Crowd-Sourced Studying

Similar to Simon’s experience with the MCQ exam, students typically formed groups and divided the questions among members when doing my take-out quizzes and the connections exercise last semester, but they failed to verify that each other’s answers were correct. This semester, students in my comparative politics course are forming study groups on their own time but blindly accepting their peers’ output, because I can see the same incorrect answers propagating across the exams of multiple students.

To me this is extremely inefficient, especially considering the extrinsic grade-based motivation of most of my students, and I wonder why it happens.  Are students using a rational choice model in which the cost of verifying that an answer is correct is higher than the chance that the answer they’ve been given is wrong? Would reducing the exam to a single question, where students would either score 100 or 0, alter their behavior?

I’m reminded of what I just read in Revolution 2.0, by Wael Ghonim. A Facebook page that he created was instrumental in launching the Egyptian revolution. As part of his strategy to build a sense of community among readers and get them to participate in events, he frequently conducted online polls. Perhaps getting students to survey themselves — across the entire class rather than just within a study circle — would enable them to detect erroneous answers.

I’m also reminded that the organizational behavior of many universities is often not a good model for the kind of collaboration we want to promote among students. It can be very difficult to get faculty, staff, and administrators to communicate across institutional units and exchange information.

More Thoughts On Presentations

If students are presenting on a text, I require them to at minimum identify:

– the topic of the text.

– the thesis of the text, and locate where in the text it is stated by the text’s author.

– how the author uses sources, not simply in the manner of copy and paste, but as part of a dialogue with others.

Students usually meet the first two requirements fairly easily, but occasionally stumble on the third. I advise students to try to answer the question “What message is the author trying to get across about her or his work in relations to that of others?”

If the historical or academic setting of a text is unfamiliar to students (and most are), I ask them to include some type of dramatis personae in their presentations. I want them to elaborate on how the people or ideas discussed in the text connect to each other and to specific places and/or times that may be implicitly or explicitly referenced within it.

Presentations in the Inverted Classroom

Interesting that the subject of student presentations has come up. Despite providing students with detailed instructions, exemplars, and advice, presentations were usually so excruciating that I simply stopped making them part of my courses.

This semester I’ve reintroduced them in my comparative politics course, which, accidentally-by-design, became an inverted classroom. I’m assuming many readers of this blog have heard of inverted classrooms — substituting activities in which student critique their own reasoning and that of others for the traditional “me talk, you listen” lecture. My problem was figuring out activities that would consume enough class time. So I decided to turn the close reading of texts, which I had used before as an individual activity, into group presentations.

Here are the directions for the presentations, somewhat condensed:

You and your group will be examining texts in detail and presenting your findings to the rest of the class. These close reading exercises are opportunities to train yourself to be a more thoughtful and efficient reader and to improve your communication skills. For each presentation, at least two members of the group will need to:  

1. Select a paragraph from the reading assignment and analyze its structure as follows:

    1. Identify the paragraph’s topic statement
    2. Explain the topic statement
    3. Identify ideas/evidence used by the author to support the topic statement 

2. Make references to the following characteristics of the paragraph being analyzed:

    1. WHO is the author addressing? WHO does the author imply he or she is, and who readers are?
    2. In both literal (the physical and historical universe) and textual (the storyline) terms, WHERE and WHEN is the paragraph set? Is there a difference between the literal and textual settings? If so, what is the effect of this difference?
    3. WHY did the author construct the paragraph in the particular way that it is constructed?
    4. WHAT mathematical or logical patterns exist in the paragraph? WHAT are the meanings conveyed by these relationships?

Because the class has seven groups of four students each, and each group presents a total five times during the semester. I get to completely avoid lecturing on the days that presentations are scheduled. Instead there is a fairly rapid sequence of different people talking at the front of the room interspersed with Q & A discussions between presenters, the rest of  the class, and myself. Students get multiple, low-stakes opportunities to practice their presentation skills, and I get to avoid a week or two of torture at the end of the semester.  

I can email the complete directions for the above exercise to anyone who wants them.

Waffle Shopping and James Franco

Two minor personal takeaways from this year’s Simulations & Role Play II track at the APSA Teaching and Learning Conference:

The James Franco Effect:

When students fail to demonstrate as much learning as expected because the instructor is not James Franco.

Waffle Shopping:

Deliberately engaging in an activity or behavior in which the outcome is unpredictable and the risk of failure exists.

