Multi-Tasking With Reflection

Most of us would agree that reflection is an important part of the learning process. The hard part about reflective exercises is making students think about course content rather than their feelings about it.

One of my colleagues in philosophy uses an exercise that I’ve adapted for a course I’m teaching now. Five times during the semester students write a one-page reflection on previous reading assignments and class discussions. Students can attempt to clarify a particular point made in class, critique someone else’s point, wonder about the implications of a particular idea, or consider the relationship between one author’s writing and another. Students must raise a question (or questions) as part of each paper.  These questions can go in the direction of the individual student’s choosing, but they should be clear, concise, and original.

Here’s where things get interesting: students post their questions online for review by their peers. The questions that are regarded as the “best” (however defined) by the students are used for additional classroom debate. The process of reflection moves from being solely internal (where I am the only other person who learns what a student is thinking) to being shared and evaluated among peers. At the same time, students are generating a bank of exam questions that I can draw from. If the questions I include on an exam have already been discussed, there’s no need for me to set aside additional class time for an exam review session.

Perseus prepares to engage Medusa in a self-reflection exercise . . .

Incentivizing Active Teaching

Although I’m not an economist, I’m quite interested in identifying incentives, and faculty usually have few to no material incentives to experiment pedagogically.  Occasionally someone might receive a stipend or grant to vary one’s teaching methods, but these rewards are one-shot deals. Sometimes merit pay exists, but frequently it’s based on student evaluations of teaching, which is a recipe for disaster. This situation is particularly disturbing given the findings in Academically Adrift (Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, U. of Chicago Press, 2011) that certain writing and reasoning skills fail to improve for over one-third of  students during four years of undergraduate education. Students aren’t learning, and faculty have no incentive to change that.

I’ve been thinking about this subject recently because I’m involved in an effort to redesign an interdisciplinary major. Team teaching has been proposed as a way of delivering content that crosses disciplinary boundaries — something that I wholeheartedly agree with — but at my university there are no incentives for it. The credit hours for a course that is team-taught are regarded as shared between instructors, and any teaching duty that equates to less than a complete three credit hour course is compensated as overload at a drastically reduced pay rate. Unless a full-time faculty member is really desperate for money, the cost of team teaching to faculty in time and effort is greater than the financial reward.

The Results Are In

As I’ve discussed here and here, this past semester I ran a role-playing simulation for undergraduates on international relations in Europe on the eve of World War I. Previously I had tested for the simulation’s possible effects on student learning by comparing essay exam grades from a “regular” class that participated in the simulation to grades from an honors class that had not. Grades from the honors class were higher, and in most cases the differences were statistically significant, but the possibility existed that the higher scores were due to the honors students supposed better academic ability.

This semester I finally was able to teach an honors class again and do a more valid comparison. Some preliminary data crunching indicates that the simulation had no effect on essay assignments and exams, not what I’d expected. However, in a 2009 study, Stroessner,  Beckerman, and Whittaker found that students’ “writing ability, at least extemporaneous writing, was not affected” by Barnard’s Reacting to the Past role-playing simulations.* This makes me wonder what can be changed about history-based role-playing simulations so that students become better able to connect their simulation experiences to course content and demonstrate that connection through their writing.

I know someone reading this is thinking “it’s quite possible that your assignments and exams aren’t measuring what you think they are measuring.” Yes, possible, but logic dictates that if (a) we think it’s important for students to learn how to use theory to create a coherent and persuasive written explanation of an event, and (b) a question asks, for example, “did the international system in Europe prior to World War I best reflect liberal or realist IR theory, and why?” then (c) assignments and exams indicate how well students can accomplish (a). In other words, I’m testing for what I think students should know, and the simulation that I’ve been using doesn’t seem to have any effect on how much knowledge students acquire over a semester.

I will be presenting on this subject at the APSA Teaching and Learning Conference (TLC) in February. I’ve been attending the TLC  since 2007 and it’s been remarkably rewarding — lots of interesting and pedagogically practical information. I encourage you to attend.

