When Not Reading Is A Good Thing . . . And When It’s Bad

The light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter — this is the last full week of classes this semester. While doing some preliminary grade calculations, I noticed something odd.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I often structure my courses around reading responses. In my undergraduate courses this semester, my syllabi stated that 1) students had to submit a certain number of responses, but if any of these responses did not earn full marks, they could 2) submit additional responses to earn the maximum amount allowed for that portion of their final grade. For example, if reading responses accounted for thirty percent of the final grade, and fifteen responses were required, students could continue to submit responses after their fifteenth in the hopes of earning that full thirty percent. I said nothing in my syllabi about “the more you turn in over and above the required number, the more extra credit you can earn.”

Yet approximately a third of my students continued to submit reading responses after they had earned the maximum amount allowed — they were reading and writing even though doing so had no effect on their grade. It’s possible that some were doing this because they were so excited by the assignments, but I doubt it. Probably most, if not all, just misinterpreted the syllabus in a way that (at least in theory) benefited them in the long run.

I’ll offer up my darling and beautiful wife’s experience as a counter-example. She is also an academic, and her courses are also writing-centered. For one course, she built an extensive set of rubrics on the course’s website; a rubric was in plain view just below the directions for each assignment. Rubrics were also visible when students submitted assignments. Nothing to click on to open a pop-up window; the rubrics were right there, smack in the middle of the webpage.

In an end of the semester evaluation, she asked the class if they found the rubrics useful. According to what students wrote on the evaluation forms, not a single one of them had read the rubrics.

Pulling The Trigger On The Research Paper

You can add me to the list of those who have serious doubts about the utility of the traditional research paper. For the vast majority of undergraduates, writing a research paper does not involve retrieval practice, spaced repetition, interleaving, or other processes that have been shown to be beneficial for learning. We typically don’t test students on the factual content that their research papers contain (or are supposed to contain) after the paper has been completed. At best, the research paper is an indirect means of assessing domain knowledge. These are all reasons I have migrated away from the lengthy term paper to shorter but more frequent writing assignments that give them repeated opportunities to practice constructing evidence-based arguments and force them to read more.

We believe that twenty page term papers are the best way for students to learn how to conduct research, synthesize information, and develop complex ideas. I don’t think this hype is reflected by reality. Certainly employers don’t see very many recent college graduates who possess these talents, and those that do aren’t required to display them at work in twenty-page documents formatted according to MLA or APA standards.

Killing the Term Paper

Interesting post on the Chronicle today about whether or not research papers are worth assigning.

I think a lot of the points are well taken, including the essential question of why we assign term papers beyond the fact that they are a standard part of the undergraduate process.  Blank argues that the paper is now more a check for writing prowess rather than demonstrating acquired knowledge, and that the term paper is a poorly devised device for both; essentially, the assignment bears little relation to post-graduate writing, often receives minimal feedback on the writing itself, and if the student did the work themselves and did not simply buy or ‘borrow’ the paper from somewhere, they probably did so at the last minute rather than carefully crafting the process.

Now there are ways to get around some of these issues: Turn it In can handle some plagiarism concerns, while scaffolding practices allow for time management and multiple opportunities for feedback.  But what I like about this piece is how it forces us to confront our objectives for assigning a research paper in the first place, and to question whether this type of assignment is the best approach to meeting the objective.  Why not have students write reading summaries as Blank argues, or policy memos or information literacy exercises?

Sigh.  Now I need to seriously rethink my syllabus for Environmental and Energy Security in the spring…



When I was a doctoral student, I once spent several weeks teaching Asian history to teenagers at Barrack Obama’s former high school. I vowed never again to put myself in the position of having to prep for class at 1:00 a.m. five nights a week. This is why I’m already tinkering with syllabi for the courses I’ll be teaching in the spring.

In comparative politics, I’m going to repeat my experiment with modular architecture, but I’ve removed the globalization theme — the topic has morphed into an entirely separate course, and conveniently I’ll be able to some of the material I put together last year.

I’m also going to continue using rocket pitch competitions, but with individual rather than group presentations. I’ve noticed that teams of students haven’t figured out how to productively generate a presentation — they tend to share tasks equally across all members of the team, rather than delegate and let people utilize their strengths. The end result is four students standing in the front of the room alternately talking (this is despite my use of Shark Tank as an example of what not to do).

Based on my colleague’s recommendation, part of the final grade will be based on the student’s quality of failure. Here is the syllabus language I’m using, based on what was published in the original Inside Higher Ed column:

This course requires realizing that progress requires curiosity, risk-taking, and failure. Making a mistake leads to the question “Why was that wrong?” and by answering this question, we are better able to develop new insights and eventually succeed. You’ll need to fail regularly to do well in this course because part of your final grade is based on your “quality of failure.” At the end of the semester, you’ll need to write a 2-3 page double-spaced essay analyzing your failures, why they occurred, and what you have learned from them. Your essay must conclude with an assessment of the learning you have gained through your mistakes in the course (a grade that ranges from 0 – meaning “I never failed” or “I learned nothing from failing” to 10 – meaning “I learned in new and creative ways from my failures”).

Active Learning in an Eight-Week Class

I thought it might be useful to document the types and numbers of active learning exercises I use in a typical class. Active learning can become so ingrained that it becomes an essential component of lesson planning, and that has certainly become true for me.  When running short on time, I am now more likely to cut from the lecture than I am from a planned activity. I’m not sure if what I list below is the right balance, too much or too little, but it may be useful to see what one of us on ALPS considers ‘normal’.

This class, my intro to American Politics course, just finished this week.  It met eight times on Tuesday nights from 530-930pm.  Every week they engage in a semi-Socratic conversation with me about the material during lecture;they have extensive discussions about relevant issues; they complete interactive textbook assignments as homework; and a group does presentations and leads discussion on current issues in US politics (this term, based on issues in the presidential election).  None of these are included below but they are an integral part of the course.

I tried to link to everything I could–if there is no link or other credit given, its safe to assume that the assignment is one I created.

Week 1, Political Culture and Citizenship

  • Administered the US Citizenship test disguised as an ‘ungraded pre-test’
  • “Politics as Pie” exercise where they have to divide up a hypothetical pie amongst themselves and discuss their rationale for who gets what, when, and how.
  • Assign them to discover their political ideology through an online quiz.
  • Groupwork to develop the crucial characteristics of a democratic system.

Week 2, Historical Foundations and Federalism

  • “Designing a Political System” exercise from Mertens et al Instructional Manual for Ginsberg, Lowi and Weir’s We the People.
  • Watch “The Storm” from Frontline and discuss the role of government in disaster management.
  • Grant Game (students choose from two different types of school grants to discuss the difference between categorical and block grants).

Week 3, Civil Liberties and Civil Rights

  • Exercise on Missouri’s ‘Amendment 2’ on religious expression, designed by my colleague.  It is a series of articles from supporters and opponents of the amendment and an assignment that asks students to analyze their arguments and then act as a judge in a simulation of a potential court case on Amendment 2.
  • Life in the 1950s v. today discussion.
  • Students take a literacy test from the Jim Crow era.
  • Primary document comparison of Declaration of Independence and Declaration of Sentiments.
  • Midterm evaluation where I ask them to write down what about the course and instruction (including texts and activities) is helping them to learn and what is inhibiting their learning.  I give them feedback the following week and adjust the course in at least one way to accommodate their ideas.

Week 4, Congress and Presidency

  • Play the Redistricting Game (they play at home and then we play again in class together).
  • Exercise on Best and Worst Presidents and the criteria we use for judging ex-ante and ex-post.
  • Extended exercise on presidential succession laws.
  • NY Times exercise on fixing the deficit.

Week 5, Bureaucracy and Judiciary

  • Podcast on Bureaucracy with powerpoint slide that they must fill in as they go.
  • Hobbes game to illustrate life without law.
  • One year i had a guest speaker, a man who had been wrongfully accused of murder and imprisoned for 22 years before being exonerated.

Week 6, Public Opinion and Campaigns & Elections

  • Electoral College exercise that has them work through the reasoning of the number of EC votes needed and what happens if there is no majority.
  • Another EC exercise that gives them vote totals and has them explain which candidate wins based on different voting methods (popular vote, electoral college, proportional electoral college, EC with no majority winner).
  • Arrow’s Theorum exercise from Van Belle and Nash’s Novel Approach to Politics
  • Polling exercise where they each get a question (some standard, most of them flawed in some fundamental way), and they have to poll either each other or the university community.  We use this to start a discussion on issues with polling, and we then look at examples of good and bad polls used in US politics.

Week 7, Interest Groups and Parties

  • We do a WW Norton simulation on interest groups together in class that illustrates the various techniques groups use to influence Congress.
  • We play a Two Party System game (from Grant’s Playing Politics)that illustrates why the US has a two party system.

