Today’s lucky winner is…

It’s teaching time again here in the UK, so I’m rolling out some new (for me) techniques to build student participation and engagement.  This semester’s lucky group are our first year undergraduates (freshmen), with whom I’m trying out a whole range of innovations.

The one that’s most consequential for them is my randomising of seminar contributions.  For each seminar, the group has to produce a one-page summary of the topic under discussion.  To do this, the seminar leader picks out a name at random (using labelled sizzle-sticks): that person is then the rapporteur for the session, with responsibility for the write-up.  A second name is picked to lead the discussion, starting off with a 5 minute presentation.

This requires everyone to have prepared a presentation: those that haven’t, get asked to leave the seminar and spend the time so doing (to be emailed to the seminar leader at the end of the hour).  It also requires students to take responsibility to manage themselves: the seminar leader is there only to get students out of holes of their own making, rather than telling them what to think or do.  The fact that everyone in the room has got presentation notes means that they all have something to fall back on to.

It’s only the first week of using this approach, but some points are already evident.  Firstly, the quality of the discussion does depend on those leading it: the presenter and the rapporteur both need to be relatively active in getting thoughts out of colleagues.  Secondly, it’s very easy for the group to drift about, rather than focusing on the task of producing a summary and they need to directed towards this clearly and often.  Thirdly, there is a potential effect that some students might stop attending, either they haven’t prepared, or because they are worried about being selected.  This hasn’t happened yet, but I will be keeping a close eye on it, as well as stressing to students the collective nature of the work.

The summaries I’ve seen so far suggest that this does work in helping students to reflect and organise their thoughts, as well as integrating them with others’.  Whether it is enough to get them through the exam in four weeks’ time is another matter.

The Durango Zip Code learning moment

Somewhat incredibly, it’s nearly a year since the APSA Learning & Teaching conference in Albuquerque, where the idea for this blog first took seed.  with this year’s event in Washington looming, I was taken back to reflecting on what I’d learnt from my time at my first US conference and my first thought was a bit surprising.

Prior to the conference, I was lucky enough to be able to take some time to drive around the Four Corners region, seeing the amazing scenery and generally relaxing.  One day I drove into Durango, CO., famous (to me) for its mountain-biking and (to others) for its beautiful location, nestled in the San Juan mountains.  After a long day on the road, I was looking forward to dropping off my bags at the hotel, then checking out the sights.

I’d booked my hotel the day before, and I had a zip code and a map, so I was all sorted.  However, when I got to the spot on the map, there was no hotel, only a liquor store. Obviously, I’d just passed it, so I backed up, and drove past each of the surrounding blocks – nothing.  So I checked my maps again and ended up in the liquor store car park again.  I applied the logic of the street numbering system and noted the numbers of the properties, but nothing matched up.

So I asked someone – the concierge of a hotel near where my hotel should be.  He nodded thoughtfully, and informed me that this happened a lot, and my hotel was ‘just down the road’.  I headed just down the road, until I reached the edge of town, but no hotel: I turned back and shortly found myself in the liquor store car park again.

I asked someone else – the concierge of another hotel near where my hotel should be.  He also told me this happened a lot and said the same as the other guy.  I noted that I’d tried that.  He explained that ‘just down the road’ in this context meant about 8 miles out of town. 15 minutes later, I was checking in.

I hope the parallels to learning in the classroom are obvious.  Even when we give students the tools to analyse situations, those tools don’t always help and can even mislead.  Likewise, it can be hard for students to ask for help: it feels like an admission of defeat – certainly, in my case, I managed five days and 1000+ miles of driving without any other problems at all.  And when help is requested, it might not be sufficiently unpacked to make appropriate sense to the student: what use is it really, to say “improve the structure of your work”?

Durango’s a lovely place and I learnt something there that I hope I have made good use of since.  Next time, you see a student metaphorically driving round and round the block, keep that in mind.

More or less?

It’s the time of year when I’m putting together my notes for the coming semester’s teaching.  As part of that, I’m making all my powerpoint presentations too, so that they can be posted on our virtual learning environment.  This is in line with my thinking that students should know what’s coming in advance, so they don’t spend their time trying to divine my purpose as they sit in the class itself. However, in this post, I’d like to focus more on the content of the presentations rather than their availability.

