The most irregular podcast in the world…

We’re great at many things here at ALPS, but producing regular episodes of our podcast is not one of them.

Sure, we could actually do something about that, but where’s the fun?

Instead, Amanda and I took a moment out of #IntTLC2019 to discuss various things, including how to avoid re-inventing the wheel, what it is we love about using sims, and why more of us should be bringing our students to conferences.

Listen here:

What’s it for?

Amanda and I are here in Brighton at the first International Teaching & Learning Conference, co-organised by APSA, ECPR, BISA and PSA: I’m hoping we’ll be bringing you a podcast shortly, once we can find a bit of spare time.

A symbol, today

Cheapskate that I am, I’m not in the conference hotel, but in a, um, particular little place along the seafront. It’s a bit bizarre, but it’s got the best view from the front door.

For those that don’t know, the thing is the BA i360 and the donut bit goes up and down, so people can check out the views of the coast.

It’s one of those civic projects that you either love or hate: I’m in the former camp.

But what’s it got to do with L&T?

Well, it took an age to build, with both technical and planning issues a-plenty. And quite a few people wondered whether it was worth it, because the view’s alright, but it’s not that special (remember half of it is sea).

But that’s to miss the intention behind it. It’s also a symbol of how this city is progressing, re-inventing itself, creating new focuses and opportunities. It is art and it is confidence. It’s also very phallic, in case you thought the gendered aspect had passed me by.

And all that – OK, maybe not the phallic bit – echoes with the discussions we have about moving L&T on.

One of the big concerns at the conference is about how to cope with populism, fake news and the changing nature of society.

As our keynote, Alison McCartney, pointed out, it’s not enough to be transmitters of knowledge: we also need to be supporting our students to become active and engaged citizens, by giving them skills, and opportunities to use those skills.

I’m totally on-board with that: it’s been a cornerstone of my advocacy of simulations for a long time now, as it has been for everyone I know in the field.

But it’s easy to forget that.

Last week, I was running a workshop on sims at an institution that has never really put L&T high on its list of priorities. I talked quite a bit then about how to make sims work and I found myself posing the question of whether it’s worth it.

Simulations take time and effort and they come with a lot of hassles. Over the years, I’ve met various people who have jumped into using one and then given up, because that hassle was too much.

And I totally sympathise with that. With all the other pressures colleagues face, it might well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

But the potential mistake we make is to confuse problems. Simulations are not a silver bullet: they don’t solve all the problems in teaching. They should be a tool in your tool-box, but not the only one. I don’t use them all the time, and I’d be surprised if anyone else did.

But that’s a different problem for sims being a hassle.

We need to come back to the big phallus outside my hotel front door: there are a multiplicity of meanings and intents, and if we are to make a rounded and informed judgement on it all, then we need to keep that breadth in mind.

In the case of simulations, I use them despite being a pain, precisely because it lets me achieve learning objectives that extend well beyond those that get listed in the module description.

I may not frame it in my institution as helping to prepare our students to go out into the world and be an active part of it, but maybe I should. As Alison said in her talk, if we don’t fill the political spaces, then others will.

What do you want from your L&T event?

Teaching’s done for me now, so it’s heads up for the summer round of getting out of the office conferences.

Not the conference venue… I think

Somehow – probably as a function of signing up to everything I could during the busy spring of Brexit – I’ve got a pile of events to attend, so it’s a good moment to reflect on what the point of such things might be.

I write that not despondently, but hopefully, since my experience of L&T events has generally been much more positive than the usual round of academic conferences. They tend to be more focused – by definition – plus the vibe is more constructive.

A new one for me – and everyone, in fact, since it’s the first time out -will be the International Teaching and Learning Conference, running in Brighton next month (co-organised by Amanda, of this parish), a mash-up from the PSA and APSA.

It’s a good example of the competing visions of what L&T events can do.

Firstly, there’s pedagogic research: systematic efforts to understand the dynamics of student learning and instructor activity. It’s still more common in the US than the UK since the latter doesn’t have the same institutionalisation of such work in career promotion processes, but there’s still a good number of people working on this, aided by the high level of connection with European colleagues.

Secondly, there’s reflection on the practice of L&T in general terms. I’m going to be running a roundtable discussion at the conference on how Brexit challenges how and what we teach: like other such examples, it’s a chance to step back and think about the environment in which we work.

And thirdly, there’s sharing practice. Here’s where there’s a lot more diversity. EuroTLC, for example, is much more about hands-on demos of things we do (or could do) in the classroom, while other events are more about more conference-like papers on one’s case-study.

All of these things are valuable: theory and practice need to inform each other, while also keeping an eye on the shifting sands of our sector (and institutions).

