You don’t wanna do it like that

A quick check through the vellum parchments indicates that I’m now teaching second-year undergraduates for the first time in nearly a decade.

It turns out they are like any other group of students, albeit with the relatively fresh memory of taking my flipped module last semester.

More interestingly, I’m also teaching my first new module in a similarly long time: on European integration and disintegration.

This has posed two immediate challenges.

Firstly, that first year module was an introduction to the European Union, so how do I differentiate the two for my students?

Secondly, deliver the module at all?

My answer has been to work with what I’ve got. And what I’ve got are many of the raw materials that the previous instructor on the module very kindly left me (thank you, Roberta).

Rather than try to build up a module from scratch, I’m going to follow the existing model relatively closely this time around.

Partly that’s expediency but much more it’s because it’s not the way I would have tackled the subject.

If that sounds odd, then consider that much of the module deals with critical perspectives on the subject matter and I want students to see that I am tackling what might be nominally the same material in a fundamentally different way.

Yes, I could have wheeled out a bunch of classes that were essentially ‘more of the same’ as last semester, but I very much don’t want to do that.

Moreover, because it’s not my structure or activities, it forces me to engage more fully with the material, because I have to be confident enough to be able to help students learn it.

Again, the irony is that it’s exactly because I wouldn’t teach this way normally that I want to teach this way: I will learn something from the experience, both substantively and pedagogically.

As I seem to be saying to a lot of people recently, I have no monopoly on good practice, and there is always something new to be learnt.

Quite how that plays out remains to be seen.

Assume absolutely nothing

Perhaps my most reliable observation to date on negotiations and teaching negotiations is that time matters.

Furniture on castors, so it must be active learning…

You give students (or negotiators) a deadline and it has huge impacts on their activity: most obviously, it creates an ever-increasing social pressure to ‘reach an agreement’.*

That’s why it was really good to have spent this past weekend being shown that this is simply an arbitrary way of behaving.

I was running a workshop for faculty at the American University in Cairo, as a guest of their Department of Political Science (and supporting by funding AUC recieved from APSA), talking about active learning and simulations.

A big part of what I tried to do was to let colleagues try out activities first-hand, so they could really see the potential that each of them contained for their own teaching.

One of my activities was a crisis game: it gives not enough time to try and reach a conclusion, with (what I would consider) inevitable effects of the kind outlined above.

This time? Nothing. Zip. Diddly. Squat. Nada.

Every other time, there has been at least one person keeping an eye on the time, either from the off or mid-way through as they recall I’ll not letting them go on forever.

In the AUC case, not only was there was there precisely no acknowledgement of the passing of time, but even when I let them run on for an extra 5 minutes, there was still nothing.

We talked about this.

Largely, we talked about cultural norms. The group was almost entirely Egyptian, but with plenty of experience of living and working in Europe and the US. They suggested that time is treated much more flexibly (certainly, I was not really following my timeline for the rest of the workshop), so its constraining power is that much weaker.

For my part, I noted that failing to decide by a deadline is also a decision, in the sense of creating choices with consequences, so they and their students might reflect on how that plays out.

But still the main takeaway for me was that you really, really can’t assume anything when you teach, because it might turn out your assumption isn’t held by everyone.

To pick another example, what might seem fun or unremarkable to you might feel uncomfortable to others: consider the times you’ve encountered someone with a different of personal space to your own.

Of course, all of this is a valuable learning moment: it invites us to consider what else we might be simply assuming about the world and about others. For political science, that’s a crucial insight because of the profound differences in the fundaments of individuals’ worldviews, which generates political interaction and events.

Something for me to take some time to think about.

* – Yes, I know that’s not what good practice suggests you should do (you should instead by working out whether what you can achieve within a negotiation is better than what you can outside it). But it’s what people very, very often do anyway.

Attend to this…

Like the devoted parent that I am, I went to a parents’ evening at my kids’ school last week, to make sure I was up-to-speed with things.

Among the other messages, there was one that got a lot of air-time. We were told several times that even a short absence could have a detrimental effect on academic performance, so parents and children alike needed to do everything they could to get in.