Broadly speaking, there are three schools of thought that i have encountered over the years.  The first (which is almost completely vanished now) is that powerpoint is the work of the devil and should be fought as such: ‘I was taught using only a blackboard and velum scrolls’ [I characterise slightly here].  The second, and most common, is that powerpoint presentations are useful and should contain all of the key points of the class.  Thirdly, my view and less common, is that presentations are useful, but should only provide a bare framework.

Such distinctions might seem trivial, but powerpoint does still hold the dubious honour of being the only subject about which I have seen an academic colleague (not of this institution, I hasten to add) have a shouting fit – too many words on a slide being the crime in question on this case.  So clearly, it’s something that moves people.

For those that have seen my presentations, they are sparse: much more than a handful of words on a handful of slides for a lecture and I get concerned that I’m tying myself down too rigidly.  But the main concern is that being too prescriptive in my presentation also makes students too prescriptive in their thinking: I want to open up their minds to the possibilities of a subject, not close it down to a ‘right way’ of looking at it.  Thus, since my lectures are often trying to be opening gambits in a subject, it is more useful to give bare dimensions and elements for students to play with, rather than a constrained list.  Moreover, since I’m writing the presentations now, I want to leave myself the flexibility to address additional points that come up through the weeks that are not apparent now, so letting me reflect the students’ learning process.

In brief, I am very comfortable with my approach and I can defend it.  By the same token, colleagues are comfortable defending their more comprehensive approach, as a means of ensuring students have a substantial repository of knowledge.  In my role as School Director of Learning & Teaching, my main concern is that an approach works for the people involved (both faculty and students): in the immortal words of the theme from ‘Diff’rent Strokes’:

The world don’t move
to the beat of just one drum.
What might be right for you
may not be right for some.

“What’s that got to do with anything…?”

One of the constant challenges one faces in teaching is one of relevance.  Curricula are designed by committees of academics, who tend to work on the basis of “what does a student need to know in order to understand our subject?”  However, the number of students who learn a subject just in order to become invested in that subject just for itself is small: that many of those few that do, typically go on to become faculty in the future merely perpetuates the cycle.

Instead, university study is a means to an end, a necessary stopping point to some other putative career.  And this is where relevance really comes in: I have to recognise that very few of my students are going to become either political scientists or politicians.  This means that unless they are able to see that what they are learning has some relation to their lives, it is difficult to engage properly. Obviously, in PolSci this is often a comparative simple task, since the world around us provides ample justification: there’s always something we can draw by way of illustration.  But even then, I get students asking the question of the title: my relevance might not be theirs.

Part of this is timeliness – apposite examples do not always appear just when one is running a class.  With this in mind, I have tried a couple of different technologies that can serve to bridge this time gap.  Firstly, delicious offers a communal bookmarking system, to allow a collection of relevant material to be built up.  However, I have found it just that bit too involved to really get into, so I can’t really comment further.  By contrast, since becoming a twitter user late last year (@usherwood), the ease of posting up links to useful material, and the scope for interaction with other users has proved very good at flagging up timely and relevant content to students (and anyone else who follows).  By tagging tweets with module codes one can further direct people to what is relevant.

Again, twitter isn’t a panacea, but it does help to close some of the gap between what we think is important and relevant and what students think.

Externalising knowledge

One of the main elements that we tend to stress to students is the process of internalisation, of bringing knowledge and skills inside oneself and of making one’s own.  At the same time, we also stress the ability to externalise, in the sense of being able to articulate that knowledge- and skill-set to others, most obviously through assessment.

This week, I have been finding myself in a similar situation, as I prepare my teaching notes for the coming semester.  Since I am of the opinion that teaching should not bear much resemblance to a murder mystery, I like to make my powerpoint slides for lectures available at the start of semester, so students can know roughly what I’m covering.  However, since both my modules this time round are new, I still don’t know exactly what I’m going to say. 

Indeed, in recent years, since I’ve gone further into different pedagogies – all of which stress student-led learning – I’ve found lectures more and more problematic.  Last semester’s use of podcasts was very good for that particular situation (allowing me more time to have practical activities) and highlighted the benefits of moving away from the passive classic lecture model.  In future years, I’m certainly going to look at moving all my lectures to podcasts.

