Using Rubrics As Teaching Tools

In the early years of my teaching career, I adopted rubrics to speed up grading of student writing, but I’d see the same mistakes, from the same students, on paper after paper throughout the semester. The content of the rubric would leave as little an impression on students’ minds as the inked comments on their papers. And there were the usual end-of-semester complaints of “Why didn’t I get a good grade on this?”

Now I have students create their own rubrics (sort of). About a week before the first major writing assignment is due, I distribute a few short writing samples to students. Each sample is a modified anonymous passage written by students in prior semesters. Each passage contains a variety of writing errors — vague or hard to find thesis statement, illogical organization, run-on sentences, spelling mistakes, etc.  I usually hand out five or six different samples. Students read and write comments on the samples and then form groups with other students who have the same one.

While in groups, students compare notes and discuss how the passage they’ve examined can be improved. In the final stage of the exercise, one student from each group reports on the group’s findings to the rest of the class. I jot down notes and ask questions.

I then tell the class that I will create a rubric based on what they have identified as indicators of good and bad writing. Students are therefore responsible for following their own recommendations.

Students make similar comments every semester, so I don’t have to change my rubric much, if at all.

More on Changing the Environment

Last week I was discussing the international system in my introduction to international relations course. I had run through various examples of systems (airplane, farm, family, religion) in the previous class, and was attempting to explain how a change in the international environment can change the behavior of the nation-states within it. I could tell from students’ facial expressions that they weren’t making the connection. So I took the students outside to a parking lot and played a second round of Victor Asal’s survive or die card game.

In contrast to the first round, played inside the confines of the classroom, students quickly dispersed to avoid being challenged. We then reconvened indoors and I asked the students to explain why round two differed from round one. In addition to seeing the effect of the changed environment, they also picked up on the fact that repeated interactions can enable political actors to learn how to predict one another’s behavior.

Close Reading a Syllabus

How many of you spend the first day of class “reviewing” a syllabus? How many times do you then get students asking questions that can easily be answered by reading the syllabus? I got so tired of this routine that several years ago I instituted a quiz on the syllabus for every course, worth 2-5 percent of the final grade. These were “open book” quizzes, so students had no excuse for not knowing the correct answers.

These quizzes were the only way that I could get students to devote some attention to the syllabus. I changed jobs and dropped the practice because it didn’t seem necessary with the new and different student population. Now I’m teaching first-year students again, and I’m seeing the same old problem.

As my jaw began to clench at the thought of making a syllabus quiz worth five percent of the final grade, it occurred to me that I could instead use the syllabus for a close reading exercise. Close reading is the examination of a text’s meaning given its linguistic, semantic, structural, and cultural content. Linguistic content refers to vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and other stylistic choices of the author. Semantic content is the denotative and connotative meaning of the words. Structural content is the relationships between words in the text, from both linguistic and structural perspectives.  Analyzing cultural content requires that the reader infer relationships between the text and concepts that are not explicitly contained within it.

A close reading exercise on a syllabus prods students to answer questions like:

  • given the way the syllabus is organized, what does the instructor think is important about the course?
  • is what the instructor thinks is important also important to me?
  • what do I need to do to achieve my goals for this course?

Close reading is a skill that most academics learn unconsciously. Using the syllabus to introduce students to this skill might be productive for them and the instructor.

Using Modular Architecture to Build Choice Into Courses

In all of my courses I’ve been migrating away from the standard textbooks put out by academic publishing houses. They are expensive, have a brief shelf-life, and are usually collections of easily-forgettable facts rather than memorable narratives.  Chuck the textbooks and you’re left with the exciting (at least for me) but time consuming process of identifying replacements. It’s a challenge to find just the right journalistic accounts, memoirs, and fiction to apply to the broad themes of whatever course I’m teaching.

While seeking out such books for a comparative politics course, a question popped into my head: “is it really necessary for all students in a course to read the same books?” This then led to another question: “is it necessary that all students in a class study the same topics and learn the same things?” To a certain extent, people choose what universities to attend, what to major in, and what courses to take. Yet once in a class, all students march in lockstep through whatever content the instructor has selected. No more choice. I’ll make an educated guess that that lack of choice at the end of the educational pipeline produces a lack of intellectual and emotional investment among students — there’s not as much buy-in as there could be.

So I’m contemplating an experiment: putting together a modular architecture for my comparative politics course. Modular architecture is a term coined by author and business guru Clayton Christensen in The Innovator’s Dilemma and other books. It refers to designing components (in this case particular topics and the assignments that relate to them) independently so that they can be swapped in and out of a system as needed. The “module” format is a well-known method of organizing a course — the whole class studies certain topics in a sequence. But this is different — students choose topics from a larger list and study them throughout the semester, independently of what other students in the class have chosen. I can see how such an approach might facilitate grouping students into project teams according to topic, but beyond that I’m still trying to figure out how to make this idea work.

