Storytelling with GIS

Another example of why it’s good to consult with librarians:

For the last several years in my globalization course, I’ve had student teams create and deliver presentations on their commodity chain analyses and ethnographies of consumption. Generally students build Powerpoint files for these assignments; occasionally someone uses Prezi. Simple rubrics make grading this work very easy. But the end products aren’t going to make recent graduates stand out from the competition when interviewing with prospective employers. It’s also difficult to convey the content of the entire project in a single presentation without showing a mind-numbing number of slides. Enter the storymap . . .

One of our librarians, a specialist in digital scholarship whom I’ll be working with next semester, introduced me to the digital storytelling tool from Esri,* a.k.a. the Environmental Systems Research Institute, which allows a person to create a multi-media presentation with ArcGIS. Rather than describe what this looks like, I’ll show you:

My task now is to reconfigure the project’s different assignments so that students complete their own storymaps by the end of the course, and figure out how to evaluate them.

*I have no financial interest in this company.

Does the Question Determine the Answer?

Regular readers of this blog know that I sometimes ponder the clarity of my assignment and exam prompts (some past posts on this subject are here, here, and here). Students sometimes don’t hit what, in my mind, the question targets, so I revise in the hopes of creating a prompt that is more transparent. But I don’t want prompts to be answerable with a Jeopardy-like regurgitation of facts. I want students to exert some cognitive effort to figure out how to apply concepts that are relevant to the question at hand.

Usually this situation occurs with my undergraduates, but I’m noticing it more frequently with master’s degree students. A recent example is an assignment from my graduate-level introduction to comparative politics course:

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Pay It Forward Assignments

Today we have a guest post from Loleen Berdahl, Professor and Head of Political Studies, University of Saskatchewan. She can be reached at Loleen [dot] berdahl [at] usask [dot] ca.

I am very excited to road test a new ‘Pay It Forward Assignment’ (PIFA) in my classes this fall. The PIFA requires students to create something that will help a student in the same class in subsequent years. It is inspired by David Wiley’s argument in favour of non-disposable assignments. My hope is that this assignment will inspire students to approach the material with creativity, and draw upon their own interests and personal strengths while they engage with class material. Ideally, the assignment will create a library of resources for future classes that can grow over time.

Here are the assignment’s instructions for students:

Have you ever mastered a topic and wanted to share what you have learned with other students? Have you ever wanted to demonstrate your mastery of a topic in a creative manner, rather than the usual format? Have you ever spent a tremendous amount of time on a class assignment and been disappointed to know that the only person who would read it was your professor? If so, the Pay It Forward Assignment (PIFA) is going to be fun and interesting activity for you.

The PIFA is an assignment that a student creates to share with future students. A great way to select the topic for your PIFA is to find something that you initially found difficult in the course. Once you have a good grasp of the topic, create a resource of some sort to help others. Some possibilities for your PIFA:

  • Graphic novella: create a graphic short story that explains a key idea.
  • Mind-map: construct a mind-map for a specific topic or a core idea.
  • Power-point slide deck: create a short series of lecture slides that teach a major point of a lesson.
  • News story video: present a key idea from a lesson as if it were a breaking story for a television news program.
  • Audio: create a short podcast that provides a tutorial on a key idea in a lesson, or that connects a key idea to a current issue in public debate.
  • Photo essay: use a photo or series of photos to illustrate a key idea in a lesson, and then use short amounts of text to explain how the photos illustrate the idea.
  • Checklist: create a critical reading checklist for students to use when assessing a research study, news story, etc., for trustworthiness. Go through an actual article and apply the checklist to demonstrate how it works.
  • Learning activity: outline a new learning activity for a lesson.
  • Lesson table summary: construct a summary table of the lesson’s key points and terms.
  • Linking our class material to another class: using text, audio, or video, explain how something from this class relates to something you learned in another class.
  • Relating lessons summary: using text, audio, or video, explain how the material in a particular lesson relates to the lesson that came immediately before it.
  • Social media activity: create a tweet-thread explaining a core concept covered in a lesson.

Hate Group Presentations? Here’s an Alternative

Today we have another guest post from Susan Allen, associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi. She can be contacted at shallen [at] olemiss [dot] edu.

Enrollment at the University of Mississippi has grown substantially over the last few years, with my upper division undergraduate courses now often exceeding sixty students each. To shepherd such a large number of students through the research process so that they could eventually write compelling papers, I initially tried using group presentations My hope was that presentations would challenge students to be creative (an explicit grading criteria), improve their ability to speak in front of a group, strengthen their ability to summarize important aspects of their work, and allow students with diverse strengths and weaknesses to step up.

What I got, however, were painful classes of undergraduates awkwardly reading their Power Point slides, mismanaging their time, and complaining noisily about the entire experience – both as participants and as witnesses of their classmates’ efforts.

Enter the research conference, an alternative suggested by a friend in psychology. In addition to writing research papers, groups create posters that are presented at a conference session.

Two class periods are designated for our research conference, and half the class sets up on each day. When possible, I also ask two or three graduate students to join me to interview the students about their work. Students who are not presenting are expected to rank and comment on the day’s posters. The ranking criteria, each on a 1-10 scale, are clarity, creativity, research quality, and group participation. The highest-ranking poster for each session generates extra credit for its designers. Only students who submit rankings for the other students are eligible to earn these points.

I had no idea what to expect for the first iteration of the research conference. The quality and style of the posters varied greatly, but not the enthusiasm with which the students spoke about their research. I was amazed by how excited they were about what they’d learned.

Since then, both poster and paper quality have improved. Designing the posters forces students to boil their work down to its essence, which translates into better organization and flow in their papers. On my end, I’ve learned how to provide clearer directions for and better examples of poster design. While poster printing imposes a cost on students, our library provides this service for a nominal fee. Students also have used local copy shops.

For me, the biggest benefit is being able to hear students talk about their work and learn from them about the development of their topics, how they collaborated, and what sparked the interests of individual students. When I face that stack of research papers at the end of the semester, I don’t dread it nearly as much as I used to because I’ve seen and heard their authors’ sales pitches at the research conference.

Identifying a Generational Zeitgeist?

Sometimes you discover something completely unexpected about how people perceive the world.

Back in February, students in my globalization course read the items below and wrote a response to “Is global trade a zero sum game — a process that causes some people to get poorer while others get richer? Why?”

  • Daron Acemoglu, “Economic Inequality and Globalization,” Brown Journal of World Affairs 13, 1 (Fall/Winter 2006).
  • Joseph Stiglitz, “The Globalization of Our Discontent,” Project Syndicate, 5 December 2017.
  • Branko Milanovic, “Why the Global 1% and the Asian Middle Class Have Gained the Most from Globalization,” Harvard Business Review Digital Articles, 13 May 2016.

Nearly the entire class wrote that global trade is a zero sum game. In class, students advocated for trade barriers.

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Information Literacy as Research Methods IV


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As I mentioned in my first post in this series, my interdisciplinary methods course includes a research proposal assignment consisting of:

  • An introduction containing a research question, hypothesis, rationale, and context.
  • A one-paragraph abstract.
  • Two-page discussion of the design of the proposed research project, the types of data that will be collected, how the data will be analyzed, and how this process will test the hypothesis and provide an answer to the research question.
  • A bibliography of references.

The proposal is intended to prepare students for an actual research project that they will design, conduct, and report on before graduating. I’ve created three smaller practice assignments that scaffold different aspects of the final proposal. The first uses research on Bolivia; here are the instructions:

  1. Read the rubric.
  2. Read either a chapter from Jim Schultz and Melissa Crane Draper, eds, Dignity and Defiance: Stories from Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization, UC Press, 2008, or Isabel M. Scarborough, “Two Generations of Bolivian Female Vendors,” Ethnology 49, 2 (Spring 2010): 87-104.
  3. Read:
    Writing a Good Research Question
    What Makes a Good Research Question
    Constructing Hypotheses in Quantitative Research
    Forming a Good Hypothesis for Scientific Research
    Annotated Bibliography Guidelines

Write and submit the following as a single document:

  • A research question about the local effect of globalization in Bolivia.
  • A hypothesis derived from your research question.
  • A one-paragraph annotated bibliography entry for the item you read about Bolivia. Include the source’s complete bibliographic information.
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Information Literacy as Research Methods III


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An important component of both statistical and information literacy is the ability to recognize the difference between correlation and causation. Teaching this skill is made even more difficult by cognitive biases that lead to errors in probabilistic thinking.* So I decided to hit my students over the head with Chapter 4 from Charles Wheelan’s Naked Statistics and, from Tyler Vigen’s Spurious Correlations website, an image of the 99.26% correlation between the divorce rate in Maine and margarine consumption.

The assignment asked students to submit a written response to this question:

Why are these two variables so highly correlated? Does divorce cause margarine consumption or does margarine consumption cause divorce? Why?

