My last post discussed writing as a professional endeavor. Today: writing as a device for learning; i.e., why and how we as teachers assign writing to students.
Generally we present our students with some form of expository writing task. Perhaps we call it thesis-driven, discipline-oriented, argumentative, or research-based. Regardless of the label, there is an assumption of students locating relevant primary data by means of different methods that they understand how to use, evaluating the data in an appropriate manner while being aware of their own assumptions, reaching some conclusion, and effectively communicating all of this to an audience.
That’s the ideal. The reality? Students often don’t know how to find primary data, or which methods are best suited for analyzing it. They may not even know what methods are. They assume there is either one right answer, or that all possible answers are equal, because they don’t understand that some answers can be more strongly supported by data than others while even better answers await discovery in the future.
And so we default to assignments that direct students to preferred secondary or tertiary sources (a “text”), tell them to organize their explanations as competitions between two artificial, diametrically-opposed positions, or, sometimes, encourage them to dredge up arguments that arrive at positions they already favor. Students learn to hang evidence on a predetermined conclusion rather than derive a conclusion from the evidence.
This type of deductive exercise has been used by teachers since the age of the agora to build students’ rhetorical skills. Today, unfortunately, it can produce people with a facile ability to argue any position at any time without veering from a worldview that they hold to be sacrosanct.
So what’s the solution? I don’t really have one. Too few of the students I encounter are willing or able to draw reasonable conclusions from evidence they have independently located, so writing exercises that involve inductive reasoning get chucked out the window. It’s frustrating.
I’ve always considered myself an approachable teacher; someone students can come to with questions or worries or just for a talk. And from what I hear, I am considered to be approachable.
Still, I am noticing something that worries me. I have been having open office for about 9 years now, but fewer students have been showing up. Weeks go by when no one comes, even in periods when I am teaching and coordinating courses.
Turnout during open office hours again was low during the first weeks of this year, when I coordinated and taught a first-year course on academic research and writing. At the end, students write a short paper. These are randomly distributed among teaching staff, myself plus 10 other colleagues – together we teach 25 problem-based learning groups of about 12 students. As soon as results are out, all students, whether they have failed or passed, are invited to meet with the person who marked their paper to discuss the assessment during scheduled open office hours.
This year I asked colleagues to inform me about the number of students that had shown up. The table below shows the data for those who failed the course. Interestingly one colleague had to do her open office hours via Skype; no less than 7 out of 9 students showed up. Yet, there is some research that suggests that using technology does not make a huge difference.
Number of failed students
Number of failed students attending open office hours
Why did so few students show up?
I decided to ask some simple questions to the students themselves during a session in our mentor programme. The approximately 100 students who attended (out of nearly 300) might not be representative of the group of students that does not turn up in my office. But I still learned something interesting.
Of the 86 students completing questions via an online survey tool, 36 had failed the course and 29 had attended the open office hours. Those who attended, generally did so to get clarification regarding their paper’s assessment.
Of those who did not attend, some simply stated that they passed the course and saw no need to discuss the feedback. Others referred to having been sick, stressed and/or busy with the new courses – when asked, quite a few of these students did not write to staff to ask for another appointment.
Asked why they thought others had not come, some answered that these must be lazy students or that they missed motivation because they knew what they had done wrong.
But quite a few answers touched upon something that we might all too easily overlook, namely students’ expectations regarding feedback opportunities. These answers did not just concern not knowing what to do with feedback. For instance, one student wrote that students who did not show up might be “insecure and/or uncomfortable with getting feedback”. Another student wrote that “you have limited time with the tutors and tutors often have a lot of work and not much time for you”.
This is something that I want to explore in more detail. I have already briefly discussed this with our academic writing advisor, and we may want to see whether we can specifically address this issue in a forthcoming curriculum review.
But what about solutions for the here and now? There are many ways in which open office are organised, but what works best?
One colleague suggested changing times. Admittedly, my open office hours are Wednesdays from 08:30-09:30, but this never was a problem – and the feedback open office hours during the aforementioned course were scheduled in the afternoon. Elsewhere in cyberspace people have been suggesting other solutions, including a rethink of faculty office space. I’d love to squeeze in a couch, but my office is rather tiny.
On Twitter someone suggested that the wording ‘open office hours’ is unclear to students and that ‘student drop-in hours’ may make more sense. So, the name plate next to my door now mentions my student drop-in hours and so does the syllabus of an upcoming course.
Let’s see what happens. I hope students will come and talk to me again. The door’s open, simply turn up at the stated time!
we have a guest post about teaching the research process by Anne Baker,
assistant professor of political science at Santa Clara University. She can be
reached at aebaker [at] scu [dot] edu.
Getting students to use academic
articles for research papers can be a challenge. In my experience, many students,
even those in upper-level courses, are not familiar with search engines such as
JSTOR, Lexus Nexus, or Political Science Complete. And if students do happen to
use Google Scholar, they frequently rely on excerpts from sources instead of
entire articles that they might not have access to. So, what can be done to replace
these habits with better practices?
In my advanced writing course
on the presidency, I have developed a class activity which provides students
with skills they will need if they are going to successfully locate and utilize
academic references for their research papers. First, I want them to be able to
use the library’s website to access search engines. Second, I want them to
understand that research is an iterative process. Sometimes you don’t find what
you need for a variety of reasons and you should be able to determine what
those reasons are—whether its human error, the need for a wider search net, or that
no one has written on the topic (this last possibility always surprises the
Google generation). Third, students need to become acquainted with the
literature on the presidency, including the subfield’s primary journal, by discovering
how research practices in political science have changed overtime, even in a
subfield which remains largely qualitative.
I have students work in pairs
and I provide them with two search terms related to the institution of the presidency (e.g. signing statements, executive orders, oath of office).
I pick the search terms carefully knowing that some topics have no
scholarship and represent dead ends and others have later but not earlier
scholarship or vice versa. The first step of the activity provides instructions
about how to first locate JSTOR on the library’s website and then how to access
Presidential Studies Quarterly using JSTOR’s
advanced search options. Helpfully, for the purposes of this activity, JSTOR
only has copies of the journal until 2000. To access later copies, students
have to use the Wiley database, which students have to figure out how to find.
For each search term, I have students locate one article published in the last few years and then another for 1995-2000—a total of four articles. Next, students identify the research question and method the authors used, noting whether it is qualitative or quantitative, the sources of data regardless of method, the type of analysis (e.g. text, interviews, statistical), and the date of publication. After they have their four articles and perform this analysis, I ask them to compare the results of both searches. Finally, we have a class discussion in which we explore road blocks and challenges encountered and review how the field has changed over time.
I have found that this activity makes students more likely to cite academic articles in their final research papers and use them more effectively to support their arguments. Students also exhibit a much better understanding of the subfield and are more likely to use the other search engines that they encountered while on the library’s website. And they learn that research takes time and requires shifting your strategies to find the information you need.
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:
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
Read the rubric.
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.
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: