More Reasons to Go Back to Basics?

Per my philosophy of never letting a good crisis go to waste, I’ve already started thinking about what has and hasn’t worked in this unusual semester.

In my globalization course, students seem to have sufficiently mastered the tools needed to create storymaps. To my surprise, nearly all of them learned how to use the software during two in-class lessons led by our digital scholarship librarian.

Yet with the semester almost over many still don’t seem to understand that U.S. News and Forbes are not peer-reviewed academic journals. If I teach this course again — it’s rotating to a colleague next year — I should probably include assignments at the beginning of the semester in which students are explicitly graded on their ability to locate appropriate sources. Currently this information literacy skill is only assessed through the rubric attached to the three storymap assignments.

In my comparative politics course, I will soon try to run my Gerkhania simulation online for the first time. To make things even more interesting, the class is down to eight students and the simulation is heavily modified from previous versions. I’ll report what happens in a few weeks.

When I moved this course online a month ago, I converted a classroom exercise in analyzing journal articles into several graded assignments. In this type of assignment, students have to answer these questions:

  1. Article’s subject—what is the question, puzzle, or problem examined?
  2. What and where is the thesis?
  3. What is the theoretical perspective (rational actor, culture, structure)? How do you know this?
  4. What are the independent variables (causes) examined?
  5. What is the dependent variable (effect) examined?
  6. What is the conclusion of the author(s)?

My reason for doing this, other than filling up the remainder of an extended semester? It had become clear before the campus closed that students were often skipping over assigned journal articles and reading only the accompanying news stories that illustrated the articles’ theoretical arguments.

Some students are still unable to correctly identify an author’s thesis or conclusions — despite the classroom exercises during the first half of the semester. So in the future, students are going to get more instruction and more (graded) practice in how to read academic literature.

Monday Morning Advice

A few items from elsewhere that might be of help for instructors who are new to teaching online:

First, here are five reasons not to use timed exams. In my opinion thse arguments apply whether one is teaching online or face-to-face.

Second, here are some very practical, easy-to-implement techniques for becoming a better writer — suitable for both professors and students.

Last, methods of identifying whether your employer’s financial viability has suddenly gotten much worse — editorials that I wrote in 2017 and 2019.

Back to Basics

Probably most of the readers of this blog are now or will soon be teaching online, after the suspension of face-to-face classes on campus. For many, the change has been a frenzy of altering syllabi, searching for digital content, and learning how to use new tools. For me, it’s been the opposite — a welcome respite from routine distractions, and an opportunity to experiment.

I will admit that years of online teaching at the graduate level made moving my undergraduate courses online a straightforward process. And as one of my dear colleagues said about my habit of planning for potential worst case scenarios, “you’ve been waiting for this moment your entire life.” But I do see too many people frantically adopting technologies with which they are totally unfamiliar, because of the assumption that they have to replicate what they do in the physical classroom. And so they plan on live streaming video of themselves lecturing in fifty or seventy-five minute increments, which usually isn’t nearly as effective in meatspace as they think it is, and will certainly work even less well online.

To echo what Amanda and Simon have said — simply scroll back a bit to their most recent posts — job one is to figure out what students need to learn, and what will give them the best chance of learning it, given existing constraints. It’s not staying front and center to confirm for yourself how important you are.

That leads me to the larger, more ominous questions that Simon raises and their long-term implications for higher education. Is this a crisis, or an opportunity? Will the immediate responses to Covid-19 lead to permanent transformation, and if so, how can we best get from the former to the latter? As an anonymous author recently wrote on a discussion board for academics:

“After completing my first week in this new reality, I’ve realized that I’ve spent the majority of my time on actual teaching. All those other things like superfluous meetings, public events, admin-busy-body activities created only to justify someone’s frivolous job, extracurricular things that I get guilted into, etc. were all canceled because their delivery was face-to-face. And, you know what, it’s starting to become obvious that all that stuff was unnecessary in the first place.”

Syllabus Boilerplate for Online Teaching

You are welcome to copy and paste any of this text into your new syllabi. Documenting these types of policies at the beginning will save you time and trouble later on.

Time Commitment

Although this course does not require your physical presence on campus, it still requires that you commit the same amount of time as you would to an on-campus course. Per federal requirements, a 3-credit course equates to, on average, a minimum of 3 hours per week engaging with course instruction and an additional 6 hours per week completing assigned work outside of class. You will need to devote the same time and effort to an online course that you would to a course that meets in a physical classroom. 

Self-Directed Learning

This course may require independently engaging with information in text, video, or audio format; contributing to online discussion; completing writing assignments; and/or conducting research. While there might not be mandatory simultaneous interaction with the instructor or other students, regular and substantial participation in the course is required.  

