Writing as Assessment

To illustrate the dilemma I presented in my last post: the possible devolution of the final exam for one of my courses.

My Fall 2018 exam was an attempt at an authentic writing exercise, but students had to choose one of two positions and use course readings. This meant I supplied the available arguments and evidence, and the exam was actually an assessment of rhetorical skill. Students didn’t demonstrate an ability to use concepts that I thought were crucial for the arguments they had developed.

For the final exam in Fall 2019, I ended up giving students a choice of arguments — “basis for aid policy to Egypt” and “plan for Louisiana’s future” — and I added this to the instructions for the exam:

Apply relevant concepts like discounting the future, moral hazard, etc.

Students still had to select one of two predetermined positions regardless of the argument chosen, and again I specified the pool of evidence they could draw from. And students still didn’t demonstrate knowledge of concepts listed in the exam’s instructions.

What next? I could have a final exam that asks students to, for example, “make an evidence-based determination of whether moral hazard exists in a location affected by climate change.” But this type of exam prompt might introduce even more problems.

Writing as Learning

My last post discussed writing as a professional endeavor. Today: writing as a device for learning; i.e., why and how we as teachers assign writing to students.

Generally we present our students with some form of expository writing task. Perhaps we call it thesis-driven, discipline-oriented, argumentative, or research-based. Regardless of the label, there is an assumption of students locating relevant primary data by means of different methods that they understand how to use, evaluating the data in an appropriate manner while being aware of their own assumptions, reaching some conclusion, and effectively communicating all of this to an audience.

That’s the ideal. The reality? Students often don’t know how to find primary data, or which methods are best suited for analyzing it. They may not even know what methods are. They assume there is either one right answer, or that all possible answers are equal, because they don’t understand that some answers can be more strongly supported by data than others while even better answers await discovery in the future.

And so we default to assignments that direct students to preferred secondary or tertiary sources (a “text”), tell them to organize their explanations as competitions between two artificial, diametrically-opposed positions, or, sometimes, encourage them to dredge up arguments that arrive at positions they already favor. Students learn to hang evidence on a predetermined conclusion rather than derive a conclusion from the evidence.

This type of deductive exercise has been used by teachers since the age of the agora to build students’ rhetorical skills. Today, unfortunately, it can produce people with a facile ability to argue any position at any time without veering from a worldview that they hold to be sacrosanct.

So what’s the solution? I don’t really have one. Too few of the students I encounter are willing or able to draw reasonable conclusions from evidence they have independently located, so writing exercises that involve inductive reasoning get chucked out the window. It’s frustrating.

Writing as Project

If you’re like me — a contractual teaching load of seven courses per academic year, plus overloads, committee work, and administrative duties — you tell yourself that you’ll work diligently on those unfinished conference papers and journal manuscripts during the winter holidays. And then life happens, time slips away, and suddenly the spring semester is about to begin.

There are simple tools — which aren’t part of the standard graduate program curriculum, but should be — that can help you become a more productive writer. I’ll mention two.

Stretch & SMART

The stretch goal is your ultimate objective or ambition; the whole project. For example, write a complete draft of a book chapter. SMART is an acronym that describes the actions that need to be taken to reach one’s objective:

  • Specific — actions must be defined and discrete, such as create a literature review that will be part of the book chapter.
  • Measurable — actions must be countable so that progress can be gauged. Each morning, find and read twelve peer-reviewed articles that are relevant to the book chapter. For each article, write a phrase or sentence on, respectively, its methods, findings, and quality.
  • Achievable — create the conditions needed to complete the above tasks. Clear morning schedule, turn off email.
  • Realistic — ensure that the tasks can actually be accomplished. Don’t go down rabbit holes; on the first day select which journals will be searched, a date range, and other limiting criteria.
  • Timeline — establish a schedule with an endpoint. I am devoting one hour each morning to the literature review. If I define my search on Monday, and then subsequently locate four articles per day, then I will have a total of twelve articles by the end of the allotted time on Thursday and can begin writing the literature review on Friday morning.

There are many definitions of Stretch & SMART; if the one above is unclear, others can be found with a quick internet search.

Front Forty & Back Forty

Front Forty & Back Forty maps the tasks that are part of a project and tracks which of those tasks have been completed. The technique was invented by my colleague and illustrator extraordinaire, Susannah Strong. An explanation is here. Make sure to scroll down to the sample map.

Simulating the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council, Part 2

Today we have the second of two posts from Nicholas Wright, of the political science department at University College London. He can be reached at nicholas [dot] wright [at] ucl [dot] ac [dot] uk.

Some key insights from the simulation:

  • Talking to colleagues matters. While all students produced negotiation briefs, very few used their briefs as a basis for preliminary discussions with colleagues. Some did seek to build alliances with like-minded partners, but few outside the formal leadership group of HR/VP, Presidency and institutions attempted to build bridges to those they thought would have opposing positions. All recognised the importance of knowing what their partners wanted, but not all acted on it. Those that did felt better prepared for the meeting.
  • Respond to the draft agenda. Several students felt that the agenda did not sufficiently reflect the issues. However, even though it was circulated well in advance, none of the member states engaged directly with the HR/VP to discuss whether it could be amended, even though it was deliberately anodyne to enable flexibility.
  • Time flies. Everyone felt the pressure of time, especially in the second hour. They all thought they had more time for discussion than they did and did not consider time allocated for the debrief. Despite the Chair encouraging them to move as swiftly as possible to the second question, it was neglected.
  • Being heard matters . . . but so does taking part. With any group of students there will be those who are more forthright and vocal, so part of the challenge is to encourage everyone to participate as fully as possible. Ultimately, the time is theirs and this year everyone made at least some contribution. France, Germany and Hungary were all quite active, while Ireland less so. The UK representative struggled to get the attention of the chair, partly because of the table layout, but also because she felt constrained by the impact of Brexit—thereby, wittingly or not, reflecting the reality of these meetings since 2016!

I drew three lessons from the simulation that I can apply to the future:

  • Picking a good leadership group matters. This is quite a challenge as roles are assigned early in the term and it is not always clear at that stage who will have the requisite skills to manage the meeting. But this year, I feel my choice was vindicated – the HR/VP was effective and was ably supported by the EEAS and Commission.
  • Time management is crucial. This year I deliberately reduced the number of questions to two to allow even more time for discussion and negotiation, but did not anticipate that the discussions would become so dominated by the first question. Next year I will reduce the initial tour de table from 3 to 2 minutes and in the pre-briefing with the HR/VP really emphasise the need to be strict on time. We’ll see if that makes a difference.
  • Build on the negotiation component of the module. There is an opportunity to include more training in negotiation prior to the simulation. Adding a short exercise in preceding weeks that deals with specific negotiating scenarios would improve the practical aspects of the module and probably the simulation itself.

Simulating the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council, Part 1

Today we have the first of two guest posts from Nicholas Wright, of the political science department at University College London. He can be reached at nicholas [dot] wright [at] ucl [dot] ac [dot] uk.

My favourite class of the autumn term is when we simulate a crisis meeting of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) as part of my ‘EU in the World’ postgraduate module. It’s a great opportunity to turn from (sometimes quite dry) conceptual and theoretical discussions about EU actorness (or lack thereof) and test out in practice some of our assumptions – e.g. about how negotiation and decision-making work in the FAC, how far traditional power attributes bestow advantage, etc. It’s also a great opportunity for the students to take the lead while I remain on the sidelines and observe.

This year, our meeting focused on Turkey’s military deployment in northern Syria. The students had just two and a quarter hours to reach a consensus and draft answers to two questions:

  • Should the EU respond any further to the crisis?
  • Does the EU need to reset its longer-term relationship with Turkey, particularly regarding Turkey’s path to possible future EU membership?

The outcome of the meeting was interesting. Beyond rejecting any form of EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) military or civilian mission, the group could not reach consensus on anything. Caught up in discussion of the first question, which I had intended to be resolved swiftly, they had insufficient time to adequately address the second. The resulting diplomatic statement offered little in the way of concrete action while substantive discussion of the EU-Turkey relationship was postponed for a future meeting.

This outcome was initially considered a failure in the subsequent debriefing. But in dissecting what happened, the ‘failure’ highlighted to very good effect the challenges posed by this kind of policy discussion, especially when actors with clear status quo positions seek to prevent a more proactive policy response.

