Coping by learning

It’s been one of the more heartening sides of all this that colleagues have been so forthcoming in sharing their ideas about how to move teaching online: I’m guessing you’ve seen at least half-a-dozen pieces on models and techniques and how-tos in the past week alone.

Rather than add to that, I want to think about another aspect of this crisis: coping.

This matters not only because it’s a very stressful time, but also because the move to self-isolation has deprived us of one of the most powerful tools for managing that stress: face-to-face interaction.

Sitting around your home, with time on your hands and limited options, is not a good recipe for positive thinking.

But learning can be a help in all this.

Giving people the tools to rationalise and explore their situation more dispassionately can be support more general efforts to keep our shit together.

In essence this is about Type I and II thinking [I’m not even going to put a link to that – it can be your task for the day, to lose yourself in some behavioural psychology]: we can balance our gut reaction to the situation with some more systematic and unemotional reasoning.

Indeed, all this time we have on our hands will be the perfect opportunity.

So what does that look like, in practical terms.

To take one example, I used my (online) class last week to ask students to do some quick digging on what the different institutions of the EU had done so far in the crisis, putting their notes into a Google Doc. 5 minutes later we had a good list of elements and the basis of a discussion about it.

That discussion was partly about why some institutions had done lots and others had done nothing, but also it become a discussion about more abstractedly models of how political systems react in such situations and how it taps into our feelings about it all.

In particular, we ending up talking about “something must be done” as a social/media demand and how that balanced with what could actually usefully be done.

As a result, we moved from a comment about the European Parliament doing nothing – except stopping plenary sessions – to a recognition that its role as law-making and overseer of due process means its time will come a bit further down the line.

None of this was an attempt to say “everything’s fine”, but rather to help students have more tools for making sense of what’s going on around them.

And this can be more generally applied: as one of the many who has had to deal with the vast complexity and rapid mutability of Brexit over the past few years, the principles are much the same.

Think of your subject area as a set of analytical skills and models more than as a description of ‘how things are’: give students tools and language to get a grip on it all.

Invite students to put themselves in the position of others, so they can see why those others reach the decisions that they do: your own way of making sense of the world isn’t the only way.

Get them to consider hypothetical extensions of the current situation and how they might act then: this can help make more sense of choices being now.

And remind students that politics – and life – is rather tricky. Even with the best available information and the most rational decision-making, missteps happen and costs are incurred.

Those costs are human lives and that is a terrible thing and cannot – should not – be smoothed away (especially as this pandemic comes ever closer to us individually), but it does not mean we have to stop trying to help our students, our families and ourselves from becoming better equipped to get through these exceptional times.

Yet more tips on moving teaching online

Chad and Amanda have already given their ideas on the crash move to online, so here’s my version too, in graphic form.

You can download a PDF version here.

As the others have said, you need to triage your teaching: what absolutely must happen and what’s just nice to have?

If you’re struggling, then ask colleagues, both within your institution and beyond: there are lots of great people on Twitter (start with the @ALPSblog follow list).

Brain meet meme

So we did the meme thing in class.

As I discussed last week, I wanted to check whether it did really bring anything to the discussion, given my doubts.

And it did. Just not what I thought it would.

I’d asked students in the lecture to drop memes into the collaborative document, on the theme of “the EU as it was, the EU as it is.” (not the most meme-y title, but whatever).

From what we got, I can tell you a number of things.

Firstly, most students clearly just googled “EU meme” to see what they could find, rather than making their own memes. Perhaps that’s a refinement to consider, using something like this.

Secondly, most of my students aren’t that well disposed to the EU.

Thirdly, the EU isn’t the subject of much meme-making.

And fourthly, most of those memes are about the EU banning memes.

[sic]

We talked about this last point the most, mainly because there was a long struggle on their part to consider the most logical reason for why, despite the EU banning memes, we were a) able to find lots of memes, and b) I was allowed to run a session in class about memes.

