Meet the ALPS Blog team!

As part of our new ALPS set-up, we’re trying to get out more to meet up with colleagues, talking active learning and sustaining our community.

If you’d like to chat with any of us, then you find a handy list of events we’re signed/signing up to this year below. We’re all very pleasant, friendly types, so you’re always welcome to have a chat.

We can help with all your learning & teaching queries, and we’re also happy to advise on getting published (both here at the blog and elsewhere).

And if you’re not at these events, then we’re only an email away.

Looking forward to seeing you in 2024!

EventWho’s there?
PSA, Glasgow, 25-27 MarchCathy
PCA, Chicago, 27 – 30 MarchJennifer
ISA, San Francisco, 3-6 AprilAmanda, Pigeon
Freedom to Learn, London, 5 AprilCathy
UCL Education Conference, 17 AprilCathy, Kalina
ECSA-C, Ottawa, 23 – 25 MayJennifer
CEEISA, Rijeka, 18-21 JuneAmanda, Kalina
ECPR SGEU, Lisbon, 19-21 JuneSimon
Connections Wargaming, Carlisle (PA) , 25-27 JunePigeon
UACES, Trento, 1-4 SeptSimon
APSA, Philadelphia, 5-8 SeptAmanda, Jennifer

Participatory research, calls for participants, and ‘the usual suspects’

In my post on ALPS last week, I wrote about how participatory research can be a beneficial active learning experience for students. In a recent project that I ran at the University of York, student partners came away from the research process reporting that they had a much stronger knowledge of research methods and delivery than they had before. However, as I also noted in that post, this is, for both methodological and practical reasons, an exclusive form of learning.

Nicole Brown (an Associate Professor at UCL’s Institute of Education) has made the case that student partnership research is vital in developing and delivering innovations in teaching, which in turn can boost student engagement and satisfaction. Brown is not alone in this assertion – a quick Google Scholar search will return a wealth of literature that details the benefits of student partnership research. Importantly, this literature also shows that, largely, students simply enjoy getting to be involved in the research process.

From this, an important question emerges – which students get to be involved in participatory research? Answering this question is important both to the students that get to be involved and to the conclusions that will result from the research. 

Continue reading “Participatory research, calls for participants, and ‘the usual suspects’”

Obsolete By The Time You Read This

Technology marches on while our social institutions generally don’t. Eventually a force pushes the existing order beyond its tipping point, and there’s a bit of mayhem until a new equilibrium is reached. Think of knocking a wasp nest off the rail of your back porch after Aunt May has been stung for the third time. For the profession of teaching, that force is AI.

I know that I’ve been periodically yammering on this blog about the technological transformation of higher education for the last twelve years, and, by outward appearances, it may seem that the peasants haven’t yet grabbed their Instagram pitchforks and stormed the Ivory Tower. But I think AI is the qualitatively different icing on the cake, for a few reasons.

First, open-access AI has demolished the academic cheating industry. Here is the stock price of the “educational support services” company Chegg since OpenAI released ChatGPT:

Instead of buying an essay from an online paper mill in Pakistan or Kenya, students who are unwilling to learn can now get what we insist they deliver for free.

Second, AI has now improved to the point where its text output is equal to or better than that of most human students. Below is a partial screenshot of how ChatGPT analyzed “Why Are There No Arab Democracies?” by Larry Diamond (Journal of Democracy 21, 1). Yes, AI can now understand articles and even books that one uploads in pdf form.

AI has rendered the written assessment of student learning, as traditionally formulated, a pointless endeavor.

Third and most importantly, rapidly advancing AI will change how universities institutionalize knowledge. Many traditional fields of study, perceived by students and administrators as ossified vestiges of a pre-digital world, are already marginalized. Universities will use AI as yet another rationale for allocating greater resources to other methods of inquiry.

Last point, tangential to classroom praxis but not to higher ed as a whole: AI portends the death of academic writing as a genre, to which I say, good riddance. The overly educated often refuse to communicate in the vernacular to obfuscate the fact that they actually have nothing to say. Or that they do have something of value to say, but never learned how to say it. If all you do is spout vapid gobbledygook, you’re now redundant, because AI can accomplish the same task much more efficiently. If AI can convey your good ideas more clearly than you can, time to admit that all those years of formal education never trained you to write well in the first place. You need to up your game — possibly with the help of AI.*

*This blog post was not written by AI, though you couldn’t tell if it was.

