Teaching and Learning, Gangnam-Style

You would think since all of are here together, and four of us in the same room, that at some point we would have discussed a live blogging schedule–or even that we intended to live blog.  I guess we are just a spontaneous bunch, us ALPSers.  Take Victor, for example: he promised to do the post-track summary with an interpretation of the PSY song Gangnam Style, but chickened out at the last minute.

I want to echo the comments made by Simon and Chad though about how valuable this experience can be.  TLC is such a great space for talking about teaching and doing research on teaching.  The track style really encourages collaboration both at the conference and beyond.  Questions get raised–why don’t we have good processes for sharing resources for our classes–and efforts are made to solve them (this blog is one of them, but certainly not the only one).  In the Sims and RP 2 track, there is a culture of constructive dialogue rather than attack and tear down.  Its a safe space to talk about what we are doing and push each other to do more.

The highlights for me have been the short-course on Simulation Design and the socializing.  I can’t judge how effective it was for the participants, but it was fascinating watching my colleagues teach, as all of our styles are vastly different.  We definitely want to revise the course and try it again in the future.

As for the socializing, it is those interactions where I generate new ideas for pedagogical research.  Some of the most valuable professional relationships I have have been formed at TLCs past, and many of them started as random conversations in the halls and bars of the conference.  This year I got the added fun of introducing people to Innovation, one of my favorite card games.  I am trying to think through a way to apply some of the mechanics in that game to educational games for international relations, and playing the game as an effort at crowd-sourcing some solutions.  While we did get some movement on that front, the real joy here was utterly trouncing Simon–twice.


It’s the last morning of TLC, but I’m not going to be there because of flight commitments (and I’m sulking about getting beaten by Amanda in Innovation last night). As last time, it’s been such a rich experience that I want to start working through the many points I’ve built up already now.

However, the first thing is to echo Chad’s point that is has been immensely gratifying to meet so many people who read this blog. I’ll admit, it’s a bit (i.e. a lot) creepy to have someone you’ve never met before turn around, their eyes widen and then whisper “it’s susherwood!” in a general air of disbelief – but it’s also really cool.

From my perspective, as the old world anchor of the ALPS group, I don’t get to interact in the same way with them (or you, our global audience notwithstanding) and so most of my contribution comes from the little conversations in my head. To have time and space to talk to a room full of people is amazingly helpful for me.

It’s also just so good to know that people read the stuff we do, because we simply don’t get a sense of that otherwise (well, I don’t, at least). Several people have said to me and the others how useful and/or stimulating some of our posts have been and that’s great, but also a bit frustrating, because I know I would like to be in on those conversations you have. The reason is simply that even with the work we’ve done, we’re still learning too and it’s in the interactions that we can advance our practice.

A meme recently, indicating how many years this joke has been going on already

So please do comment on our posts and/or volunteer entire posts, since it can only help us all. Those of you we met will know that we don’t bite, that Chad really does have a wife, that Kim Kardashian memes don’t always travel well and that we struggle to organise a meal out together. Only you can help.

In the coming days/weeks, I hope I can build on some of the conversations and thoughts I’ve had here in Long Beach. These are going to include (you’ll note I’m doing what I did last week with building in commitments):

    • How far should we design simulations to the specific characteristics of students, as compared to pushing them out of comfort zones? (following the Sims 1 track);
    • What do we need to know in order to successfully share a simulation? (Amanda);
    • The importance of affective buy-in as an outcome of simulations, alongside improvements in assessment performance (Marsha Lyle-Gonga);
    • Simulations as a reflection of designer preoccupations (Michael Lyons);
    • Reality versus abstraction in simulation design(our TLC workshop);
    • Potential new simulations on the EU (Amy Forster Rothbart), preparation and fantasy drafts (Dave Bridge) and collective decision-making (Taiyi Sun).

But you can and should ask us to address points too: we certainly don’t know it all and there’s plenty we don’t even think to question or discuss.

So thank you once again for making this worthwhile and we look forward to hearing from you all soon. And not just “Susherwood…!”