If you’ve not worked it out, I’ll leave it to you to go and check (hint: look for news sources that talk about what happened, rather than what might happen).

Any way, it became a good opportunity to talk about being a rigorous researcher and sense-checking what you find. That’s not a point just about the EU, but about everything you study.

The jury is still out on using memes like this, but it was good to have this discussion. My concern is whether we might have it again.

Memes or graphics?

My first-year introduction to the EU class continues to test my creativity.

Last week’s lecture didn’t see a pick-up in attendance – but also didn’t drop further – so I’m working through my plans to entice students in by the quality of what happens in the classroom.

As I discussed before, I’m trying to make more of the flipped format by getting students to create collaborative work on the go, as I discussed in my post.

The first attempt went alright, but pointed up some issues:

Firstly, it’s important to be very clear about what you want students to do. I under-specified a bit with my first title, and got more of a range of responses than I’d thought I would, but also a fair few that missed what I was looking for. So that’s on me, to think more carefully about how a title might be read by students.

Secondly, Google Docs might be simple to set up, but they’re not great for graphic content: Students ended up uploading photos and JPGs into the document which is OK, but not super easy. My hunt for a better option continues.

Thirdly, I’d asked for a graphic representation of the factors important in explaining European integration. I got some of those, but I also got a bunch of memes (all very negatively EU, but that’s another post) too.

I did ask at the end whether they’d rather meme than create graphics: they said yes.

I’m torn on this one, since memes might well be more engaging (see my former colleague Jack’s work on this), but I’m not sure I can see how it’ll allow them to pull together the various elements that I would like them to cover.

But let’s see. Maybe I try it one week and see if it produces useful outputs. If you’ve experience of this, I’d love to hear it.

Red flag

The first week of any course/module matters. It’s your first and best chance to make a good impression on your students, to engage them with what is to come.

So you might imagine that I was a bit concerned to find that less than half my students turned up for the lecture last week.

And you’d be right.

Yes, 0900 on a Friday is a shitty timeslot, especially if you’re the kind of student whose weekend starts on Thursday evening (as I seem to recall mine did), but that’s hardly enough to explain it.

Looking at the VLE, a lot of students still haven’t visited the module pages, so it also can’t be that they saw we were flipping and decided lectures were dispensable (see last week’s post on this).

Oddly, my seminar tutor tells me turnout was not bad through the rest of the day for the seminars.

My concern is that having started off on a not-turning-up foot, that will only continue and get worse, even with all the great stuff that’s going on in those sessions.

This isn’t so much narcissism as it is anxiety that if most students miss the sessions where we explain how the online assessment tool works, then we’ll have a bit of a car crash in a month’s time when they have to use, um, the online assessment tool.

Nil desperandum.

Usually, my hope is that this is where one of you comes up with a good idea, but in the meantime, I’ve got a couple of strategies to try out.

Firstly, I’n going to be making more of the lectures to demonstrate to those present their value, in the hope of them spreading the word. Part of that will be thinking about how only those that attend can get easy access to the graphics we’re building together (see last week’s post again).

Secondly, I’ll be upping my work in messaging to everyone on the module why the lecture is useful to them, via emails and the VLE. I’ll also be talking with my seminar tutor about how we can make a stronger link of substantive content between lecture and seminar.

I travel hopefully, but also realistically: to have missed out on being able to hook people in week 1 is a big challenge, but let’s see what we can do with it all.

Trying to make more of our time together

For reasons now lost in the minutes of a senior suite meeting, it’s the first week of our second semester here. On the plus side, the weekend’s storm didn’t do any damage; on the minus, it’s been nearly two months since our students last sat in class.

Bold

Second semester means it’s also time for my first-year UG module on European integration. You might recall that last year I flipped it all around.

One of the big issues with that format was that very few students ended up coming to class. A large part of that seemed to be that they felt they were getting enough information from the video lecture, not least as I was using the lecture slot to deal with Q&A [not much Q, a lot of ex-temporising A].

With that in mind, I’m going to try a slightly different approach this time round.

I’ll still be leaving space for Q&A in the lecture, but most of the session will be filled with getting the students to draw assorted visual representations of elements of the European Union.

Thus, one week I might ask them to produce a diagram of the EU, or the factors that need to be considered when analysing it.

Since I’ve got 120 bodies in the class, my idea is to have a Google Doc they can access and then upload their picture (either by drawing directly on it, or by adding a photo of something they’ve done by hand). That way, I’ll get their work real-time and can display it back to them for discussion and further refinement.

At the end of the lecture, I plan to go away and produce something to summarise their contributions: maybe with a little commentary too.

Doing this will, I hope, generate more interest than simply waiting for someone to ask a question, and produce material that cuts across the rest of the provision, so they see value in contributing.

The danger is, of course, that if I’m summarising afterwards, then students might not see so much point in attending the lecture session itself, since they’ll still get access to it all. But I’ll cross that bridge as and when we get to it.

In the meantime, it’s off to the QR code generator…

Habit-forming

At least it’s not filthy

As APSA TLC heaves into sight once more, I’m reminded that it was the last time it rolled into Albuquerque that the idea for this blog was formed. Possibly over the consumption of various items of local cuisine.

I can’t attend in person this year, due to the weight of obligations back here, but it’s still a good moment to reflect on the nine years (!) that have followed.

In particular, I’m struck by the way in which I’ve formed a habit around posting over the years. And it’s something that I’ve been asked about several times recently.

As I’ve possibly related beforehand, we started off with a weekly rota, since we recognised that content is king. I got Tuesdays, and I did it for a couple of months, very assiduously, as did we all.

Then I went on holiday – it’s a European thing – and didn’t have posts lined up. This was commented on, and I was sufficiently peeved to be called out on it that I made sure I posted every single week for the next couple of years (including other periods of leave (having discovered the ‘delay posting’ option)).

In retrospect, that was possibly the best nudge I could have got to stick with this.

I’m a bit more sensible about it all now, taking breaks when I’m away, but this is now one of the bedrocks of my diary, along with my Thursday morning slot for my other blog. And my Monday morning reminder to do a vlog, and my Friday morning note about adding stuff to ResearchFish (if you don’t know, don’t ask).

As my resident psychologist tells me, it takes a long time for habits to form and stick and that’s certainly been true here.

With time, it’s gotten easier to write a blog post, in terms of just getting going and pulling it together quickly, even as it’s gotten hard to find a new thing to say. Indeed, I have a vague sense that I’ve written something like this before at some point.

Practically speaking, there is a pattern that seems to emerge. At first, it’s new and fun and you have things you know you want to do or say, so it’s not a problem. But then there’s the sticky patch, where you’ve satisfied your initial curiousity and where the harder issues creep in: the most obvious is that the new thing takes time away from other things.

It’s only by working through that patch that one gets to the habit stage: where you find a new balance and the more structural benefit of what you do.

And this isn’t just about blogging, but the sum of your practice. I’ve been the same with trying new teaching methods or with new elements in my research.

So as much I always encourage people to try new things, I’d also encourage you to stick with them beyond that first rush.

If I’d have given up on this blog, then I’d probably not have gotten into half the other stuff I’ve done since and I’d have missed out on a bunch of great experiences.

You’ve gotta start somewhere and you’ve gotta start sometime, so why not now?

Thoughts on Thought Experiments

Today we have a guest post from Adam Irish, an assistant professor of political science at California State University, Chico. He can be contacted through his faculty webpage at https://www.csuchico.edu/pols/people/tenure-line-faculty/irish-adam.shtml.

