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.

Doing nothing

One of the simplest games to organise (if not play) is one taught to me by David Jaques, a man of great experience (and greater nerves).  It just involves clearing the teaching room – pushing chairs and tables to one side – then sitting yourself in a corner and waiting for the students to arrive. And then… well, that’s pretty much it.  Once the students arrive, you do not talk, move or engage with them at all. You just leave them to their own devices: whatever happens, happens.

Why would you want to do this? The game is an excellent opportunity to drive reflection on the role of power in its various forms.  Typically, the students don’t know what’s going on: they look for purpose and structure and generate it (arguably akin to Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos).  I find it a very useful corrective to the usual problematisation of power that we find in political science and IR – too often we focus on what happens when there is too much power, rather than talking about the necessity of at least some.

This shouldn’t distract you from the difficulty of playing this: it took me three years to dare to try it, for the simple reason that it is so unbounded.  Indeed, the first time, I felt it necessary to pre-warn the students it would last for 30 minutes, for fear that they would just head to the nearest bar.  They didn’t, but instead set out the tables and chairs again, then tried to get me to engage with them and riffled through my paperwork.  They also started to have discussions about why they might be doing this and what they could learn from it.

In the end, this is a game that leads where it leads and everyone explore a very novel environment. So try doing nothing sometime.

Playing with Blocks

I love games.  Card games, role playing games, board games, video games, computer games, online games, etc.  When I first started teaching, it was only natural to start scheming on how to bring games into the classroom and share them with my students.  What originally started as simply a way to enliven the classroom has developed into a scholarly interest in the role of games in the classroom.  Now every time I sit down to play a game I find myself considering the possible classroom applications.  I will be sharing my discoveries in this blog.

My current favorite is a game called Zendo by Looney Labs.  In this game, a designated ‘Master’ chooses a rule of some kind and then creates two arrangements of plastic pyramid shaped pieces (called Icehouse pieces) that come in four colors and three sizes.  One arrangement, or ‘koan’, follows the rule, and is marked with a white stone by the Master.  The second koan violates the rule, and is marked with a black stone.  Play proceeds with each player (fittingly referred to as ‘Students’) building a koan in an attempt to figure out the Master’s unspoken rule.  After building a koan, the Master will judge the koan (marking it with a white or black stone to indicate if the arrangement follows or violates the rule) .  Students can earn ‘guessing stones’ in the judging process, and can spend the stones on their turn to guess the rule.  An incorrect rule is countered with a new koan from the Master, and play proceeds until a student correctly guesses the rule.

The game has a host of applications for the classroom.  It can be used to develop critical thinking skills (as students must puzzle out what the rule is) in any class.  Students must also develop their ability to reason inductively and use evidence to support their claims (as they must analyze the existing koans to determine what rules are possible).  The game can also teach the importance of understanding culture: one student may look at a series of koans and suspect the rule has something to do with color; another student may not notice color differences but instead focuses on how many pieces are touching the table in the koan.  Finally, the crucial role played by the types of koans the master builds can illustrate the importance of experimental design.  The same rule can be guessed in one turn or ten, depending on the way the Master presents and builds the koans.

The game is therefore abstract enough to work in a variety of classes but still teaches a number of important skills.  It scales well in terms of number of players and difficulty, and the Icehouse pieces are easily acquired in bulk for larger classes.  I plan to use it in my Research Methods course next spring. While students eventually can take over the Master role, I highly recommend that any Master play through the game a couple of times first as a student.  I can tell you from personal experience that it is rather humiliating to have your rule guessed on the very first student’s turn.

Zendo is currently out of print, but you can easily make your own set, as I did.  Looneylabs.com as well as many retail game stores sell the Icehouse Pyramids/Icedice, and you can purchase stones at a craft store (or just use poker chips or some other two color marking device). 

The 50 Word Sentence

I recently stumbled upon a classroom exercise called the 50 Word Sentence Assignment used by UW-Madison history professor Charles L. Cohen, described at the Madison Writing Across the Curriculum site.  Professor Cohen also provides additional explanation and graded examples.

For several years I’ve been assigning questions on reading assignments (more on that in another post). The questions are argumentative and require that students state a position and then defend it. In class I split students into small groups to discuss their answers; each group then reports whatever consensus it has achieved to the rest of the class. Often students descend into ill-formed verbiage when reporting their groups’ answers. In large classes, groups often repeat the general ideas of other groups – not very interesting to students, despite the peer-to-peer reinforcement of concepts.

Telling each group to create a grammatically-correct, one-sentence answer of fifty words or less generated a lot of activity – students’ heightened interest in collaborating on a piece of writing was an unexpected bonus. Even though all groups were working on their sentences for the same amount of time (typically groups can finish within five minutes), students viewed the task as a challenge and groups quickly turned the exercise into a competition to produce the sentence with the fewest words.

In the first few trial runs, students had no problem writing sentences that presented a claim supported by evidence in less than fifty words, so I cut the limit down to forty-five and then forty words. This increases the challenge to students and demonstrates how they can be very concise in their writing.

One caveat: having students come to the computer station to type in their group’s sentences for a class vote and a discussion on each sentence’s merits takes much too much time.