Using the simulation:

The simulation takes place in Week 7. In Week 3 students are informed about the topic, provided with briefing documents, and assigned their roles. The class is capped at twenty students so not all EU member states can be represented. One is assigned the role of HR/VP (High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) who acts as chair, and one each acts as the holder of the rotating presidency, the European External Action Service (EEAS), and the relevant Commission Directorate-General. The remaining students are assigned a member state and wherever possible they represent their home state.

As preparation, students submit a 1,000-word negotiation brief in Week 5. Although the simulation itself is formative, the brief is assessed and must set out the historical role of their actor in relation to the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), their goals and red lines, and a strategy for how the meeting will be approached. Students may disclose the contents of their briefs to one other, but only after submission.

In Week 6, the HR/VP, in consultation with the rotating presidency, EEAS, and Commission, produces a preliminary agenda for the meeting. From that point, students are actively encouraged to consult with each other up until the simulation starts. To facilitate this, I created a discussion forum on the module’s Moodle page, and this year students also used WhatsApp.

The simulation starts with a brief introduction where I remind them of the ground rules including the time limit. Then the HR/VP takes over the task of facilitating the discussions, beginning with an opening tour de table.

Approximately twenty minutes before the end of the simulation, I introduce a ‘live’ update that is intended to disrupt their deliberations, test their ability to think on their feet, and get them to demonstrate their understanding of their actor’s interests and priorities. In this case it was a Turkish decision to suspend the 2016 refugee agreement with the EU, which resulted in a hastily drafted additional paragraph at the end of students’ conclusions.

We conduct a twenty-five minute debriefing after the simulation. Students consider whether they achieved the goals they had identified in their original briefs, reasons for why this happened, and what they could have done differently.

The Joy of Documenting a Job Done

Not knowing whether one has actually helped students learn is one of the most frustrating aspects of teaching. Assuming an absence of megalomania or the Dunning-Kruger effect, indications that we’ve made a difference are typically quite vague and ambiguous. So I was pleasantly surprised — as in, “hey, maybe students really did benefit from this” — by the results of a knowledge probe that I launched at the beginning and end of the semester in my course on economic development and environmental politics.

The knowledge probe was an ungraded quiz that asked questions about a few basic economic concepts, administered through Google Forms in the first and last weeks of the semester. Results, showing percentage of respondents answering correctly, are below.

N = 21
N = 16
% Change
Poverty Trap5210092
Diminishing Returns to Capital527544
Skill Matching5881,660
Common Pool Resource Problem488169
Moral Hazard38100163

Obviously this wasn’t the perfect tool. Sample sizes are too small for statistical significance. And a slightly different proportion of students reported previously taking a university economics course on the pre-test than on the post-test. But the numbers at minimum suggest that students learned something over the semester, which gave me a sense of satisfaction that I otherwise wouldn’t have.

Exam Study Skills Advice

If you’re like me, you are finding that more students need help with basic study skills than previously. You might also find it difficult to explain learning strategies that for many academics have been automatic behaviors since elementary school. Loleen Berdahl of the University of Saskatchewan has created a handy screen-capture video about studying effectively for final exams, available here, just in time for the end of the semester in the USA and Canada. Feel free to share it with your students.

Registration Deadline TLC 2020

A reminder that the early bird registration for the 2020 APSA Teaching and Learning Conference is December 14.

As I have said before, this conference is not the standard sequence of tedious, badly-attended panel sessions. Attendees join a working group on a particular topic for the length of the conference. There are also hands-on workshops between sessions. And this TLC will convene in glorious Albuquerque, New Mexico, where in 2011 a conversation led to the creation this blog. Full conference details are at the APSA’s TLC webpage.

Debating the Sokovia Accords

Today we have a guest post from Adam Irish, Assistant Professor of Political Science California State University, Chico. He can be contacted through his faculty webpage at https://www.csuchico.edu/pols/people/tenure-line-faculty/irish-adam.shtml.

(Jason Halley/University Photographer)

International relations (IR) textbooks often relegate the topic of international law to a few pages or subsume it within the general topic of cooperation. Beyond defining the different sources of international law, little effort is made to compare those sources or connect international law to domestic laws. Moreover, international law tends to be discussed mostly in terms of treaties or framed as primarily an enforcement problem.  International law deserves more nuanced coverage than current introductory textbooks suggest.