While the James Franco Effect is fairly self-explanatory, Waffle Shopping is not. As readers of this blog know, I believe being able to make connections between seemingly disparate pieces of knowledge is fundamental to learning. I personally find that I am most often able to make connections when I am cognitively prepared to encounter the unexpected. Since I started attending Teaching and Learning Conferences several years ago, I’ve made a point of sampling local restaurants that are often off the beaten track. This entails embracing a certain level of risk — any restaurant might be much worse than expected, and I might fail myself and others by choosing an obscure restaurant that is obscure for a very good reason.

This year I ate breakfast at the Waffle Shop, a nearby diner located by Dr. Amanda Rosen. While walking there, hoping for a plate of tasty waffles but ready to encounter a horrible meal, I noticed a building with an ornate facade containing a retail clothing store. I continued round the corner, and saw a “Woodward & Lothrop” sign on the side of the building. I realized that this was the site of the now-defunct Woodward & Lothrop that my father worked at a half-century ago, on the day that JFK was assassinated. Continuing down the street, I noticed that I was passing Ford’s Theater, made famous by John Wilkes Booth.

This is a simple illustration of the fact that opportunities for creative thinking often involve embracing risk, and that failure — whether as a possibility or an actual outcome — is a useful learning tool.

Pain: The Ultimate Teacher

My father, a former drill instructor in the USMC, once told me that he’d stomp on a recruit’s foot to teach him right from left — “your right foot is the one that hurts.” Last night in an aikido class I accidentally got hit in the throat. Today I can talk, but it hurts. I can’t project my voice like I usually do. So in class this morning I decided not to talk at all.

Students had already generated a list questions on the course’s website from reflecting in writing on previous class discussions, and I wanted the next exam to be an exercise in learning in addition to the usual one of evaluation. At the beginning of class, I displayed the following instructions on the big screen:

  1. Form groups of 4.
  2. Choose the question from the list that your group thinks is most interesting.
  3. Revise it if needed so that it is concise and can be applied to the readings.
  4. Prepare an explanation for why the question should be included on the next exam.
  5. Each group will briefly present its question and explanation.
  6. The class will vote on whether each question should be on the next exam.

I expected discussion to break out between groups on the relative merits of each group’s question, but this didn’t happen — perhaps because students felt that voting gave them sufficient influence over the outcome. I was pleased though that a couple of the questions that I thought were most perceptive received high numbers of votes. This means part of the work in creating the next exam is already done.

You will actively learn . . .

Multi-Tasking With Reflection

Most of us would agree that reflection is an important part of the learning process. The hard part about reflective exercises is making students think about course content rather than their feelings about it.

One of my colleagues in philosophy uses an exercise that I’ve adapted for a course I’m teaching now. Five times during the semester students write a one-page reflection on previous reading assignments and class discussions. Students can attempt to clarify a particular point made in class, critique someone else’s point, wonder about the implications of a particular idea, or consider the relationship between one author’s writing and another. Students must raise a question (or questions) as part of each paper.  These questions can go in the direction of the individual student’s choosing, but they should be clear, concise, and original.

Here’s where things get interesting: students post their questions online for review by their peers. The questions that are regarded as the “best” (however defined) by the students are used for additional classroom debate. The process of reflection moves from being solely internal (where I am the only other person who learns what a student is thinking) to being shared and evaluated among peers. At the same time, students are generating a bank of exam questions that I can draw from. If the questions I include on an exam have already been discussed, there’s no need for me to set aside additional class time for an exam review session.

Perseus prepares to engage Medusa in a self-reflection exercise . . .

Incentivizing Active Teaching

Although I’m not an economist, I’m quite interested in identifying incentives, and faculty usually have few to no material incentives to experiment pedagogically.  Occasionally someone might receive a stipend or grant to vary one’s teaching methods, but these rewards are one-shot deals. Sometimes merit pay exists, but frequently it’s based on student evaluations of teaching, which is a recipe for disaster. This situation is particularly disturbing given the findings in Academically Adrift (Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, U. of Chicago Press, 2011) that certain writing and reasoning skills fail to improve for over one-third of  students during four years of undergraduate education. Students aren’t learning, and faculty have no incentive to change that.

I’ve been thinking about this subject recently because I’m involved in an effort to redesign an interdisciplinary major. Team teaching has been proposed as a way of delivering content that crosses disciplinary boundaries — something that I wholeheartedly agree with — but at my university there are no incentives for it. The credit hours for a course that is team-taught are regarded as shared between instructors, and any teaching duty that equates to less than a complete three credit hour course is compensated as overload at a drastically reduced pay rate. Unless a full-time faculty member is really desperate for money, the cost of team teaching to faculty in time and effort is greater than the financial reward.

