Active Learning is More than Just Simulations

I’ve been in a few sessions recently where well-meaning faculty point out how important active learning is—true!—and then immediately mention ‘simulations and games’ as key examples of active learning (AL). Also true! But let’s be clear, simulations and games aren’t the only kind of active learning. They aren’t the most common kind, the easiest to do, or even what I would recommend that most faculty start with. When the right simulation or game is chosen, executed well, and debriefed effectively, it can be a great learning tool. But games and simulations are neither necessary nor sufficient for active learning, and I want to encourage everyone to think more broadly about how to increase AL in their classes.

Active learning is any tool, technique, or approach that calls on learners to actively engage in the learning process. The point is not the tool itself, but adopting a learner-centric approach that ensures that students are not simply passive recipients of information. ‘Activating’ the students, then, is about asking them to think, process, and make connections about the material, rather than just listen, read, or write down information. In some cases, a passive approach makes sense! Sometimes you really do just have to transmit information. The problem arises when we consistently turn to passive approaches without considering and experimenting with active approaches, which have a solid record of producing better engagement and learning. See for example Deslauriers et al 2019, where even students who thought they learned more from a more passive approach actually learned more from an active one.

Simulations and games, then, can be active or passive, depending on whether everyone has the tools to effectively participate or actively watch and listen. Watching others play a game is only active if the observers are prompted to provide comments and input based on their observations. In such cases, they are active observers. Even participation doesn’t necessarily make the experience ‘active’. A simulation or role-play exercise where a student is too anxious about their performance or grade to pay attention and fully participate is not active for that student. So AL is not just about the activity you do, but how you use it and help students learn from it.

Moreover, AL encompasses so much more than simulations and games. Structuring a lecture around a provocative question, where students are encouraged to think through the steps as you go along, can be active. So can asking good discussion questions that lead to dynamic student to student debates. Asking students at the end of class to reflect on what they learned that day (or what was still confusing) is a method of active learning, and in can be done in one minute at the end of class, or as a written, audio, or video journal they create throughout the term. 

When you consider that active learning can really be just small interventions in teaching (as Jim Lang puts it in his book,Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning), it suddenly becomes achievable for everyone. Simulations and games are sometimes a tough sell—they can seem juvenile or take too much time away from other content. But active learning? The benefits are clear and centering such techniques doesn’t actually require much work or time.

Even this blog makes this mistake—we are Active Learning in Political Science, and yet most of our coverage is on games and simulations. So consider this a call for a broader approach, one that brings legions more faculty into the world of active learning, without requiring a conversion to the gaming world. Let’s look for the small interventions that anyone can use—from a great discussion question to a good group activity to great reflective prompts—and be more careful with how we define and explain what active learning really is.

Over and out

The real reason I’ve been drinking quite so much

Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time with cardboard. Mainly because I’m moving jobs, partly because that’s how the booze arrives.

As I walked back yesterday with another box of ‘stuff that will probably end up in the new office’, I bumped into a friend who was asking about the move. He reflected that 17 years was a very long time to be in a post, to which I could only agree.

That got me thinking about what I might learn from that experience and what might be worth sharing from it. True, it’s a much less common one than the precariat have to endure, moving every year and never settling, but it still comes with its challenges.

So, in no particular order, some thoughts:

1. Make the most of the opportunities your position offers. Yes, I’ve been at the same institution since 2003, but in that time I’ve held a slightly-ridiculous range of roles. Some years have been all about teaching, others about research, still others about managerial roles, and a couple about public engagement. I’ve been on pretty much every committee going, and done every single role within my Department bar one (we’ll come back to that).

In short, I’ve tried to explore what’s been available. Part of that is just my own curiousity: the breadth of my ignorance about how things work remains a key driver of my entire life. But also it’s about seeing what you can make of your situation and how you can tackle issues in different ways.

Certainly, if I’d not had so many opportunities here, I’d not have stuck it out so long.

