How can you make your online forum flourish?

You’ve got… a mail

I’m guessing that most of you teaching have some kind of online space, where you post materials like the coursework handbook, Powerpoints and the rest.

I’m also guessing you have a forum, quite possibly with a hopeful message from you from Week 1 encouraging students to share thoughts and ideas.

It might well be the only message.

I know it usually was in my modules, when I taught in-person.

Even now, working at a distance-learning institution, our modules are typically desolate wastelands, where maybe a couple of people post once, maybe twice, before shuffling off.

Students aren’t impressed, we’re not impressed, yet we press on.

What to do about it?

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Dissertation Excellence Made Simple: What to say to your students as they get started

Neil Sutherland, having a chuckle

Today we have a guest post by Neil Sutherland, from UCL’s School of Management, in which he offers some excellent tips on shepherding students through the opening stages of a dissertation.

I have supervised Undergraduate and Postgraduate dissertation students for well over a decade, and have summarised my advice into a series of bitesize YouTube videos: The Dissertation Toolkit. These are mainly aimed at students, but in this post I thought it’d be useful to bring together some useful bits of guidance I have  given to students and offer it to you, as fellow supervisors.

The starting point here is that embarking on the dissertation journey is daunting, and it’s crucial to acknowledge the overwhelming feelings that students experience at various points along the way. As academics we’ve routinised the business of research so that these apprehensions dwindle (or perhaps we find a way to box them up and ignore them altogether!), but students are, in the communities of practice parlance, novices. 

To help them overcome this apprehension I try to help my students see this as not only a manageable and achievable process, but also one that is exciting and rewarding. By the end of this journey, I tell them, you will have expertise in a chosen field that very few others in the world will have! But that grand plan is only achieved through a series of more mundane moments, or, as our friend Vincent Van Gogh tells us: “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together”.

So what follows is a set of exchanges between an imaginary student and me…

“There’s too much to do, and the word-count is imposing”

Being overwhelmed is completely normal at the start (or even during) your dissertation. It is likely that you haven’t written to this kind of wordcount before, so are figuring out the rules of the game. The number one trick here is to (a) get a structure mapped out, and (b) tackle the research and writing ‘little and often’. 

“But I want to start writing right now!”
When we are faced with uncertainty, it can seem easiest to just start writing – to begin to eat into that word-count. But pause. Your best approach is to use 1-2 sides of A4 to simply map out what will ‘happen’ in your work. What does the marking criteria ask of you? What chapters must you include? What do you know about the topic already that might be important to include? What advice have you been given by your tutors in taught sessions and handbooks? Collate this all in one place, and use it to create a numbered guide – almost a table of contents – that can help you to stay on track. 

“I just can’t stay focussed on the topic. I’m spending hours in the library but don’t seem to get anything done”
When you have your drafted structure, you can start to set specific goals and deadlines, when you want to hit certain markers, and work out when you will dedicate your time to the dissertation each week. Don’t be overambitious, but do treat it in the same way that you do any of your other timetabled classes, and even just a few non-negotiable hours a week will keep you focussed (yes – even more so than hours-upon-hours in the library without a clear goal). Don’t say “I want to complete XX hours in a week”, say “I will complete XX hours on Tuesday from 2-5pm”. That way, you can adopt the mindset that on Tuesday between 2-5pm you will be in dissertation mode, and at other times, you can put it to the side. 

“I’ve blocked out time, but when I sit down I can’t get ‘into’ my work and am easily distracted”

Of course, it is inevitable that on some days, you will not be feeling motivated. Don’t chase ‘inspiration’ (spoiler alert: it rarely comes when you want it to) and know that uninterrupted work time will inevitably get you in the flow. With any task that I am completing, I know that I will feel uninterested, uninspired and overwhelmed in the first 20minutes while I am recalibrating to the task. I keep reminding myself of all the other jobs I have to do, and how this one could just happen tomorrow instead. Ignore that voice. After that, something magic happens, my brain clicks into gear and time ceases all meaning. If I get interrupted during that initial stage, I go back to square one. Minimise your distractions and the flow will come. 

And… on the days that you are really not in the mood, you can focus on the ‘invisible work’: finding new sources, returning to the criteria, re-watching key lectures, or organising data. This is your back up to ensure that you are always moving forward, even when the conceptual work feels challenging (and more often than not, that invisible work is precisely what you need to kick-start your flow state)


“So… now I have blocked out my time, I can start my first draft now, yes?”

Not yet. Do not worry about starting to write the dissertation straight away, because at the start of the process, you simply have not got the knowledge to do so, and that’s ok! In the initial stages, to compliment the plan you have already created, you can just focus on reading, understanding and finding out new information about your topic (if you need guidance on finding literature, I have tips here and here), and making good quality notes to come back to later. 