Apples don’t work either…

Now, it might be helpful to note that one of my children missed about a third of last school year, due to illness, so I have skin in this game.

Plus, during those absences, the school didn’t make a big thing about that detrimental effect, so I went to do some checking.

This goes back to research done for the government in 2015, which was press-released as:

Even short breaks from school can reduce a pupil’s chances of succeeding at school by as much as a quarter, research reveals today (22 February 2015).

The research, based on extensive pupil absence figures and both GCSE and primary school test results, highlights the importance of clamping down on pupil absence to ensure more pupils regularly attend school, and ultimately leave with the qualifications needed to succeed in modern Britain.

It shows 44% of pupils with no absence in key stage 4 (normally aged 16) achieve the English Baccalaureate – the gold standard package of GCSE qualifications that includes English, maths, science, history or geography and a language – opening doors to their future. But this figure falls by a quarter to just 31.7% for pupils who miss just 14 days of lessons over the 2 years that pupils study for their GCSEs, which equates to around 1 week per year, and to 16.4% for those who miss up to 28 days.

Let’s leave aside the dubious stat in the opening paragraph and consider why a school head reading this might feel that this proved attendance was essential.

Then read this from an education studies Professor, who points out attendance and performance are correlated, but likely not causally, with other factors such as more generic life-chances.

Now, I’m clearly going to want to hear what the academic says, because it gives me more hope that my child’s education won’t suffer too much, but it does raise a bigger issue for us in higher education: do students need to come to class?

My usual response to this has been a utilitarian one: classes are the easiest way to access the material and reflective space needed to do well in assessment, so if you’re lacking motivation, this is the least-cost option.

That’s not really a rally cry though, is it?

Instead we need to think about how we can make contact time a positive and enthusiastic option. If we can get students to want to attend, rather than simply feel they have to, then we’re likely to get better engagement, and thus learning.

At the same time, we need to be making sure that we help with incentives.

So for my course on negotiation, the assessment is reflective writing about the experiences the student has had in class, as contextualised by wider reading: hard (i.e. impossible) to do if you’ve not been in class (although I have had a couple of students try (and fail)).

The challenge comes in having to acknowledge that students have individual ways of learning, which may or may not fit with others’: I’ve seen several excellent pieces of assessment over the years from students who have been very largely absent from class.

That’s fine, although it does raise a question of whether other students suffer from not having that person in the class to stretch or challenge them. But if that’s not a learning objective, then it’s not a learning objective.

At the end of the day, this comes down to making sure we are clear about what we, as educators, want to achieve with our students. Once we have that, then we can think more about structuring incentives to engage, which then in turn might produce environments conducive to attendance.

But to start at the other end of that chain isn’t going to solve things by itself.

Terrific & Tested Tips for First Year Seminar Teaching!

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Nanette S. Levinson

Alica Retiova’s Chapter  focusing on her innovative teaching experiment in a first year writing intensive Seminar provides plenty of great advice and, most importantly, evidence of what works in her classroom.  A particular bonus is that she does not just assess the innovation itself but she also measures and shares student perceptions of it. 

What Retiova successfully implemented is the use of written peer feedback on student papers designed to improve writing skills in the field and foster critical thinking. She also has the goal of catalyzing students’ confidence in their own independent learning.  

Showing us exactly how to foreshadow implementing the innovation of written peer-to-peer feedback, Retiova competently explains her techniques for developing and accurately assessing student ability to ‘feed forward (suggestions to their peers for future writing) as well as backward (specific feedback on their current position papers). Just as importantly, she measures this over time (three different papers in a three week period) and with the same peer evaluators.  

As a long-time faculty member who herself teaches a first year seminar, I look forward to following Retiova’s tips and the techniques she tried. I also encourage future experiments that recognize the role of culture in attempts to catalyze independent learning. Retiova found that the experiment contributed only “partly” to developing students’ confidence as independent learners. Based upon my research in cross-cultural communication I note that some cultures foster a more hierarchical view of the professor and student, with the professor being viewed as the major source of learning and knowledge. Thus, culture itself may play a role in shaping students’ views and, indeed, abilities to develop confidence in their own role in assessing the work of other students in their classes.

