How To Identify Problem Students

While going down the YouTube rabbit hole early last September, I stumbled across this video by a Canadian lawyer about the three types of clients to avoid. These clients display urgency, flattery, or (lack of) responsibility — often simultaneously. As stated in the video, these signals occur in any customer service industry. I’ve certainly seen them, and probably you have, too.

Urgency — a student claims to have an emergency that requires your immediate action. Questions for you to ask: “Is this a real or perceived emergency? Did the situation arise because of the student’s behavior?” In a serendipitous example, two weeks after watching the video, I received an email from a student with “URGENT CONCERN” in the subject line. It wasn’t urgent, nor was it my concern.

Flattery — a student says that you are the only professor that can resolve their problem. It is an attempt to distract you from the real cause of the situation. E.g., “This is my favorite course, but it’s the only one I’m doing badly in this semester, and if my GPA drops below X, I will lose my scholarship and have to drop out of college. Are there any extra credit assignments?”

Responsibility — nothing is the student’s fault. For example (actual email I received last month): “The wi-fi is completely shut down on campus and I can’t submit anything, I’ve been trying to for the past hour. I know our assignment is due and I’ve tried submitting it but I don’t know what to do. I can attach the writing here but can’t upload anything to Canvas.” My response? “The library has computers on every floor.”

Advice For Job-Seekers

We’re in peak season for campus interviews. At this stage of my career, I’ve had and seen many of them. So a bit of advice to those whose applications ended up at the top of the list:

We’ve all probably heard the statement, “No one in the room knows as much about your topic as you do,” intended to alleviate the anxiety of speaking before an audience of strangers. In an attempt to strengthen the performance of job candidates, I now propose the Chad Raymond Corollary: “No one in the room is as interested in your topic as you are.”

If your interview includes a research presentation or a teaching demo, practice multiple times — by which I mean full dress rehearsals, not just reviewing what you think you’re going to say in your mind. Boil the talking down to one or two main points. Eliminate words that you stumble over. Whittle down the content until you can deliver the entire presentation at a steady, deliberate pace within the specified time limit.

Then cut at least another 25 percent. Preferably more.

Why? Expect a delay because of the technology in the room isn’t working properly. Then introductory announcements by hosts. And you will need to entertain questions at the end. But mainly because people don’t really want to hear someone else speak non-stop for 45 minutes about a topic that has less import to them than what they will eat for dinner that night.

The above also applies to conference presentations.

Last, and I can’t stress this enough, figure out how you are going to engage your audience. If you prompt people in the room to do something, they are more likely to have a stronger, more positive view of your abilities. At minimum, they won’t be looking at their phones.

New Journal – Call for Papers

An announcement:

The School for International Training (SIT) is debuting an academic journal for the publication of research on the world’s most critical global issues.

The new Journal of Critical Global Issues, a peer-reviewed, open-access digital journal, will contribute to SIT’s mission to educate future scholars and professionals to address critical issues in pursuit of a more sustainable, peaceful, and just world. The journal aspires to support respectful communities, foster intercultural understanding, advocate for social justice and inclusion, and promote sustainability.

The Journal of Critical Global Issues invites proposals from researchers and scholars to contribute to an online roundtable discussion in May focused on the following areas: climate and the environment; development and inequality; education and social change; geopolitics and power; global health and well-being; identity and human resilience; and peace and justice. Roundtable presenters will have the opportunity to publish work related to their roundtable presentation in the inaugural issue of Journal of Critical Global Issues. We seek contributions from diverse theoretical and methodological perspectives to join us for this event.

Event information:

Location: Virtual
When: May 15-17, 2023
To submit a proposal for a roundtable discussion, please submit a 500-word abstract of your presentation here by February 15.

Questions? Contact university.relations@sit.edu.

How Do I Get An “A”?

Last summer, when building LMS sites for my fall semester undergraduate courses, I inserted a link titled “How do I get an ‘A’,” assuming it would get students’ attention. The link was to this short video about the importance of deadlines.*

I decided to expand on this idea for the spring semester and beyond, with an LMS page that contains the link to the video and this advice:

  • The due date is not the do date. Instructions and deadlines for all course assignments are available in the syllabus and on Canvas from the beginning of the semester. Plan ahead and complete assignments several days before they are due.
  • See the syllabus for the location of reading assignments. Ask librarians how to access these materials at no cost. There are computers available for this in the library and at other campus locations.
  • Revise your writing to eliminate as many unnecessary words as possible. Bad writing is an indication of sloppy thinking. If you are not familiar with the revision process, use the Writing Center.
  • Read the feedback on the quality of your work that is contained in assignment rubrics and my comments. It is not possible for me to care more about your learning than you do.
  • Sleep, eat, and exercise. Sufficient quantities of each are necessary for learning.

