The Age of Non-Exploration

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

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

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

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

Step aside, Spielberg…

It’s always with a certain reticence that I tell people about my one video on Youtube, both because I’m a generally unassuming sort of person and because I know it’s not a great piece of work.  However, I’ve reached the point in the year where it gets a dusting-down and is shared with my students.

The video marks a key transition point in my negotiation module, from theory to practice, from me teaching to them learning directly.  Based on a real-life experience of mine in Istanbul, it shows that even with a lot of knowledge about principled bargaining (not least from teaching it for several years), it is not always easy to apply that knowledge to actual negotiations.

Using a video allows me to do some things that would otherwise be very difficult to do.  When analysing negotiations, you typically need a considerable block of time to read the relevant materials and reflect, time which is in short supply in my case.  The alternative of having students engage in their own negotiation scenario similarly takes up a bigger block of time and I can’t be certain about what will happen (i.e. will it cover what I need it to?).  Thus, showing a video allows me to present my central point (the shortcomings of theory) in a time-efficient and focused way.  Moreover, as a novel teaching method (for all involved), it has consistently made an impression on students, who can recall the key points even at some remove.

It’s not something that I have made a habit of, since I think it really only applies in some specific contents, but it’s certainly worth thinking about doing, especially if you want to move students out of their habitual patterns. Technically, it’s very simple to put together and share with other. Plus, you can always disable the comments function.

Color-Coded Grading

Following Chad’s post earlier this week about using rubrics, i thought I would share a method for grading papers that a colleague shared during a workshop.

Following the stoplight method of green is good, red is stop, and yellow is caution, this method involves marking up papers with colored highlighters to provide a visual cue to students as to their overall performance on the paper.  Sections where the student is doing well are marked in green; grammatical errors are marked in yellow, and substantive problems are marked in red.

The use of colors has a number of benefits.  The use of green balances the standard practice of using red ink to indicate problems, and using a separate color for grammatic problems allows us to note the problems without having to explain the problem in detail.  I find that it reduces the amount of time I spend making comments, as the color often suffices to indicate to students the nature of the problem or success without having to generate individualized comments. I find it particularly useful for the grammar comments, which I usually want to note but not spend a great deal of time on. This type of grading is also easily adapted for either hard copies (where you use actual highlighters) or electronic papers (using the highlighter in Word).

The color system is easily understood by students and only requires a few moments to explain when turning back the first paper.  I haven’t yet looked into whether this method works better for students than the traditional commenting method, but I do find that it reduces the amount of time I spend trying to generate comments for papers.

More on human nature

Following on last week’s discussion about when do people learn, as against their nature, I found myself after class having exactly the same conversation with a student.  The assessment for my module on ‘negotiating politics’ is a reflective piece, where students consider their development as negotiators, in light of both the literature and their own experience through the weeks.

Today’s class was about principled negotiation, taking Fisher and Ury’s classic “Getting to Yes” as the key text.  The student was bemoaning the idea that it was necessary to analyse one’s own actions and that over-analysis was the likely outcome.  Indeed, he claimed that now we’d covered the model, everyone in the class was just going to stick to it and no one would really learn anything.

I reminded him of the second round of Victor’s card game, where a student had just ploughed on because “it’s nice to have more than one card.”  I then also remarked that even though I’d closed today’s class with a reminder about the centrality of good (or indeed, any) preparation in being an effective negotiator, I was confident that not everyone in the class would prepare, not even for the session in a fortnight entitled “preparation in negotiations”, which I have flagged repeatedly as requiring preparation.

The student took the point, but it was apparent that he didn’t quite buy it.  And it’s here that the experiential model will really kick in.  In a few weeks, I’ll be able to go back to students and ask them how the theory they’ve learnt has helped them and shaped their actions; not because I think it will have changed much, but because it won’t.  Likewise, even though they know they should be keeping notes to help them produce their reflective piece at the end of the module, most will not have been particularly assiduous about it.  By making them confront their natures, I hope to make it more likely that they will change (or at least modify) them.