2.Think about what comes after what you’re doing. This was possibly the only piece of good advice I got from a particular manager: their point was that if you take on a similar role to the one you’re doing now, then you start to bake in a trajectory for your career. In my particular case, it was a significant administrative post and I didn’t really fancy doing that for a job.

Of course, this is a counterpiece to the first point, in that if you’re keen to mix it up, then you have to keep mixing. Certainly, I’ve noticed how people’s views of me within the institution have shifted around over the years, as I take on new activities. So if you don’t want to become type-cast, don’t let yourself become type-case.

3.Lemons, lemonade. I could lie to you and pretend that the heart of my long stay here has been because it’s always been so hunky-dory, but I won’t. Yes, I have valued my immediate colleagues very much indeed throughout, but that hasn’t meant the wider environment hasn’t been difficult at times.

And by ‘difficult’ I’m being polite. Let’s just say that I’m still very grateful to colleagues across the discipline for their support six years ago when the institution had some very unfavourable plans for us.

That did knock us and we did suffer for it, but it also produced some opportunities to advance some agendas and move things along.

Hopefully you never have to go through such a thing, but the message here is just that no position is perfect and durable, so rolling with the punches (within reason) can be a way to getting more out of it all.

4.Use your leave. It turns out that in all my time there will have been only two years when I’ve used all my leave: the year after I joined (because I got married and had decent length honeymoon) and this year (because, well, because I’m leaving). That’s stupid.

I know we feel the pressure of our commitments, and we also often enjoy the work we do, but breaks matter. Doubtless your institution (like mine) offers the opportunity to roll over some days of leave, but I’d say it’s probably safe to assume that the mythical period of ‘a quiet time’ when you might take that leave will never arrive.

So use it.

If nothing else, some places are talking of cutting back leave allowances because they don’t get used.

5.Get out more. I’ve always had good cause to make connections outside my department and university, mainly because we’ve been a very small group and so the networking opportunities lay outside. But it’s also a good thing to be doing in any case.

External networks provide intellectual stimulus, useful correctives to institutional groupthink and a counterweight to your ‘day job’. Frankly, they’ll also remind you that everyone’s got some kind of problem with their work, so you’re not alone.

Again, a big reason for sticking here was that I got to benefit for building some great collaborations (like this one) while also getting a sense-check that the deal here was working for me. So even though I always kept half-an-eye on opportunities elsewhere, I’ve very rarely found something that looked clearly better.

6.Don’t become a cog. All of which leads me to this last point. I hope that throughout my time here, I’ve kept my priorities in sight. Yes, I’ve had to do some duties that haven’t been my first choice, but I’ve used those to help me get to where I want to be. And yes, I’ve had to toe the line on some decisions that I didn’t particularly agree with, but that was part of the trade-off for getting to move some other things on.

The big danger in staying somewhere, anywhere, for a long time is institutionalisation. Walking yesterday through the campus that I’ve know for so long I can see that it’ll be a process to move on (possibly one helped by the IT people’s efforts to help me migrate my account), but I look forward to something new and different at my new employers.

And with that, back to the cardboard.

How can we help?

No-one’s asked about the wine yet. Or the model kit

In keeping with pretty much every adult I know, imposter syndrome is an ever-present menace. Yesterday’s manifestation for me was the announcement that I are going to be the next Chair of UACES, the UK’s European Studies association (and the world’s largest such, by membership), from this September.

My anxiety over this stems from the confidence that numerous colleagues seem to put in my hands, which doesn’t really fit with my self-image as someone who is barely in control of even the basics of social niceties, let alone leading a big study association.

This feeling was heightened by my simultaneous clearing-out of my office, ahead of my move to the Open University. The clear-out is necessitated by the twin forces of a much-reduced shelf space in my home office and the despair that I still have my undergraduate lecture notes. Or rather, did, until yesterday.

But all this is an aside to the main topic here, namely how I might best use my time as UACES Chair to support colleagues’ work on Learning & Teaching.

I ask this because I’m not sure that I know what the answer might be here.