While the above can be construed as facilitating more learned helplessness among students, I’m finding that my syllabus quizzes just aren’t doing the job of communicating some of the most basic academic aspects of being a college student.

*Courtesy of TikTok via Reddit. Not something I created.

The Death of Curiosity? Part 3

A final review of the previous semester, this time on my course about environmental politics and economic development. I tweak the design and content of this course every year, probably because it’s my favorite topic to teach (some prior examples of this here and here).

As in the other undergraduate course that I taught, I administered my own course evaluation. Sample is 18 out of 22 students. Here are the results for the questions with a 5-point scale of “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”:

  • I now have a better understanding of the causes of poverty and economic growth: 4.3
  • I now have a better understanding of the relationship between economic development, environmental change, and risk: 4.4
  • The game design project helped me learn about environmental vulnerability and risk analysis: 3.6
  • I am now better able to use risk analysis as a decision making tool in my own life: 4.0
  • More courses at this university should include training in skills like risk analysis: 4.2

The relatively low score for the third question matched my observations. As in previous iterations of the course, teams of students designed games. This year I specified that the games needed to teach players about the environmental vulnerabilities faced by business owners. I devoted portions of some classes to presentations about system design and failure, and there were many writing assignments about the relationships between economic development, climate change, and risk. Yet, as in prior years, the games students built had little relevance to the design objective. In terms of mechanics, they mainly resembled Monopoly or Life.

I’m taking this as a sign that I need to impose even more limitations on the creativity students can but don’t exercise on this project. Next year I’m going to require that the games:

  • Be played on a board that is a map of the local community.
  • Have player roles that focus on a specific industry or institution threatened by climate change — such as tourism, food, or housing.
  • Contain mechanics that take into account the system components of place, people, and processes.

The good news is that I was completely surprised by answers to the evaluation’s “My favorite reading in the course?” Eleven of the respondents named the novel How to Get Filthy Rich In a Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid. Comments about the book included:

  • Clearly written and entertaining.
  • Nice to be able to connect with a character throughout the story.
  • Explained the timeline of a developing country through a perspective that I could visualize.
  • Unique and thought provoking.

I’ll definitely be including this novel in the course next year.

The Death of Curiosity? Part 2

Continuing to review my fall semester . . .

The forecasting project might have helped students learn Middle East politics and history. I’d rate it as a success on that front. As to whether their decision making skills have improved from using the CHAMP method, who knows?

At five different points in the semester, students forecasted the likelihood of these events occurring by December 9:

  • The value of the Turkish lira against the U.S. dollar decreases to less than 22:1.
  • In Iran, the Assembly of Experts names a new Supreme Leader.
  • An anti-government protest in Cairo results in at least twenty demonstrators arrested, injured, and/or killed.
  • The president or prime minister of Lebanon is assassinated.
  • Turkey ends its occupation of Syrian territory.

None of these events happened before the deadline, but that was ok given my purposes for the project. Here are the class’s predictions, with average percentage probability on the y-axis:

I need to tweak some of the project’s components. For example, the prompt for the last individual assignment — assess how your forecasts have been affected by cognitive biases — included this statement:

“People like Daniel Kahneman, Charles Wheelan, Tim Harford, Gerd Gigerenzer, and Nassim Taleb have written about cognitive biases and how to counter their effects.”

A few students did not discuss cognitive biases at all. Others clearly did a bad job of Googling “cognitive biases” and what the above individuals have written about them. In the future I’ll need to assign a specific reading on the topic. I see this as another manifestation of student inability or unwillingness to find information that I don’t put right in front of them.

Similarly, I either need to discard the in-class team presentations or formally assess them. Overall, they were of poor quality. Students need an explicit, rigid template for constructing presentations, and students will follow the template only if the presentations are graded. Asking students to give informal, ungraded presentations simply doesn’t work. Given that this country has raised a generation of children who frequently suffer from anxiety disorders, I might need to institute a rule that credit for presentations only goes to the students who deliver them, with the condition that each member of a team can present if they so choose. I already design my courses to provide students with “multiple paths to success,” so optional-yet-graded presentations are not much of a complication for me.

I administered my own course evaluation at the end of the semester. Here are the results — from 20 out a class of 22 students — for questions with a scale from “strongly agree” (5) to “strongly disagree” (1):

  • The forecasting project improved my ability to analyze political events in the Middle East – 3.9
  • I am now better able to use forecasting as a decision making tool in my own life – 3.7
  • More courses should include training in decision making skills like forecasting – 3.4

I would like the average scores on the second and third items to be higher.

