instructions; if so, the easy solution is to modify the template that I created for essays and require that teams use it when designing presentations. 

I don’t really want to do this. I prefer students to be creative in their approach to solving problems and to take responsibility for their learning. To continuously break tasks down into smaller pieces and decrease the need for effort or ingenuity risks turning students into box-checking monkeys. Yet without enough structure it is unlikely that an assignment will serve its intended purpose.

This tension reflects the difficulty in overcoming the problem of transfer. My assignments — which in this course include fourteen one-page responses to readings, five multi-page essays, and five presentations — represent multiple opportunities for each student to develop a single skill, the effective communication of an argument. Yet students don’t see this. They are blind to the possibility that a technique that they have learned to use in one context can be successfully applied in another one. After fifteen years as a professor, I still am trying to figure out how to move students from needing a list of steps to follow to being able to recognize that they already have the tools needed to figure things out for themselves. 

Mad Men of the 19th Century

Chinese MenLast week I gave a brief presentation on John Thompson’s China in one of the small classes I’m teaching this semester. For the second part of class, I gave students this team-based collaborative exercise, which I’ve named Mad Men of the 19th Century:

The year is 1878. You work for the Vanderbilt Exotic Travels Company in Newport, Rhode Island, a company that arranges luxury travel expeditions to foreign lands. The company has launched a new tour: a nine-week expedition to China.

Your team’s task is to choose two images from John Thompson’s photo compendium – one view (a landscape or street scene) and one type (a portrait of an individual) – for a brochure that promotes the tour to China. You team will need to prepare a five to seven minute sales presentation that uses either the five C’s, juxtaposition, or framing to explain why these two photos will convince people to pay $1,489 to join the tour. Teams will deliver their presentations in today’s class.

Your team’s presentation should focus on answering two questions: What sells a product? What will sell this product?

My primary goal for the exercise? Get students to explore the biases contained in what at first glance appears to be an objective visual historical record, through an activity that has more authenticity than an abstract academic essay. Since I thought of this exercise at the last minute, I had low expectations, but it went fairly well. Students did interpret the photographs chosen by their teams in meaningful ways. I did notice that students are generally unfamiliar with tasks that simulate what happens in the workplace — in this case, the use of images to communicate specific messages — which is extremely unfortunate.

Does Size Matter? The Perils of Small Classes

JawsSome of my courses this semester have such small enrollments that team-based projects and classroom activities have become problematic.

Balloting in presentation competitions is one minor example that I have apparently fixed. I regularly hold classroom competitions in which teams of students present on a topic and then select the winning team by voting with Monopoly money (see here, here, and here for more details). When voting, students come to the front of the room and place their money on placards with team numbers written on them — the only rule being that students cannot vote for their own team.

In the first two competitions in one course I noticed little variation in the sums of money received by different teams, even though some presentations were clearly superior to others. I asked the class about this unlikely result. I found out that in such a small class where everyone has interacted in some fashion with everyone else, students did not want to risk publicly embarrassing badly-performing peers or be judged as cruel, so they distributed their money evenly across teams regardless of presentation quality. My solution? Create a ballot on Google Forms through which students can anonymously select the best-performing team. After the last presentation of the day, I email students the link and they submit their responses. Students’ votes now better reflect the quality of the presentations. I also find that it’s easier to tally results with a spreadsheet on Google than to count paper money.

I don’t know a similarly-easy solution to other size-related problems. I recently used an ICONS simulation for the first time (more on that experience in a future post) in a class with only eleven students. Six nation-states comprised the simulation’s actors, so five states were represented by two students and one state by just a single student. If the latter student had been absent on either of the days I ran the simulation, or if two students from the same team had been absent, the exercise would have been wrecked.

In the same course, I had organized a significant portion of classroom time around a sequence of eight topics. For each topic, a student team was supposed to give a mini-lecture and then lead the rest of the class through an activity for some active learning-based peer-to-peer instruction. Then in the subsequent class, students take a quiz on the topic to reinforce the previously-presented material. With only eleven students, I could form only four teams, which left me with the task of delivering the content for half of the topics in the syllabus — defeating the main purpose of the exercise for fifty percent of the time.

Given that my students have priorities in life that often conflict with attending class, I now believe that teams should contain at least four or five students. With only two or three students, there is too high a probability that most or all members of the team will be absent on any particular day. This in fact happened yesterday: only a single member of two different teams attended class.

But if I increase the size of teams in a class with ten to twelve students, that means only two or three teams. Such a small number of teams is too few to expose students to multiple perspectives on a particular topic by means of competitive presentations. It is also too few to adequately incorporate peer instruction across an entire semester, unless the teams that exist are responsible for teaching multiple topics, and this increases the risk that students will be exposed several times to a terribly-performing team.

Why not return individually-completed projects and presentations? I prefer to avoid this option, because it gives students the message that collaboration is unimportant. As I’ve said before, group work matters. For example, individual writing assignments mean that I am the only person who ever reads what students write, which diminishes the authenticity of assignments and leads to lower quality work. And while it may be possible to squeeze as many as six individually-delivered presentations into a 50- or 75-minute time block, a class with six or fewer students doesn’t meet the minimum enrollment requirement at my university. It probably doesn’t at yours either.