Already, we have a proliferation of L&T groups, plus a number of national, European and international events, so doing more of that feels rather marginal for the effort. Likewise, the past year has demonstrated that it takes a global pandemic to get a significant number of those who aren’t usually interested in the matter to participate, and then for only a couple of months, as the panic of new delivery modes sets in.

Perhaps we have to think about what the issue is, before the solutions.

All through my career, teaching has been treated as secondary to research in the sector. My own trajectory of maintaining an active interest in, and work on, pedagogy is still very much the exception. And this despite the intellectual benefits of seeing as a co-equal, not to mention the financial logics of higher education these days.

So perhaps it’s less about doing more events, and instead trying to work on changing the debate about L&T’s role in academia.

That might include working on framing research and teaching as co-constitutive: we use our research to inform our teaching, but we also can use our teaching to advance our research. The skills of effective teaching – dialogue, clear communication, responsiveness – are also essentials of research and getting it out to the world.

I’m still thinking this one through, but I’d love to hear your ideas about what might work for you, so that as I pick up my new role I can be of use to you and to all of us: if I can do that, then maybe I’ll feel like a bit less of an imposter.

When the Medium Becomes the Message

More musings about higher education in a post-pandemic world . . .

While isolating at home during the winter Covid-19 surge, I re-established contact with an academic fellow traveler from my pre-21st century days as a doctoral student. Our conversation turned to the declining popularity of traditional humanities and social science disciplines among undergraduates, a trend seemingly initiated by the 2008 recession and possibly accelerated by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. As professors tend to do, we each had previously identified a second possible cause of this trend: the failure at the undergraduate level of these disciplines to evolve in response to technological change. Back in 2013, I wrote an ALPS post about the need for faculty to examine assumptions about curricular content and delivery given the new technological demands of employers, but my friend expressed it much better late last year here. His basic point: students are more likely to study what reflects their daily experiences and clearly connects to attractive careers than what does not. Universities, being subject to finite resources, will institutionalize the former while casting aside the latter.

As my friend wrote, technologies like internet search, smartphones, big data, and social media were already having an effect before 2008, but they radically altered life afterward. Yet how many undergraduate political science, history, or English literature programs now train majors in app design, predictive analytics, or video production? I’ve taken a few small steps in this direction, with online video content, ArcGIS storymaps, and KnightLab timelines, but always at my own expense and independently of the formal curriculum. My friend has made a much deeper commitment to learning and teaching these technologies, but again, he’s done it despite, not because of, the norms of his discipline.

Going digital

“This should improve our module evaluations by 0.4…”

Source

The big question of how we forward (not back) in our teaching practice is one that continues to bother me, partly because it’s going to be a major personal challenge for me in the coming years, but also because the variety of discourses about this vary rather more than I’d expect.

As a case in point, I noticed that my VC/President wrote a long blog about this question just the other week. In it, he writes about the possibilities that digital technologies open up and how we need to be receptive and pro-active in making the most of these.

And that’s all fine.

However, what strikes me about the piece is that there’s no mention at any point about pedagogy. Instead it posits a system driven by what the tech can do.

Having gotten to spend some time with him, I know that he does have a genuine and deep interest in teaching in itself, rather than simply as a side-show from research or a money-generating activity (unlike some VCs I’ve encountered), but it’s a bit disappointing to see a senior leader get caught up in the tech.

Tech matters. This past 12 months have demonstrated that all too clearly, but tech is (and can only ever be) a function of pedagogy. More precisely, the fundamentals of good pedagogic practice – clear learning objectives; alignment of content and assessment; responsive design – are just that, fundamentals.

Consider last spring, when you were scrambling around for a means to continue your classes. You probably had an institutional VLE or platform intended specifically for that purpose, plus access to some other tools, either supported by your institution or not.

In the first instance, I’m guessing you took the path of least resistance in setting up ad hoc ways to get content to students and/or having interactions with them.

But then you started to look around at the world of possibilities, just like my VC is suggesting. But in making your new choices, the key driver was likely to have been “what works best for my and my students’ needs” than it was “what amazing thing is possible here”.

