The Revolution Will Not Be Twittered

Last Friday in class a student asked me to explain the causes of the current global economic recession. It happened to be the same student who said the week before that I was turning her into a Marxist (to which I responded “it’s good to be a Marxist while you’re young, because when you’re older you won’t be able to afford it”).

So off I went on a twenty-five minute tangent on the inflationary real estate bubble in the USA, the securitization and outsourcing of bad debt, Greece’s economic collapse, and Ponzi schemes. Although I find such topics to be a lot more interesting than offensive and defensive realism, I was a little perturbed at the time at the unexpected derailment of my lesson plan for the day. I have not yet learned to embrace uncertainty when it comes to class preparation.

But since then I’ve read this piece about campus police beating students at Berkeley.

And this one by a Penn State alum and Iraq war veteran who has completely lost faith in the leadership of his parents’ generation.

I’ve emailed both to my students in the hopes that the articles will get them thinking and talking about something more important that the latest international relations theory.

The Take-Out Quiz

This idea comes from a friend who teaches developmental English at a community college:

Students have a specified amount of time to complete a low-stakes quiz; for example, 20 or 30 minutes. They are allowed to consult fellow students and can use books, phones, or the internet. They can even take the quizzes out of the room to work in the hallway or the library. The only rule is that they must turn in their quizzes at the end of the specified time period.

In my friend’s experience, students do not score 100 percent on the quizzes. In fact, they tend to score about the same as they do on closed-book quizzes taken solo. Students who do the readings and take notes in class do well, while those who don’t know the material invariably try to copy answers from the wrong people.

The classroom dynamic produced by take-out quizzes is unpredictable. Some students opt to work alone whether they are quiet in class or not. Students who choose to work in groups can self-sort according to academic ability, but you might see the usually shy student become extroverted within the group when he or she advocates for an answer that he or she believes is correct.

The main advantage of the take-out quiz is that it gets students engaged with the material in a different way than lecture or the traditional independently-taken, closed-book quiz. It also rewards the students who do homework.

Active Learning About Plagiarism

All my syllabi contain the usual policy statement about plagiarism — refer to the catalog for the university’s definition, don’t do it, if you do do it you might fail the course. And as is the norm for information that’s in a course syllabus, the statement often gets ignored, and I end up meeting budding plagiarists in my office for face to face discussions.

I’ve started requiring that any student who wants to “discuss” a plagiarized paper and the the grade (of zero) that it has received bring a document (typed, paper) to the meeting. The document has to contain, in the student’s own words, how the contents of his or her paper relate to the definition of plagiarism contained in the catalog. In other words, the student has to argue effectively that the paper was not plagiarized or admit to the plagiarism.

This method prevents the usual weepy sniffling or feigned indignation that occurs at such meetings. The student is forced to reflect on his or her actions, and the consequences thereof, before he or she enters my office. And I get a written confession.

Another benefit is that the process makes me less central to the situation and the conflict becomes more impersonal. When students read the university’s definition of plagiarism and begin writing about it, they see that they have violated a university policy, which I, as a faculty member, am simply upholding.

The Age of Non-Exploration

I am continually frustrated by students’ reluctance to experiment with the user-friendly technological tools that I give them. Most recently this has been demonstrated in my blog-based Europe1914 simulation and in a class that is piloting a new learning management system, Canvas by Instructure. (Please note that I have no financial interest in Instructure; my university is also piloting Blackboard’s 9.1 Learn.)

In the Europe1914 simulation, I intended the blogs to function as a platform for student communication and collaboration. The students did learn how to use the blogs – I provided them with specific directions both on the blogs and elsewhere, and I conducted a short in-class training session. But the students’ use of the blogs was limited to posts and occasional comments. No students explored ways of using the blogs for other purposes or even text formatting options. Conversations consisted primarily of each student on a team posting his or her work, which one or two team members consolidated into a single end product. Teams did not use the blogs to develop negotiation strategies or to bargain with each other.

For the other class, I have been pushing students to use with features in Canvas like discussion threads, wikis, and shared Google Docs. It’s been a tough slog. Many of the students are completely unfamiliar with these tools, and it seems that once they stumble upon one method of communication, they are reluctant to use another, even if it might meet their needs more effectively.

It appears to me that students today are socialized to view learning as a top-down, regimented process in which they do not have to exercise initiative. They expect to be told both what to learn and how to learn. I wish I knew how to break students out of this mindset, but I don’t.

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.