Branching out

So, almost overnight, I seem to have developed a profile on Twitter as a commentator on voter ID.

I was on a radio programme last night, talking about Brexit stuff, but the following debate was on the proposals to introduce free ID cards for voters, to combat personation.

Since I knew this was coming up, I’d done some prep, but didn’t get to talk about that on the programme, so I tweeted it out on the way home:

So far, so media tart-y.

But for me it’s been a good micro-illustration of how we teach.

We take material that we know something about, arrange it to make sense, share it and then discuss it with others.

Here, even more than other areas of work, I’m happy to be corrected and to be forced to explain my working/logic.

At one level, we’re all working like this: offering up ideas and conceptualisations of some thing, then testing that in dialogue with other people and (hopefully) producing a more robust outcome.

So far, in this case, that’s been really interesting for me to work through my argument and to think about how it fits with other areas of research.

And that’s why I love teaching: it really makes you think.

You don’t wanna do it like that

A quick check through the vellum parchments indicates that I’m now teaching second-year undergraduates for the first time in nearly a decade.

It turns out they are like any other group of students, albeit with the relatively fresh memory of taking my flipped module last semester.

More interestingly, I’m also teaching my first new module in a similarly long time: on European integration and disintegration.

This has posed two immediate challenges.

Firstly, that first year module was an introduction to the European Union, so how do I differentiate the two for my students?

Secondly, deliver the module at all?

My answer has been to work with what I’ve got. And what I’ve got are many of the raw materials that the previous instructor on the module very kindly left me (thank you, Roberta).

Rather than try to build up a module from scratch, I’m going to follow the existing model relatively closely this time around.

Partly that’s expediency but much more it’s because it’s not the way I would have tackled the subject.

If that sounds odd, then consider that much of the module deals with critical perspectives on the subject matter and I want students to see that I am tackling what might be nominally the same material in a fundamentally different way.

Yes, I could have wheeled out a bunch of classes that were essentially ‘more of the same’ as last semester, but I very much don’t want to do that.

Moreover, because it’s not my structure or activities, it forces me to engage more fully with the material, because I have to be confident enough to be able to help students learn it.

Again, the irony is that it’s exactly because I wouldn’t teach this way normally that I want to teach this way: I will learn something from the experience, both substantively and pedagogically.

As I seem to be saying to a lot of people recently, I have no monopoly on good practice, and there is always something new to be learnt.

Quite how that plays out remains to be seen.

Assume absolutely nothing

Perhaps my most reliable observation to date on negotiations and teaching negotiations is that time matters.

Furniture on castors, so it must be active learning…

You give students (or negotiators) a deadline and it has huge impacts on their activity: most obviously, it creates an ever-increasing social pressure to ‘reach an agreement’.*

That’s why it was really good to have spent this past weekend being shown that this is simply an arbitrary way of behaving.

I was running a workshop for faculty at the American University in Cairo, as a guest of their Department of Political Science (and supporting by funding AUC recieved from APSA), talking about active learning and simulations.

A big part of what I tried to do was to let colleagues try out activities first-hand, so they could really see the potential that each of them contained for their own teaching.

One of my activities was a crisis game: it gives not enough time to try and reach a conclusion, with (what I would consider) inevitable effects of the kind outlined above.

This time? Nothing. Zip. Diddly. Squat. Nada.

Every other time, there has been at least one person keeping an eye on the time, either from the off or mid-way through as they recall I’ll not letting them go on forever.

In the AUC case, not only was there was there precisely no acknowledgement of the passing of time, but even when I let them run on for an extra 5 minutes, there was still nothing.

We talked about this.

Largely, we talked about cultural norms. The group was almost entirely Egyptian, but with plenty of experience of living and working in Europe and the US. They suggested that time is treated much more flexibly (certainly, I was not really following my timeline for the rest of the workshop), so its constraining power is that much weaker.

For my part, I noted that failing to decide by a deadline is also a decision, in the sense of creating choices with consequences, so they and their students might reflect on how that plays out.

But still the main takeaway for me was that you really, really can’t assume anything when you teach, because it might turn out your assumption isn’t held by everyone.

To pick another example, what might seem fun or unremarkable to you might feel uncomfortable to others: consider the times you’ve encountered someone with a different of personal space to your own.

Of course, all of this is a valuable learning moment: it invites us to consider what else we might be simply assuming about the world and about others. For political science, that’s a crucial insight because of the profound differences in the fundaments of individuals’ worldviews, which generates political interaction and events.

Something for me to take some time to think about.

* – Yes, I know that’s not what good practice suggests you should do (you should instead by working out whether what you can achieve within a negotiation is better than what you can outside it). But it’s what people very, very often do anyway.