To address this issue, I have developed a debate to promote critical analysis of international law’s varied sources. This debate is adaptable, scalable, and links well to IR issues. Best of all, it sparks student interest because it draws on a popular MARVEL movie—Captain America: Civil War

The storyline of Captain America: Civil War follows the creation of the Sokovia Accords as a response to the killing of civilians by superheroes.  States wrote the Sokovia Accords in order to monitor and, through the United Nations, regulate the activities of superpowered individuals. In the movie there are six scenes relevant to the Sokovia Accords.  Students can view the entire movie or use publicly available YouTube video clips to watch the relevant scenes: intro fight scene part 1 and part 2, grieving mother scene, initial presentation, first debate, second debate, and prison scene. A version of the Sokovia Accords text is available on the MCU fandom page.

I recommend introducing the debate after exploring topics like the treaty making process (i.e. negotiation, ratification, implementation, and compliance), the two-level game model of IR, the importance of ratification for legal obligation, or variations in the criteria to enter into force.  Students should be reminded that, under international law, failure to follow the accords is more likely to generate tort liability (requiring compensation) than a criminal prosecution. 

Two teams of students (~2-4 students per team) debate the following resolution:

Resolved: The Sokovia Accords are the best legal instrument to regulate the use of force by superheroes.

The remainder of the students in the class serve as judges. Before the debate, each team should submit a short summary of its arguments to the instructor and judges. The debate itself is divided up into five sections:

  1. Opening Statements. Debaters sit in front of the class with their team. Flip a coin to determine which team starts and after Rebuttal Planning reverse the order. If possible, meet with student teams before to discuss rhetorical techniques, dividing up the speaking, and responding to judges.
  2. Questioning by Judges. Judges ask questions of each team. In classes leading up to the debate draw attention to how arguments are questioned.
  3. Rebuttal Planning & Judges’ Conference. Each team is excused to the hallway to plan.  Ask the judges: Which arguments are they most interested in? Which are most/least compelling? How they plan to push each team during the next phase?
  4. Rebuttals and Questioning. Each team rebuts arguments and answers questions. Judges may interrupt to ask for clarification or questions.
  5. Closing Statements & In-class Debrief. Each team makes an uninterrupted closing statement. Time permitting, de-brief by focusing on the experience rather than arguments. What did students think was the most challenging aspect of the debate? When are debates most effective? What did they most like about the activity? Then applaud the efforts of the debate teams and remind the judges to send in their rulings before the next class. 

Debating the Sokovia Accords will get students to compare the different sources of international law and re-engage with previously covered topics.  To promote further investigation of the connection to domestic laws, tell students that the United States has yet to ratify the Accords. This small change generates questions about the interaction of domestic laws and rights with international treaties seeking to establish treatment standards (for example, the Sokovia Accords allow for indefinite detention). 

If students are able to review additional material, a recent article by Verdier and Voeten (2015) provides an explanation for customary international law not based on reciprocity, which can be used to examine the effects of violating an international law on the community. Pevehouse and Goldstein’s (2017) textbook provides a basic overview of some alternatives to treaty law on pages 216-217. Finally, to create a courtroom feel to the debate, abridged versions of cases can be added on custom (The Paquete Habana, Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons), general principles (Italy (Gentini) v. Venezuela, Prosecutor v. Tradic, and Corfu Channel Case), jus cogens rules (Roper v. Simmons, Prosecutor v. Furundžija), or even cases concerning the state responsibility (US (Chattin) v. Mexico, Mexico (Mallen) v. US).

Syllabus Design

Last week a colleague and I led a workshop on syllabus design for junior faculty. The workshop focused on a method that I call EA2 — engage, apply, and assess.

First step in building a syllabus for a course is to identify the essential student learning outcomes (SLOs). For each SLO, students:

  1. Engage with corresponding content.
  2. Practice applying knowledge or skills associated with the SLO.
  3. Get assessed on how well they have achieved the SLO.

Here is an example from my comparative politics syllabus:

Red box is the SLO. Blue box is the content. Green box is the exercise in application — an argumentative writing assignment. Purple box is the assessment.

This sequence is used for each of the course’s SLOs, turning the syllabus into a map that shows exactly what the course consists of and why.