Then again, I’d not bet on it…

Using Rubrics As Teaching Tools

In the early years of my teaching career, I adopted rubrics to speed up grading of student writing, but I’d see the same mistakes, from the same students, on paper after paper throughout the semester. The content of the rubric would leave as little an impression on students’ minds as the inked comments on their papers. And there were the usual end-of-semester complaints of “Why didn’t I get a good grade on this?”

Now I have students create their own rubrics (sort of). About a week before the first major writing assignment is due, I distribute a few short writing samples to students. Each sample is a modified anonymous passage written by students in prior semesters. Each passage contains a variety of writing errors — vague or hard to find thesis statement, illogical organization, run-on sentences, spelling mistakes, etc.  I usually hand out five or six different samples. Students read and write comments on the samples and then form groups with other students who have the same one.

While in groups, students compare notes and discuss how the passage they’ve examined can be improved. In the final stage of the exercise, one student from each group reports on the group’s findings to the rest of the class. I jot down notes and ask questions.

I then tell the class that I will create a rubric based on what they have identified as indicators of good and bad writing. Students are therefore responsible for following their own recommendations.

Students make similar comments every semester, so I don’t have to change my rubric much, if at all.

The Advantage of the Long Course

Last night my 8 week US politics course finished up–its the same credits as a 16 week course, but we meet once a week for 4 hours for 8 weeks, so everything is condensed. These types of courses are primarily aimed at the non-traditional student who works during the day, although many traditional aged students take them as well.

Three or four hour courses are not uncommon in colleges today, and when we tell job candidates about them, the reaction typically varies from mild horror to ‘thanks, i’d rather not have a job right now’.  My reaction was similar at first, but I’ve come to love these courses.  Here are my top five reasons to perk up at the chance to teach a long night class.

5. It counts as part of your load.

We have a 3-3 teaching load, with no more than 25 students per class.  The 8 week class counts as part of the load–which means that the other 8 weeks, I only have two courses.  Teach two night classes a semester, and you either have a 2-2 the entire year, or if you teach them at the same time, the odd 3-1.  And if you want to pick up some extra cash via an overload, a night class in your ‘off’ term is the way to do it.

4. You Can Take Advantage of the Down Time

You have to break up the time anyway–the best lecturer in the world is not going to keep students on their toes for 4 hours week after week. Sure you can give them ‘breaks’ but why not take it further?  In the middle of each class I give the students a 15 minute break followed by ‘current issues discussion’.  The break is long enough for them to scour the local food options for dinner; then we sit down and eat while talking politics for 20-30 minutes.  Each week 3-4 students are responsible for choosing the issue and leading the discussion, which has the added bonus of giving me a break and time to eat my own dinner. Its a great way to take a ‘break’ from the class while still giving the students time to talk and learn.

3. Active Learning Bonanza

Four hour classes offer an amazing opportunity to try out active learning principles.  There is so much room for simulations and games in these classes–finally you have the time to brief, play the game, and debrief.  You can get the students out of their seats and moving around, and still have plenty of time to hit the highlights of the week’s topic.  In a four hour class, active learning becomes a necessary part of the course.

2. Students Can Really Learn The Material

I don’t find any difference in student learning in the 16 and 8 week version of my US politics course.  As previously posted, I use the US citizenship test as a pre- and post- test in this class, and the 8 week students do just as well as the 16 week students (last nights crop was no different: on the pre-test only 1 student passed; on the post-test everyone passed).  Students sometimes feel that they are missing out by only having 8 weeks instead of 16, and indeed they have to learn the material twice as quickly.  But I can be confident that these students aren’t being cheated in any way.

1. They Push You as a Teacher

I may feel exhausted both before and after I step into the classroom, but while I’m there, I’m completely energized. Four hours isn’t a hardship: its an opportunity–an opportunity to figure out the essential ideas of each content area and how to deliver it to the students.  I can experiment with new types of assessment, with new games and simulations, with readings, and with different technologies.  The challenges of this kind of course have led me to engage in more reflection on my teaching than any other course.

Are there downsides?  Sure.  Its exhausting.  The students are sometimes late to class due to traffic or work or kid issues; and sometimes they power down despite your best efforts.  But these hassles are no different than those faced in day time classes.  So my advice?  If you get a chance to teach a non-traditionally timed class, jump at it.  You may be surprised at how much you enjoy it!

