Let there be music!

The sight of a piece whose authors include an erstwhile ALPS colleague on the use of music in teaching politics neatly coincides with the past week’s European extravaganza of music/politics: Eurovision.

I’ll assume that a good number of you know about this, but for the culturally-void here’s a quick run-down.

Each member of the European Broadcast Union gets to submit a song for a competition, where everyone gets to vote, but not for their country. Someone wins.

Obviously, there’s more to it than that.

‘Each member’ obviously doesn’t mean each member does submit, or is allowed to submit. And Australia (very much neither an EBU member nor in (or near) Europe) get to submit for, well, reasons.

And the whole voting thing is quite involved. and occasionally corrupt. Pardon, ‘irregular‘.

Throw in a revolution-triggering song, landmarks on clipboards and opening of borders and you see why it’s catnip to the passing academic.

A quick squizz on Google Scholar throws up thousands of results, from imagery to regional voting blocks, LGBT+ identities to governance. This year you’ve also had a Zelensky dimension too.

Someone’s even made a lovely dataset of voting for you to play with. To help with things like analysis of the popular v. jury voting.

Throw in the wildly varying conceptions of what might constitute a popular song and if you struggle to make a class out of some aspect of this, then you are really not trying.

And since you didn’t ask, here’s my personal favourite of recent years:

‘king Charles III

So there’s been a coronation here.

You might have missed it: I sadly found that I had other, unavoidable, commitments all weekend.

Given that many of our readers might be working in states that have made the (not actually that difficult) leap to becoming republics, this is maybe a good point to suggest some resources for class discussion about constitutional monarchies, and whether they are morally defensible.

I raise this partly because of the arrival of someone new on the throne of the United Kingdom, but partly because it’s also a good way into some basic questions about constitutional design and the relationship between governors and governed.

Moreover, as much as you saw a bunch of Brits all dressed up in union jack-print clothing and cheering the pagent of it all, there were plenty of others from whom it wasn’t a thing at all.

To get a sense of the ambivalence around the coronation and the installation of Charles III, visit the BBC website to see the kinds of stories being created: not quite the effusive or fawning position you might have expected (even if the BBC isn’t a government-funded news channel, Elon).

The Guardian offers a more critical take, on the back of recent investigations into the Royal Family’s extensive assets, but also some archive content to further point up How Times Have Changed.

You might also explore the semiotics of more pro-Royal outlets like The Sun or the Daily Mail. The framing of the Royals as celebrities here is perhaps my main takeaway; any notion of leadership feels distinctly in second place.

Which begs a question of why we put up with it all?

There’s plenty of polling on this (here and here, for example) which highlights the benign neglect of most people: it’s fine, but also not that important.

The question of what you’d replace the Crown with is also a not unimportant point: even Republic, a key protest group, are clearer about problems than solutions.

And for a more scholarly overview, there’s this from my colleagues at UK in a Changing Europe.

Finally, if that’s not enough to stimulate class discussion, try a taste comparison of the official dishes of the past two coronations: Coronation Chicken (Elizabeth II), and, um, Coronation Quiche (Charles III).

The odd situation of assessment

It’s May 2023 here in the UK, which means we are having so many public holidays that it feels like Belgium.

As a distraction from celebrating the arrival of someone else that we didn’t select into the position of Head of State, academics have been more focused on the latest stage of strike action by the main union, the UCU.

Right now, that means a Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB). This means not returning marks/grades to the university, which in turn means there are gaps in calculating degree classifications for completing students.

Rather than get into the mechanics of all this, I’ll instead focus on the new approach that employers have taken to this.

In the past, there would be a relatively small deduction of pay for participating in a MAB: 10-20% was the typical range, reflecting the amount of time that might be involved, plus a bit for the disruption it caused.

This time around, employers seem to be going for a rather different model:

Continue reading “The odd situation of assessment”

Is my class going to work?

Not the target audience

I’m in the unusual position of getting some feedback from students on some teaching that will be happening at the end of this year.

Our distance-learning model means we build our resources a long way in advance, so we have the opportunity to get some road-testing of new elements beforehand, through a scheme run by the university.

In this case, that meant inviting a bunch of undergrads to try out the asynchronous negotiation exercise I’ve been working on for the past couple of years for our new Masters in IR.

Sadly, only a handful of those invites turned into feedback. While all positive, it does still make me wonder whether it’ll work in practice when our students get to it shortly before Christmas.

And it raises the more general question of how we can do this for people in more regular settings: typically, we only find out if our class is going to work when we deliver it.