In sum, it is inspiring to read about the teaching & assessment excellence focus of Retiova, an early career faculty member. This bodes well for the next generation of faculty leaders and their focus on fostering student-learning excellence including critical thinking and field specific writing skills.

Health Policy in DevelopmentLand: a practical policy simulation

This guest post comes from Cathy Elliott (UCL). A detailed instruction pack for this activity can be downloaded via the link at the end of the post.

One thing that students in my International Development class find intriguing is the fact that, in a previous career, I used to work for the British Government in Pakistan. Relatedly, one of the things I find difficult is students’ received ideas about what a job in international development like that might be like. When students join the class, some fall unreflexively into a discourse of “us” “helping” “them”. Others, meanwhile, bemoan unequal power relations in the world, imagining that a supplicant Pakistan is being pushed around by overbearing British development workers coercing them with huge amounts of conditional aid on offer.

The first position smacks of White Saviour attitudes and is at best patronising to local people and movements pushing for their visions of change. The second, meanwhile, bears little resemblance to my actual experiences of trying to spend relatively small amounts of money in ways that would be acceptable to the governments of both countries. Students also come to my class in search of solutions to global poverty and one recurrent grumble on my student evaluations is that they do not leave the ten week module knowing how it might be “fixed”. Meanwhile, I want them to question these sorts of technocratic attitudes that encourage them to seek the simplistic solutions.

In response, I have developed a 3 hour simulation game that attempts to give a glimpse of what the world of international development is actually like. It is based on my own experience of living and working in Pakistan for three years, and of course other experiences are available. However, I have found it a useful activity for getting students to understand some key ideas from the literature, including the role of power and networks in policy-making, the importance of powerful discourses including international goal-setting agendas such as the Sustainable Development Goals, and the open-ended, processual and contingent nature of political and policy-making practices.

The premise is quite simple: for the duration of the class we will be in the fictional country of DevelopmentLand, which bears a striking resemblance to Bangladesh in every way unless something different has been specified. The students (usually between 40 and 60) are split into small groups and assigned roles with detailed descriptions. The groups are broadly as follows:

  • The Minister of Health and her advisory team
  • The World Bank
  • The UK Department for International Development
  • A group representing the country’s religious leaders
  • A British consultancy firm
  • An international maternal health NGO
  • A local national maternal health NGO
  • A group representing local traditional birth attendants
  • A local NGO that saves lives by teaching children to swim
  • Local NGOs working on neglected tropical diseases

On their cards, students are given information about where they went to university, who they already know and whether or not they speak English. I try to organise the groups so that friendship groups within the class map onto networks that you might expect. Sometimes I also add a group of journalists.

The aim of the game is straightforward. The groups have to persuade the Minister to work with them to develop health policy in the country. Each group has to prepare a 5 minute presentation to persuade the Minister. However – and this is the really important bit – the Minister can work with more than one group if they are able to work together in a consortium. For groups that decide to work together, they can also pool their time. This means that if two groups work together, for example, they jointly get ten minutes to present. A class-wide “win win” situation is therefore possible: there is no reason in principle that all the teams could not get together and put a proposal to the Minister that she and her team would find acceptable.

This has never actually happened, though, because – in classrooms as in life – the game is rigged. The Minister and international donors are preoccupied by meeting the Sustainable Development Goals. The Minister is also keen to be re-elected and the group of religious leaders may have a role to play in enabling or, crucially, wrecking her chances. Some of the groups find that their very good cause doesn’t fit in well with her aims and it is more challenging for them to find partners to work with. Some groups don’t speak English or have dinner with the right people. And not all the groups know everything about what is going on in the other groups. They can usually find out by asking, gossiping and listening in but it often doesn’t occur to them. Intriguingly, no-one yet has produced a crumpled fiver from their wallet to grease the wheels, although I sometimes spread the mischievous rumour that previous classes have tried this!

The groups spend about 90 minutes making what they will of the situation and then they do their group presentations. Afterwards, they talk among themselves about what they think will happen, while the Minister and team make a decision, which they then present back to the group. The debrief session afterwards helps students make sense of the experience and understand, with guidance from me, how their experience fits into the broader theories we have been studying, as well as my own experiences.