Week 8, the Media

  • Lots of video-based discussion this week, usually using SNL and clips from Fox News and MSNBC.  I also show them the season 6, episode 5 episode of the Simpsons. “Sideshow Bob Roberts‘ to illustrate things like agenda setting, framing, priming, and the minimal effects hypothesis as well as campaigns and electoral fraud.
  • Analysis of different organizations covering the same event to illustrate framing.
  • Post test repeating from the first week to see how their answers changed.

Online Sources in Papers: Why Allow them?

Is there any good reason to allow our students to use online sources in their papers?  I’m not talking about the online depositories for news articles, or using databases to find books, journals, and articles online, but the kinds of sites that come up in a google search on a given topic–the blogs, random pages of questionable value, and of course, wikipedia and other online encyclopedias.  I’m trying to come up with a good reason not to simply ban internet searches and randomly found websites in papers, and I’m failing.
The problem is that our students generally have pretty poor information literacy skills.  They don’t know how to find sources or how to evaluate them for quality, and even after teaching them these things, they often find it hard to break the habit of simply doing a google search when they need information.  And there are many sites out there that are far worse than wikipedia–http://www.martinlutherking.org/ is one of the most insidious.

Banning the use of google as a search-engine or general internet sites would force students to learn and use the proper mediums for finding information.  This can be done by creating a subject page via the college library that lists appropriate sources (such as polling websites, archives, government web pages, etc) and links to databases, or by creating an individual one and handing it out to students.  In my experience, they are often very grateful to have a list of sites to work with.  You can take this further and ban all internet sites, forcing students to use physical copies of books and journals, if you like.  The goal is the same: jar students out of the habit of using Google as a shortcut for real research.

None of my classes have projects this semester that involve research papers, so I won’t have a chance to try this out in the fall.  I will in the spring though, for my environmental and energy security class.  I’m not sure of the best way to conduct the ‘ban’ though: fail any papers with non-approved sources?  fail, but give students the chance to earn full credit if they rewrite it using appropriate sources? Or just give a large penalty, like a full letter grade reduction?

Regardless, i think it is appropriate to give students an assignment early on that helps them understand why some sources are more legitimate than others, and to help them build their information literacy skills.  This must occur prior to the assignment where poor sources are banned, else the penalty will seem rather arbitrary and not an assessment of a skill learned earlier.

The Premortem

I regularly teach courses on economic development and complex humanitarian emergencies, and I often employ a case study approach. When students examine past events, it is easy for them — and for me — to fall victim to hindsight bias. We assume that the prospects for failure should have been just as evident in the past when decisions were made as they are to us when we are evaluating those decisions in the present.

Even if teachers take hindsight bias into account when explaining to students why incorrect answers are incorrect, we often see students making the same mistakes over and over again.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman credits fellow psychologist Gary Klein with the idea for engaging in a premortem when making decisions. The premortem is a critique that is crowd-sourced on a very small scale. It can also be described as a quick and dirty outside review. Here’s how it works:

  • A person presents a proposed decision to a group of people who are knowledgeable about the subject matter.
  • The group is told “Imagine that we are a year into the future. We implemented the plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Please take 5 to 10 minutes to write a brief history of that disaster” (Kahneman, p. 264).

I can see this technique being applied to all sorts of assignments, especially proposals for thesis research or project design. Although many undergraduates don’t have field research or public policy experience, a classroom of students should be able to think of and write about a few ways that the best laid plans can go awry. Including experienced students as a panel of experts during the ensuing discussion  — for example, students who have already conducted thesis research while studying abroad  — might make the process work even better.


The importance of information literacy can be difficult for undergraduates to grasp. For most of them, all information is created equal and it comes from Google. Now Google is helping to educate students out of these habits. The website includes sample lesson plans and videos for instructors who want to integrate information  literacy training into face-to-face or online courses.

Instructors can also use A Google A Day to test students search skills — it’s fast, fun, but not necessarily easy.

Best Teaching Practices

Happy Easter holiday to all. The Easter Bunny in the form of our provost recently informed faculty about an an online guide to best teaching practices, published by the Office of Academic Affairs at the City University of New York. The document is also available as a PDF download at the same webpage.

The guide consists of recommendations broken down into three categories: presentation of materials, student assignment and testing, and strategies that students can use to enhance learning. Clicking on any single recommendation brings up a corresponding description of practices and relevant references. It’s all very user-friendly, concise, and practical.