Final comment: the last two reading response assignments before the final exam asked students to respond to “Will Lebanon/Syria still be a single sovereign state in 2030?” I did not realize until the last week of classes that these questions dovetail perfectly with the forecasting project, and that I should somehow integrate the CHAMP method and reading responses so that students get more opportunities to hone their decision making skills.

The Death of Curiosity? Part 1

Our fall semester is nearly done, and I’ve already started mentally reviewing it. Although this might be a consequence of recency bias, the teaching-learning environment feels like it has been below average.

Given their annotations on Perusall, many students seem to still have great difficulty identifying the thesis, independent variables, and dependent variable of assigned readings — despite the accurate comments written by classmates.

Attendance in class has frequently been below fifty percent, and a greater portion than usual of the students who do come to class look like they mentally check out during discussions. For context, see my October series on physical presence in the classroom here, here, and here.

Possible solutions to the above problems? Instituting pop quizzes based on Perusall readings and class discussions, machine-graded in the Canvas LMS, comes to mind. If students don’t want to voluntarily eat the carrot of knowledge, then perhaps I should use the stick of multiple choice questions that directly affect the course grade. Two potential drawbacks to this method: first, the difficulty of guiding in-class discussions toward quiz questions that were created before the discussion occurred, and second, potential complaints about not being allowed to “make up” quizzes that were missed when absent. My general policy is not to complicate my life by scheduling alternative testing dates, granting deadline extensions, etc. As I’ve stated before, I regard students as legal adults capable of setting their own priorities.

Before classes end this week, I’ll be gathering slightly more objective feedback on the “skills” components of my two undergraduate courses via anonymous surveys. I’ll report the results in my next post.

Live From COP 27, Part 2

Maybe

Another on the spot report from COP 27. Again, the opinions expressed here are solely my own.

The Saudi Green Initiative is housed under two large geodesic domes near COP 27, but is not one of the official conference venues. Its purpose? Elaborately showcasing the environmentally-friendly innovations of companies like Saudi Aramco and SABIC — some of the world’s largest petrochemical firms headquartered in and capitalized by one of the world’s largest fossil fuel exporters. The people explaining the products being brought to market were all men. Same for the staff at the Saudi Arabia pavilion in the Blue Zone.

Green innovation projects are also on display in the Green Zone space dedicated to Egyptian universities. They are much smaller and obviously receive far less government financial support than their Saudi counterparts. But they are explained to conference attendees, if not headed, by women. Thinking like a comparativist:

The columns could also be labeled as regime type, with monarchy for Saudi Arabia and bureaucratic authoritarianism for Egypt. You get the idea. I’m just wondering if data indicates a relationship between a state’s commitment to green technology and gender parity. One might assume the two are positively correlated (e.g., Germany and Sweden), but maybe in the Middle East it’s an inverse relationship.

While Egypt seems to be doing better than some of its neighbors in how women are treated, I wonder who at the U.N. thought it was a good idea to have COP 27 hosted by a military dictatorship. Egyptian civil society organizations have largely been excluded, and it is simply too dangerous for Egyptian human rights activists to participate. To give a very minor example:

No chickens burger for you

The photo shows an eating establishment that has appeared in the Blue Zone, which is in theory a U.N.-governed space. Note the group seated on the roof deck, consisting of a 60s-ish man surrounded by women half his age. The staircase to seating on top of the shipping container is to the rear. When I tried to ascend these stairs to take in the view from above, I was stopped by a man in skinny jeans and a black t-shirt who said the area was “blocked.” I noticed the attention of a few Mukhabarat (the not-so-secret police) wearing suits and earpieces seated at a nearby ground-level table. I backed off to observe, and saw a few other Mukhabarat milling about. Over the next few minutes, five other people, some of whom were ordinary Egyptians, were prevented from climbing the stairs. My guess is that the man at the table was a government bigwig, and the women he was speaking with were representatives of some kind of business venture.

Last, here is the obligatory Egyptian cat photo:

Mekong Dam Simulation, Part 2

Today we have a second guest post from Sharmaine Loh and Marek Rutkowski, of Monash University—Malaysia, and Joel Moore, Monash University—Australia. They can be contacted at sharmaine [dot] loh [at] monash [dot] edu, marek [dot] rutkowski [at] monash [dot] edu, and joel [dot] moore [at] monash [dot] edu.

In our last post, we described our Mekong River crisis simulation. The assessments that we use for this simulation are designed to reward student preparation and engagement (a detailed breakdown is in this appendix).

Students are initially provided with detailed position descriptions for employment in the organisations to which they’ve been assigned. They are asked to prepare for a mock job interview for that position, which requires them to conduct research and think about their role in the simulation. We have offered this scenario in an applied capstone class, so have required students to identify their own readings and research to be able to fulfil their roles.