In twenty-something years of teaching, I’ve gone from acetates to Zoom, blackboards to Google Docs. But I can think of very few technologies that have fundamentally changed how I teach and only one that changes what I’m trying to achieve with my teaching.

The one change in objectives was the arrival of the digital world and the cornucopia of data that made available. The result was a need to shift from prioritising the acquisition of techniques to find data to stressing ways of managing all-too-much data. And even then, I still find myself telling students how to track down hard-to-find sources.

But otherwise, the bulk of my learning objectives are the same: building substantive knowledge of a topic; acquiring and using skills that make the student into a critical learner; situating all of this within a wider body of understanding.

In short, tech is a means, not an end.

Again, I’ve tried lots of different technological options: some have been great, others alright, a few rubbish. But I could only judge that against the yardstick of my pedagogy and the learning of my students. Great that they can make a whizzy Prezi, but does it actually help them to learn? And I say that as someone who’d love experience more engaging presentations.

So, in the time-honoured cliché of science-fiction, we have to stop wondering what what we can do and start thinking about whether we should do it.

If not, then we risk falling into another cycle of expensive tech acquisition that doesn’t work for our needs, just like we did most of the other times our institutions bought some tech.

How to not slip back

A new cycle…

I’ve touched before on the opportunity that Covid has presented to embed new, improved practice in our teaching, but I didn’t really get into practical ways to do that.

So let’s have a crack now, yes?

For this, I think we have to side-step the question of whether your institution will give you a free hand in this. The range of options from ‘you’ll do as we say’ to ‘go wild’ is huge, even if no one is being told to ‘go wild’ by anyone. Fortunately, that shouldn’t matter too much.

The first step is to review and evaluate what you’ve been doing during lockdown. That means taking as impartial-as-possible a look at each of the elements of your practice and the overall package.

The whole matters as much as the parts because you often get synergistic effects at work. In a good scenario, your forum-based chat might have been a raging success (in stark contrast to pretty much everyone else), but that might have been as much because you made a lot of it in your direct work with students as because you structured it well. If you’re going to be doing some rearrangement of elements, then it’s really important to have a sense of what relates to what in all this.

This step needs input from multiple directions: your own reflection; that of colleagues; and that of students. If you’ve been relying on particular services, it’s also good to find out if the same level of support will exist in future (given everything, hopefully that’s less of an issue, but new-generation EdTech might be arriving that changes things for you). If it helps, treat it like a piece of research and triangulate as much as possible, and apply some thought to how much you weight each piece of evidence.

At the end of this step you should have a clearer idea of what works, how it works and in what context it works. Remember that those are three different aspects.

Step two is building a repository of elements and ideas for whatever new environment you will be facing.

This doesn’t have to be a literal collection of materials, although such things are useful. Instead, it’s a more conceptual process, of thinking, discussing and optimising new collections of pedagogic elements.

Broadly, you’ve got three choices here. The first is that you’re driven by institutional constraints: if you’ve got a major requirement coming out of management then there’s not much point in resisting (unless it’s very silly and not fully decided upon, in which case you should push back hard (maybe even using some of that evidence you’ve been gathering)).

Alternatively, you can be driven by the nature of the subject matter: some topics lend themselves better to some pedagogies than others, so check out what others are doing.

Finally, you can be driven by a desire to try out (or optimise) some specific pedagogic element. I’ve done this with flipping, because I really wanted to see how I could make it work. Lucky break there, given that we all had to flip last year.

However, in all three choices, you’re still trying to think about building a learning environment that works as well as possible for your students. So ultimately, while your starting point might vary, you should still be coming to a rounded and balanced provisional solution. And again, if you’re resisting institutional pressure, then having a credible and thought-through plan is only going to help.

The third step is implementation. As you close in on running your new class, you need to keep up the evaluating and reviewing as the realities start to hit home. In practice, this means being ready to adapt and regroup as you go.