More on a Blog-based Simulation

This semester marks the second time I’m running my Europe1914 simulation in an introductory international relations course. I first taught this course to honors students in Fall 2008. In Fall 2009, I ran the simulation, but in a non-honors section. I had hoped that the simulation would be associated with better student performance on exams, but the data didn’t bear this out, probably because of the difference in academic abilities among students in the two groups.

In 2009, I asked students to rate themselves on how confident they were about being able to meet their goals at four different points in the simulation, before and after simulation sessions in class. Students’ confidence dropped markedly between the first and second assessments and then rebounded somewhat in the third and fourth assessments. The before and after ratings converged at the last assessment:

Student Confidence Over Time

I also asked how much control students thought they had over their success in the simulation (possible responses ranged from “I control my destiny in the simulation” to “I do not control my destiny in the simulation at all”). The results were similar – a sharp decline between the first and second assessments, followed by a rebound and convergence between the before and after scores.

My findings from the 2008/2009 comparison will appear in a 2012 issue of Journal of Political Science Education. If you’d like a copy of the Teaching and Learning Conference paper that the article is based on, please contact me.

This semester I’m teaching an honors section again, so I’m hoping to be avoid the apples-oranges problem by comparing exam scores from this semester with those from Fall 2008.

Even if my current students enjoy the simulation as much as the Fall 2009 students did, I’m questioning whether the exercise is worth the time and effort. In addition to the in-class time that the simulation eats up, I have to monitor the blogs (my inbox explodes), and students have technical problems that I can’t solve. It would be a lot more convenient if web apps like “Angry Birds” existed for instructional simulations.

If exam scores and other indicators show that the simulation has a beneficial effect on student performance, then I might continue to use this simulation. If there’s no demonstrable benefit, then I probably will not.

Floods and Famines

The march of Hurricane Irene up the East Coast reminded me of how difficult it is to get students to connect recent events with abstract concepts, especially when students lack direct experience. In students’ thinking, fate explains all. Floods, famines, and wars “just happen.” Somalia is desperately poor and violent because it’s Somalia. Students will donate money or time to a charity because they think it’s a good thing to do, but they don’t examine the role of economic or political institutions (or the lack thereof) in creating human suffering. So for lack of a better term, here is what I call the Hurricane Game:

Tell students to write down, in the form of a list, everything that they do in a typical day. Then say that a hurricane has blown through the night before while they were asleep. Select a student to begin reciting his or her list. The first item will probably be something like “wake up.” Ask the student “do you usually wake up because of an alarm clock?” If the answer is yes, respond with “there’s no electricity, you’re alarm clock didn’t ring, you’re awake, but you don’t know what time it is. What do you do next?” Go through a few more items in the student’s list in a similar fashion — you can remove heat, piped water, refrigerated food, and electronic financial transactions as needed. Students will rapidly find themselves at a loss for what to do, and at point they can form small groups to strategize if they wish. You may even wish to inject a highly contagious disease or zombies into the equation.

Getting students to realize how much of their lives are on autopilot can lead to discussions of everything from social contract theory to markets to public administration. For example, why are there emergency exits and who mandates them? What happens if this doesn’t happen? Why do some people know how to grow food but others don’t? Why do we assume food we haven’t grown ourselves is safe to eat? Why does that food go from a farm to our kitchen table? What happens if someone tries to take that food and there is no enforceable body of law prohibiting theft?

A good book that gives a real-world example of some of these questions is Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers.

Blog-based Simulations

Two years ago I created a role-play simulation for an undergraduate international relations course. Though the simulation includes an in-class component, much of the action occurs on this blog. Feel free to borrow what I’ve created — just please credit me and my employer in the process. A few thoughts on using simulations like this:

Students are increasingly unfamiliar with blogging. Not only do I need to include a training session in how to use the blog for the simulation, I need to discuss the underlying premise of blogging itself. Though students may be regularly reading blog-style publications, social networking and mobile device apps have eclipsed blogs in their collective unconscious.

A blog should have the capability of delivering real-time updates to students’ preferred means of communication. While I do not necessarily need to know that Zachary replied to Kaitlyn’s latest post with “U rock grrl ha ha,” a torrent of messages appearing on students’ smartphones helps keep the simulation at the top of their screens and at the forefront of their minds outside of class.

The instructor must emphasize to students that any communication conducted outside of the blog will not be graded and, if done in lieu of the blog, will harm a student’s grade. This goes for texting, email, and face-to-face meetings. I tell students that I’ve created the blog to be their online workspace, and it’s their responsibility to use it.