With that in mind, there are several things we might do to improve the chances of that happening.

Firstly, we can follow good design principles. That means using our generic knowledge about course design to create something new. Having clear learning objectives and ensuring alignment between these, the activity and any assessment is the obvious go-to, but we might also consider what we know about how students behave and about the impact of the various constraints we operate under.

Oddly, this can be harder to remember to do when we have a ‘standard’ session than when we try for something more original or innovative. A lecture might not break any new ground in its delivery, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make something that sucks: you have to work on being clear about your purpose and how you’re using your time to achieve that.

If we follow the insights that basic pedagogy teaches us, then we are already much more likely to hit our goals.

Second up, we can talk it through. Teaching isn’t a heroic struggle, where one woman/man does it all on their own, but a collective endeavour: we help each other to help students learn.

In all the major simulation activities I have built, I have also sought the advice and input of colleagues, both within my institution and beyond it. Their ideas and comments have been a major asset and opened up a lot of ideas that I wouldn’t have had on my own, certainly not before trying things out with my students.

There’s really no downside in sharing your teaching practice: you get useful input, they get a warm glow of being helpful (plus someone they can ask for advice in return), you all get a stronger community of practice. So if you don’t do it already, try it.

Finally, we can wargame it. This is really only necessary for major projects, where the costs of failure are relatively high.

Basically, you become the most pessimistic person you can think to be and ask for each step of your activity ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’, and then think about ways to avoid, minimise and address those things.

You used to do this when you started out teaching and asked yourself ‘what if they ask a question?’: like that, but with the confidence in your abilities that has developed through practice. [Which possibly leads you to ask ‘what if they don’t ask any questions?’, but hey].

Sitting down and working through all the worst-case scenarios is helpful for the same reason as the previous idea: it takes things out of you and places you in someone else’s shoes. Here, you’re actively empathising with the student.

If you want a single take home on this, then it’s that the more you think about how things might (not) work, the more likely it is that they will work when needed. Failure to prepare leads to preparing for failure, and all that.

What’s the point of conferences?

I know we’ve been around this one before, this is an increasingly common question.

This week, it’s been brought back to the front of my mind by a couple of things. First, there is the impending departure by my significant other across the seas to a conference about which a degree of ambivalence is being expressed. Second, there was this thoughtful post from Jenny Thatcher which I heartily recommend:

The crappy response to Jenny’s critique would be ‘pfft, sociologists’, but it would also be to deny seeing pretty much all of this at politics/IR conferences over the years (like Jenny, it’s not finger-pointing at particular things, just more the general vibe).

Academic conferences were built for a different time, like a lot of other bits of academic life: before we had the internet, physical co-location was the only viable way to have discussions about research at any speed. Sure, you could write a letter, but it’s not the same.

Add in a big dose of commercialisation for all involved and the tightening of the labour market and the mix that Jenny describes can be found across the sector: systemic inequalities, predatory behaviour of all too many kinds, stasis.

If the piece resonates, then it’s also because I chair an research association that holds its annual conference as a key part of what it does. While it’s not as central or as exclusive an activity for our overall profile as it is for other associations I know of, it still is A Thing.

So what to do?

Continue reading “What’s the point of conferences?”

Fostering exchange (and an invitation to come visit)

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans, Maastricht University.

A few weeks ago, many of you visited the ISA conference in Montreal. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend myself, but I was able to read up on some of the many interesting discussions on teaching and learning that you seemed to have had. Indeed, this blog and others (I also shamelessly promote our own) are my go-to places for learning about and engaging with such discussions, just like I always attend dedicated teaching and learning conference panels and days (for instance, during the annual UACES conference) and enjoy attending teaching staff professionalisation workshops here in Maastricht. In fact, I coordinated and organised quite a few of those before taking on my current role of associate dean for education in September of last year.

The value of these forms of exchanging experiences and ideas cannot be overestimated. In fact, I think that they should even be emphasised and pursued much more in a time in which teaching and learning seem to be gaining importance in academic careers in at least some places. For instance, in the Netherlands universities are now starting to implement a programme called Recognition & Rewards, which is all about valuing different academic careers (read more about how this is being implemented at Maastricht University here).

At the start of this year, I had my best exchange experience so far. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend two full weeks at the University of Leeds on an Erasmus+ mobility grant. Leeds has embarked on an ambitious programme that I wanted to know more about, called ‘Curriculum Redefined’. But I also used the opportunity to shadow my friend Simon Lightfoot, who’s in a similar position as I am, but has much more experience than I do.