The time to begin your drafting is when you feel like every piece of literature you read is telling you something you sort-of already know, or, ‘theoretical saturation’. This means that you’ve got a good sense of the field, the various subject-positions of scholars, previous work completed, and potential gaps. At this stage you might want to revise your initial structure (or even research questions) to reflect what you’ve found, and then you can confidently begin drafting. 

“But will this make for a better dissertation?”

Whilst it feels like this will make the whole process more laborious, and will be dealing with your friends telling you how many words they have written: Do not be fooled. Too many times I have seen students arrive to a meeting with thousands of words ‘finished’, only to discover that they are on the wrong track. Little and often, and dedicating non-negotiable specific time to the task, is the way forward. Don’t worry, the dissertation will steadily grow, and this will be driven by your background knowledge of the topic, not just the words you write on the page.

“What next?”

For further information and advice, subscribe to ‘Neil’s Common Room’, and do get in touch! Videos in The Dissertation Toolkit series include: 

  1. How to start your dissertation the easy way (11mins)
  2. How to make the most of your dissertation supervisor meetings (9mins)
  3. Storytelling: The secret behind all great dissertations (8mins)
  4. Overcoming obstacles in writing your dissertation (18mins)

How to use Powerpoint in your teaching

Good for wallpaper, maybe less so for British Politics 101

The last few weeks have seen me back at the face-to-face teaching thing, with a number of talks, presentations and briefings.

As someone who mostly sits in his shed in his garden, this is a very positive development, especially since all that face-to-face work is happening in warmer spaces than the shed.

However, it has also reminded me about the importance of getting any Powerpoint usage right.

As Amanda has written before, while it’s easy to dunk on Powerpoint, it is ultimately like any tool we use in the classroom: good for some things, bad for others.

Indeed, that I’m writing this nearly a decade after Amanda’s post suggests that both technology and pedagogical practice change more slowly than we might often think.

So let’s run through the key points once again.

First up, focus on your learning objectives. What are you trying to achieve with your teaching? Who needs to learn what?

If you don’t know the answer to this, then everything else falls apart, because it points you towards optimising the opportunities for your audience to learn the things you want them to learn. And the tools you’ll use.

Hence, I didn’t make a Powerpoint for the ‘in discussion’ session I had one evening recently, even though I was asked to make some structured opening comments: I wanted to reduce the distance with the audience, so we discussed, rather than be the guy who turns up with The Answer.

Secondly, tailor your Powerpoint to your audience.

I vividly remember sitting in a panel presentation, years ago, where a guy opened up his 165 page Powerpoint and then jumped around about 15 of those slides to do the presentation of his paper. I did not feel the love and was mostly interested in what else might be in that huge slide deck.

Make a specific Powerpoint for that specific session. Building on your sense of the learning objectives, recognise that each instance that you teach is different and unique, so your materials will be unique too.

Think about how you might present your paper differently to a departmental seminar, a general conference panel, a workshop or to non-academic audiences: all the same source material, but each with different incentives and interests that feed back into what you offer them.

Thirdly, make your Powerpoint functional.

If you ever have to say “you probably can’t read this” or “this isn’t important”, then you’ve failed on this count.

Anything you put on a slide will be paid attention to, read and considered. It’s why lots of text on a slide results in people not paying attention to you speaking: they’re reading.

So only put in what is necessary and nothing more, remembering that your Powerpoint isn’t the only thing that’s going on when you teach.

Personally, it’s why I switched to mostly images for my slides some years back: students are listening to my explanation/interpretation of those images, plus it gives me a degree of freedom and flexibility to adjust to their needs.

Finally, reflect on your practice.

The only time I’ve ever had to break up fisticuffs was when two colleagues argued (very hard) about the Powerpoint that one of them was about to use in their shared class.

Somehow, the upshot was that I spent the next hour in that class, to give some feedback on the offending article (120 slides for a one hour lecture).

Strangely, and even though it’s totally not how I’d have done it, the colleague made pretty good use of that Powerpoint, because it fitted their style of teaching and the needs of the class. But they’d never really had anyone discuss how that worked (and how it might work better) before.

All of us benefit from thinking back on what we’ve done and from getting input from others, including our students. It’s part of why I’ve writing this post: much as I’d like to say I smashed all those face-to-face sessions I’ve been doing, actually I know there’s still room for improvement, improvement that I can take into my next session (which is this weekend).

A Crowdsourced IR Playlist

A new guest post by Dr. Summer Marion from Bentley University, Waltham, MA:

Since Fall 2022, I have taught ten sections of Internationals Relations at Bentley University. Each semester, I experiment with integrating music into my curriculum as a means of both encouraging my students to apply abstract concepts in their everyday lives, and better understanding what IR means to them. Inspired by others’ impressive IR playlists, I take a slightly different approach from faculty who have curated their own lists to share with students in class. I challenge students to: 1) expand and improve my taste in music, and more importantly 2) contribute to making IR more relevant to their generation by proposing songs of their own for a small amount of extra credit on the final exam. Students brainstorm songs that they enjoy listening to and find relevant to a topic covered in class over the course of the semester. They then share their songs alongside a brief explanation in our class discussion forum. I encourage students to submit songs as we cover each topic, but final submissions are not due until the end of the semester. I occasionally play a student submission to kick off a new topic at the beginning of class, inviting students to discuss and share their thinking.