Communication Plan

Contact me with questions about the course using your university email account or [LMS] communication tool (a [LMS] mail message, comment in a designated course discussion). I check my university email and the [LMS] course website daily during normal business hours and you can expect a response to your question within 24 hours, except on weekends or official holidays. 

Confidentiality

Students might connect concepts being studied in the course with personal experience. Confidentiality is necessary for a welcoming and effective learning environment. Students should not repeat, forward, or otherwise communicate information about other students to individuals not enrolled in the course, nor should they allow others access to the course. Violation of this policy can result in removal from the course. Do not reveal personal information that you do not want made public or that might place yourself or others in legal jeopardy.  

Civility 

The university is committed to maintaining a respectful learning environment in which students can express a variety of ideas and opinions. Uncivil, obscene, or disrespectful communication negatively affects the learning of other students and is not allowed. Disruptive behavior can result in removal from the course. 

Technology

This course might require the use of hardware and software that meets certain university-established compatibility standards; the ability to access, securely store, and export files in specified formats; the use of integrated video, anti-plagiarism, or other applications; or the access of externally-hosted course materials. Contact the university’s [insert name of IT support office and contact info] if you experience difficulties with any of the above. The instructor is not able to diagnose technical problems.

Tips for Moving Instruction Online

Still this?

Higher Ed is in crisis mode in much of the USA, with faculty at a growing list of universities being told that on-campus instruction is suspended until further notice. If you work at one of these institutions, here’s some advice:

First, a great analysis by Rebecca Barrett, assistant professor of sociology at Arkansas State University:

Please Do a Bad Job of Putting Your Courses Online.

Some mundane advice from me:

Design according to student learning outcomes

  • What activities will help students learn what you want them to learn? There are multiple options that serve the same goal, and some function well in an online environment.

Students benefit from consistent difference

  • Organize the course as a series of similarly-structured modules that include varied tasks; for example, readings + writing assignment + graded discussion + quiz in each module. Spaced repetition of activities with different cognitive demands aids learning. Students appreciate a routine — it helps them develop a schedule in a new environment.
  • If your students are (or were) full-time residential undergraduates without families, set deadlines for 10:00 pm so they aren’t awake past midnight.

Use a variety of content delivery methods

  • Convert lecture notes to brief essays or outlines. Create visual presentations with PowerPoint or Prezi. Assign e-book chapters or journal articles in the library’s databases.
  • Producing high-quality video is very labor intensive and nearly impossible to create on short notice without professional expertise. Audio must be captioned for the hearing-impaired. Instead use existing resources like Crash Course.

Include opportunities for student-student interaction; e.g., discussions

  • Require that students post substantial discussion comments by the halfway point in each week/module, and that they meaningfully respond to the comments of others.
  • Interact with students by regularly posting your own comments in discussions.
  • Grading discussions in Canvas is easy with a rubric and Speedgrader.

Testing

  • Your university’s learning management system (LMS) will grade multiple-choice and true/false tests for you.
  • Create a question bank first, then draw questions for a test from it. This will save time and effort in the long run.
  • Timed tests where students have on average only 1-2 minutes per question will minimize cheating. Some universities have purchased tools that are integrated with the LMS that lock down browsers (to prevent new windows from being opened) and monitor students activity during tests.

Writing assignments

Short, frequent writing assignments (1-2 pages per module) are better than only one or two longer assignments. Frequent practice and feedback = better student work.

Time spent grading can be greatly minimized with rubrics.

Specify file types (doc, docx, pdf) to ensure that you can read what students submit.

Build support networks

Your colleagues down the hall and across campus are valuable resources. Benefit from them. Someone probably knows a solution to the problem you’re struggling with, whether it be a technological obstacle or carving out work time at home when your child’s elementary school has closed.

These actions also improve your teaching in on-campus courses by making it easier for students to learn and by reducing the time and effort you expend on unsatisfying tasks.

Simulating for Instructional Continuity

My university is feverishly* trying to prepare for the disruptive effects of Covid-19. The main concern is a campus shutdown while the semester is still underway. I have created a table-top exercise on instructional continuity that I’ll be using for a hastily-scheduled faculty training workshop on Wednesday afternoon. The willingness of our library staff to host this event on such extremely short notice is greatly appreciated.

Don’t be this

My plan is for small groups of faculty members to sit at different tables with copies of the disruption worksheet linked above available for everyone. I’ll bring dice so that people at each table can generate random numbers. Faculty will discuss their answers to the questions with their table-mates and then I’ll convene the entire room for a short debriefing. There should be time for me to do some quick and dirty teaching on using a few basic Canvas LMS features to increase instructional resilience.

Feel free to use this simulation exercise for disaster preparedness efforts on your own campus.

*Yes, that’s an attempt at wordplay.