Those two weeks have been among the best and most inspiring of my time in academia. I talked to many students and colleagues from a whole range of disciplines, attended super interesting events and workshops, and hosted two workshops on problem-based learning myself. I learned a lot and brought home many new ideas on issues such as assessment, decolonisation, and the hidden curriculum. But it also became clear again that the grass is not always greener on the other side; not only do we encounter similar challenges, but sometimes the solutions for these challenges back home are not that bad at all.

I also was reminded again that words matter and that a sense of belonging is important, for students and teaching staff. In fact, one of my key take-aways is the need to “find your own people”, as a participant in one of the workshops put it. I think that this blog is one way of doing so, just like attending teaching and learning events and workshops. Yet, when it comes to developing and reflecting upon your own experience nothing beats spending a little bit more time in another place.

I have already decided that I want to do more of this. I’m not quite sure yet how to finance it, but, ideally, I’d want to spend one week at another university each year. Perhaps connect these visits to conference attendance? Frame it in the form of a project? Something that I will still have to explore further.

But in my experience, it is equally rewarding to welcome colleagues here. Just the other month, Christopher Huggins visited us from the University of Suffolk to learn more about Maastricht University and problem-based learning. We had many interesting discussions and I’m looking forward to contributing to an online Suffolk event in July to continue those discussions.

In short, while I may not be stating anything new to the converted teaching and learning geeks who read this blog (‘my own people’), do feel free to view this post as an invitation for you to get in touch to see if we can arrange a visit to Maastricht!

How to debrief a simulation

Being able to see what’s happening in your session is probably also important

One of the topics that popped up at various points at TLC and ISA was the question of debriefing.

Everyone who does active learning and sims work agrees it’s important and there was lots of head-nodding whenever it was mentioned. Yes, it’s essential for reconnecting students’ learning within the activity back into their wider understanding and development, so why wouldn’t you agree?

However, at neither conference did anyone really get into what happens in a debrief.

Part of me nearly jumped straight into ‘I’ll write a blog’ mode, but then sensible me rocked up to say ‘maybe check to see if anyone’s already written something about this first’, which is good advice. Well done, sensible me.

And there’s loads of stuff. Here are some highlights:

Continue reading “How to debrief a simulation”

What to do about grading

This guest post comes from Eric K. Leonard, Shenandoah University

I had the pleasure of spending last week at the annual International Studies Association conference in Montreal.  It was a pleasure because I got to hear so many interesting discussions on pedagogy and honestly, ISA wasn’t always that way.  I attended my first ISA meeting in 1997 and the number of pedagogical panels was limited, to say the least.  

But as the years (actually decades but that makes me sound really old) have progressed, ISA has truly embraced the push by members to create space for pedagogical discussions at the annual meeting. I know for me personally, it has made attendance at this conference a joy. 

Amongthe plethora of pedagogical workshops, roundtable discussions, and panels that I attended one topic seemed to keep emerging – the assessment of students or grading. And within that topic, there was a lot of buzz around the idea of “ungrading”.  

I will admit that I generated some of the buzz since I am a vocal advocate of this method.  But in several discussions, this topic was raised without my prompting, albeit not always with the same enthusiasm and positivity that I hold for ungrading.  One thing was shared by most in the room and that was a disdain for grading. In one session, Simon Usherwood even mentioned that his appointment does not require grading!  Frankly, based on the level of jealousy that erupted from his confession, I was surprised he made it out of the room in one piece. So maybe we all can’t stop grading, but what would it mean to start ungrading? 

First, let me state that I am not a fan of the term ‘ungrading’.  As one of my students pointed out, they still get a grade at the end of the semester, so is it really ungrading? I much prefer self-reflective grading or something less clunky (suggestions are welcome). 

Second, ungrading is not one method of assessment.  It entails a lot of different methods that include specification grading, labor-based grading, minimal grading, authentic assessment, and others. The commonality amongst these methods is that students primarily self-assess through a process of self-reflection.  

The method that I employ is often considered the most extreme form of ungrading because as the instructor, I don’t grade any of my students’ work.  Because I teach in a hybrid format that includes a flipped learning model (maybe a conversation for another post) students submit a written assignment every week of the semester.  However, I don’t put a letter grade on those submissions.  

Instead, I provide students feedback to assist in their improvement of future submissions and to push students in terms of how they think about the week’s topic.  So throughout the semester, students never receive a letter grade.  But my university requires that I input a grade at the end of the semester.  

