Live from the TLC

A few thoughts from the initial day of the 2012 APSA Teaching and Learning Conference:

I missed the opening speakers due to a fog-induced flight delay.

The Grand Hyatt in Washington, DC, is pretty swank. The conference sessions are being held about four floors below ground level, an ideal location for the Iranian nuclear  development program. One tunnel connects to the Metro Center station, so it’s easy traveling between the hotel and DCA.

This year’s conference track on IR simulations and role-play again promises to be interesting. We’ve already had Dr. Robert P. Amyot of Hastings College present evidence that brings a fundamental premise of pedagogical simulations into question: that simulations in and of themselves significantly enhance student learning. He argued that learning is more a function of how much time students spend writing and thinking about a topic. Instructors should therefore focus their energies on discovering whatever motivates students to do this, rather than on a particular pedagogical style or tool.

Tomorrow Dr. Victor Asal of SUNY-Albany will be reprising his role as the grandfatherly mentor when he presents a variety of gaming exercises related to identity salience and political violence.

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 . . .

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.

Exams as Evaluation Tools, Not Practice

One problem with the traditional ‘2 exams’ format of many polisci classes is that we are never offering students an opportunity to learn the material.  We test to see if they’ve learned the material, but fail to offer students  low-stakes opportunities to practice and confront the material.  This article by the New York Times cites a study that indicates that students more from taking a test than they do by studying for it.  Aha! We might say–test-taking helps students to learn!  My job is done!  Indeed–but the test is supposed to capture evidence of learning for the purpose of evaluation.  It is not supposed to work as a formative tool that aids students learning.  The student may be better equipped to show us evidence of learning from taking the test, but the point of data collection has passed, and they are instead evaluated on the basis of their performance prior to this potentially transformative experience.  Sadly, taking an exam is often the first and only experience students get with active learning in a classroom.

Exams can work as a chance to practice and learn the material, but that is a positive externality of their usual purpose, and thus both succeed at an unintentional consequence (learning) and fail at their usual function (evaluation of learning).

How to correct this?  There are multiple approaches.  The article suggests multiple quizzes and tests but acknowledges that these often engineer student resentment.  My solution is one I use in my methods class, which I grant is an easier venue than a traditional polisci course.  But it may be useful as a model nevertheless.

I design the course to give students multiple chances of working with each piece of the new material.  They confront it first in their reading, followed by lecture in class.  Each idea in the lecture is followed by an example that I walk the students through.  Then they work in small groups in class on another example, which we then review as a class.  This is followed by an individual homework assignment, each of which is worth a small number of points.  By this time, they have encountered the concept, examples, and problems associated with it five times.  I usually post further examples with the answers on our class website as practice for students that need more work; sometimes I have allowed students to correct their homeworks, fixing mistakes they made the first time around.  By the time students take the exam, they are very familiar with the kinds of questions and problems they need to know.  This both increases their chances for success and lowers the stress of taking exams.  The two largest components of their grade–their project and their final exam–come at the end, after the students have actively engaged with these concepts on multiple occasions.  They know at this point what they truly understand and what is still confusing, allowing us to have productive office hour meetings where we target their areas of concern.

While overlapping projects, class activities, exams, and homeworks in this manner leads to a loss of content, I believe this to be a fair trade.  We can never cover all the content in a course–every subject in US politics can be its own course or sequence of courses–so this simply requires making somewhat deeper cuts.  Better in my mind that students truly learn the core of the material than vaguely familiarize themselves with its periphery.

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.

Multi-Tasking With Reflection

Most of us would agree that reflection is an important part of the learning process. The hard part about reflective exercises is making students think about course content rather than their feelings about it.

One of my colleagues in philosophy uses an exercise that I’ve adapted for a course I’m teaching now. Five times during the semester students write a one-page reflection on previous reading assignments and class discussions. Students can attempt to clarify a particular point made in class, critique someone else’s point, wonder about the implications of a particular idea, or consider the relationship between one author’s writing and another. Students must raise a question (or questions) as part of each paper.  These questions can go in the direction of the individual student’s choosing, but they should be clear, concise, and original.

Here’s where things get interesting: students post their questions online for review by their peers. The questions that are regarded as the “best” (however defined) by the students are used for additional classroom debate. The process of reflection moves from being solely internal (where I am the only other person who learns what a student is thinking) to being shared and evaluated among peers. At the same time, students are generating a bank of exam questions that I can draw from. If the questions I include on an exam have already been discussed, there’s no need for me to set aside additional class time for an exam review session.

Perseus prepares to engage Medusa in a self-reflection exercise . . .

Using Sherlock to Teach Sources v. the Literature

One of the challenges with students is that they often aren’t trained to recognize the difference between sources and the literature.  We may attempt to teach them the difference between primary and secondary, or scholarly and non-scholarly, but even amongst solid scholarly sources there are differences: there are the key works that make up the core of the literature on a debate, and there are the sources that sit on the fringes of the debate or never even quite enter into it.  Students think sources are something to use to prove their point, rather than a place to start out their process to discover what others have already discovered.  Even if you can get them to accept that scholarly sources are superior to, say, Wikipedia (a daunting task!), it can be difficult to explain to them that there is a difference between the literature and random sources, and that its important.

Enter Sherlock Holmes.

I’m a bit obsessed with the new BBC series called Sherlock, which if you haven’t seen it is a clever modern retelling of the stories.  Imagine Sherlock Holmes with a smartphone, and you have the heart of this series.  There is one particular scene in the first season that is useful in helping students understand the core of the above lesson.  In episode 3, starting at 19:53 (per Netflix instant), Sherlock asks Watson’s opinion of a pair of sneakers.  With encouragement, Watson notes some facts about them and their owner from the worn sole, clean appearance, and writing on the inside.  He asks Sherlock how he does, and he replies ‘Well, John.  Very well.  Of course you missed everything of importance.”  Sherlock then figures out the ‘important’ details–that the child had a skin condition, that he was from Sussex, and that he loved the shoes dearly.

I used this in my methods class today to get students thinking ‘What would Sherlock Do?’.  In other words, finding facts is not particularly difficult, but it also doesn’t tell us the whole story, and without the right facts, we are left completely in the dark about the phenomenon we are studying.  The right facts–or the literature–put us on the path of discovery.  Finding the right facts also means that Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t think of us as idiots…so again, ‘What would Sherlock Do?’  An amusing way to teach a simple but incredibly important lesson, and usable not only in methods, but any class where you expect students to use scholarly sources or do a literature review for a research paper.

“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.

Incentivizing Active Teaching

Although I’m not an economist, I’m quite interested in identifying incentives, and faculty usually have few to no material incentives to experiment pedagogically.  Occasionally someone might receive a stipend or grant to vary one’s teaching methods, but these rewards are one-shot deals. Sometimes merit pay exists, but frequently it’s based on student evaluations of teaching, which is a recipe for disaster. This situation is particularly disturbing given the findings in Academically Adrift (Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, U. of Chicago Press, 2011) that certain writing and reasoning skills fail to improve for over one-third of  students during four years of undergraduate education. Students aren’t learning, and faculty have no incentive to change that.

I’ve been thinking about this subject recently because I’m involved in an effort to redesign an interdisciplinary major. Team teaching has been proposed as a way of delivering content that crosses disciplinary boundaries — something that I wholeheartedly agree with — but at my university there are no incentives for it. The credit hours for a course that is team-taught are regarded as shared between instructors, and any teaching duty that equates to less than a complete three credit hour course is compensated as overload at a drastically reduced pay rate. Unless a full-time faculty member is really desperate for money, the cost of team teaching to faculty in time and effort is greater than the financial reward.