All the students who completed the assignment answered the question correctly: neither one causes the other. In class, students identified several possible intervening variables, including:

  • People eat margarine and margarine-laced products as an emotional comfort food when relationships end.
  • Divorce leads to a greater number of households, with each household purchasing its own tub of margarine.

Students’ ideas led in turn to a discussion of how to appropriately measure these variables and construct new hypotheses.

*An excellent overview of this topic is Jack A. Hope and Ivan W. Kelly, “Common Difficulties with Probabilistic Reasoning,” The Mathematics Teacher 76, 8 (November 1983): 565-570.

Links to all posts in this series about information literacy:

Information Literacy as Research Methods II


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Another post about the methods course that I’m now teaching. Chapter 3 of Naked Statistics is about deceptive description. So here is the accompanying assignment . . .

Many high school seniors are interested in attending Southwest America State University for college. Before 2015, applicants to this university had to submit high school transcripts that include average GPA scores, SAT scores, and an essay. In 2015, the application process changed; applicants had to submit high school transcripts with average GPA scores and two essays, while submission of SAT scores became optional. In 2019, the university claimed that the academic quality of its students had increased since 2011 given this pattern in the average SAT score of each year’s incoming class:

  • 2011 – 990
  • 2012 – 1130
  • 2013 – 1090
  • 2014 – 1150
  • 2015 – 1160
  • 2016 – 1185
  • 2017 – 1170
  • 2018 – 1190

Is this claim deceptive? Why?

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Information Literacy as Research Methods I

Image by R M Media Ltd under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license
R M Media Ltd, CC BY-SA license

One of the joys of being department chair is creating a curriculum map for information literacy learning outcomes — as part of a five-year program review for a department that is only two years old. Since I’m teaching research methods, a requirement for students in all three of the department’s interdisciplinary majors, I decided to make information literacy a focus of the course. I designed several brief assignments based on chapters in Charles Wheelan’s Naked Statistics that pertain to evaluating information sources for authority, reliability, and relevance. These tasks in turn complement, in my mind at least, two larger assignments: Amanda’s Best Breakfast in Town project and writing a research proposal.

I thought I’d post some of those assignments here on the blog along with an assessment of how well students did on them. First topic on the list is hypothesis construction:

Given the availability of mobile phone coverage in Ghana, Nigeria, and Tanzania, how can we infer which country is the most violent? Why? (Generate a hypothesis about a relationship between mobile phone coverage and violence.)

Students did a good job thinking of possible causal relationships between mobile phone use and violence. Class discussion included ways to operationalize the concepts of violence, wealth, and happiness, which we did with some quick internet research. Students did not find an association between homicide rate and the amounts of mobile phone coverage in Ghana, Nigeria, and Tanzania, which then led to the topic of sample size. The assignment seemed to work as I had intended.

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Comparative Politics 2019, Part 1

In line with the first and third bullet points in my post last year about teaching comparative politics, I’ve tried to make the relationships between course learning objectives, readings, and writing assignments more transparent to students. I’ve done this in part by making writing prompts refer more explicitly to what I want students to learn. For example, here is last year’s assignment about Venezuela, which I placed in the section of the course about democracy:

Read:

  • Scott Mainwaring and Timothy R. Scully, “Latin America: Eight Lessons for Governance,” Journal of Democracy 19, 3 (July 2008): 113-127.
  • Uri Friedman, “How Populism Helped Wreck Venezuela,” The Atlantic, 4 Jun 2017.
  • Moisés Naím and Francisco Toro, “Venezuela Is Falling Apart,” The Atlantic, 12 May 2016.
  • Juan Cristobal Nagel, “Venezuela’s Constitutional Crisis,” Caracas Chronicles, 12 January 2016.
  • Meridith Kohut and Isayen Herrera, As Venezuela Collapses, Children Are Dying of Hunger,” The New York Times, 17 December 2017.

Of Mainwaring and Scully’s eight lessons, which is most relevant for Venezuela? Why?

Answering the above question requires reading the Journal of Democracy article, which is good. Yet the question also demands that students apply a general framework to a specific context that is totally unfamiliar to them. A few newspaper and magazine articles aren’t enough to give students a clear sense of what is happening in Venezuela’s political system. The end result is a badly-constructed rhetorical situation likely to generate answers that aren’t relevant to the learning objectives behind the assignment.

Here is the 2019 version of the assignment, which I have placed in the section of the course on political protest:

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