But the balance is one that sits somewhat uneasily with many. For a long time, the cry from colleagues was “give me something I can actually use”, but when we organised events that did that, they then looked for the things behind it.

As ever, there’s never a solution that going to work for everyone on this: we’re all at different places professionally, plus we might not even been aware of our requirements in the round.

My own approach has been to look for what I need from several different places and formats, rather than just one. I’m fortunate that I get invited to contribute to quite a few things, but given the number of events out there, it’s not so hard to get a spread of stuff that could work for you.

And with that in mind, I’ll be posting back from Brighton on the conference, plus pestering Amanda to do the same.

Audio Feedback and Transparency as Teaching Interventions

This is a review of “Enhancing formative assessment as the way of boosting students’ performance and achieving learning outcomes.” Chapter 8 of Early Career Academics’ Reflections on Learning to Teach in Central Europe, by Nikita Minin, Masaryk University.

Nikita Minin of Masaryk University is motivated by a goal we can all appreciate: ensuring that his students achieve the learning outcomes of his course.  In his case, the course is a graduate seminar on theories of IR and energy security and the learning outcomes include improving student skills in critical thinking and writing.  He noticed that students in his class did not seem to really improve on these skills during the class, and introduced three teaching interventions in an attempt to fix this. 

First, Minin provided more intense instruction on the writing assignments at the start of the course, providing a grading rubric and examples of successful student work. Second, he gave students audio rather than written feedback on their papers.  Finally, using a sequential assessment system, the instructor gave formative feedback first and grades much later in the course. Minin assessed the impact of these three interventions, comparing course sections with and without them, and concluded that the first two interventions achieved the objective of improving student achievement of the learning outcomes.

The interventions described in the chapter are in line with current thinking regarding in-course assessment. While Minin does not use the language of transparent teaching, his first intervention falls exactly in line with the Transparency in Teaching and Learning Project’s (TILT)approach. Transparency calls on instructors to openly communicate about the purpose of an assignment, the tasks they are to complete, and the criteria for success, and Minin does exactly that in this first intervention.  Given the data so far on the TILT project, it is not surprising that Minin saw some success by taking this approach. Likewise, now-ubiquitous learning management systems allow for giving feedback in multiple platforms, including audio and video. For years now, advocates for audio-based feedback claim that this can be a more effective tool than written feedback. Minin’s observations therefore, also fit nicely in line with existing work.

Where the chapter falls short, then, is not in the design of its interventions, but in the claims made based on the available data. The sample sizes are tiny, with just five students receiving the interventions. With final grades used as the primary dependent variable, it is difficult to tease out the independent impact of each of the three changes. Using final grades is also an issue when the experimenter is also the person who assigns grades, as it is more difficult to avoid bias than when more objective or blind items are used. Lang’s (2016) bookSmall Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learningtells us that engaging in self-reflection is itself an intervention, and Minin’s use of minute-paper style self-reflections to assess the impact of feedback, while itself an interesting and potentially useful idea, mean that a fourth intervention was used in the course.  While I do not doubt Minin’s observations that his interventions had a positive impact, as they are backed by existing research, the evidence in the chapter does not strongly advance our confidence in those findings.

However, I have never been one to dismiss good teaching ideas simply because of a lack of strong evidence from a particular instructor.  Minin highlights a crucial concern—that we should never assume that our courses are teaching what we intend them to teach, and that ‘time and effort’ do not necessarily achieve the desired results, even for graduate students. Reflecting on this, seeking out innovative solutions, and then assessing the impact is a process we should all be following, and Minin sets a great example.

Reminder: International Teaching and Learning Conference proposals due Monday

Just a reminder that the joint International Teaching and Learning Conference proposal deadline is this Monday, 19 November. The conference  will be held in Brighton, United Kingdom, 17-19 June and will focus on teaching politics in an era of populism. It is jointly sponsored by APSA, PSA, BISA, and ECPR. All kinds of proposals are welcome, including panels, papers, individuals for roundtables, lightning talks, workshops, and any other innovative pedagogical approach you want to propose.  For more information, head to the PSA conference website. 

(Trans)formative Assessment in Teaching

Today I’m attending ISA’s inaugural Innovative Pedagogy Conference in St. Louis.  Victor and I are doing a workshop on using games and simulations to teach political violence, showcasing activities like Survive or Die!, Prisoner’s DilemmaModel Diplomacy, identity exercise, and others.  But I’m most interested in reflecting on the session offered by Matthew Krain and Kent Kille of the College of Wooster on Assessment and Effectiveness in Active Teaching in International Studies. Their framework for formative assessment (that can, in fact, be transformative) is very helpful as an overall approach to teaching.

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Teaching Election Results

The 2018 midterm elections are over in the US, and it was a night of mixed results.  The Democratic Party took control of the House of Representatives, winning at least 27 seats previously held by the Republican Party, while the GOP increased their majority in the Senate, toppling North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and my own state of Missouri’s Claire McCaskill.  