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Behold: my newly-reworked module

OR: Some thoughts on teaching and citizenship, and teaching citizenship. And a plea.

Cathy has thrown down the gauntlet, so here I go…

For a few years I’ve been running a second-year module which includes a series of ‘practitioner talks’, rather than being based around your classic lecture-and-seminar format. It was dreamt up when the degree was first put together, and by coincidence the first running of it was in the middle of the Covid-19 lockdown, so the content was largely shaped by what I could make work at the time. I ran it as was for a two more rounds, and then last summer, following a bunch of conversations with Cathy, decided to overhaul it. This post explains the new structure, and ends with a plea for your thoughts (wisdom of crowds, and all that…).

The module opens with three scene-setting lectures from me. From there, we have a set of talks from people working in public policy: speech writers, think tankers, comms staffers from within government, from the private and third sectors, and researchers from the civil service. Much of that is carried over from ‘version 1.0’ of the module, but the newly-reformatted one now has four building blocks. Two develop themes from a first-year public policy module I teach, one is pedagogical, and one speaks to the ambitions or wider objectives of the module.

The building blocks

The first problematises the role of evidence in the business of policy making. We unpick ‘evidence-based policy making’ to show all the reasons why it’s really just a lofty ideal. This takes us into epistemology (is there such a thing as a ‘hierarchy of evidence’?); into institutional politics (how could we design knowledge exchange processes so that evidence can be provided more efficiently, and with more impact?); into the dirty business of academic research (how much of research is driven by the availability of funding, rather than by any kind of ‘need’?); and into the messiness of politics and policy making (how much of ‘being led by evidence’ is really just the co-opting of convenient information in order to justify a fait accompli?). So far so uncontroversial: there are books aplenty on this, and it’s a hot topic in, for example, the journal Evidence and Policy.

The second pivots away from this and looks at the role of stories and story-telling in shaping policy. I’m taking a very broad view of this, and in practice I mean everything to do with the language used to describe (and create?) a policy problem. Again, this is fairly mainstream: think Deborah Stone or Carol Bacchi, or, for that matter, the narrative policy framework and discursive institutionalist crowds.

The third is where I started to venture into what was, for me, newer territory (or at least, in the classroom – I’ve written here about my earlier dabbling in sports coaching). The module operates through a mode of experiential learning: in the classes the students combine the readings with the insights from the practitioner talk to set about doing something, like writing a speech, or a press release. In the opening week we made a big deal of how different this is compared to other seminars the students have, and we spent the first round of classes establishing a whole new set of norms and ways-of-working which would be more appropriate for this format of learning. The students came up with some really cracking suggestions, like abandoning laptops and using flipcharts / post-its to collate ideas, or bringing coffees to class to simulate a ‘crisis meeting’.

The fourth is where, I’ll happily admit, I feel I’m on shaky ground. The initial inspiration for this block came from a conversation with Simon Usherwood in Bratislava last year (around the margins of a ECPR T&L conference), where he explained how, in his university, they had a view of a politics degree doing three things: teaching students about politics, teaching students how to research about politics, and teaching students to do politics. I worked the third one up into a not-very-well-articulated idea around helping students develop a set of skills to enable them to become active citizens in the world beyond university. ‘Doing politics’, then, is more than voting every now and again, but it’s about being critically-engaged, politically-savvy citizens capable of parsing through the various bits of policy communications that come their way in the public domain (speeches they see, op-eds they read, the think-tank summaries that either of these draw on, and so on) and understand how evidence and narrative devices were consciously used by the original authors in order to achieve some political end. 

Bringing it all together in the assessment

To bring this all together, the assessment has the students do a piece of creative writing and an accompanying essay. The students imagine their future selves being disgruntled about some aspect of public policy in their local area or in the country, or working in some part of the policy system, and then set about writing something which will (hopefully!) bring about some change. They have pretty wide-ranging creative freedom in this regard: they could write a campaign speech for a local MP, or an op-ed intended to swing public opinion, or a Tweet thread (or whatever it is that we call them nowadays), or a podcast script, or a memo for a minister, or the executive summary of a think tank report. In the essay component they explain their choices of medium, audience, content, style, tone, evidence, framing, and so on, linking back to the underlying literatures on political communication.