Attend to this…

Like the devoted parent that I am, I went to a parents’ evening at my kids’ school last week, to make sure I was up-to-speed with things.

Among the other messages, there was one that got a lot of air-time. We were told several times that even a short absence could have a detrimental effect on academic performance, so parents and children alike needed to do everything they could to get in.

Apples don’t work either…

Now, it might be helpful to note that one of my children missed about a third of last school year, due to illness, so I have skin in this game.

Plus, during those absences, the school didn’t make a big thing about that detrimental effect, so I went to do some checking.

This goes back to research done for the government in 2015, which was press-released as:

Even short breaks from school can reduce a pupil’s chances of succeeding at school by as much as a quarter, research reveals today (22 February 2015).

The research, based on extensive pupil absence figures and both GCSE and primary school test results, highlights the importance of clamping down on pupil absence to ensure more pupils regularly attend school, and ultimately leave with the qualifications needed to succeed in modern Britain.

It shows 44% of pupils with no absence in key stage 4 (normally aged 16) achieve the English Baccalaureate – the gold standard package of GCSE qualifications that includes English, maths, science, history or geography and a language – opening doors to their future. But this figure falls by a quarter to just 31.7% for pupils who miss just 14 days of lessons over the 2 years that pupils study for their GCSEs, which equates to around 1 week per year, and to 16.4% for those who miss up to 28 days.

Let’s leave aside the dubious stat in the opening paragraph and consider why a school head reading this might feel that this proved attendance was essential.

Then read this from an education studies Professor, who points out attendance and performance are correlated, but likely not causally, with other factors such as more generic life-chances.

Now, I’m clearly going to want to hear what the academic says, because it gives me more hope that my child’s education won’t suffer too much, but it does raise a bigger issue for us in higher education: do students need to come to class?

My usual response to this has been a utilitarian one: classes are the easiest way to access the material and reflective space needed to do well in assessment, so if you’re lacking motivation, this is the least-cost option.

That’s not really a rally cry though, is it?

Instead we need to think about how we can make contact time a positive and enthusiastic option. If we can get students to want to attend, rather than simply feel they have to, then we’re likely to get better engagement, and thus learning.

At the same time, we need to be making sure that we help with incentives.

So for my course on negotiation, the assessment is reflective writing about the experiences the student has had in class, as contextualised by wider reading: hard (i.e. impossible) to do if you’ve not been in class (although I have had a couple of students try (and fail)).

The challenge comes in having to acknowledge that students have individual ways of learning, which may or may not fit with others’: I’ve seen several excellent pieces of assessment over the years from students who have been very largely absent from class.

That’s fine, although it does raise a question of whether other students suffer from not having that person in the class to stretch or challenge them. But if that’s not a learning objective, then it’s not a learning objective.

At the end of the day, this comes down to making sure we are clear about what we, as educators, want to achieve with our students. Once we have that, then we can think more about structuring incentives to engage, which then in turn might produce environments conducive to attendance.

But to start at the other end of that chain isn’t going to solve things by itself.

SPABC: the flipped panel format

Last week I wrote up our gladiatorial format for conference panels: kind of working, but needs some re-thinking on a number of fronts.

This time, I’m going through the flipped format, which I think has a lot more immediate promise.

For those too lazy to follow links back, the original idea here was to try out some different ways of running panels, because they’re often, well, boring. Perhaps changing things up might improve that.

So happy…

The format

This is just like a flipped classroom, but for conference panels. The presenters were required to record a video presentation of their paper and upload it to a public location – YouTube was suggested: no limits on length, content or approach. The videos were then publicised by my and the conference organisers.

Then, in the panel itself, each presenter was limited to 5 minutes of speaking and a maximum of 2 slides. The idea is to free up much more time for interactive discussion than usual.

How it unfolded on the day

Compared to the gladiator format, no-one really seemed bothered by the format: the audience didn’t have to do anything different, and the presenters had done their heavy lifting well beforehand.

The flipped presentations were all ready a week beforehand, hosted on a variety of platforms: lengths ranged from 35 to 55 minutes, so well beyond what we could normally do in the panel. Links here, here and here.

We did have a late addition to our panel, who presented in the conventional 15 minute format, but we still fitted all four papers into 45 minutes (including introductions/explanations of the format).

Feedback from the audience

The audience seemed pretty happy with the format, both in the discussion and in the short survey I ran afterwards.

They liked that there was more time to discuss and that they could refer back to the full presentation later on (only a few had watched the presentations either in full or in part beforehand).