Hopefully, that’s easier because you’ve got your evidence, your repository and your reflections to help guide you. Importantly, it’ll help in making a call on whether something is just a passing problem or something more structural (which is, admittedly, not always particularly clear).

Of course, all of this is stuff that I’d argue you should be doing in any year, because it’s a key part of maintaining and developing our pedagogic practice. The difference now is that you have probably been exposed to a lot more pedagogic practices than one year ago: so try to internalise these and see them as part of what you can do.

Some things didn’t work, but really very few (because you picked up on problems as you went). Some things worked as stop-gaps, because things were very hectic and pressured (but you’ll have picked up on that from your students, so you’ll not try to repeat the exercise at ‘leisure’). And some things worked in ways that you didn’t really anticipate.

All of that is valuable, whether or not there’s a global pandemic. So make something better out of it all.

Today in wheel-reinvention news

One of the joys of Brexit is that everyone has their own version, their own Thing That It’s All About.

For many in British universities, that Thing has been the weakening of links with the EU for student exchanges. Yes, the government did keep participation in research funding programmes like Horizon Europe, but not involvement in Erasmus+, the EU’s scheme that allows for exchange years.

The argument at the back end of last year, when this was all being negotiated, was that it would have meant a commitment to a full cycle of EU financial planning, through to 2027, and more students come into the UK than go out from it, so it costs money. Oddly, that didn’t seem to be a problem for the Horizon Europe side of things, which uses the same cycle.

But not to worry, said the government, we’ll replace Erasmus+ with something just as good, and actually even better, because it’ll be more open to the world.

And now, three months later, that replacement arrives: the Turing scheme.

I’ll let you read the website, but the key points are these:

In essence, it’s Erasmus+, but without the bits that make it attractive. And without the huge list of partners that have made Erasmus+ as much of a success as it has been, across Europe.

Put differently, Turing is just a bit of money to support students who want to study overseas, assuming they can find somewhere to study, and with no option to allow overseas students to come back into the UK.

Of course, much of the irrationality of this is bound up in the politics of Brexit, the need to do things by ourselves: Paul James Cardwell has written very well on this. But that doesn’t change the inanity of the move, in practical terms.

As I often note to students, politics is about relationships: you can’t do politics to yourself. That basic point should be even more obvious when it comes to something like an exchange programme, where the existence of other parties is something of a sine qua non.

I’m sure that Turing will be used, mainly because it’s better than nothing, but that shouldn’t hide the relative disconnecting of British HE from the rest of the world. And it should invite us to consider whether there isn’t a better, less costly way of doing things together.

Escaping your ‘new normal’

OK, this is actually rocket science, but try not to dwell on that

This week I got my first email about making arrangements for the autumn semester’s teaching. Luckily, it was for the institution I’m about to leave, rather than the one I’m about to join, so I could put it in my new and exciting email folder: “not my problem”.

But most of us aren’t that fortunate – we’ll all on a hamster-wheel of some kind, running to stand still, future commitments racing towards us alongside a bunch of deadlines.

All of which makes it hard to stop and take stock of our L&T practice.

Of the (very few) benefits of the pandemic, the ‘opportunity’ to reconsider what we do with our students was perhaps completely undermined by the associated factor of ‘you’re getting no cues on what is either possible or allowed’. Fun times.

But we have navigated that huge change, and in many cases produced learning environments that work really well. Just in time to see a possible shift once again, back into the classroom.

If you’d like an institutionalised take on this, you might try the UK’s Office for Students’ recent report Gravity Assist (plus this critique from WonkHE), that essentially argues we should be trying to retain the new good stuff, rather than just going back to the Olden Days.

That’s all nice, at a sector- or institutional-level, but what about you and me, as individuals? How do we go about that?

The issue strikes me as being primarily one of path dependency: you’ve reworking your teaching a lot during this past year, so you probably only want to tinker around the edges, rather than doing a wholesale reworking MkII.

That might be appropriate in some cases, but equally not in others: without the space to devote to some big thinking, it’s hard to tell. Changing jobs is one solution – especially if your new employer doesn’t do teaching in any way like your old one – but it’d be good if we didn’t introduce any more precarity into it all.

Instead, we have to try to keep the matter in hand as much as possible.

It has been striking how the profusion of interest in L&T during 2020 seems to have fallen back: the excellent PSA webinar series (recordings very recommended) have – in my anecdotal opinion – returned to the ‘usual suspects’ in the audience. It’s a great bunch of people, but that moment of broad professional interest in L&T has not been sustained, most likely because most people got through their crisis and got their head back down.

But pedagogy is just like research: it requires a constant discussion and challenging of ideas and approaches. Indeed, the tempo of the former is perhaps more pressing, given the sustained rapidity of producing outputs.

All of which is to say that we need to try to maintain an active culture of discussion and debate around our teaching. The more we can do that, the easier it will be to manage this transition, and the next and all the other changes that will be coming down the line.

Not very cheery, but perhaps more realistic.

Hello again

“Are you ready for our next panellist, people!?”

At the risk of being too Eeyore-ish about it all, the announcements this week about aiming to end all Covid restrictions in England by the middle of June feels ambitious. Experience so far in this pandemic should at least make us cautious about any kind of planning for a ‘return to normality’.

So we have instead to plan for a lack of normality and even – and perhaps more pertinently – the desirability of a new normality, where we can take some constructive points out of our rushed shift to lockdown living/working for the future.

I’ll come back to the classroom aspects of this another time, but today I’ve been thinking about conferences.

Much like last year, we’re seeing all the key events announce that they are going fully online, at least through to the September round. But it’ll invite us to consider what might happen thereafter.

Narrowly, we have a situation where it might be a couple of years before global vaccine uptake (not to mention travel restrictions) is enough that colleagues from across the world can meet up without significant limitations, so we have a considerable period to cover in any case.

But the benefits of online events are also becoming clearer. The ability to bring together people who might not be able to meet in person; the removal of significant costs in time and money for travel and accommodation; the capacity to create more lasting records of our discussions. The coffee being almost always better.

All these things matter and shouldn’t be lost in any rush to get back to the good old days.

And what was good about them in any case?

Yes, I miss getting to see colleagues in person, and to discovering a bit of a new city, but it’s also easy to end up idealising what was often a less-than-perfect experience. You have your bad conference story and I have mine, so we can spare the blushes of those involved, other than to say that an escape to a heavy metal bar shouldn’t be the highpoint of an international conference.

Especially if you don’t really like heavy metal.

Any way, back to the main thought, namely the need to use this moment to consider how we can bring together the best bits of all these things into something new and improved.

Various colleagues do now tell me about different ways of running online events that work much better than the original stick-it-on-Zoom approaches, with more thought about scheduling and technology to make the most of these things. But it’s still the lack of in-person interaction that chafes.

And that’s a major problem, especially for those newer to the profession. I’m lucky/old; two and a half decades of conferences and workshops has left me with a big network of colleagues who can chat away with online, drawing on that prior interaction. For someone who hasn’t had that, their way into creating and sustaining a community is much tighter.

Put it this way, even though our work has been almost entirely conducted online for a decade, the ALPS Blog only happened because we got to spend four nights in Albuquerque. (Good conference BTW).

Maybe we have to find other ways to allow colleagues to get out of their institutions and make connections that don’t require them to travel hundreds of miles and to spend piles of money.

The half-thought is that we could something more intermediate: local gatherings.

Most of work/live near another HE institution, so why not have periodic meetings for people in our area? Maybe to talk work, but mainly just to make connections and put faces to names. You could connect it to big conferences, so there’s a reason and a focus to talk, maybe even chuck in a speaker/roundtable, but mainly it’d be the coffee break/sampling of local delicacies bit of a conference, the stuff that you remember.

It’s not a problem-free idea: some won’t be close to anyone; others will find it hard to justify to bosses/partners that a social is ‘work’; you’re not going to meet that person from another continent who’d be just right for your new project. But it’s a start and something might come from it.