The way in which I ascertain student grades is through a process of self-assessment.  At three different points in the semester, students complete a self-assessment of their learning process.  This self-assessment includes questions about what they learned, what sparked curiosity, and questions about attendance, the number of assignments missed, if any assignments were late, participation level and quality of their comments during our classroom discussions, the effort a student has put forth, and the overall quality of their work, which can be compared to an “Answer Key” that contains examples of exemplary work from students in the course.  After students consider all of these different variables, they are asked to submit a grade and justify that grade.  

I explain to students that in most instances, I either accept that grade or input a higher grade.  And historically, that is the case.  However, I reserve the right to request a conference with a student if I am struggling to see how that student justified their grade.  In my experience, these conferences are rare (less than 1% of students per semester) and typically conclude with the student gaining a better understanding of the self-assessment both in terms of its criteria and its purpose.  In two years of ungrading, I had one student that refused to rethink their grade after a conference and therefore received a grade that I struggled to justify.  

With that brief accounting of how I employ ungrading, let me remark on a few critiques that typically emerge around this form of assessment.  

The first is that students, especially certain demographic groups, will simply overvalue their performance. In other words, students won’t truly self-reflect on their work and they will just provide themselves with a higher grade.  

I had a similar fear when starting this process but I can honestly say this has not been the case.  As mentioned above, only one student was adamant about their earned grade, despite my pointing out statements in their own self-assessment that didn’t seem to square with the perceived grade.  Because my policy is to let students grade themselves, I allowed that student’s perceived grade to stand.  But as mentioned, this has happened ONCE in two years.  Ballpark number, that is 1 in 250 students.  And a quick aside, that student would not have fit the demographic that the literature tells us would contest their grade. 

Second, as one participant stated during a panel at ISA, ungrading is “fake.”  I think what they meant by this statement is that ungrading does not accomplish what it claims to.  

An incomplete list of ungrading claims is that: 

  • Ungrading relieves the stress of grading and promotes greater learning rather than a focus on the grade.  
  • It encourages greater collaboration rather than competition among the students and between the professor and the students.
  •  It recognizes the subjective nature of traditional grading, especially in essay submissions, and allows students to agency in their learning process.

Given the context of the conversation, I believe the “fake” comment was directed at this final claim.  But what claims like this one fails to accept is that when an instructor grades an essay, research paper, or dissertation, there is a subject component to it and the student has no agency.  Thus, that is also fake.  

If we provide students the opportunity to be part of the discussion on their grades, we might get more thoughtful students that are more interested in learning rather than their GPA.  And although they do not have complete agency over the grading process, since I am creating the self-assessment form and providing an understanding of what exemplary work looks like, the level of agency is much higher than in a traditional assessment format.  I don’t understand why people see this as a dichotomous relationship in that students either have agency or they don’t.  The reality is that any increased level of agency for students in the educational process is a good thing and I believe ungrading serves to fulfill that goal.     

One final thought on ungrading.  And this is probably the most important point I can make in this post. 

Ungrading is not for everyone.  

Just like any other pedagogical method, ungrading has to fit with your teaching style, your approach to higher education, and your students.  Thus, this post is not an attempt to advocate that everyone adopt ungrading and to chastise those that refuse. Instead, it is an attempt to shed light on how one professor implements this assessment method in his classroom.  

You will notice that I didn’t discuss in any detail the literature on why we should stop grading or how it benefits the learning process.  This literature exists (in abundance) and engaging it might persuade some to give ungrading a try, but the question that every instructor has to ask themselves is whether they think this could work for their pedagogical approach and their students.  I answered that question with a resounding yes (and I have the student comments to support this claim)!  But that doesn’t mean your answer is the same.    

Notes from a conference III, or: why you hate grading

It’s probably bad to write three posts, one straight after the other, but hey: tough.

We’ve got more grading/assessment-related posts coming from people more on it than me, but a couple of times in the first days of ISA, we’ve had the classic teaching-related panel moment of everyone nodding along to ‘but everyone hates grading, right?’

[Parenthetically, one of those moments led to talk of how good it would be if our jobs didn’t including grading at all, whereupon I noted my job doesn’t include it, to many jealous looks. I’m mostly happy that I have so little grading to do (like a dozen scripts a year little), but part of me does miss it, mainly for the reasons set out here.]

The obvious question that no one really seems to keen to investigate is why we all seem to hate grading.

After all, it’s the main mechanism we have for evaluating student learning and, by extension, whether our teaching is getting the results we intend. It’s more rigorous than a chat at the end of class about learning gain or the impressions we glean from observing debates in the classroom, so why are we so down on it?

Let’s consider the usual suspects.