However, there was repeated pleas for this to have been made clearer beforehand: several requested links sooner. To put that in context, all panellists tweeted about it for a week beforehand; the conference organiser added links to the abstracts in the programme and mentioned it in the general emails sent out to all delegates; plus we told lots of people about it in person.

Which highlights that academics aren’t necessarily as different from students as they sometimes believe.

More consequentially, when asked to rate whether this format was more engaging and/or more informative than the usual format, the survey respondents were rather tepid, rating it only slightly better on both metrics. This compared to a much higher rating for the gladiatorial format, which might be down to the interaction of the latter, or to the substantive content (L&T for the gladiatorial; Brexit for this one).

Feedback from the presenters

This format needs planning by presenters: you can’t just rock up on the day and wing it [ahem].

Because our conference was early September, and I had annual leave beforehand, I needed to get my presentation together in July, plus think about how to do the short version in person.

I was lucky that my university has a lecture capture system that I could use on my computer: giving a mix of my talking head and my slides (OK, it took a couple of attempts to make it look as it should): colleagues didn’t have that and so either had to try some editing of bits of video, or just have a disembodied voice over the slides.

Unlike the others, I also decided I’d not recycle my slides into the panel presentation, but would make one new slide to capture the core idea of the paper. That worked very well for me, but it might have been tricky to do for others.

However, we all felt it worked, making us got to the point in the panel (even if that might be tough in such a short time). Yes, it’s clearly more work than a normal panel, but there was a strong feeling that it was more useful for us too.

Looking at tracking stats, I can see my presentation has been accessed over 70 times already, which is well above the number of people in the room. Sure, that tracking also says not many of them watched the whole thing, but I’m still getting a bigger footprint than usual.

So, does it work?

Yes, yes it does. With some tweaks.

If I did this again – and I really think I would – then I’d add some more guidance on all the elements.

The video presentations might have some (generous) time limit to them: 45 minutes seems plenty, especially if you consider you’d normally have 15 to deliver it. If there were some free video capture software – suggestions, anyone? – that allowed face-and-slide capture, then that would also recover a big barrier.

On the panel presentations, I’d reinforce the rule on time and slides, and maybe ask that people didn’t recycle slides from the video, in order to get them to consider how to pull together the main aim of the paper into one place. Maybe it’s not always possible, but it’s worth a try: I certainly got to think about my paper rather way because of it.

As for promotion of the format, I struggle to see what more could have been done this time. Perhaps the solution would be to have a series of panels in a conference using this, so that more people knew about it: maybe one per session, leaving a collection of papers for the conference organisers to promote and archive.

Of course, you then need a bunch more people to buy into it, but it’s not the most difficult thing. Maybe you offer some kind of inducement to encourage people.

The limit is that if everyone does it, why bother going to the conference at all? That’s why I’d pick-and-mix across substantive topics, so it show-cases the conference, rather than replacing it.

Further ideas

One option we discussed in Lisbon was using this as part of a virtual conference or workshop.

You could pre-record full presentations and get participants to watch ahead of a webinar debate/chat: that way you don’t have to keep people sitting on their arses for ages while just listening, but instead you can pitch them into debate quite quickly.

If you’re thinking about carbon footprints – and you should be – then this might be one way forward.

SPABC: The gladiatorial panel format

the format apparently allows enough time for presenters to take selfies mid-flow, it seems…

So, after much talk, we finally did the novel conference panel formats.

Now I’ve got a bit more space, and some data, I want to provide you with an initial write-up of each of them. Next week, I’ll go through the one that I think has more obvious potential – the flipped format – but today it’s going to be the gladiatorial model that gets the attention.

The format

The conceit – and I think that’s the right word here – is that a presenter starts off with three minutes to present, then the audience get to vote (by app/website) on whether they get another three minutes. This repeats up to a maximum of 12 minutes per paper.

The options I settled on for each round of voting were ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘Yes, but…’, which I suggested to the audience would be a way of signalling a willingness to give time, but with a caution to up one’s game.

We ran the panel with four papers – including me – ordered randomly immediately beforehand, and we had about 18 in the audience.

How it unfolded on the day

The first bit of feedback from the audience was ‘why?’, as I explained the format to them, and that required a bit of an explanation about my intention to create a format where everyone was more engaged and where there was more interaction.

Each paper took a very different approach to the time issue:

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Terrific & Tested Tips for First Year Seminar Teaching!

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Nanette S. Levinson

Alica Retiova’s Chapter  focusing on her innovative teaching experiment in a first year writing intensive Seminar provides plenty of great advice and, most importantly, evidence of what works in her classroom.  A particular bonus is that she does not just assess the innovation itself but she also measures and shares student perceptions of it. 