This semester I have a somewhat different situation, since my Intro to the EU module is split into separate lecture and seminar slots.  While I know what each week will cover, I’m also aware that this has historically been a subject that suffers from a poor image and which students often struggle with basic concepts. While I will be using some activities such as ‘EU with t-shirts’ (below), I also want to retain some flexibility in my lectures to match student progress.

The upshot of this is that my lecture notes have become ever briefer.  While this merely confirms my status as the faculty member with the most telegraphic powerpoints, I’d like to think that it will also benefit students.  Instead of feeling that they can just take my powerpoints and use them for revision, they will instead need to attend my classes in order for those keywords to make real sense and for them to be able to internalise that for themselves.

That’s the theory: only time will tell if it pays off.

Buying in buy-in

After a very pleasant Christmas and New Year – marred only by over-eating on my part – we’re back in the saddle here, although our students now have four weeks of revision/exams before we start our new semester in February, so it’s a still rather quiet time.

Today is the deadline for the reflective portfolio that is the sole piece of assessment for my negotiating politics module.  In the UK, because of the quality assurance systems we have to use, formal assessment is subject to both internal second-marking (by another member of faculty) and external marking (by faculty from another university), to ensure national parity of grading.  This has meant that there is a strong pressure towards a small number of pieces of assessment for any given module, not least because more pieces also often means more regression to the mean, so a lot of the micro-assessments (as I’d see them) that we’ve seen discussed on this blog have not been viable options for me to use.

However, this doesn’t mean I can’t work quite flexibly within my one piece of assessment.  As I’ve noted in previous postings, I’ve set informal formative pieces of work to help students get into the reflective mode and, more importantly, I’ve talked consistently since October about the way in which the assessment can most simply be completed by working on it throughout the taught sessions, little and often.  Particularly for a subject such as this, timely reflection is essential.  Much as I’d love all my students to want to engage for the love of the subject, I’m enough of a realist to know that doesn’t always happen, so incentivising behaviour that works towards my goals is a key strategy.

My problem is this.  In the past week, I’ve had more queries about the portfolio than in the past two months (i.e. after the introductory session for the module).  This suggests two things: firstly, that in some cases students have left their work until the last moment, and secondly, that my incentivising hasn’t been incentivising enough.  Neither of these statements will cause too much surprise to anyone, but still it rankles that people don’t always choose the path of least resistance.

With this in mind, I’m going to be going back to the drawing board on assessment.  In particular, once I’ve marked the portfolios, I’ll be looking at the grades to see if any of the various things I tried through the semester can be picked up, in terms of improved (or worsened) performance.  Then I will have to decide whether having an intermediate submission point during the semester might be a helpful device in encouraging students to get work when they might best be able to the most out of their reflection.

Return of the Sticks

It’s nearly the Christmas break here in England, but before I jet off to my chalet for a few week’s powder-skiing with some minor royals, (inevitably) Kim Kardasian and (oddly) Piers Morgan, I’m going to look forward to next semester’s teaching.

In particular, I’m looking at a new module that I have, an introduction to European integration for first-years/freshmen. My central aim in designing this module was to avoid the usual problem with this subject, namely a perceived high level of difficulty and an associated problem of engagement.  With this in mind, I’ve aimed to create learning spaces that privilege student activity.

Firstly, seminar activities are centred around the creation of one-page summaries of key concepts and events: students come with materials, then spend their time in the active construction of a collaborative piece, which is then shared with the rest of the students in other seminar groups.  The material will all be included in some form in the final exam, so giving students added incentive to produce their best work.

Secondly, to try and reduce free-riding, I’m getting my seminar leaders to use the old stick technique.  Each student has their name on a lolly-stick, and the seminar leader will randomly pick someone from the pile of sticks to write the summary, and another person to lead the discussion with a 5-min presentation.  This means everyone needs to be prepared to make that contribution.

Thirdly, and largely because I didn’t pay enough attention at the time, there is a mid-term multiple-choice test.  However, because I’m me, we’re doing it in class, not only open-book, but also allowing students to talk to each other.  With 45 questions in as many minutes, my anticipation is that students will discover that even in such benign conditions, there is no substitution for proper revision and preparation: weak students will spend so much time looking for answers that they can’t finish the test.  I can also see it becoming a test of altruistic behaviour.