The Results Are In

As I’ve discussed here and here, this past semester I ran a role-playing simulation for undergraduates on international relations in Europe on the eve of World War I. Previously I had tested for the simulation’s possible effects on student learning by comparing essay exam grades from a “regular” class that participated in the simulation to grades from an honors class that had not. Grades from the honors class were higher, and in most cases the differences were statistically significant, but the possibility existed that the higher scores were due to the honors students supposed better academic ability.

This semester I finally was able to teach an honors class again and do a more valid comparison. Some preliminary data crunching indicates that the simulation had no effect on essay assignments and exams, not what I’d expected. However, in a 2009 study, Stroessner,  Beckerman, and Whittaker found that students’ “writing ability, at least extemporaneous writing, was not affected” by Barnard’s Reacting to the Past role-playing simulations.* This makes me wonder what can be changed about history-based role-playing simulations so that students become better able to connect their simulation experiences to course content and demonstrate that connection through their writing.

I know someone reading this is thinking “it’s quite possible that your assignments and exams aren’t measuring what you think they are measuring.” Yes, possible, but logic dictates that if (a) we think it’s important for students to learn how to use theory to create a coherent and persuasive written explanation of an event, and (b) a question asks, for example, “did the international system in Europe prior to World War I best reflect liberal or realist IR theory, and why?” then (c) assignments and exams indicate how well students can accomplish (a). In other words, I’m testing for what I think students should know, and the simulation that I’ve been using doesn’t seem to have any effect on how much knowledge students acquire over a semester.

I will be presenting on this subject at the APSA Teaching and Learning Conference (TLC) in February. I’ve been attending the TLC  since 2007 and it’s been remarkably rewarding — lots of interesting and pedagogically practical information. I encourage you to attend.

*Stroessner, Steven J, Laurie Susser Beckerman, and Alexis Whittaker (2009) “All the World’s a Stage? Consequences of a Role-Playing Pedagogy on Psychological Factors and Writing and Rhetorical Skill in College Undergraduates,” Journal of Educational Psychology 101(3):605-620.

Connections Exercise: the answers

As promised, below are the answers, in order, to the connections exercise that I described in my previous post. The exercise was a big hit in class even though no one correctly identified how all ten items related to one another. Students were completely ignorant of the fact that people their age, many of them also university students, are protesting for economic justice and democratization and getting assaulted, imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes killed as a result. They were also puzzled and indignant that their taxes help enable governments to engage in such behavior. As with my take-out quizzes, I divided students into small groups and gave each group 30 minutes to complete its answers.

1) Linda: http://chancellor.ucdavis.edu/

2) Davis: http://www.wrko.com/node/711886

3) Miami, and (4) Free Trade Area of the Americas: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miami_model

5) John: http://blogs.miaminewtimes.com/riptide/2011/12/john_timoney_former_miami_poli.php

6) Manama: http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/01/an-activist-stands-her-ground-in-bahrain/?scp=1&sq=Bahrain%20woman&st=cse

7) Foreign Assistance Act Of 1961, and (8) Cairo: http://storyful.com/stories/1000015020 and

http://www.pmddtc.state.gov/reports/documents/rpt655_FY09.pdf (pages 114-119)

9) Mahmoud: http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/02/egyptians-want-justice-for-protesters-shot-in-the-eyes/?scp=1&sq=Mahmoud%20eye&st=cse

10) Jamestown: http://english.ahram.org.eg/~/NewsContent/1/64/27956/Egypt/Politics-/Suez-port-employees-reveal-ton-US-tear-gas-order-f.aspx and

http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11336/1194064-454-0.stm?cmpid=localstate.xml and http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/532666

Connections Exercise

This is the last week of classes, and I’m trying to get students to think about how what has happened inside the classroom can be used to understand a world of which they remain mostly ignorant. So I’ve come up with the following small group exercise, which I’ll probably give them about twenty minutes to complete:

Write a short narrative (not a bulleted list) that explains the connection between the following people, places, and things:

Cairo
Davis
Free Trade Area of the Americas
Foreign Assistance Act Of 1961
Jamestown
John
Linda
Mahmoud
Manama
Miami

 Correctly connecting eight of the above items earns one point toward your final grade for each person in your group. For nine, two points. For all of them, three points.

Since my students might find this post on Google, I’m not going to post the answer until later this week (please don’t reveal the answer if you know it).