Workshop: Pedagogies for Citizenship, Activism and Just Futures, 24 May, UCL

ALPS readers who may be in or around London on 24 May and anyone interested – join us on UCL campus for a workshop on pedagogies for active citizenship and creating a more just future.

The Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP) and the Climate Politics Cluster (CPC) at the UCL Department of Political Science are joining forces for a day bringing together academics and students interested in the role of political citizenship in pedagogy – related to a range of themes including climate change, conflict and insecurity, gender inequality and assessment diversity for political engagement.

Lunch and refreshments will be provided throughout the day and the event is free to attend!

Find out more, see abstract submissions and sign up here.

Programme highlights include:

Opening address by Professor Bryony Hoskins, chair in Comparative Social Science at the University of Roehampton  

           Panels and discussions on:  

• The pedagogies of climate education and environmental action
• How e-portfolios facilitate students’ civic engagement
• Pedagogies of global (in)security and war
• A chance to chat informally and share experiences with our guests and other educators at all career stages

Participatory research as active learning

Over the last semester, I have been running a research project, funded by the University of York’s Learning and Teaching Fund, exploring assessment norms and innovations utilised on Politics and International Relations degrees.

The project has been my first foray into participatory research with students. Throughout the project, six students took on the role of ‘Student Partners’ to help design, deliver, and conclude the research activities – activities that included running focus groups with other students. It made sense from a methodological standpoint to have this level of student involvement – after all, I was hoping to gain a student-centred understanding of the challenges and opportunities with innovating assessment practices.

Last week, we had our final research activity – a half-day workshop with the Student Partners to discuss research findings and to conclude the project. We also had some time to discuss the experiences of the students in collaborating with staff and each other on the research project. That discussion was an eye-opening one and made me keenly aware of how beneficial this kind of hands-on research experience can be for students as a form of active learning.

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Not Curving Grades, But “Smoothing the Edges”

I don’t curve course grades; rather, I review every student’s grades one by one in a process I call “smoothing the edges.” I first check to see if the student’s grade is on a cut line, such as 89.9%. I almost always round up and can count on barely two wings the instances where I left a grade tantalizingly and sadly close to the next grade. The common culprit? Not turning in assignments. As in, “if I don’t turn in this paper worth a letter grade, I can still get a B.” I can’t in good conscience reward missing work with a higher grade.

I try to prevent this, though, by reaching out to all students with missing assignments to ensure they get the grade they deserve rather than a grade they’re settling for. I’ll even file grade changes for proactive students and send reminders months later.

Next, I check for three patterns: sustained performance over time, increasing effort over time (low initial grades but finishing strong), and decreasing effort over time (losing steam and/or giving up). Don’t worry–final grading isn’t the first and only time that I look for decreasing effort. Working with these students throughout the semester almost always prevents this pattern from happening.

Finally, I ensure that a single poor assignment grade isn’t dragging down their entire grade. Just this morning I noticed a student who recieved an A on all but one assignment. For whatever reason, the student didn’t perform well on a single major assignment, which brought their entire grade down to a B+. I “smoothed out the edge” and gave them the A.

Returning to the three patterns, the “one bad assignment” is typically random with sustained performers and early in the semester with increasing effort performers. If my mentoring works, decreasing effort students find their center and recover strong. Think a V-shaped pattern: seemingly at the ropes like a prize fighter, getting a talk from coach, and rising to the challenge again. I’ve certainly been there, so I’m always ready with a pep talk.

My nap after submitting grades earlier today was glorious–and I napped with confidence in my students!

The Idea of a World Government

In my Introduction to International Relations class, I have been running for the past few semesters a last-day exercise with my students, in which I ask them to envision a genuine World Government (not the United Nations in its current form). This serves four purposes: 1) It gets their creative juices flowing; 2) it allows for a stand alone exercise without having to do much prep; 3) it provides an outlet for “global problems need a global response”; and 4) it asks of them to challenge a core premise in international relations: anarchy, as the absence of world government, on the international stage, and subsequent assumed state behaviors. What would a world government look like to “make away” with anarchy?

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Guest Post: Feminist Pedagogy within Constraints: Teaching Reflective Writing in a UK Higher Education Institution

Dr Cherry Miller
Dr Jenny Morrison

Today’s guest post is by Cherry Miller from University of Helsinki and Jenny Morrison from University of Glasgow.