Now, back to the part I’m unsure of. I think the reason I’m unsure of it is that I’ve picked up the message from somewhere that we shouldn’t talk about our educational mission in any terms that might approximate this ‘citizenship training.’ We certainly talk about ‘critical thinking’, and the importance of teaching students to question – but this is generally framed in academic, scholarly language: students should think critically because that’s what good academics do, rather than because that would help become ‘better citizens’ in the future. To shore this building block up, I drew on some Deweyian thinking (sp?) about the role of education in supporting a healthy and vibrant democracy, but I’m curious to hear what other readers of this site think about the ‘citizenship training’ aspect of a politics degree – and, for that matter, about the broader educational mission of a politics department beyond just ‘teaching students about politics.’

Spring 2024: The Midterm Check-in

I enjoyed Cathy’s post from last week, in which she presented UCL’s approach to engage in student dialogue rather than receive “consumer feedback” at the end of the semester – aka the classic student evaluations. Earlier check-ins regarding our teaching are more useful than reviewing the game tapes over winter break. Our future students will benefit from it, but our past students just had to sit with it. As the new semester approaches rapidly (at least for me, Monday is rapidly approaching), and as I looked over my feedback from last semester, I can’t help to add even more things to my list of new semester resolutions: a midterm check-in with my students on what is working and what is not.

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Wargaming for Learning: A robust examination of how educational gaming adds value to traditional instructional techniques

My latest article is out in Journal of Political Science Education and I’m excited to share it with ALPS readers. Alongside Dr. Lisa Kerr, also at the Naval War College, we set out to do a robust examination of whether educational gaming is worth the extra time it takes; in other words, do students learn more by playing a game (in this case, a bespoke war-game called War at Sea) when they’ve already encountered the material through traditional methods of learning such as reading, lecture, and discussion of a case study? Our research says yes.

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Create an Authoritarian State!

I run this fun (yet relevant) activity early in my POLS 347: Comparative Authoritarianism course. Divide into teams of ~4 students and have teams create:

  • State name
  • State map with key geographic features
  • Regime type (and be able to define it)
  • Regime positions for everyone on team
  • Regime institutions
  • Election process (if any)
  • Key cultural features that influence politics
  • Economic structure
  • Defense structure
  • Any allies or opponents
  • If stuck in their design, look up actual authoritarian states (but try not to parrot a single state)

Since this is a 300-level course, I’ve found that students have enough general political science knowledge to think through every point, even without knowing specific authoritarian regime types so early in the course. Inveterate doodlers also love creating the map. I give them about 30 minutes, then have the teams brief their state designs. I finally do a short critique and Q&A for each team. For me, this activity works best in a 75-minute course with 40 students, but I’ve run it in 50-minute courses, cutting team prep to 20 minutes (which admittedly encourages a sense of hustle in the teams).

Yes, students will come up with outlandish designs, such as underwater dome cities, economic structures based entirely on creepy haunted doll manufacturing, and states defended by a single, giant robot. But in my experience, students actively think about each item and, even if outlandish, attempt to make their state designs consistent and coherent. By doing so, the teams almost always apply or extrapolate ideas that align with real-world authoritarian regime types. I imagine this will also work in a democratization course, too!

How do you get students to do something they haven’t done before?

Wall? Gallery? Inefficient note-taking system for that reading on Clauswitz?

This question came up from our own contributor, JP, the other night. He’s got a new module that involves getting students to do some actual activity in their community, applying their learning to try to get something achieved. He can write his own post about how that works in more detail, but one challenge that he asked for thoughts on was the question in the title.

It’s a pretty regular problem, especially in active learning circles: we want to get away from the same-old same-old, but our students get stuck once we’re away from the nice certainties of sitting in a lecture theatre, taking notes (or, at least, we think they’ll be).

Three main points here.

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How do you make sense of a country’s politics?

I spent a few days this New Year in Berlin with my family, seeing the sights and eating the food and avoiding the fireworks.

It’s a fabulous city, for so many reasons, not least because the last time I was there was when I interrailed around Europe in 1992 and it’s changed a bit.

But you don’t care about my holidays, I assume. You’re here for the question in the title.

Since there was only the one person in the group who’d studied German history at university and he “kept using his teaching voice” [fine. whatever.], we decided it would be good to sample some of the numerous museums in the city, including the DDR Museum.

This is a private venture, telling people about the life and nature of East Germany.

Aside from the obligatory Trabant and a bit of Wall, that included a mocked-up flat, multimedia resources and – oddly – a diorama of nude sunbathers on the Baltic coast.

It’s maybe best summarised by the fridge magnets in the shop (pictured above): the reduction of forty year’s to a set of atomised images and memories, packaged for your convenience.

We all found it underwhelming. Me because it left out so much; everyone else because they didn’t know how it fitted together at all.

And this is a frequent problem when teaching comparative politics, both in strictly comparative terms and when doing the “politics of X” course. Where do you start? Where do you go? How do you hang it all together?

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