More on Solving the Reading Problem

Many of us are familiar with the think-pair-share exercise in which a class is given a question and, after a short period of time to think about it, students pair up to discuss their answers. Two downsides to think-pair-share: students will state opinions instead of referencing readings unless questions are carefully worded, and students are not writing.

I run an exercise that combines elements of think-pair-share and Amanda’s weekly critique method.  Each reading assignment is accompanied by an argumentative (why rather than what or when) question. Students answer a question before its corresponding reading is due to be covered in class. Answers must incorporate specifics from the reading assignment, are limited to one-half to a full page in length, and contain proper citations. Grading is on a 0 to 2 point basis and is very quick. Online submission of the answers prevents the “my printer didn’t work” excuse. Typically I create a dozen questions sprinkled throughout the semester and students have to answer ten of them for 20-30 percent of their final grade.

In class, I divide students into groups of four. Each student quickly reports to his or her group on the written answer he or she submitted before class. Each group then has a few minutes to reach a consensus that it can present orally to the rest of the class. At the beginning of the semester, I specify different roles for each student in a group — taking notes, keeping time, presenting the consensus — but students learn the routine very quickly. I’ll randomly select a few groups to present answers that often conflict with each other, which launches discussion for the entire class.

Benefits of this method: students are forced to intellectually engage with the readings outside of class, before hearing me lecture, and they have repeated opportunities to practice constructing evidence-based arguments. I get to lecture less, students participate meaningfully, and class is more interesting for everyone.

Leaving the Room Open to Unexpected Learning

Several weeks ago while playing a few rounds of the prisoner’s dilemma I came across an opportunity to learn from my students.  The game went in this way: Students were to play one round of the Prisoner’s Dilemma (rat out your partner in order to win more, or cooperate to reduce a prison sentence).

A pair of women in the corner simultaneously cooperated.  For those unfamiliar with the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the standard of the game is for both people to rat out their partners.  Sometimes people do cooperate but normally they don’t.

We discussed the gave at some length and then I began the standard social scientific move to iterated repeat games.  I asked the students to play 9 rounds of the game. After 9 rounds the two african american women were still cooperating though they had never talked before in class prior to this game.

Here is where it got interesting.  I explained that in general we should expect people to cooperate some but not all the time.  The students nodded along.  The two women in the corner looked at me quizzically. So I knew there were potentially different explanations for why cooperation and defection were good or bad strategies.  So I asked the students: “ladies, why were you constantly cooperating?” Another student, a while male, tried to explain to them how they were being irrational.  That they needed to realize that they weren’t maximizing their opportunities.

And one of the pair said, “You people don’t really know what it is to grow up in an environment where security really is a problem.” She said: “In my part of town you don’t cheat people or rat them out.  You can’t, no matter how much money you might get from it, because you don’t know if the person you cheat is going to show up and shoot up your mom’s house, or kill your brother.”

The classroom recoiled in horror.

I could have shut this down.  Clearly we had entered a space in which the student offered up a lived experience to question the theoretical conclusions. A lived experience that ran close to being socially, economically, and racially charged.

It is at these moments that we must decide whether to let it ride or to embrace it and try to dig deeper into it.  At once, here were two women presenting the room with an entirely different perspective.  One that most had never been privy to.  The learning was shifting immediately beyond the theoretical importance of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, to understanding a diversity of perspectives, to how to think about who was in the room, to try to consider what truth and the imperatives of action really dictated.

I was reminded that active learning isn’t always planned learning.  Control is the purpose of the rules in a game, but what exactly we are trying to control is the question.

My challenge to reader is to consider the way in which control is leveraged in active learning, and to question just how much we really need and for what purpose.

My thoughts keep going back to that awkward silence and the exasperation of the male student toward the continued cooperation of the two females. It was such an eerie and powerful thing to say….so much so that I’m not even certain what we learned exactly, and I suspect that this is the point of exposure to new perspectives.  Not so much that we come out with clear conclusions, but that we throw them into a controlled disarray.

Solving the Reading Problem: The Weekly Critique

One of the most common complaints that instructors have is that students do not complete the readings.  No matter how interesting or unique or provocative they are, many students fail to crack their books at all prior to an exam, and some of those who do fail to retain any of the information or arguments.  For those of us who use those readings as a foundation for a class session, this behavior can lead anywhere from mild irritation to downright aggravation.

One way to solve this problem in an upper level seminar is to turn the reading from a passive exercise to an active one.  Assign the readings by week, rather than by session, and have your students write an analytical response on the readings each week.  Each critique must also pose a discussion question at the end.  Papers are typically two pages, though that depends on the type and number of readings assigned.  They are posted the day before class and shared online in a discussion forum. The discussion questions and different perspectives can then be used as a basis for discussion that week.  Scoring is based on a check plus/check/check minus/pass/fail system (which loosely corresponds to A-F) but no comments are made by the instructor after the first week or two.