 

 

More on Changing the Environment

Last week I was discussing the international system in my introduction to international relations course. I had run through various examples of systems (airplane, farm, family, religion) in the previous class, and was attempting to explain how a change in the international environment can change the behavior of the nation-states within it. I could tell from students’ facial expressions that they weren’t making the connection. So I took the students outside to a parking lot and played a second round of Victor Asal’s survive or die card game.

In contrast to the first round, played inside the confines of the classroom, students quickly dispersed to avoid being challenged. We then reconvened indoors and I asked the students to explain why round two differed from round one. In addition to seeing the effect of the changed environment, they also picked up on the fact that repeated interactions can enable political actors to learn how to predict one another’s behavior.

Building groups

This was something I tried last week in my Negotiating Politics class, to start getting people (inter)active.  Since several of the activities later in the module require the class to break into smaller units, I randomly allocated people into four groups.

Group one then moved into the centre of the room (actually, the playing field) and were told to decide on a name for their group and a group coordinator.  Group two then took their place and were asked to do the same, but without speaking anything that was recognisably English: much grunts and pointing ensued).  Group three were not allowed to make any sound, or to point: once their remembered the existence of pen and paper, they were fine.

Group four were told to do the same as group one, but to also pick new group coordinators for the other three groups.  Finally, I randomly picked someone from the classlist to pick a new coordinator for group four.

As I asked the students afterwards, why do this?  Firstly, it broke the ice for the groups and highlighted the practice of the module, namely active and student-led.  Secondly, it started to let them see that negotiation is dependent upon various factors: communication, power, trust, preparation, and so on.  These are all themes in my module that I will be returning to in later weeks, but the sooner I can direct my students’ attention towards these, the better.  Of course, the whole exercise is endlessly changeable, but I find it a very useful primer.

Do I have a Right? A game on Civil Liberties

This is a neat little game from I Civics where you control a law firm that specializes in civil liberties and rights.  Your job is to assemble a team of lawyers with different specialties and then arbitrate between potential clients, turning away those with frivolous cases and directing others to the appropriate lawyer.  Winning cases earns you prestige, which you can use to hire new lawyers and diversify the range of specialties you cover, or to upgrade the equipment in your firm.  Turning away clients with legitimate grievances, accepting frivolous cases, or mismatching clients to lawyers loses prestige points. Feedback is both immediate and written up as amusing newspaper articles at the end of each workday.

The game is easy to learn and the gameplay itself is simple; a game goes through seven workdays and takes about 20 minutes.  Like all the games on I Civics, it is also free, and if you have students register they can save the game midway through and track their performance.  The game would work in either a general American Politics course or one themed around civil liberties and rights.  The nature of the game makes it better for active assessment than active learning, though—it’s a great way for students to test themselves on their Amendments, but not particularly suited as an introduction to the material.  It is also not practical for a group project or an in-class exercise.  But I think it could work really well as a practice exercise for students, a review for an exam, or even a quiz (using the standings and achievements to monitor performance).

Out of the classroom, into the world (or the playing field at least)

Yesterday was our first day of teaching in the new semester.  The late summer heat both made the classroom for my session on ‘negotiating politics’ too muggy and the playing fields outside too attractive a proposition.  So we decamped.

Changing your physical environment is great for reshaping the learning environment: sitting and standing in a field means that the conventional semi-static arrangements of the classroom have to go.  From a lecturer’s perspective, you can move much more easily around the group, and you are more conscious of how your voice carries (or not), forcing you to be porperly responsive to people’s engagement.  From the student’s point of view, it stresses the ways in which learning is a universal process, rather than just one that happens in classrooms, and it forces them to think much more about how to balance (sometimes literally) listening, note-taking and participating.

As the shadows lengthened in the afternoon sun, we played Victor’s infamous rock-paper-scissors game: the space made moving around very easy, especially when we played a second time and people very clearly moved away from the one person enthusiastically challenging people.  We even had someone hide behind a tree.

The British weather probably means I won’t get my students outside again (bustery rain, mud and laptops don’t really mix), but it really set the tone for the rest of the module.  So go try it.