Assessments are a core area for feminist teaching. Traditional assessments such as the essay or exam can reinforce gendered or other hierarchies in education through favouring ‘masculine’ forms of learning that prioritise disimpassioned objective expression. Thus, feminists have called for greater diversity of assessments in general, and assessments that value the personal alongside the ‘objective’ political in particular. While feminists engage with a range of assessments, the reflective journal (RJ) has become commonplace on feminist courses. 

Nonetheless, research cautions against the assumption that ‘alternative’ assessment automatically fosters more effective learning and teaching. Rather, all academic assessments include implicit expectations and exist within the constraints of the academy. That the reflective journal remains a less familiar – albeit growing – format in higher education means there can be greater uncertainty regarding the expectations of such an assessment. Therefore, we believe the drive to diversify assessments leads to certain tensions for feminist pedagogy.

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When the table turns: Experiencing active learning from the other side

In between a day packed with meetings, I had an enjoyable break booked in yesterday – Prof. Violeta Orlovic Lovren, from the University of Belgrade, was at the University of York to deliver a workshop entitled ‘Designing Ideal Learning Spaces with Sustainability in Mind’. It was a session pitched as using ideas of utopia and sustainable development to explore what it is that we desire from our learning environments – which sounded fantastic. All good so far.

However, fifteen minutes into the workshop, something surprising happened. Violeta invited us, the attendees, to take some drawing paper and a fineliner pen and to draw what we pictured as our ideal, sustainable learning space. This itself wasn’t the surprise. What surprised me was the sudden pang of resistance I felt to this idea.

Continue reading “When the table turns: Experiencing active learning from the other side”

Welcoming New Regular Columnist, Dr. Jeremy Moulton!

Jeremy has contributed so many guest posts that we invited him to join us as a regular columnist!

Dr. Moulton has been working at the University of York since 2017. He has previously taught at York’s Department of Environment & Geography and at the University of Hull’s School of Politics and International Studies. His teaching practice centres on comparative politics, environmental politics, European Union studies, and the politics of the UK, across Undergraduate and Postgraduate programmes in the Department of Politics and International Relations. He has published peer-reviewed work on EU climate action, urban ecological modernisation, political myth, UK politics and renewables policy, and teaching and learning in Politics and International Relations.

Jeremy is deeply involved in enhancing the teaching and learning environment at York University. He has been awarded funding for and completed research projects on first-generation students’ experiences within Higher Education, student conceptions of teaching innovation, and the experiences of students that study abroad or undertake a year-in-industry placement. He is currently undertaking funded work on the identification of achievement gaps in the Department, the pedagogy of degrowth, and assessment optionality. As well as undertaking teaching and research, Jeremy currently works as the Department’s Admissions Tutor, a role in which he has centred widening participation into Higher Education. In 2020, Jeremy received the ‘Supporting the Student Voice’ award at the University.

Jeremy holds a PhD from the University of Hull, supervised by Prof. Rüdiger Wurzel (School of Politics and International Studies) and Prof. David Gibbs (School of Environmental Sciences), for a thesis entitled ‘A Tale of Two Cities: Climate Action and Political Myth in the European Union.’

In 2023, Jeremy became a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (Advance HE).

Welcome, Jeremy!

Make Discussion More Inclusive with the Raised Block

Facilitating discussion is one of those teaching tasks that is sneakily quite challenging: you need to have goals (beyond creating noise); keep the discussion on track to achieve those goals in the allotted time; manage the speaking order; address incorrect information or offensive remarks; enforce norms and rules; actively listen to students and capture themes; and encourage students to listen and respond to each other. Increasing inclusion is its own challenge–ensuring that every student has the access, opportunity, and encouragement to actively engage in the discussion and learn by being part of it.

A particular challenge can be the Dominant Derailer: the student(s) who speak up far more than their peers, sometimes on a pet topic that isn’t aligned with the learning goals, and has the result of shutting out other voices. When Dominant Derailers run the discussion, they turn their peers into Silent Spectators, who are no longer actively listening but instead just waiting for the ‘discussion’ to end.

I’ve already written with some tips on addressing or preventing a Dominant Derailer, but today I want to introduce a new tool that can help with this problem and others: the Raised Block.

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