Question Time III

As I’ve discussed here and here, I’ve experimented quite a lot with my comparative politics course, which I teach every spring semester. Simon’s post on ridiculous learning got me thinking again about questions — namely how I’ve structured the course around them in non-optimal ways.

I seem to have fixed the problem of students in the audience being unwilling to ask questions of other students who are delivering presentations in class — just require them to do so.  But more significantly, the presentations themselves are frequently based on ill-formed questions.

Vietnam boySimon’s exercise might be the first step in teaching students that a good question is more about process than about subject. Another step in the right direction might be for me to specify the questions that students can use for their presentations. Previously I’ve given students quite a large degree of freedom in choosing presentation topics — they had to be based on reading assignments, but the actual content of the presentations was left to the students’ initiative. This method hasn’t worked very well.

I thought of a possible alternative when reading articles on teaching about the Middle East since the Arab uprisings in the April 2013 issue of PS: Political Science and Politics. My comparative course is divided into a matrix of geographic regions and themes. Previously I’ve grouped students solely according to theme, with each group creating its own presentation for each geographic region. If I assign students to regional groups instead, and prepare questions ahead of time, students might develop a better ability to think comparatively.

For example, I could assign a general question, such as “Why did authoritarian governments fall in the Middle East?” Each group would need to first decide upon the process it needs to use to answer the question and then select a different case to examine.

Or I could provide groups with specific questions on a single case. For example, “What was the relationship between authoritarian government and the military in Tunisia before the revolution?” and “What role did religious organizations play in the revolution in Tunisia?” Again groups would need to first identify how to answer their respective questions.

Either method will require me to prepare lists of sources relevant to the questions students will be presenting on — additional work for me, so I’ll have to think more about this.

Less Is More — Or At Least Just Enough

I’m once again teaching the comparative politics of Asia. When I first arrived at my current university, the course in question was limited to East Asia — China, Japan, and the Koreas. I had to strip out past content on South and Southeast Asia. I recently managed to persuade the powers-that-be that ignoring one-fifth of the world’s population was not a good idea, and the content on India, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc., is back in. Consequently, I’m reviewing old lecture notes and visual aids.

My immediate mental reaction to the change was “how can I possibly jam even more material into a single fourteen week semester? How can I fit in everything that is essential to this subject?” I noticed that I was falling into the trap of assuming that I had to “cover” “everything” to do a good job, when even the undergraduates who eventually become academics remember very little of what they encounter in college.

I think this reaction is something that gets inculcated in us by our professors, and we  unconsciously pass it on to the next generation of students when we teach. We learn to define doing well — whether as a student or a professor — as being able to call forth a plethora of minute details.

So as I look through my lecture notes, I have to constantly remind myself to focus on what not to teach rather than what (in a perfect world) I could teach. I ask myself “will students’ lives twenty years from now be irrevocably changed for the worse if they don’t remember this?” If the answer is “no,” then it becomes much easier to delete it from the list of things that I think I must cover.

Student Teaching

I’ve got one of my favorite subjects coming up next semester — comparative politics of Asia — and I’m going to experiment with MIT’s Visualizing Cultures (VC) curriculum. My goals are to introduce students to the scholarly interpretation of visual source material and to get them to learn course content by teaching it to their peers.

I’m going to divide the class into teams; each team will work on one of the topical units in the VC database. Each student will need to complete the following tasks:

  • Write a 2-3 page essay that analyzes an image (or images) from his or her team’s unit, using the VC-provided guidelines.
  • Read a teammate’s essay and write a 1-2 page critique.

Each team will then lead the class through an exercise on the team’s topic that uses images from the VC collection. Instructions for these exercises are conveniently available on the VC website.

The class will evaluate each team’s presentation and teaching, and students will evaluate their own performance and that of their teammates. I’ll factor the results into the participation component of each student’s course grade.

After a VC topic has been taught, students will take a online quiz. The quiz questions will focus on the essays contained in the VC website — written by top scholars in their respective fields — and the other assigned readings in the course.

The class meets twice per week; I’ve scheduled the “student teaching” for once each week so that it becomes expected and routine. I’m expecting that the whole process — analyzing images to answer questions posed by the scholars who have organized the VC curriculum, two individual writing assignments, collaboration and teaching, and a quiz — will help students learn content and skills more effectively than standard lectures.

One last note: the image collections hosted by the Visualizing Cultures project are currently focused on China and Japan in the contemporary period. I’m hoping that the project eventually expands to include India.