One thing I like about this exercise is that it gives students an insight into ordinary everyday politics, as they are most likely to encounter them. There is no dramatic threat about to overwhelm DevelopmentLand and the always unrealised possibility of a win-win ending means that there are no bitter enmities, only ordinary political rivalries and invisibilities. The international donors are powerful, but so are the government and other local players, and all of them are operating in a landscape of power relations that they did not create and cannot reshape on their own. This gives students an understanding of the crucial point explained by Maureen Mackintosh: “Deciding what should be done is relatively easy. But achieving it requires alliances with others”.[1]  The infuriating nature of having to work with other people in conditions of unequal power is a great learning experience, above all for students of politics. As one student put it: “It helped me understand the process of politics, particularly the necessity of working with people with different agendas”. Another made me happy by remarking: “It was a challenge to cynicism – maybe things can change, but there aren’t easy answers.”

Michael Buroway once wrote that “[o]ne cannot both play the game and at the same time question the rules”.[2] This doesn’t seem right to me; surely it is only through playing the game that we can understand the rules, their consequences and possibilities for effecting change either working within them or by transforming them. Policy simulations like this give us some tools to help students begin to play the game and to ask critical questions about the rules that they probably could not access otherwise.


[1] Mackintosh, M. 1992 ““Creating a Developmental State: Reflections on Policy as Process” in Gregory Albo, David Langille and Leo Panitch (eds) A Different Kind of State? Popular Power and Democratic Administration Toronto: Oxford University Press Canada: p. 44)

[2] Buroway, M. 1979. Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism Chicago: University of Chicago Press : p.79

Teaching innovation improves student performance

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Carolina Curvale.

Petra Srnisova documents in her study the results of the implementation of constructive alignment and active learning methods in an Accounting course at the University of Economics in Bratislava. Her motivation for incorporating teaching innovation to her course emerged from an observation to which, I think, a good number of educators can relate to. She acknowledged that students’ field of study tends to be related to the level of interest in a specific course. In her case, Commerce students appeared to be less worried than other students in minute details that are essential to Accounting.

The author cleverly included strategies to promote student engagement in applying theory to practice in three sessions that took place in between a first and a second assessment. The innovated sessions introduced post-it, group work, and pair work activities aimed at promoting problem-solving, critical thinking, and collaborative work. The skills practiced during the sessions were expected to engage students and help them improve their performance in the assessments. The results of the study reveal that the exercise was more fruitful in achieving the second of these goals.

In regard to performance, the author compared the student scores before (first assessment) and after teaching innovation (second assessment). The student scores indeed improved from an average of 64% to 76%. A course taught the prior year, without innovation, showed that from the first to the second assessment students also improved, but much less (only 2 percent points). These results encourage innovation of teaching in order to improve student performance, although it would be interesting to control groups by their overall grade scores. In my opinion, this is a very important result that may also contribute to achieving better engagement, as students who perform better may be more prone to participate in class.  

The author could not conclude based on collected data that the teaching innovation produced the expected effect, that is, that active learning techniques promote student engagement. While the survey questions measuring student interest before and after the course reveal no change, on average students reported that they did pay attention to classes. The qualitative data gathered from the instructor’s notes and from an external observer provide contrasting information: the instructor perceived more engagement during the innovation sessions while the observer did not register heightened participation, although the observer attended only one session and could not fully compare the group’s performance.

The chapter systematically documents the results of the adoption of teaching innovation aimed at improving both student interest and performance in an Accounting course. While the results are mixed, the experience is flawlessly analyzed and presented, and the author herself offers avenues for improving the experience in the future. In my view, the chapter offers interesting and practical ideas on how to improve the teaching-learning experience when the topic of the course is not directly related to the students major – something we can all learn from!

Bringing culture back in: a comment on Pechersky’s study on student-centred learning

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Stephan Engelkamp.

Many years ago, I found myself attending a class on intercultural learning, or Etudes culturelles, as the course was called at the time. I was a young Erasmus student, enrolled at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques Strasbourg in France, and part of a large group of international students who would soon be released on Sciences Po’s regular courses. To be fair, I cannot say that I was particularly thrilled by the prospect of attending this seminar. Mostly struggling with my uneasy relationship with the French language, I did not really see the point in discussing cultural stereotypes for weeks and months.