What Is Political Science

Michael Brintnall, APSA executive director, talked to TLC attendees earlier today about the need for those who teach politics to act with a disciplinary voice in shaping the undergraduate political science curriculum. Historically, decisions about what a student should learn about the practice and analysis of politics have been left to individual departments and faculty. However, our students are increasingly cobbling together their college educations from a variety of institutions and professors. Without systematic agreement on what constitutes a minimally sufficient baseline of political knowledge, it’s more likely that students will leave college with significant gaps in their understanding.

I find this subject particularly relevant — I work at a university in which political science majors are not required to take a course in comparative politics or international relations. Since majors aren’t required to take these courses, many of them don’t. I can guess that similar situations exist at other institutions.

Game Saturation?

In the mix of day two at TLC 2013. Hundreds of amazing ideas and new games to play. Nevertheless, we are 48 hours into the sims marathon and I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.. winning & losing, grading & assessing…. the exhaustion leaves me with a single question…

Is it in our specific intent to convert so many to active learning that each class day for our students is entirely about games, simulations, critical thinking, development of problem-based learning…. is there a chance we could over-saturate them?

Live From the 10th Annual TLC

Greetings from the 10th APSA Teaching and Learning Conference (TLC) in sunny (not) Long Beach, California. A few thoughts for now; I’ll be posting more later:

  • It’s a big strange to run into blog groupies (bloogies? grobs?) who exclaim “Oh! You’re so-and-so!” Or to find out that one’s blog posts get re-transmitted across the Internet via Twitter feeds. It makes me feel a bit like Kim Kardashian.
  • In the interests of creating more of a person connection with readers, I’ve inserted a photo of myself into this post.

    Disclaimer: I am not Kim Kardashian
    Disclaimer: I am not Kim Kardashian
  • The professional development and networking opportunities afforded by the TLC are amazing. It’s hard for me to believe that this blog originated at the TLC two years ago and is now read regularly by people around the world. It’s also hard to believe that my participation in the TLC has led to four peer-reviewed publications, with two more manuscripts currently under review — all on topics that highly relevant to the most important aspect of my job (teaching).
  • It’s comforting to realize that one is part of a much larger community that regards teaching and learning as personally rewarding and socially important. It I didn’t have this community, I’d probably feel like I was toiling away in a dungeon more frequently than I do now.


Money/mouth (again)

Let’s put this one down to jetlag (since I’m in my Long Beach hotel room at 5am, having spent an hour doing this), but I’m making good on my previous post.

On my ‘How To Do Simulation Games’ website, I’ve just posted a new game – a simulation simulation – to try and help new users of simulations to appreciate the various elements that they will need to take account of.

It’s still very rough (as am I right now), but it gives the idea. I’m happy to take advice/suggestions on changing elements, but I’d be even happier if someone played it. I don’t think we’ll have a chance at APSA TLC tomorrow, but you never know.

Right – back to trying to sleep.

Putting your money where your mouth is

One of the more useful realisations in my professional life has been that my practice often advances best when I put myself in a somewhat awkward position. Thus, by committing to a conference paper, for instance, I lock myself into producing work that otherwise might stay little more than a latent idea in my head. In short, my sense of social obligation can be hijacked, especially by myself.

And so it has been with APSA TLC, which runs this week in Long Beach, CA. I’ve written and posted my paper,  and prepared my part of the short course, and generally tried to be a good citizen.

However, in the writing of the paper I came to the conclusion that one of the things that would be potentially useful to new users of simulations was a simulation on designing simulations (nb that sentence makes more sense if you read the paper): by getting people to actively engage with the difficulties of designing simulations, they would better understand them and come to recognise how to overcome them.

Having put this out there, I now find myself feeling in some way obliged to try and make that simulation, to demonstrate its viability (rather than simply leaving it as an abstracted thought). Indeed, the act of writing this blog further suggests to me that I’m trying to lock myself into this course of action.

My hesitation comes from two sources. Firstly, there is the rather ‘meta’ issue that such a simulation is going to be tricky to produce – which is exactly what the simulation is supposed to be about – but I fear that is more my problem than yours.