During graduate school I worked at the University of Illinois’ Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning. Fresh from Teach For America and surrounded by EdD’s, I internalized the pedagogical research that supports active learning. As I sifted through the variety of techniques – each promising a marginal gain – I began to fill my lessons with more and more learning activities. Initially, this strategy of accumulation worked. It differentiated me from other TA’s, won me teaching awards, landed me a teaching post-doc, and then a tenure-track job at a teaching-focused university.

Yet designing and teaching classes that leap from activity to activity can be exhausting – start with a quick write, then a mini-lecture, next a think-pair-share, now group discussions, back to whole class review and on and on. Lately I find myself asking: does including more learning activities equal better teaching?

My suspicion is that, in many cases, less may be more.

Consider the humble thought experiment. A student imagines a given scenario and reasons. Popular among ancient Greek philosophers and turn of the century physicists alike, thought experiments persist in today’s classrooms. For example, Harvard professor Michael Sandel begins his popular course – Justice – with the Trolley Problem. You are aboard a runaway trolley, standing at the controls. You could turn the trolley down a sidetrack and kill one lone worker or allow the trolley to barrel into five workers straight ahead. What is the right thing to do? Every semester in a packed lecture hall, hundreds take hold of the trolley controls, reasoning about justice – no trolley required.

But could a well-crafted thought experiment generate enough discussion for an entire political science class? I have found Peter Singer’s “drowning child” experiment pairs well with foreign aid and John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” drapes easily over discussions of welfare state politics. Beyond borrowing from philosophers, we can create our own thought experiments: Imagine you awoke this morning to find that five years had passed and the U.S. is no longer a democracy. What events do you suspect caused US democracy to collapse? In this authoritarian U.S., how might your life be different?

I recently designed a thought experiment to encourage thinking like a multi-national corporation (MNC) – a perennial difficult perspective for my students.

“Imagine that you just had a striking insight. You figured out something the world desperately needs. Fast forward through time. See the montage of days and nights spent building up your business, hiring and firing people, spending your first million dollars. Who bought a massive house? How about a nice car? Chartered jets for vacations abroad? Where did you go? Good.

But wait, the global economy is highly competitive. Earnings statements are due every quarter. Your company has taken on shareholders. They want more profit, more growth – so you opened offices and factories abroad. Still your competitors are circling, threatening to steal customers or that next big contract. The media is digging into your business practices. If you want to keep your job as CEO, you have beat your competitors. Can you see yourself sitting at that gleaming conference table, leading this month’s global strategy meeting?”

In the hour-long discussion that follows I ask what sort of business empires my students imagined building. From there we explore the overlapping and conflicting interests of MNCs and host states. Repeatedly, we return to their imagined Facebook-like successes to analyze the fraught international relations of MNCs.  Beyond examples from the reading, this activity lures student into the position of a CEO – one perhaps willing to fight against environmental or labor regulations. 

In my experience, doing more with less via thought experiments slows down the classroom. Students need time to create a rich narrative to draw from, whether they are steering a trolley, wandering an authoritarian U.S., or running their own MNC. Likewise, professors must spend time crafting and then presenting robust narrative structures that students can inhabit.  For example, see how Sandel builds tension in the trolley problem.

What if the next time you sat down to plan a lesson – a coffee cup steaming beside your keyboard, notes and books scattered about – you tried building that lesson around a single activity? Imagine that.

Seen Exams

Everyone’s working with seen papers…

This past semester I got to try out using a seen exam for the first time.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, you publish the exam paper some time ahead of the sitting date (a week, in this case), so students can prepare their responses, which they then write under controlled exam controls (without notes or materials to hand).

The logic of this is that it provides a more meaningful test of students’ abilities, since they since have to revise, plan and produce, but without the added peril of “I can’t find a question I can do” or “I answered the question wrong”.

Having inherited the format from a colleague, I was keen to try it out, especially since last year’s use of an open-book, online exam had worked very well. Indeed, this year’s module was with the same students.

The practicalities are very simple indeed: an email to the class and a posting on the VLE at the appropriate time, plus being available through the week to answer any queries or clarifications.