However, this was a mandatory course, and so I attended. For whatever it was worth, it was a good opportunity to get to know my fellow Erasmus students and maybe make some new friends. The seminar turned out to be fun and helpful. What I remember most vividly was what turned out to be the best part of the seminar: discussing different cultural points of view with international students, as competent practitioners of their respective cultures.

This brings me to Alexander Pechersky’s insightful contribution on the potential outcomes of introducing student-centred learning to the curriculum, specifically when teaching fuzzy but enacted concepts such as culture. The chapter reports on the results of a study the author conducted when teaching seminars on intercultural learning, which were offered to local and Erasmus students. The author starts with a contextualisation of his own academic socialisation abroad, reflecting on the different cultures of learning he experienced in different university settings during his academic path. This leads Pechersky to the following assumptions: students with a higher degree of control in student activities should be more satisfied with the learning exercise, better internalise the learning material and gain a deeper understanding of studied concepts.

To test these assumptions, the author developed a quasi-experimental research design for three seminar groups. Each seminar starts with the lecturer’s mini lecture, which is then followed by a quiz as an icebreaker to make students more comfortable to participate in the next step: a student-centred part in which students apply a case study on the session’s subject matter. The design of the three settings varies according to the degree of freedom students have in controlling the student exercise. Student satisfaction and learning outcomes are traced using a survey and participant observation.

As survey results demonstrate, the hypotheses could only be partially corroborated. While the results on learning satisfaction seems to be as expected – the more control students have, the more satisfied they are – results regarding the learning outcomes are somewhat mixed. However, the impressions of the observing colleague seem to suggest that the group with the most control over the learning exercise had the most sophisticated discussions of concepts.

One challenge of the research design may be the limited number of observations, due to the small number of students, which may make it difficult to apply even descriptive statistical methods. To address this methodological issue, the author may have considered assigning reflective essays rather than using surveys.

Methodological issues aside, I suggest an alternative way to account for the unexpected results regarding the students’ learning outcome. As the author rightly states, “[I]in student-centered learning (SCL) the teacher assumes the role of a facilitator and invites students to participate in the learning process by relating information to prior knowledge and discussion with others.” Hence, students’ prior knowledge and experiences may be a key variable in the quasi-experiment. As the seminars focus on intercultural and communication skills, group composition may affect the learning outcome but maybe not in the way the author assumes.

Pechersky theorises that students’ prior experience with student-centred learning may explain the outcome. An alternative explanation may relate to the content of the course, which focuses on inter-cultural learning, and student background, specifically international students. From this angle, students’ experience with intercultural exchange may determine the learning outcomes. International students may be more invested in the subject matter due to their personal situation which probably allows them to bring in their personal experiences more effectively.

In any case, Pechersky’s contribution raises interesting questions about variables of success of student-centred learning. I would love to see a follow-up piece drawing on a larger set of observations! As an Erasmus alumnus, I clearly see the value of taking individual intercultural experiences seriously, both inside and outside the classroom.

To engage youths to study political processes – there are no “one size fits all” methods

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Niina Meriläinen.

Many states of Europe are now experiencing growing social and political passivity of some youths, which may lead to their lifelong marginalization and radicalization. To revert this trend, many university teachers feel committed to encourage and empower their students to become active in their communities, and to play a more active role in the democratic development of societies and in supporting the principles of human rights and rule of law.

In his chapter , Martin Karas, from the University of Economics in Bratislava, reports on various aspects of how to engage non-political science undergraduates. Karas introduced three active learning exercises – a debate, a group analysis of a primary sources, and cut-up cards – to help students to distinguish between various political science concepts, to achieve higher levels of student engagement, to improve knowledge retention, and to create understanding of political actors, issues and practices. While researching the effects of these exercises on student learning, he combined qualitative and quantitative methods.

Whereas active learning methods led to higher levels of student engagement in Karas’ class, they did not significantly affect knowledge retention and understanding. Karas’ research results correlate with the literature findings, which reports the connection between active learning and student engagement, but no robust evidence for the existence of a link between active learning and knowledge retention and understanding.