Last item, which applies generally to all team-oriented simulations: individual writing assignments prevent free riders. Student who do a task initially on their own will be less likely to think “group project” when doing the same task later on with others.

More on Solving the Reading Problem

Many of us are familiar with the think-pair-share exercise in which a class is given a question and, after a short period of time to think about it, students pair up to discuss their answers. Two downsides to think-pair-share: students will state opinions instead of referencing readings unless questions are carefully worded, and students are not writing.

I run an exercise that combines elements of think-pair-share and Amanda’s weekly critique method.  Each reading assignment is accompanied by an argumentative (why rather than what or when) question. Students answer a question before its corresponding reading is due to be covered in class. Answers must incorporate specifics from the reading assignment, are limited to one-half to a full page in length, and contain proper citations. Grading is on a 0 to 2 point basis and is very quick. Online submission of the answers prevents the “my printer didn’t work” excuse. Typically I create a dozen questions sprinkled throughout the semester and students have to answer ten of them for 20-30 percent of their final grade.

In class, I divide students into groups of four. Each student quickly reports to his or her group on the written answer he or she submitted before class. Each group then has a few minutes to reach a consensus that it can present orally to the rest of the class. At the beginning of the semester, I specify different roles for each student in a group — taking notes, keeping time, presenting the consensus — but students learn the routine very quickly. I’ll randomly select a few groups to present answers that often conflict with each other, which launches discussion for the entire class.

Benefits of this method: students are forced to intellectually engage with the readings outside of class, before hearing me lecture, and they have repeated opportunities to practice constructing evidence-based arguments. I get to lecture less, students participate meaningfully, and class is more interesting for everyone.

The Agrarian Society Card Game

I sometimes model life in a poor agrarian society with a deck of cards. I divide students into “peasant households” – one, two, or more students, but each household functions as a single decision-making unit. Each household receives the same number of playing cards, which are dealt face down.

I then explain the structure of the game and write the rules on the board. Each household begins with two adults and three hectares of land. Each hectare can produce two bags of rice each year, but it requires the labor of either one adult or two children. An adult can farm only one hectare per year while a child can only farm half a hectare. Each adult in the household must consume two bags of rice per year to survive; a child must consume half a bag of rice each year. If an adult or child does not get enough rice for the year, that individual dies and no longer supplies labor to the household. Uneaten rice can be saved for consumption in a future year or distributed to other households.

Each household is free to engage in any transaction with another household as long as it falls within the parameters set by the instructor. Typically households will rent out surplus land and labor or sell land in exchange for rice.

At the beginning of each year, all households flip over a card. An ace through a five indicates that nothing happens. A five through ten means that a child is born (for the purposes of the game, that child can immediately be put to work). A jack or a queen indicates a child has died. A king means an adult in the household has died. Households then calculate how best to use their resources.

Due to the cost-benefit relationships in the game, households have to devise strategies for survival. Some households merrily sell excess rice and acquire land, which they then rent out to other households that fall into debt and despair. Occasionally households pool their resources. More often than not a household asks “if we eat a child, how many bags of rice is that?”

The game can be used to demonstrate a wide variety of concepts, such moral economy, rational choice, locus of control, and path dependence. Sometimes I alter a rule (for example, each household begins with two adults and two children) and have the class play a second time, and then we discuss how the change affected the play and outcome of the game.

The 50 Word Sentence

I recently stumbled upon a classroom exercise called the 50 Word Sentence Assignment used by UW-Madison history professor Charles L. Cohen, described at the Madison Writing Across the Curriculum site.  Professor Cohen also provides additional explanation and graded examples.

For several years I’ve been assigning questions on reading assignments (more on that in another post). The questions are argumentative and require that students state a position and then defend it. In class I split students into small groups to discuss their answers; each group then reports whatever consensus it has achieved to the rest of the class. Often students descend into ill-formed verbiage when reporting their groups’ answers. In large classes, groups often repeat the general ideas of other groups – not very interesting to students, despite the peer-to-peer reinforcement of concepts.

Telling each group to create a grammatically-correct, one-sentence answer of fifty words or less generated a lot of activity – students’ heightened interest in collaborating on a piece of writing was an unexpected bonus. Even though all groups were working on their sentences for the same amount of time (typically groups can finish within five minutes), students viewed the task as a challenge and groups quickly turned the exercise into a competition to produce the sentence with the fewest words.

In the first few trial runs, students had no problem writing sentences that presented a claim supported by evidence in less than fifty words, so I cut the limit down to forty-five and then forty words. This increases the challenge to students and demonstrates how they can be very concise in their writing.

One caveat: having students come to the computer station to type in their group’s sentences for a class vote and a discussion on each sentence’s merits takes much too much time.