Another End of Semester Reflection

A few thoughts about the semester that is about to end:

Not quite.

First, the “open notebook” in-class quizzes did cause many more students to take notes than in the past. However, creating the quizzes — with most of the questions based on prior class discussion — was a pain. Same for  printing and grading them. For three undergraduate courses with small enrollments, the task wasn’t very complex, nor did it require a lot of effort, but it did become yet one more thing I had to organize throughout the semester. Also I gave fewer quizzes than I originally anticipated, which forced me to alter their weights in the final course grade. I’m now thinking that I could deliver the quizzes more easily and frequently through our Canvas LMS — they would be machine graded. But I would still need to invest in designing questions and building each quiz throughout the semester. A more rigid, pre-planned system for class discussions would allow me to generate all the quizzes before the semester starts, but I really don’t want to do this because it would move me back in the direction of lecturing. Continue reading

Teammate Evaluations, Revisited

Students in my courses do a lot of team-based projects. In an attempt to prevent free riders, I have teammates evaluate each other. This semester I have again modified the evaluation system a bit, with an unexpected result.fusball-table

For the past three semesters I’ve been using Google Forms to distribute and tabulate anonymous surveys in which students rank themselves and their teammates. The instructions on this survey:

Evaluate the performance of everyone on your team, including yourself, by ranking all members of your team with a different number. Each number can be used only once, otherwise your responses will be discarded. Assign the number 1 to the person who made the most valuable contribution to the project, the number 2 to the person who made the second most valuable contribution, etc. Only enter information for your team. Leave questions for other teams blank.

My explanation to students of how rankings translated into points — in this case, up to 40: Continue reading

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.

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.

Simulating Stubbornness

46_Dick_Cheney_3x4
Don’t be one (or at least not in a simulation)

We talk a lot on this blog about the beauty of simulations for producing rich and varied environments in which to immerse students. We also talk a lot about how ‘failure’ is usually as valid a learning point as ‘success’ in these games: the inability to reach the nominal objective is a valuable learning moment.

But as I’ve been reading for my other work, I realise there’s a different category of political phenomenon that we have more trouble in capturing: the (pre-planned) impasse.

Let me give you the example that triggered this thought, to illustrate.

As you’ll know – if you live in Europe, at least – Greece’s economy has suffered grievously over the past few years, as a result of the 2008 crisis and (more pertinently here) the strict austerity regime imposed by creditors. The election last month of a radical-left government has since led to efforts to recast that austerity regime into something else.

It would be fair to say that all sides are deeply dug in: the Greeks say the current situation is untenable, the creditors say they won’t wear anything else. As so, after a rather brief meeting last night of finance ministers, there was another failure to agree.

Now my cynical side (yes, I do have one) says that this is all part of the game: you act tough, we act tough, then we reach the settlement we knew we would at the outset, but we can assuage our constituents about it all. It’s a bit the logic of my own austerity game, where heads of government have scope to bluster.

However, from a simulation point of view, it’s actually really tricky to recreate this kind of behaviour. In the real world, actors are not bound to a discrete forum of action, nor to a timetable (although there is nominally one in the Greek case): this means their capacity and willingness to not try for a resolution is greater than normal.

If we were trying to run a game of the Greek situation, then we might have a finance ministers’ meeting, but either we reach an agreement (which might not be very realistic), or we don’t (in which case we have to talk about what happens next). What we probably can’t do is run another meeting, and another, so that we can capture the iterative dynamics of it all, nor the way in which we eventually reach compromise.

In short, politics isn’t built for the convenience of the academic calendar.

So what to do? Three ideas present themselves.

First is to just live with it, and note that a game’s failure to reach agreement is lifelike, but also unrealistic in that real-world actors get many more bites of the cherry.

Second is to try to build in rounds of negotiation into a game. The danger here is that you end up covering the same ground multiple times, and that your players might ‘solve’ the problem early on, in which case you have a bunch of time on your hands (although some crisis could easily be invented to upset things).

Third option is to not try to play out the scenario, but rather to get students to apply their knowledge of negotiation/politics/etc to the real-world situation and suggest ways that the different actors could progress things. Those suggestions might be presented as a negotiation brief or some other forum.

This last idea has some interesting advantages. Most importantly, it forces students to articulate negotiation strategy more explicitly (so you can evaluate it), as well as connecting conventional research with an active project.

Finally, trying this last approach is not site-specific: you can use it with a whole range of political events. I’m sure that a moment’s reflection will bring to mind an example of a political institution or process in your area of interest that isn’t working to its full potential, so use that. Easier than building a full simulation, but still with those elements of active engagement that we like so much.