What Retiova successfully implemented is the use of written peer feedback on student papers designed to improve writing skills in the field and foster critical thinking. She also has the goal of catalyzing students’ confidence in their own independent learning.  

Showing us exactly how to foreshadow implementing the innovation of written peer-to-peer feedback, Retiova competently explains her techniques for developing and accurately assessing student ability to ‘feed forward (suggestions to their peers for future writing) as well as backward (specific feedback on their current position papers). Just as importantly, she measures this over time (three different papers in a three week period) and with the same peer evaluators.  

As a long-time faculty member who herself teaches a first year seminar, I look forward to following Retiova’s tips and the techniques she tried. I also encourage future experiments that recognize the role of culture in attempts to catalyze independent learning. Retiova found that the experiment contributed only “partly” to developing students’ confidence as independent learners. Based upon my research in cross-cultural communication I note that some cultures foster a more hierarchical view of the professor and student, with the professor being viewed as the major source of learning and knowledge. Thus, culture itself may play a role in shaping students’ views and, indeed, abilities to develop confidence in their own role in assessing the work of other students in their classes.

In sum, it is inspiring to read about the teaching & assessment excellence focus of Retiova, an early career faculty member. This bodes well for the next generation of faculty leaders and their focus on fostering student-learning excellence including critical thinking and field specific writing skills.

Helping students do better in essays: what are the options of the seminar tutor?

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Liudmila Mikalayeva.

Daniela Jaklová Střihavková tells her story of a highly motivated seminar tutor in a first-year course on social work. The problem she sets to solve is a mismatch between the grader’s expectations and the students’ performance: the average grade for exam essays is between 16 and 18 points in 2016-2017, which is far from the maximum 30 points. What can the tutor do to fill this gap between the expectations and the performance?

The setup of the course will be familiar to many young instructors: while a senior professor gives weekly content-focused lectures and grades students’ work at the end of the course, a junior tutor is in charge of interactive seminars where students discuss and apply knowledge. The examination consists mainly of two essays checking students’ understanding of the nature of social work and of the social worker’s role, formulated in proper academic language. The essays are challenging for students, since they receive little training in writing them in the course itself.

Jaklová Střihavková very reasonably suggests improving the course through constructive alignment: course design should guarantee the fit between teaching goals, teaching methods and assignments. So if a major teaching goal is to enable students to define the role of the social worker in a concrete case, they should receive guidance on how to do it, have an opportunity to practice it and receive feedback before the exam.

Practically, the author introduced two additional seminar sessions where students practiced a task similar to that of the exam essay. Combining individual and group work, she provided space for the students to confront the complex task and reflect on their own performance. While she cannot prove that the essays received better grades because of these changes, both the grader and the students were happier with the learning outcome.

The effort by the seminar tutor to bridge the gap between the expectations of the grader and the actual students’ work was however only partly successful. Even after the additional seminars, students continued to feel unsure what the grader expected from them and the grader was still unhappy with how they used disciplinary vocabulary. I see three issues explaining the persistence of the gap.

A relatively minor point is that oral exercises may not be effective enough for supporting students’ success in written tasks. A much more important drawback, underlined by the author herself, is the absence of clear and explicit criteria for grading: the professor would need to make an effort detailing the requirements. And, most significantly, the course structure as such is at the core of the problem: the person grading students’ work is not directly in touch with the students and is senior enough to have forgotten how challenging it is for undergraduate students to understand and use academic jargon and navigate the often-implicit expectations to their work.

Jaklová Střihavková is right to point that to improve learning outcomes students need space to reflect on the curriculum, but young and senior instructors should become more reflective as well. Clarifying expectations, aligning content, teaching approaches and assignments, communicating among themselves and with the students is key and cannot be replaced by teaching experience alone. Students as well as instructors will benefit from it.

Unprepared students? Try an Online Quiz

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Alistair Jones

We’ve all had the problem of students turning up to class without adequate preparation. To gain the full benefits of any classroom discussion or debate, student preparation is essential.  Yet there are too many other distractions, resulting in unprepared students attending class.  Natália Gachallová explains how she got the students to prepare for their classes, the ensuing benefits, and embeds the explanation in the existing literature.

Preparation for an introduction to Latin anatomical nomenclature, you might think, would be essential. The obvious incentive is the required mark of 75% to pass the first part of the course. Yet experience suggested this was not the case. Thus Gachallová decided to innovate her teaching. She introduced fortnightly summative online mini quizzes. These would reinforce prior learning as well as provide a useful revision tool. There was also a reward component, where students gained extra marks for the final exam based on the average score in the quizzes.