*Stroessner, Steven J, Laurie Susser Beckerman, and Alexis Whittaker (2009) “All the World’s a Stage? Consequences of a Role-Playing Pedagogy on Psychological Factors and Writing and Rhetorical Skill in College Undergraduates,” Journal of Educational Psychology 101(3):605-620.

Connections Exercise: the answers

As promised, below are the answers, in order, to the connections exercise that I described in my previous post. The exercise was a big hit in class even though no one correctly identified how all ten items related to one another. Students were completely ignorant of the fact that people their age, many of them also university students, are protesting for economic justice and democratization and getting assaulted, imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes killed as a result. They were also puzzled and indignant that their taxes help enable governments to engage in such behavior. As with my take-out quizzes, I divided students into small groups and gave each group 30 minutes to complete its answers.

1) Linda: http://chancellor.ucdavis.edu/

2) Davis: http://www.wrko.com/node/711886

3) Miami, and (4) Free Trade Area of the Americas: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miami_model

5) John: http://blogs.miaminewtimes.com/riptide/2011/12/john_timoney_former_miami_poli.php

6) Manama: http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/01/an-activist-stands-her-ground-in-bahrain/?scp=1&sq=Bahrain%20woman&st=cse

7) Foreign Assistance Act Of 1961, and (8) Cairo: http://storyful.com/stories/1000015020 and

http://www.pmddtc.state.gov/reports/documents/rpt655_FY09.pdf (pages 114-119)

9) Mahmoud: http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/02/egyptians-want-justice-for-protesters-shot-in-the-eyes/?scp=1&sq=Mahmoud%20eye&st=cse

10) Jamestown: http://english.ahram.org.eg/~/NewsContent/1/64/27956/Egypt/Politics-/Suez-port-employees-reveal-ton-US-tear-gas-order-f.aspx and

http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11336/1194064-454-0.stm?cmpid=localstate.xml and http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/532666

Connections Exercise

This is the last week of classes, and I’m trying to get students to think about how what has happened inside the classroom can be used to understand a world of which they remain mostly ignorant. So I’ve come up with the following small group exercise, which I’ll probably give them about twenty minutes to complete:

Write a short narrative (not a bulleted list) that explains the connection between the following people, places, and things:

Cairo
Davis
Free Trade Area of the Americas
Foreign Assistance Act Of 1961
Jamestown
John
Linda
Mahmoud
Manama
Miami

 Correctly connecting eight of the above items earns one point toward your final grade for each person in your group. For nine, two points. For all of them, three points.

Since my students might find this post on Google, I’m not going to post the answer until later this week (please don’t reveal the answer if you know it).

The Pedagogical Utility of Half Credit

I structure most of my courses around what I call reading responses — short writing assignments on journal articles that students complete outside of class. These assignments fulfill several objectives:

  • Students read, think, and write outside of class, making them better able to actively engage with ideas during class. As a consequence, I don’t have to lecture as much and the dynamic of the class moves away from me delivering facts while students try to memorize them.
  • Students are able to exercise a limited degree of choice, which increases their sense of ownership and investment in the course (I typically have about fifteen assignments but students are only expected to complete ten of them).
  • Students have repeated opportunities to practice constructing written arguments that contain evidence from “experts in the field.”

It’s easy for students to earn full credit on these assignments. They must be:

  • turned in on time (before class, via course management software),
  • present an argument that addresses the question,
  • contain specific, properly cited references to the assigned reading.

I do not allow rewrites on these assignments because the requirements are very simple and the responses are the basis for class discussion on the days that they are due. Invariably there are some students who cease including cited references to readings in their responses about three-quarters of the way through the semester. I suppose the practice of completing these assignments becomes so routine to them that they get lazy about how they construct their arguments. In these cases the students automatically earn half credit. Receiving a score of 50 percent on an assignment usually wakes them up and gets them back on track fairly quickly.