The day before the exam I emailed everyone again, just to run through any points that had come up and to remind them again that the format meant some things were different from a ‘normal’ exam.

Firstly, my expectations on factual accuracy would be higher, since they’d have had time to prepare.

Secondly, I’d like to see more references to the literature: not direct quotes, but certainly mention of relevant authors.

And most importantly, I’d expect clear organisation and argument in each of their answers.

So?

Having now finished my marking, I’m able to say a bit about how this all played out.

As with the other format, this approach seems to be good for pulling up the tail of students who might otherwise have found things difficult: even the worse-performing student still produced relevant answers with some detail.

Likewise, the almost total absence of factual errors and of very short answers was a pleasant development, suggesting everyone had actually done work for the exam.

So the knowledge front seems to be positive.

Having seen a few students straight after the exam, I’m not sure that they found it any less stressful though: yes, they knew what the questions would be, but they also noted that they were also conscious I would be marked in line with that, so maybe their extra work wouldn’t count for anything.

While we’ve yet to complete all the feedback cycle, I think that anxiety is understandable, but hasn’t played out. Instead, the performance of the class has been strengthened and their capacity in the subject will be that bit more for future modules they take.

In sum, this exam has further convinced me that closed-book, unseen exams aren’t that useful, either in measuring knowledge or managing student stress: unless I have to use them in future, I’m not going to be.

Stress and active learning

One for the EU specialists…

This weekend I caught up with an old friend. He works for a software company, overseeing the sales team.

Recently, he’s been doing some work with occupational psychologists, to get a better handle on the team’s stress levels. He told me about all this over a cuppa, including the SCARF model, which I’d not heard of.

SCARF is a diagnostic framework for identifying sources of stress, where individuals encounter challenges to their Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness (being part of the group) and Fairness.

There’s a useful summary (and diagram) here.

Listening to my friend, telling me how this works for his team (status is the big thing, apparently), I was struck by how this works in the educational context.

For example, one of the reasons why assessment is so stressful is that it hits most of these areas: students might feel success brings status with teaching staff, it’s relatively uncertain, it’s out of their control, and it’s not necessarily a fair way to judge achievement. The gain of a shared experience with other students pales next to all this.

Clearly, there are general lessons about student welfare to be picked up from this model, but it’s also useful to consider how it relates to active learning.

In traditional, transmission-centred approaches, life might appear to be relatively stress-free: most of the time you sit then, soaking up material, with the occasional bouts of panic at assessment time.

By contrast, active learning might be more challenging.

The biggest issue is likely to be the increased requirement for autonomy: active learning requires participation and the production of contributions on a rolling basis. This front-loads requirements on students, at a point where they might feel they know relatively little (raising issues of status (you want to look good in front of friends) and relatedness (you don’t want to get marginalised in the group if you fail)).

Similarly, the relative absence of the instructor means students have to self-regulate more than usual, so fairness might become more of a factor than in a situation where fairness gets imposed from above.

And it’s also worth highlighting that the model points to active learning being more stressful for teaching staff too, with lower status, higher uncertainty and a big hit to autonomy: no longer is everyone doing just what you want of them.

Despite this, I think that active learning’s benefits outweigh these costs.

Firstly, precisely because students are brought actively into the process from the start, they have much more time to prepare themselves for any summative assessment, both in terms of having to consider materials and of practising producing ideas. The stress is spread out, rather than concentrated at the back end.

But equally, if stress is managed properly, it also comes with raised engagement. If we are making our active learning spaces safe (as we always should be), then we are offering students both the opportunity and the tools to manage stress better, which not only points them to thinking more about the matter in hand, but also how to deal with other sources of stress in their life.

We’re helping our students to learn about the world and how to engage with it. That means skills matter at least as much as substantive knowledge. And handling stress is one of those skills. Yes, active learning is more stressful for all involved, but the benefits that flow from that are ones that might serve us all well.