I tried this in Spring 2011 in my Environmental and Energy Security class, an upper level seminar with ten students, with great success.  All of my students came prepared to class having completed and thought about all the readings.  In addition, their writing occurred throughout the semester, allowing multiple grading opportunities and a chance to improve their writing.  The papers also made prep for class very easy: I facilitated a conversation and provided context, but the students drove the discussion.  Quiet students could be drawn in to the conversation without fuss, since their perspective was already public.  Finally, grading is minimal.  It only took a few moments to read through the critiques and see what level of effort and insight students brought to their papers.

The downside is that students will whine about having to actually do the readings and write every week. But in a class that is really built around the readings, my students came to appreciate being forced to do the readings and to think about them, and they liked that their work was brought so obviously into the class through the discussions.  It made them feel like their work was driving the course.  I was able to be a true facilitator and participant rather than just their teacher, and the critiques were cited as a positive on my evaluations rather than a negative.

A is for ‘awful’ or ‘awfully good’?

One of the joys of the teaching process is that you tend to get your feedback at a point when you can’t really do anything with it until the next time you run the class. You might argue that students get the same deal, but that’s another matter.  So here’s a quick and easy way to do some mid-stream modifications, using an “A-B-C” exercise.

After a few sessions of your class, when things have bedded down a bit, take 10 minutes to do this.  Give everyone in the class 3 post-it notes (other brands are acceptable).  Ask them to put one idea (anonymously) on each note as follows:

  • One note on something that they want to Abandon in the class;
  • One note on something that they want to Begin;
  • And one note on something they want to Continue.

Once they’ve written them, they can post them on the whiteboard/blackboard/wall.  With all the notes, you can then do a quick review with them, grouping similar points together and giving your first impressions.

The next class, you need to come back with some constructive feedback, to show that it’s not just been an exercise in raiding the stationery cupboard. Think about what’s reasonable to change, both in terms of effort and benefit, and about the reasons for not changing something (rather than just dismissing it out of hand).

This all works surprisingly well, it’s timely and it shows students that you do listen to their constructive input.  Even if it doesn’t result in big changes, it’s still a valuable group-building technique.

The only word of caution is if you have a class that is not working in some major way: because this is quite public and open as a process, it might cause more instability than it solves.

Getting to know you, getting to know all about you…

This exercise comes from Resli Costabell, who of the most energetic and sparky people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.  It’s all about breaking down the barriers when you’ve got a group coming together.

When people arrive for the first meeting, they are handed a sheet of paper with a grid full of tasks (maybe a dozen or so).  These can range from simple (‘find out where someone went to school’) through to less simple (‘learn a new dance step from someone’ or ‘find something you have in common with someone’).  People have to mill around the room, getting the tasks done, each one with someone new (get people to sign off the sheet).  If they finish them all, they start again.  The winner is the one with the most.  Think of it as bingo, without the sitting down.

It’s easy, it’s fun and it’s a very good way to break the ice: we’ve used it with groups up to one hundred with good effect.  Compared to the ‘tour de table’ thing, it makes it much easier to remember people and to get beyond the standard things.

Getting the class ready and prepared

A slightly different one this time. Colleagues (around the world) often remark on the problems of getting students to prepare for class. To be frank, it’s not hard to work out why: the lecturer’s holding a class and can’t chuck everyone out and you probably get asked a question, or if you do, then you can wing it, etc., etc.

Here’s something that has worked for me and do fit into the whole notion of active learning. At the start of the semester, I get a pile of lolly sticks or sticks for mixing hot drinks from the refectory/canteen. On each one, I write the name of a student in the class. Then each week, I tell the students that I will randomly select two sticks the following week, and those people will each present a short (5 minute) presentation on the topic that I’m about to give them. The following week, I check at the start of the class that everyone has their notes: anyone who does not, gets to spend the class visiting the library, to then return just before the end of class to present what they’ve found. Then during the class, where the topic fits in, I pick a stick (or ask a student to pick one, just to show it’s totally random).

This has been an excellent way of focusing minds on some key points of the class; ensuring that everyone has some knowledge of the subject material coming into the class (so I can focus on further development); producing a set of revision materials for students to use in assessment; and generally helping students to avoid falling into the all-too-common trap of thinking that education is a passive exercise.

Naturally, students do have doubts about this. Mainly, they dislike having to do work that might not be used (I’ve had cases of students begging to be allowed to present), although they do come to understand the benefits listed above. They’re also not keen on the unevenness of it all: some people presented several times, others not at all. This is actually a key point: instead of only hearing from the prepared (and typically stronger) students, this methods makes sure you’re hearing from a more representative cross-section of the group, so you can pick up on any misunderstandings that might otherwise get missed. And it helps you to avoid accusations of favouritism.

The Agrarian Society Card Game

I sometimes model life in a poor agrarian society with a deck of cards. I divide students into “peasant households” – one, two, or more students, but each household functions as a single decision-making unit. Each household receives the same number of playing cards, which are dealt face down.