Kim Kardashian’s Prisoner’s Dilemma

I ran a prisoner’s dilemma exercise in my 28-student undergraduate class last week. Each student received a piece of paper with the name of their putative partner in crime on it. Students were told that they could not reveal the name of their partner to their classmates and, per the rules of prisoner’s dilemma, could not communicate with their partner. Unbeknownst to the class, each slip of paper had one of only three names written on it. Twelve students discovered that they had been arrested with Kim Kardashian. Eight  received the name of one female student in the class; the remaining eight received the name of a male student in the class. A greater proportion of students who were paired with Kim Kardashian decided to confess than did the students who were paired with classmates.

When I asked students from the first group why they had decided to confess, they said they didn’t trust Kim Kardashian to be smart or loyal enough to keep silent, which led to a discussion of trust and cooperation among family members, gangs, and, of course, nation-states.

The Revolution Will Not Be Twittered

Last Friday in class a student asked me to explain the causes of the current global economic recession. It happened to be the same student who said the week before that I was turning her into a Marxist (to which I responded “it’s good to be a Marxist while you’re young, because when you’re older you won’t be able to afford it”).

So off I went on a twenty-five minute tangent on the inflationary real estate bubble in the USA, the securitization and outsourcing of bad debt, Greece’s economic collapse, and Ponzi schemes. Although I find such topics to be a lot more interesting than offensive and defensive realism, I was a little perturbed at the time at the unexpected derailment of my lesson plan for the day. I have not yet learned to embrace uncertainty when it comes to class preparation.

But since then I’ve read this piece about campus police beating students at Berkeley.

And this one by a Penn State alum and Iraq war veteran who has completely lost faith in the leadership of his parents’ generation.

I’ve emailed both to my students in the hopes that the articles will get them thinking and talking about something more important that the latest international relations theory.

The Take-Out Quiz

This idea comes from a friend who teaches developmental English at a community college:

Students have a specified amount of time to complete a low-stakes quiz; for example, 20 or 30 minutes. They are allowed to consult fellow students and can use books, phones, or the internet. They can even take the quizzes out of the room to work in the hallway or the library. The only rule is that they must turn in their quizzes at the end of the specified time period.

In my friend’s experience, students do not score 100 percent on the quizzes. In fact, they tend to score about the same as they do on closed-book quizzes taken solo. Students who do the readings and take notes in class do well, while those who don’t know the material invariably try to copy answers from the wrong people.

The classroom dynamic produced by take-out quizzes is unpredictable. Some students opt to work alone whether they are quiet in class or not. Students who choose to work in groups can self-sort according to academic ability, but you might see the usually shy student become extroverted within the group when he or she advocates for an answer that he or she believes is correct.

The main advantage of the take-out quiz is that it gets students engaged with the material in a different way than lecture or the traditional independently-taken, closed-book quiz. It also rewards the students who do homework.

Active Learning About Plagiarism

All my syllabi contain the usual policy statement about plagiarism — refer to the catalog for the university’s definition, don’t do it, if you do do it you might fail the course. And as is the norm for information that’s in a course syllabus, the statement often gets ignored, and I end up meeting budding plagiarists in my office for face to face discussions.

I’ve started requiring that any student who wants to “discuss” a plagiarized paper and the the grade (of zero) that it has received bring a document (typed, paper) to the meeting. The document has to contain, in the student’s own words, how the contents of his or her paper relate to the definition of plagiarism contained in the catalog. In other words, the student has to argue effectively that the paper was not plagiarized or admit to the plagiarism.

This method prevents the usual weepy sniffling or feigned indignation that occurs at such meetings. The student is forced to reflect on his or her actions, and the consequences thereof, before he or she enters my office. And I get a written confession.

Another benefit is that the process makes me less central to the situation and the conflict becomes more impersonal. When students read the university’s definition of plagiarism and begin writing about it, they see that they have violated a university policy, which I, as a faculty member, am simply upholding.