Fall 2020: Looking Backward and Forward, Part 3

One last post about successes and failures from the previous semester: last summer a colleague pointed me toward Knight Lab Timeline JS, and, inspired by Matthew Wilson’s work on crowd-sourcing and self-instruction, I decided to include a timeline project in my undergraduate course on the Middle East. Setting up the project was relatively simple:

Students were already divided into teams for breakout discussions, presentations, and note-taking; I used the same teams for the timelines. I chose five Middle Eastern countries that featured prominently in assigned readings — Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia — and created corresponding files in Google Sheets using the spreadsheet template provide by Knight Lab. I gave each team access to its Google Sheet.

Students completed five graded individual assignments that were designed to prevent free riders and guarantee that teams were working on the project throughout the semester rather than only in a frenzied rush at the end. Here are the instructions for the assignment and its associated rubric:

Research four different historically important documents, conflicts, and/or changes to political authority that occurred in your team’s country from 1970 to the present. Write 100-200 words (one paragraph) on each item for a total of 400-800 words. Upload your work to Canvas to obtain a Turnitin similarity score. A similarity score > 30 will result in a grade of zero for the assignment. You can submit as many drafts as you like; I will only grade the most recent one submitted before the deadline. Turnitin does not provide instantaneous feedback; submit drafts of your assignment well before the deadline. Documents include constitutional changes, laws, decrees, treaties, speeches, manifestos, and mission statements. Conflicts include wars, rebellions, revolutions, domestic political rivalries, assassinations, popular protest movements, and terrorist attacks. Changes to political authority include alterations to institutions of government, leadership succession, formation or dissolution of political parties, election outcomes, and negotiated power-sharing agreements. 

Unlike Matthew Wilson, I did not curate a collection of sources for students to use for research, for two reasons: 1) given the pandemic, there was no guarantee that students would be able to access books in the campus library that I had vetted beforehand, and 2) I did not want to have to verify the quality of students’ sources during the semester, which would have invariably meant rejecting work that had been based on unreliable information gathered from whatever webpage appeared at the top of Google search results. My objective was for students to learn about their team’s country by rewriting accounts of widely-known (to people in those countries) historical events — hence my use of Turnitin to assess their work. The Canvas LMS allows the instructor to adjust Turnitin’s advanced settings so that common phrases do not affect the similarity score, as shown in the image of the Canvas dialogue box at right. This method worked flawlessly, to my surprise. Credit for me learning about it goes to another colleague.

However, the problem of how to grade the completed timelines remained. I decided to make the final exam a process in which students ranked each other’s timelines:

You are an intelligence analyst employed by the CIA. The CIA will be signing a contract with one of several private research consulting companies to create training materials for new hires. Each company has produced a sample timeline of events in the contemporary Middle East. Your supervisor, the Deputy Director for Analysis, has assigned you the task of evaluating the work of these consulting companies. Write a one-page memo to her that recommends a timeline team other than your own for the contract. Use the quality of the teams’ timelines as the basis for your recommendation. In the memo, explain why the timeline you have selected is superior to the other teams’ timelines.

Students thus sorted the timelines for me, and, by pointing out their respective strengths and flaws, made it easy for me to grade them using this rubric:

In my opinion, the resulting scores accurately reflected the quality of students’ work. For example, check out the difference in content between the Iraq and Saudi Arabia timelines.

The one change I would make in the process if using this project again? Add a low stakes mid-semester assessment that would act as a checkpoint for teams to gauge their progress. Four of the five teams spent thirteen out of the fourteen weeks in the semester entering incorrectly formatted information into their Google Sheets, causing errors that prevented the timelines from displaying properly. Students failed to follow formatting instructions in the spreadsheet template until I notified them that non-functioning timelines would result in a grade of zero for the team component of the project.