I then explain the structure of the game and write the rules on the board. Each household begins with two adults and three hectares of land. Each hectare can produce two bags of rice each year, but it requires the labor of either one adult or two children. An adult can farm only one hectare per year while a child can only farm half a hectare. Each adult in the household must consume two bags of rice per year to survive; a child must consume half a bag of rice each year. If an adult or child does not get enough rice for the year, that individual dies and no longer supplies labor to the household. Uneaten rice can be saved for consumption in a future year or distributed to other households.

Each household is free to engage in any transaction with another household as long as it falls within the parameters set by the instructor. Typically households will rent out surplus land and labor or sell land in exchange for rice.

At the beginning of each year, all households flip over a card. An ace through a five indicates that nothing happens. A five through ten means that a child is born (for the purposes of the game, that child can immediately be put to work). A jack or a queen indicates a child has died. A king means an adult in the household has died. Households then calculate how best to use their resources.

Due to the cost-benefit relationships in the game, households have to devise strategies for survival. Some households merrily sell excess rice and acquire land, which they then rent out to other households that fall into debt and despair. Occasionally households pool their resources. More often than not a household asks “if we eat a child, how many bags of rice is that?”

The game can be used to demonstrate a wide variety of concepts, such moral economy, rational choice, locus of control, and path dependence. Sometimes I alter a rule (for example, each household begins with two adults and two children) and have the class play a second time, and then we discuss how the change affected the play and outcome of the game.

Tools for online collaboration – sometimes simple is good

I often have students work in teams for different projects as diverse as team based learning, simulations or working together on a paper.  Students have repeatedly told me one of the challenges have is that keeping up with what other people are doing (or not doing as the case may be) is challenging.   Last semester I came across a website that allows you to create your own virtual cork board called http://corkboard.me/ [2015 update: the website no longer exists].    While the name is not original the website itself is pretty useful.    There are other websites out there that do similar things but what makes corkboard  so useful is that it is so darn simple. it allows you to post notes – and that is it.   if you put the url into your browser it generates a new corkboard just for you.   if you save that you can go back to the same corkboard. more importantly anyone else can as well and people can make changes at the same time  in real time.    an example of what it looks like can be seen below:

I have not had used corkboard a lot yet with students ( I am planning to do so in the fall)  but I have used it with people I collaborate with and have found it to be very useful for brainstorming ideas and organizing thoughts and responsibilities.  For one project each collaborator has a “nag” note for things they need to get done.  It has become a real pleasure to remove other people’s nags from my note – and also a pleasure to add nag notes to other people.   Of course every software has its pluses and minuses.   On the plus side it is:

1) free

2) easy to use

3) useful for brainstorming and task assignment

On the minus side:

1) it is very simple

2) unless you pay for an upgrade it if someone gets the URL they can see and change what ever is on the cork board.

3) It can only paste non formatted text into a note (so if i want to paste something from word I need to first paste it into notepad or google or somewhere else)

All in all though it has proven to be very useful and I am looking forward to using it with my students.

Social networking still isn’t a good way to network socially

Following on from my previous posting about using Twitter in the classroom, here’s another activity to build on it, so students can see how the medium of communication can be as important (and constraining) as the message.

Once students have found each other’s Twitter accounts, the next task begins. Each student is given a slip of paper with their current location and some constraints (e.g. how much money they can spend, lack of travel documents, objects they have to take with them, etc.): the task is simply to agree a location for everyone to meet, at a time that is as soon as possible, given their constraints. They can only communicate via Twitter.

To make things more tricky than they already are, the information requires them to a) work out where they are (you might give out grid references, or a unique road junction), b) work out how to get to a meeting place (they might be overseas, without a passport) and c) work out how to share this with everyone with a view to finding a solution.

This is a very frustrating game, especially if you put a time limit on it.  Leadership becomes very hard to enforce and there are multiple conversations that struggle to overlap.  In this, it’s rather like many real-world scenarios, where the process hinders the pursuit of an outcome.

 

Social networking is not always a good way to network socially

It’s important to embrace technology, especially when you have the impression that you’re the only one who hasn’t done so.  So it has been with Twitter for me: just because I don’t feel the need to share details of my mundane thoughts with the world, doesn’t mean that it’s not without its uses.  In this case, for demonstrating that there are some things that are very tricky to do with it.

One of my class exercises is based on finding people in the Twittersphere.  Students are told to set up an account and familiarise themselves with the service: never assume that they already know this.  In the class, the task they have is to sit in silence and find all the other people in the room on Twitter: no talking, no notes, no emails – the only place that they can post material is on their Twitter feed. Once they find someone, they have to follow them.  When they have found everyone, they raise their hand.

What quickly happens is that students realise they lack the necessary information, notably who else is in the room (unless you’ve got a smallish group who know each other pretty well) and how to find out where other people’s accounts might be. It also requires everyone to know how to pull information from elsewhere (e.g. the classlist on the intranet) and how to push out useful information from their feed to help others find them (e.g. hashtags).

This is a great way to highlight the prior conditions for communication and negotiation, i.e. knowing who you’re communicating with and how to reach them. It’s also a good base for another game I’ll tell you about shortly.