First up, ‘it’s repetitive’. Sure, if you have a pile of a hundred essays on the same topic, that is super-dull, especially if there’s a lot of overlap in the intellectual sources your students used (your lectures, the core textbook, the readings you suggested): it’s a rehash/mangling of what you’ve taught them and it’s probably not pretty.

So don’t make that your assessment. Give them choice, make them responsible for finding their own sources, get them to bring something more personal and individual.

My old negotiation course asked students for their only assessment point to tell me what they had learnt from the course: I was emphatic that it could be absolutely anything, as long as it was grounded in what had happened in class and was connected out to whatever literature they had found useful. Result was such a rich variety, every time I ran that course.

Second up, ‘it takes such a long time.’ Partly that’s about the time-elongating/mind-numbing of reading the same stuff a bunch of times that we just discussed, but partly it’s our demands of the process. Often, we normalise the essay of X pages or Y thousand words as proof of learning, even as we rool our eyes at ‘all that text’.

So go for concision, not length. You know it’s harder to produce a good short text than a good long one: the demand to focus much more tightly on what’s important, to lose the blah, is something we find tricky (to judge by the number of ropey abstracts you and I have read). Set a much shorter length piece, or ask for a 2-page policy brief, or a poster, or an infographic, or a 3 minute video.

Of course, shorter assessment outputs doesn’t automatically mean quicker grading, but it helps. As does trying things like videoing your feedback, or asking students to make their own evaluations of their or their peers’ work.

Finally, ‘students find it boring/unpleasant (and so do I)‘. Find me the student who loves to do assessments and I’ll just start wondering what happened to them to make it come to this. I get that everyone thinks it’s an imposition and chore.

So involve your students in finding assessments that engage them more/turn them off less. Amanda’s breakfast exercise for research methods is my go-to here: super-fun, super-engaging allowing them to really capture their experiences in an assessment.

If assessment is about cementing the bond of teacher and learner, then why wouldn’t you want to bring them in to find a mutually-satisfactory assessment regime?

Unless you’re working under a highly prescriptive institutional system, you hold the power to make your assessment and grading less boring. So use it.

Notes from a conference II

Probably a learning moment here to, but more just a reminder that we are an award-winning blog

Apart from my worries, ISA is also making me think about the purpose of teaching.

I’d been thinking about this anyway, partly because of this post from John Warner that popped up on my timeline recently.

The instrumentalisation of education as a stepping stone to the next thing, working, has been around for a long while now and it is pernicious in its compromising of student engagement: what they are told they need is a good grade, not a good education and given the incentive structure we shouldn’t be surprised if they act accordingly.

I’m guessing you’ve had these students in your class, more or less often. Either the ‘just tell me what I have to do to get a good grade’ version or the ‘my corporeal self is present, but not my mind’ version.

Regardless of whether we cleave to a knowledge transmission model of teaching, or (more likely among our readership) an active learning approach, you still rely on the student being present and engaged.

So what to do?

One of the conversations I sat in on here spoke about teaching as problematisation; making things uncertain to open up space for reflection, debate and development.

I like that idea. We aren’t here to solve the world for our students, but to invite them to create their own understandings of situations and problems, to recognise and act on their agency in that world.

But again, if our students aren’t in the metaphorical room, what good is challenging conventionalities?

My reflection is that much of what I have done over the years is try to distract students from their learning.

Using games and simulations, taking the class out onto the campus lawns, literally removing the physical and conceptual constraints of ‘the class’: it’s all grounded in a notion of ‘I’m not expecting this: what is it?’

The disruption of the moment hopefully leads to the delight of doing something different, and that hopefully leads further to ‘dammit, I’ve been learning stuff’.

Colleagues here have spoken about how alums tell them how they remember the random moments – the simulation, the talk of Russian hookers, the exercise with the blindfold – long after they forget the ins and outs of whatever IR theory was on the syllabus that week.

It’s why I will always argue that those who say fun can’t be serious are wrong.

Precisely because fun isn’t (linguistically) serious, it opens up the possibility of serious learning, of helping students to gain insight from all of their interactions with the world.

That’s why I can learn from the movie I watch on the plane, why I can learn from watching my child play with Lego, why I can learn from a big erection (you’re not clicking that link, are you?): because all these things are surprising moments to learn. The only difference is that I’m consciously looking for that.

Our present-not-present students are not, but that doesn’t mean we can’t keep on challenging their assumptions about what ‘learning’ is and keep on offering them cause to think.

It’s not foolproof, it’s not a comprehensive solution, but it’s a way in.