Tinkering

When I was a doctoral student, I once spent several weeks teaching Asian history to teenagers at Barrack Obama’s former high school. I vowed never again to put myself in the position of having to prep for class at 1:00 a.m. five nights a week. This is why I’m already tinkering with syllabi for the courses I’ll be teaching in the spring.

In comparative politics, I’m going to repeat my experiment with modular architecture, but I’ve removed the globalization theme — the topic has morphed into an entirely separate course, and conveniently I’ll be able to some of the material I put together last year.

I’m also going to continue using rocket pitch competitions, but with individual rather than group presentations. I’ve noticed that teams of students haven’t figured out how to productively generate a presentation — they tend to share tasks equally across all members of the team, rather than delegate and let people utilize their strengths. The end result is four students standing in the front of the room alternately talking (this is despite my use of Shark Tank as an example of what not to do).

Based on my colleague’s recommendation, part of the final grade will be based on the student’s quality of failure. Here is the syllabus language I’m using, based on what was published in the original Inside Higher Ed column:

This course requires realizing that progress requires curiosity, risk-taking, and failure. Making a mistake leads to the question “Why was that wrong?” and by answering this question, we are better able to develop new insights and eventually succeed. You’ll need to fail regularly to do well in this course because part of your final grade is based on your “quality of failure.” At the end of the semester, you’ll need to write a 2-3 page double-spaced essay analyzing your failures, why they occurred, and what you have learned from them. Your essay must conclude with an assessment of the learning you have gained through your mistakes in the course (a grade that ranges from 0 – meaning “I never failed” or “I learned nothing from failing” to 10 – meaning “I learned in new and creative ways from my failures”).

More Thoughts on Modular Course Architecture

My spring semester is over. Undergraduate students have completed an anonymous evaluation of my comparative politics course, in which I experimented with modular architecture. In this course, students chose one of five different themes to focus on for the semester — political identity, democratization, revolution, genocide, or globalization. The themes were cross-indexed by geographic region; for example, in a particular week, all students’ readings were about Latin America. At the beginning of the semester, all students read journal articles on all five themes as an introduction.

A few non-scientific conclusions about what students wrote in their evaluations:

A few students — despite regular reminders — refuse to acknowledge the importance of  the “plan ahead” concept. Yes, this book is 300 pages long. No, it’s not something you can read the night before the essay on it is due. That’s why I give you a syllabus at the beginning of the semester.

Some choice is good, but too much is bad. The reading assignments for the genocide theme were all books. I let each student in this theme choose three books to read, which meant that a given student wasn’t obligated to read anything for some of the geographic regions. A few students said they felt lost in class discussions as a result.

Groups needed to have members that were all doing the same thing. Throughout the semester, students had to do group presentations that consisted of close-readings of assigned texts. Students did not select the themes in equal numbers, so some of the groups that I created contained students who had chosen different themes. Students in these mixed groups said this hampered collaboration — one or two members of the group would contribute nothing. My expectation was that students would teach content to each other while they were putting their presentations together. So that didn’t work out. In the future I will either need to drop this kind of collaborative task or figure out a way to ensure relatively equally-sized groups, each containing students who have chosen the same theme.

Class discussions helped students see connections between different historical events and apply theoretical concepts to new situations.  One of my personal goals as a teacher is to facilitate students’ ability to  integrate knowledge, so I would like to develop more formal ways of doing this — graded writing assignments, if possible — in the future.

Rocket Pitch

I’ve decided to use an exercise that I witnessed at the NEGMA conference on innovation — the rocket pitch. At the conference, competitors for venture capital had three minutes each to sell their ideas to the audience, who voted for their favorites using play Monopoly money.

I’m going to try this in my comparative politics course. Students have already given three group presentations in class. They’ve gone fairly well but sometimes their content has been fairly similar and I can sense students losing interest. For the remaining three presentations required of each group, there will be an element of competition. On days that presentations are scheduled, each student will be given a $10, a $20, and a $50 bill. Each group will have four minutes to present, with three minutes to respond to questions. After all groups have presented, I will call members of each group to the front of the room to individually vote on their favorites using the money (I’m thinking of simply laying down sheets of paper on a table, labeled “Group 1,” “Group 2,” etc., so students can see money piling up.)

I’ve informed students that they can distribute the money however they want, except that voting for their own group is prohibited. Members of the group that receives the largest sum of money will have two points added to their final average.

For those who are interested, this webpage has links to free print-your-own money.

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.

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 . . .

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