The second is simply one of time. APSA TLC starts on Friday this week; I fly out tomorrow (and I have several blockbusters I need to catch up with in-flight), by which time I’ve got to leave my affairs here in the office in order. This leaves hardly any time at all to work something up by the time of my presentation on Friday afternoon, especially if we assume I can find some sights to see in LA on Thursday (not to mention In-n-Out, for reasons too complicated to go into now).

But I’m going to give it a try. Partly that’s my social obligation kicking in, so that my fellow panelists don’t think I’m just being an armchair spectator. But partly it’s my own curiosity. Even since writing the paper I’ve been turning it over in my head and I think it would do me good to try and get it out.

It might not work, but I’ll have tried. And sometimes it’s the trying that matters.

“Yes, and…”: Encouraging Students to Talk in Class

One of the key rules of improv comedy is that of ‘yes, and…’  This means that you have to accept the scene as it is laid out, and then add to it. You are never supposed to deny the scene or whatever element that another player has added, but instead to accept and respond to their contribution and then add your own. Denying the scene leads to the end of the act.

This rule, when applied to the classroom, can be an effective device for encouraging students to speak during discussion.  Students need encouragement: they need to be made to feel that their contributions matter, or they will stop contributing. We may be looking for particular answers when we pose a question, but if we make our students feel that their contributions are not correct or welcome, then they will leave the scene.

“Yes, and…” in the classroom, then, means always responding positively to a student comment, even when it is objectively wrong.  It doesn’t always mean using these specific words, but it does mean showing appreciation and value for the act of participating, and then doing something with the contribution they have made. It also means avoiding ‘no, that’s wrong’ and ‘yes, but…’ type responses. Let’s break this down into its two parts:

Yes: Accepting the comment

For a correct answer, this may be as simple as saying ‘yes!’ ‘perfect!’ ‘exactly right’.  For an answer that’s partly right, or dancing around the correct answer, a response might be ‘good–that’s one piece of the puzzle’ or ‘X, you have put us on the right path’.  Perhaps restate what they said in slightly more complete terms, and then ask them if that’s a fair restatement of what they said, and wait for a nod.  For a completely off the wall or wrong answer, but a sincere attempt (that is, not someone trying to be disruptive in some way), you can respond with a simple but genuine ‘thanks’, and then ask what others think.  That can also be an opportunity to get other students to critique the answers instead of you.

, and…

Students often stop listening when their peers start talking.  This means that insights that originate from the students are often completely missed by others.  In the ‘and…’ part of the response, the goal is to repeat or rephrase the conversation and then move it forward. You might do this after each comment, or after several contributions, or at the end of the class–it depends on the flow of the conversation and how much control you like to keep over discussion.  Rephrasing can be a great way to cut off that student who keeps talking long after their point is made: wait for a breath and then say ‘so X, I think you are trying to say YYY, is that correct?’  Even a comment that is not quite on target can be reframed as a piece of the puzzle that the students can continue to build on.  The key here is, having accepted the student’s point, tie it into the conversation somehow.  Do not simply acknowledge it and move on to the next person without comment.

These kinds of techniques help create a supportive environment where student fears of looking stupid are reduced, and they are made to feel that their contribution matters. And such contributions DO matter–they can form the fabric of the class discussion, as long as there is someone there to help weave all the different strands together.

Higher Ed’s Cost Disease

I recently read William G. Bowen’s The ‘Cost Disease’ in Higher Education: Is Technology the Answer? — a brief compilation of two lectures that he gave at Stanford in October 2012. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Bowen, he’s a former Princeton University president, who, as an economics professor, came up with the “cost disease” hypothesis for performing arts with William J. Baumol in 1966.