Karas’ findings are similar with those of Meriläinen, Pietilä, & Varsaluoma (2018) and Meriläinen’s forthcoming research (2019). The later research focuses on the engagement of non-subject students in vocational schools to contribute to social change processes, including law drafting. Naturally, we need to understand that there are various forms of youth engagement and participation to social and political change processes, some that gatekeepers such as officials give credibility, and some that are overlooked and viewed as non-credible by the gatekeepers.

Karas’ research illustrates that the engagement of non-subject students can increase the quantitative participation but may not result in long-term qualitative understanding of the issues, actors and events in the political sphere. This implies that more effective learning methods (and more multidisciplinary research) are needed to achieve lasting and profound awareness, engagement and participation of non-subject students to societal and political change processes.

If we wish to achieve desired change towards equal, human rights based, inclusive and sustainable societies, active citizenship and participation of youths is an essential requirement. Karas’ chapter is an exciting example from this research field. While designing learning methods for non-subject students, various actors working together, such as researchers, teachers, youth workers and volunteers, should take into account several key issues.

This includes making the courses “accessible” for various groups of students including individuals with disabilities, language competences, asylum seekers, and migrants in general, paying attention to power-relations among youths and dissimilar interests and skills of various youths. As they are not a homogenous group that engages with one voice, “one size fits all” teaching and learning method cannot effectively reach all of them. Because youths from various backgrounds should become agenda setters in the democratic development of societies, teaching and learning methods must be designed to address their different needs.

Learning your lines

So I have this colleague, who does a lot of public speaking. And when I say a lot, I mean really a very large pile of it indeed.

I guess this works too

They have to give a TED talk this week and they’re anxious, because they aren’t sure they will remember what it is they have to say.

I found this surprising, given their extensive experience, but also a bit reassuring: it’s easy to assume that just because someone can make it all look rather effortless, that doesn’t mean it is.

At some level, we’re all like a swan: gracefully gliding across the water, while furiously paddling underneath. The only question is the ratio between the two, but it’s always there.

In any case, it got me thinking about how I’d handle the ‘memorise your speech’ thing, not least because I will have given six of the things by the end of next week.

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What’s good for me and what’s good for my students?

Evidently, my existential rut continues.

Last week I had three separate occasions teaching on the same subject, plus also getting filmed talking about that subject too.

I’d been a bit anxious about this concatenation of coverage, even if it was on my research specialisation: talk enough about something and eventually you end up saying all you’ve got to say. Or worse, I might forget who’d I’d said what to whom.

In the end, that was not a problem: I’d been good about defining quite clearly what each session was focused on, so the internal consistency was fine, as was relationship between the different bits.

However, each time I was doing something quite different.

There was one conventional lecture, one set of seminars and one Q&A-type session to support a flipped lecture. Plus that filming.

Now I’m not one to blow my own trumpet, but I gave a good lecture: it flowed, it had coherence, the students were engaged (and occasionally entertained) and I even got a little round of applause at the end.

Lovely.

But it was also the session that I worried gave the least to the audience: they were passive recipients, rather than active learners. In the Q&A and in the seminars, the content was driven by their needs and learning processes: even the filmed lecture is going to become part of a more interactive package.

However, my ability to give lectures seemed to be better than my ability to give the other formats (not that they were bad, to be clear: just not as good as the lecture).

So what to do?

Stick with what I’m best at, or focus on what I understand to be best for my students’ learning?

Of course, I’m setting up a bit of a false choice here: my evaluation of my relative capacities is completely anecdotal, plus I know that the evidence about pedagogic formats isn’t completely nailed down.

However, the point still stands, because our subjective view of such situations shapes how we engage with pedagogy: I think we all know plenty of people who stick with what they know because they’re good at it, or at least better at it than some other approach they’ve not tried before.

The difficulty is separating our anxiety/indifference about new pedagogies from any more objective limitation on our ability to use them. My personal view is that just because I not smashing it in my seminars, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be doing them: instead, I should be trying to identify and address my weaknesses.