So, plenty to look forward to and plenty to need on-the-fly adjustment.  I’ll be reporting back during the spring on this and other developments.  Until then, happy holidays!

What students want

It’s the final teaching week of the semester here at Surrey, so it’s wrapping-up time.  As well as trying to get students to connect their class-based work with events in the wider world, I was also interested in using the final session with them to get some constructive feedback on changes for the next time I teach my module on negotiation.

I’ve talked about the A-B-C feedback system I use before, so I’ll concentrate on what they’ve said.  Essentially, students are asked to suggest one thing to abandon, one to begin and one to continue.

If we remove what might be politely termed ‘outliers’ (e.g. classes in the pub, no assessment at all), then it is very interesting to see what came out.  While each of the individual games I ran had at least one student wanting to abandon it, there was a big group who liked the range provided, especially since it allowed them to practise a range of skills.  Similarly, opinion appeared to be split on the use of a reflective portfolio for the assessment, with some students wanting more structure to it, and others liking the flexibility.

In short, it shows that Lincoln’s adage about pleasing people is just as true in this context as any other and that even in a very student-led learning environment, it is essential for the teacher to provide direction and guidance.

Having said this, the session did bring forward one very good idea that had previously only nestled, half-formed, in the back of my mind.  This is simply to link together all the games into a coherent story (or arc, as I think we have to refer to it now in the age of the box-set), so students can develop into roles over time.  This would neatly solve the disjuncture between games, improve the capacity for preparation, bring out issues of iteration and, as such, was enthusiastically received by the class when we talked about it.  Of course, it also implies another complete re-write of my materials, but that might not be a bad thing.

Double your money

Yesterday’s class presented an opportunity to do something that I have previously avoided: parallel games.  Rather than have half the class play and the other half watch, I split the group (and the room) into two, so everyone had a chance to take part (except the one student who turned up late and took up an observer role).

The students were playing a game that modelled the difficulties of cutting budgets, having to coordinate national and single-currency zone responses, in a simplification of the current euro-zone situation, but also speaking to two-level games more generally.  Individuals represented either different ministries or the national government.

The benefits of a parallel game became apparent during the debrief, when we discussed the very different approaches the two games took to achieving their goals: one was very focused on the national-level discussions, while the other concentrated on the international.  This gave us a very good way into questions of how groups form, group-think and logics of appropriateness, all of which are less evident when only playing one game.  This was in addition to more generic reflections on the influence of individual personalities on negotiations and the conflicting tensions of playing on two levels.

If there were downsides, then they would lie with the difficulties in observations.  I had to watch two games at the same time, with only one other person doing the same, instead of the usual situation of one game and a dozen observers.  Likewise, the capacity for individual players to consider what was happening across the room was limited, although I’d expect them to talk to each other outside of class about this.

Overall, I found it a useful experiment and I’d look to doing it again, especially with smaller games.  Having said that, this particular game is set to get a lot more involved next time around, with more roles and much less likelihood of being played in parallel, but that can wait for another post.

Getting some help in

Yesterday evening after class I had a long discussion with a student about the validity of different people’s opinions: the student felt that my opinion was worth more than that of his peers, because I was the teacher and “had more experience.”  This led into a rather “post-modern” (to quote my wife) discussion about the lack of objective truth and the value of all opinions.

I mention this because last week I took a group up to London to play a European Parliament simulation, at the EP’s UK office.  This is a development of a game I’ve played with students in Brussels, all organised by the EP.  Over the past years, I’ve found this has been an excellent opportunity to relate my class-based work to a more applied and specific context.  In addition, it has highlighted the value of expertise: Gergely Polner at the EP has been able to bring his extensive institutional knowledge to bear on the design of the game and its subject material.  Moreover, his network of contacts meant we were able to get a jury that included both EP officials and representatives from political groups, to give an insight that goes far beyond that which I personally could provide.  Coupled to some of the insights that the students gave into how particular issues might play out, everyone learnt something from the event.

The suggestion here is not that you beat a path to your local EP representation (helpful though they are), but to consider getting institutional buy-in from the organisations you might simulate: press offices abound; you or your colleagues have contacts.  It’s a relatively low-cost way for everyone to gain something useful (expertise, profile) and it underlines my ‘post-modern’ point about the value that different people can bring to the table.