Three of the most important points about this report, in my opinion:

  • As a general trend, the cost per student in higher ed has risen faster than costs in the rest of the economy for as long as we’ve been collecting data on the subject — since the beginning of the 20th century. So rising costs is not a recent phenomenon. What is new is the reversal in the financial position of public and private universities. Public universities, because of reductions in state government allocations, have increased their tuition at a much faster rate than have private universities over the last few decades. To me this signals a movement toward the privatization of higher education in the USA.
  • While tuition has increased at both public and private universities, students and their parents have been forced to finance college education through debt, because incomes have not kept pace.
  • A well-designed empirical study at Carnegie Mellon found “no statistically significant differences in standard measures of learning outcomes . . . between students in the traditional classes and students in . . . hybrid-online format classes.” As the report points out, many other studies, less well-designed, have not found significant differences either. This leads me to think that the common criticism leveled against online instruction — that it simply “isn’t as good” as instruction that resides entirely within the physical classroom — might be more a reflection of our own emotion-laden memories of what we experienced as college students than anything else. Another factor that probably clouds our opinion of online instruction is the fact that the first providers of online education went after the bottom segment of the market, where quality in the physical classroom was probably just as terrible.

Co-constructing Learning

After last week’s adventure to the West Balkans, I’m back in the UK, finalising my prep (and my paper) for APSA TLC in Long Beach and generally wading through piles of work. But before I leave on another trip, I want to reflect on some of the key lessons that my Balkan trip provided.

The most obvious one at the time was that time management is very difficult, especially when using active learning techniques: the desire for people to explore ‘just one more aspect’ or to ask ‘just one more question’ coupled with the impression that there was a lot of time available (4 days in total) to result in drift.  Fortunately, I had anticipated there might be an issue with material, given my limited knowledge of the group, so I was able to use the flexibility I had built in and still hit my learning objectives, albeit in a rather different way from the one I had initially foreseen.

A second key lesson related to language. The group shared a common mother tongue with the other trainer, and they were learning so that they can use their knowledge to train others in that language, so it made sense that some of the sessions and discussions were in that language (which I do not speak at all: my big breakthrough was that ‘laptop’ is the same in both tongues!), especially as it also sped things up. But a consequence was that it became much harder for me to join up fully my elements with the other trainer and to pick up on things said at a later stage. Even if my non-verbal skills came to the fore and I could guess roughly what was happening, the experience did underline the role that language plays in the classroom. Flipped around, we might well reflect on how non-native speaker students can struggle in comprehension and discussion and the limits that places on learning.

But the main thought that came back again and again was the notion of co-construction. The participants in the training were not specialist trainers and had limited experience; as such, they reminded me of new lecturers.  Their model of training was a hierarchical one, where they transmitted knowledge to others and where they were in complete control of the learning environment.  Thus their questions often related to how to cope when they didn’t know something, or if people didn’t talk (not at all a problem with this group, incidentally), or how precisely they should run a session.

What both trainers tried to communicate was that this was not the only way to approach the matter. Instead, we underlined that learning can also be collaborative, with the trainer/lecturer working with students to build knowledge and understanding together. When someone doesn’t know something, then use that as a spur to see if the group can find solutions together: create learning activities that start from the student, not the lecturer, as a way of privileging and encouraging student voices.  Seen in this way, learning builds on students’ individual experiences and understandings and opens up new avenues of comprehension, rather than trying to close them down. In short, the lecturer/trainer is supporting student learning, rather than teaching students.

The real difficulty is one of control. Co-constructing requires that one accepts that is not in complete control, as it is the students that lead and throw up ideas and frameworks of understanding. It also requires acceptance that there is likely to be more than one way of approaching a subject.

To take an example, I asked this group to split into small groups and design a diagram to help explain to others how the competences of the EU might be understood. I’ve done this several times with students and so I had a pretty good idea of what might happen.  Instead, two of the three groups produced models and approaches completely unlike anything I had seen before, organised on completely legitimate premises, which gave me a real insight into their preoccupations, interests and worldviews.

It’s true to say that I learnt a lot during last week and that is how it should be. If we are to help students become self-aware, self-critical and self-reliant individuals, then we need to accept the legitimacy of their views, even if we can question their evidence base or forms of expression. We should not be trying to produce replicas of ourselves, but allow students to find their own way. Working with them seems to be the best way to do that.