While clearly not as momentous an election as 2016, or the Brexit referendum, or many other elections, the midterms were still an important point to take stock of the impact of Trumpism on American politics, and whether Democrats who were somewhat over-confident in the fall of 2016 could manage to overcome pro-Trump sentiment, a strong economy, congressional district gerrymandering, voter suppression efforts, and the other structural reasons why succeeding at the polls can be difficult. 

Teaching the results of American elections is a frustrating enterprise.

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Unexpected Teachable Moments

I had two unexpected moments in the last week completely outside of the classroom that led to (or will, in the future lead to) great teaching moments.

Last week I was recording a script I’d written in a studio, for a project I’ve been working on for two years.  In the lecture I was reviewing cross tabulation tables, and the example I had looked at 2016 presidential vote choice and gender.  Unbeknownst to me, someone in the control room changed the text on the teleprompter so that every time I used the words ‘man’ or ‘women’ they used ‘male’ and ‘female’.  Rather than stop the recording, I just started changing the words back as I spoke, which led to some awkwardness (man-Clinton voter does not roll off the tongue the same as ‘male Clinton voter’).  Finally the folks in the control group stopped me, and I explained that the original text used man and woman deliberately, and that changing it without speaking to me was an issue. I was talking about gender, not sex, and I wanted it to stay consistent.  This paused the recording for a few minutes, and during the lull I explained to the camera operators why this was important enough to stop for. We had a really nice conversation on the difference between sex and gender, and this turned into what we sometimes call ‘teachable moments’.  Script corrected, I continued recording.

The second moment was completely different.  Today I had jury duty. For those of you outside the US, this is when we get called to the courthouse to sit and wait until you are called into jury selection for a trial.  Sometimes you just sit in the waiting area for a day or two and are dismissed; other times you get put on a case right away, and spend the next day or two answering questions from the attorneys while they pick and choose who to put on the jury itself.  Sometimes they case will settle or be dismissed while jury selection is going on

I don’t mind jury duty.  Its one of the only things asked of me as a citizen, and I do see it as a civic duty. Since I teach American politics, I’d like to have the experience of actually serving on a jury, but that has yet to happen, and many of my legal friends indicate it’s unlikely to ever happen. Since I already had guest lecturers lined up this week for my daytime class, I didn’t request a postponement, and headed downtown this morning to serve.

Walking into the building, right after I passed through security, a police officer noted that I was carrying a heavy bag, and I stopped and chatted with him for awhile.  It turned out this was the sheriff himself, and he used to be a public school teacher in his early career.  Soon we were exchanging business cards, and he agreed to come talk to my students during our lesson on the judiciary next semester.  Did I teach him anything in our short conversation this morning? No.  But I’ll be able to create a great teachable moment for my students in a few months, all because I stopped to chat with someone rather than doing what I normally do, which is plug in my headphones and hurry on my way.  I’m not going to suddenly change my ways or anything, but sometimes an unexpected but nice conversation can serve as a reminder of the good things in this world.

Badges and recognizing success

Badges are not exactly a new concept, but like many ideas that come from games, they are still not widely known in the world of higher education and learning.  As many of us know from playing sports or participating in Scouts-style programs as children, badges are physical marks of achievement given to those that show competency at a particular skill or for doing well in a competition. In video games like World of Warcraft, meeting a particular goal is called an ‘achievement’.  Each achievement you earn flashes across the public chat, allowing for recognition, and some of them come with special items or titles in the game.  Defeat the Lich King, and you not only get to bask in the glory of victory, but you earn the title ‘Kingslayer’. While typically meant as a form of visible recognition for an achievement, earning achievements or badges can motivate behavior and can be seen as credentials in their own right.

Motivation, recognition, and credentialing skills–sounds like what we want to do in the classroom, right?

Success in online teaching: working with your LMS

I’m teaching my online graduate research methods course this fall, and as it is a 9 week course it starts next week.  Since each new section of the course is cloned from the ‘master’ version of the course, every time I teach it, I have to go in and manually update the due dates for assignments.  Most of the syllabus simply says that things are due in Week 3 or Week 6, and the weekly assignments are listed on an ‘activities’ page for each week, but many of the assignments have due dates too, and those need to be changed. It’s tedious but doesn’t take too long.

I’ve noticed in the past that students sometimes miss assignments.  There are 3-4 each week, a mix of discussions, quizzes, and other assignments, plus scaffolded project components, and I will occasionally have students that miss an assignment or two.  I’ve been teaching this course for years, and rather ironically never noticed until today that there was something systematic about the assignments that students tend to miss.

I gave specific due dates to some, but not all, of my assignments.

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