Once the simulation begins, students write a weekly strategy memo for the lead member of their organization based on independent research they’ve conducted, an opportunity for them to consider the practical, actionable implications of scholarly work in the social sciences. Students also must also document their interaction with other organisations and the media during the simulation in a reflective journal.

The head of each organization in turn relies on his or her team members to regularly provide advice about the best course of action in the unfolding crisis. If a group suggests a questionable course of action, the instructor uses follow-up questions to prompt students to consider possible negative consequences, e.g. how would investors view a decision to cancel the project?

At the end of the course, students analyze their experience of the simulation in a writing assignment.

The simulation is designed to make it difficult for students to upset the status quo. Local and international NGOs usually must settle for limited gains based on a government’s willingness to placate its critics. While this sometimes leads to frustration and disillusionment for students, it allows them to gain a better understanding of the power disparity between governmental and nongovernmental actors. While students sometimes initially attempt to resolve the crisis by reaching a consensus among all parties involved, they quickly realize that this is impossible due to conflicting interests. While students are allowed to make risky decisions if they are well considered and not purposely disruptive, successfully negotiated political and policy changes in the simulation have always been limited and incremental. 

In past iterations of the simulation, the incumbent Thai leadership has usually been able to retain control of the government and dominate issue framing, in some cases solidifying its position in the process. Thai opposition groups have had to navigate between outright rejection of government policies and a more conciliatory and constructive criticism. Students have learned that political change is difficult to accomplish without a broad anti-government bloc that includes civil society organisations.

Changes at the international level have also been limited, accurately reflecting the shortcomings of the Lower Mekong  governance regime and ASEAN’s commitment to the principle of non-interference. Students’ attempts to amend the 1995 Mekong Agreement have been hindered by states’ competing foreign policy objectives and the strict application of sovereignty. At most, parties have agreed on a controlled and gradual extension of the Mekong River Commission’s supervisory apparatus.

We have identified a few ways in which the simulation can be further improved. Students’ concerns about free riding within teams, while partially mitigated through the use of a team member evaluation tool (e.g. CATME or Feedback Fruits, we used one developed for this class by Joel), have continued. A possible solution could be a “divorce option,” where students would be allowed to “fire” a free riding member. We have also observed that students’ insufficient background knowledge can lead to unrealistic behaviour in the simulation. This could be mitigated by an increased redundancy within groups (multiple students being given the same or similar role) and an added criterion of academic performance in determining group allocation (Joel’s tool for the allocation of students into groups for class assignments has also been used to allocate students into roles for this class). 

Live From COP 27

As usual, the opinions expressed herein are solely my own.

I’m attending the COP 27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh as an observer, courtesy of my university. For the general vibe, read this cheeky article (plus a follow-up!) from The Guardian. In its design and operation, the event models some major international relations and comparative politics concepts.

The Blue Zone, the main conference site, is sprawling and chaotic, yet has only one entrance and one exit where attendees badges are scanned. You’re either in or out. The Blue Zone is dominated by meeting rooms and exhibition spaces for state actors and a few U.N. organizations. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, petroleum exporting rentier states, have the largest and most glitzy exhibits. Egypt, military dictatorship and conference host, ranks third in this respect. The U.S. pavilion is good-sized and neatly organized, but extremely loud, as is typical for Americans. Canada? Friendly and free coffee for passersby. The pavilions of African states are quite welcoming, despite their organizers’ histories of exploitation by foreign powers.

Potemkin coffee kiosk

Power hierarchy is apparent in other ways. One Blue Zone area is the preserve of high-ranking officials who meet behind closed doors after arriving in limousines. Occasionally dignitaries stroll through the mass chaos elsewhere in the Blue Zone, flanked by plainclothes protective teams. My compliments to the bodyguard who expertly guided me into a non-threatening position by gently touching my upper arm with only three fingers.

The Green Zone is a smaller space for Egypt’s government ministries and universities, along with international civil society groups, to showcase their environmental sustainability efforts. It is located directly across a road from the Blue Zone, ostensibly allowing attendees to conveniently pass back and forth. But the Blue Zone’s gate that faces this road is closed for the duration of COP 27 because of “security,” and the promised shuttle bus running between the Blue and Green Zones did not materialize until a few days after the conference had started. The conference venue includes a third building, dedicated to public-private partnerships, that also requires a shuttle or taxi to access because of surrounding walls, despite being only a short distance away as the crow flies. My prior international travel experience in authoritarian states leads me to believe that these impediments to movement and communication are a feature, not a bug.

My final comment, more directly pertinent to the subject of this blog: so far, COP 27 has resembled the typical academic conference at which information is dumped onto a passive audience via speeches and panel presentations. I have not yet encountered any Blue Zone events designed with active learning in mind. This is probably not the most effective strategy for teaching about an existential threat.