When Students Ignore Feedback

While I don’t comment on student writing nearly as much as some professors do, I expect students to at least read what I do write. A colleague recently pointed out that our Canvas LMS displays a date stamp at the top right of the Speedgrader web page when a student has viewed a previously-submitted assignment after an instructor has commented on it. I had never noticed this before, I guess because the date stamp’s font is rather small. Here it is, indicated by the red arrow:

This feature became very useful in a course in which students are required to write a series of memos that all have the same format. Last week, a student taking the course sent me this email:

I’m not sure what is expected from the assignments, my memo 3 was completely different from 2 yet your comment says see comments about memo 2. I am a second semester senior doing grad classes that had a 3.6 gpa last semester. Somehow I’m failing every single assignment in a freshman level class, while still attending every single class except one and participating in class basically every session. 

I looked at the student’s submissions for memos 1, 2, and 3 — no date stamp. My comments had been ignored. My reply to the student’s email:

The memo is a standard method of efficiently communicating information that is used in a wide variety of professional environments. I’m surprised you haven’t yet had much of an opportunity to practice this form of writing, so here is what I am willing to do: you can earn up to 10 points by emailing me by noon on Friday a memo that discusses how well you incorporated my feedback on your Memo 1, provided by my comments on your work on Canvas, into your Memo 2, and the same for Memo 3 in respect to my comments on your Memo 2.

Completion of my “extra credit opportunity” would have required the student to admit that he had not read my comments and thus ignored the feedback I had provided.

The student did not respond.

Technical Difficulties

Please stand by

Regular readers of ALPS might notice error messages at the top of webpages and other glitches. Our web hosting service migrated to a newer version of PHP that is apparently incompatible with certain aspects of WordPress. We are trying to get this sorted out and meanwhile minimize any disruptions to the blog.

Design Fail or Attention Fail?

I recently graded a writing assignment for one of my courses and I’m wondering if it’s an example of “You can lead students to the education but you can’t make them learn.”

The instructions for the assignment:

You have been given the task of submitting a memo to the National Security Council  that answers the following question:

  • Will Nigeria remain a single state or divide into separate states?

Download the memo template; use it to format your work. Turn the question above into a declarative sentence and use it as the memo’s executive summary.  Write two subsections that support your argument using evidence taken from course readings. Each subsection should be a single paragraph. Reference sources with in-text parenthetical citations. 

The information above was repeated by the memo template itself and by the rubric attached to the assignment. From my perspective, the assignment is totally straightforward and the assessment criteria are completely transparent. Yet . . .

Several students wrote memos on the question of “Should?” rather than the actual question of “Will?

Many students also failed the “Turn the question above into a declarative sentence . . .” part. A few representative examples of what they submitted as an executive summary:

  • “In the current course, Nigeria will see a deterioration in multiple states because of the lack of agreement over these issues and the failure of the government to uphold a true democracy. Nigeria is a fledgling state on the verge of an inner collapse due to current trends.”
  • “The United States should help Nigeria dissolve into multiple sovereign states, by mediating the separation process. Nigeria is currently facing a slew of ethnic and social conflicts the country is made up of 36 states which legally sew divisions between regional outsiders and regional natives, this has sparked ethnic and religious conflicts.”
  • “The best path forward for Nigeria is to remain a single state. Splitting the nation up now would only be detrimental to Nigeria’s ability to control its sphere of influence across the African continent. Splitting Nigeria into multiple states would challenge the work that has gone on for years to make it politically equitable and would not account for the vast cultural differences of the nation.”

And so on.

I’m wondering how I should interpret what happened. Is this simply a case of failing to follow directions? If not, I don’t know how I can make things more obvious.

Advice From Journal Editors

This post is based on an APSA TLC 2020 presentation by the editorial teams of the Journal of Political Science Education and European Political Science. Any errors are my own.

Prior to submitting a manuscript, authors should check whether its subject matter and length corresponds to the aims and scope of the journal. JPSE will publish material that fits into any one of four clearly-defined categories: SoTL, political science instruction, reflections on teaching and the academy, and reviews of educational resources. EPS has a similar list of the types of articles it publishes. A manuscript on a topic that falls outside of a specified category of interest will likely be rejected before it is sent out for review.

From my own experience, skimming through the contents of a journal’s recent issues can be very helpful in determining whether that journal is an appropriate choice for a manuscript submission.

Similarly, volunteering to act as an anonymous reviewer for JPSE or EPS gives one some insight into what others are submitting and what in the end appears in print. Both journals need more potential reviewers to accelerate the review process. Please contact their editorial boards to volunteer.

Journals often receive many submissions about certain topics but few to no submissions about others, making it difficult for editors to publish diverse content. For JPSE, these topics include civic engagement and intersectionality. The editors encouraged people to submit manuscripts that present innovative approaches to these subjects.