Such innovation can be time consuming, especially noting the length and volume of classes that are undertaken. In this case, there is a cohort of over 130 students! Gachallová does not mention how much time was used in preparing these quizzes, especially in comparison to what preparation was undertaken previously. Follow-up questions were used in class to stimulate debate – an example would be interesting to see.

An online student survey was utilised to measure the effectiveness of this approach, which produced remarkable findings. Around 85% of respondents claimed to find the in-class quizzes beneficial. Conversely, some respondents complained about the quizzes being too challenging, and voiced concerns over spelling mistakes leading to marks being dropped.

The benefits are visible in the grades of students. Both the average mark and the overall pass rates improved. The exception is in the tail of the class, where pass rates at the third attempt of sitting the final exam were almost unchanged.

Yet Gachallová takes into consideration the extra marks gained by students from the online quizzes. Her findings showed most students did not need the extra marks from the quizzes.  Most of those who passed the exam would have passed without the extra marks. A very small number of students failed the exam despite gaining the extra marks from the online quizzes. The reward component was meaningful for about 5% of all students.

The key message from this chapter is simple. If students can engage with the learning materials throughout the academic year, they are far more likely to pass. Online quizzes appear to motivate the students to engage with the class preparation. Formative assessments AND formative feedback can increase student success in the summative assessments.

Some of you may consider a Latin Medical Terminology course to be rather niche. It might be that online quizzes are not deemed appropriate for other subjects. Yet that is to miss the bigger picture. There is a need to engage with the students; to encourage them to take responsibility for their learning. One way is through the use of technology. The fact a small incentive was added in relation to the marks may be inconsequential – which is something for future exploration. 

If students are not going to engage with classroom preparation, why hold the class? If students merely parrot what has been said in class, has any learning actually happened?  Consider the six levels of knowledge in Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956): to have knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. If using technology and incentives to innovate our teaching can help our students to a deeper level of knowledge, then it is worth the experimentation.


 [GP1]Simon, can you please insert chapter link here?

Making the Society for the Abolition of Boring Conference Panels happen

It won’t actually come to this.

I think

So last year, I mused on trying out some different types of conference panels, to see if we couldn’t be doing better than our usual two-minutes-at-the-end-for-a-long-winded-question-that’s-more-a-statement-actually.

That sparked enough interest to get together two panels for next week’s UACES conference in Lisbon.

Long-standing readers (and those who’ve just gone back to the original post) will remember I’m trying out two formats here.

Format 1: flipped panels

For our panel (106) on Monday on the EU27 and Brexit negotiations, we’re trying to use a flipped approach.

That involves we recording presentations that run as long as we like and posting online beforehand, then having only very brief one-sliders in the panel itself.

You can watch the efforts of myself (here), Natasza (here) and Petr (here) already now.

As you can see, we’ve all gone longer than the usual 15 minutes and I personally found it nice not to have to worry about the time-limit for this.

In Lisbon, we’ll have 5 minutes to present key points and then we go into a nice block of time for Q&A/discussion.

Format 2: gladiator time!

For our second panel (416) on Tuesday on Learning & Teaching, we’re getting the audience involved.

At the start, we’ll be getting everyone to access Poll Everywhere, via laptop or app, so they can vote.

The presenters will be given an initial 3 minutes to present, before the audience gets to vote on whether to give them another 3 minutes.

Presenters can get up to a total of 12 minutes, with each block being conditional on the audience being willing to go along with more of this.

We’re going to draw lots for the order of papers too, because I’m guessing it’ll make a while for the audience to get used to using their power and it only seems fair.

I’ve given a couple of notes to the presenters to reflect upon:

How do you balance getting your key points across with trying the patience of your audience? Logically, you make some kind of cliff-edges every 3 minutes, but what if your paper isn’t like that, or doesn’t have that kind of content? How much do you trial content and how do you spring surprises?

How do you structure any powerpoint you’re using? I can keep the results of the polling on my laptop, but again, what do you need to communicate when to the audience?

I’ll not say how I’m approaching these points, because I’m guessing there will be a variety of approaches, but I’ve found it much more thought-provoking/tricky/a pain for my content than the flipped model.

Testing, testing

To back-up the panels, I’ll be asking for feedback from both audiences and presenters on the formats and I’ll give you a quick run-down on that post-conference, with a view to publishing at some point.

With that in mind, if someone else wants to try these formats at their event, then knock yourselves out: I’m happy sharing my feedback forms with you too.

So, as I go off to finalise that second panel, I will hope that you had a good summer. If you’re coming to Lisbon, then I hope to see you at these panels: please do either watch the flipped presentations and/or download the app.

If you’re not, then I’m sure I’ll be trying you about it soon enough!