A Bad Romance ….Gaga over Edutainment

Soomo Publishing’s take on suffrage….it’s such a Bad Romance


A year ago in Albuquerque as I was discussing the games and simulations we play in class at the annual TLC and one of my colleagues winced a little.

So I had to ask about the source of the boggle. In short her frustration was about what she called “edutainment.”  The idea that we may well be using engaging games and YouTube videos as a way to capture the attention and adoration of our students but not much more.

This got me thinking. Certainly I wouldn’t want to be accused of edutaining my students. I want the games and activities we play to provide a platform for their own intellectual development.  Alas I have been guilty, before, of showing the odd documentary as a way to pass time…. but it also got me thinking about intrinsic and extrinsic learners in our classes. (This was the impetus, incidentally, for my work with Amanda Rosen on student motivation and games)

This week, one of my favorite education companies in the world released a music video. (SOOMO Publishing)

It is a cover of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance. But it has a particularly different kind of educational spin on it. Namely women’s suffrage….

Therefore in an effort to repent my edutainmentism…..and on this international day of the Woman I would like to offer this up as a distinctly marvelous example of an asset that is more than simply edutainment. The video, in short, produces so many questions that it almost immediately creates an intrinsic learner of someone who is just watching it for entertainment value.

Bravo SOOMO….

Some other thoughts about presentations

To pick up on this week’s set of discussions on presentations, I throw in my own ideas here.  As Amanda and Chad have pointed out, the quality of presentations (by both students and colleagues) is highly variable. By coincidence, I was talking with a colleague yesterday, who was telling me about a seminar teacher she had when studying for her undergraduate degree, who would simply read out an essay in class.

Another problem that I have encountered relates to everyone else in the room, apart from the presenter.  If you have a rota of who’s presenting when (which would be the equitable thing), then there’s a strong disincentive to engage: “it’s not my turn” becomes the dominant theme.  Likewise, there’s no incentive to use a presentation as a starting point for discussion, since only the presenter gets credit.

At the heart of the problem – both in these cases and the ones that the others have discussed – is that the purpose of presentations is obscured: simply put, why should we be doing this?  This ‘so what?’ test is a benchmark that I have found to be surprisingly useful in guiding many areas of my pedagogic practice.  We might think here of some alternatives:

  • Presentations to communicate substantive knowledge.  Maybe we want the students to learn something about the subject area, in which case we need to create value to what is/should be being said, most obviously through assessment.  I have tried making assessments specifically based on the work that students present (to varying degrees of success);
  • Presentations to develop skills.  Clearly this is intrinsic to a presentation, but if we want students to learn from it, then we need to institutionalise feedback mechanisms, either from us as instructors or from peers;
  • Presentations to frame seminar debates.  This happens a lot, where someone presents, then we discuss.  Again, the presentation needs to have a clear link to that discussion: either you could make part of the grading about how the student leads the discussion beyond the presentation itself; or you can make the debate build explicitly on the presentation, perhaps by working to write a collaborative summary of the session (as I’ve been trying out this semester with my undergrads to great effect);
  • Presentations to make connections.  In retrospect, I’ve done this quite often, trying to get students to approach material I’ve covering elsewhere in a different way, in order to make new connections and find new ways into key issues.  Here, that process needs to be exposed, so that you don’t simply go over the same ground in the same way twice.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it does point to the need for good curriculum design in all aspects of teaching.  Structures, incentives and assessment need to reinforce each other if they are to be fully successful.

More Thoughts On Presentations

If students are presenting on a text, I require them to at minimum identify:

– the topic of the text.

– the thesis of the text, and locate where in the text it is stated by the text’s author.

– how the author uses sources, not simply in the manner of copy and paste, but as part of a dialogue with others.

Students usually meet the first two requirements fairly easily, but occasionally stumble on the third. I advise students to try to answer the question “What message is the author trying to get across about her or his work in relations to that of others?”

If the historical or academic setting of a text is unfamiliar to students (and most are), I ask them to include some type of dramatis personae in their presentations. I want them to elaborate on how the people or ideas discussed in the text connect to each other and to specific places and/or times that may be implicitly or explicitly referenced within it.

Presentations in the Inverted Classroom

Interesting that the subject of student presentations has come up. Despite providing students with detailed instructions, exemplars, and advice, presentations were usually so excruciating that I simply stopped making them part of my courses.

This semester I’ve reintroduced them in my comparative politics course, which, accidentally-by-design, became an inverted classroom. I’m assuming many readers of this blog have heard of inverted classrooms — substituting activities in which student critique their own reasoning and that of others for the traditional “me talk, you listen” lecture. My problem was figuring out activities that would consume enough class time. So I decided to turn the close reading of texts, which I had used before as an individual activity, into group presentations.

Here are the directions for the presentations, somewhat condensed:

You and your group will be examining texts in detail and presenting your findings to the rest of the class. These close reading exercises are opportunities to train yourself to be a more thoughtful and efficient reader and to improve your communication skills. For each presentation, at least two members of the group will need to:  

1. Select a paragraph from the reading assignment and analyze its structure as follows:

    1. Identify the paragraph’s topic statement
    2. Explain the topic statement
    3. Identify ideas/evidence used by the author to support the topic statement 

2. Make references to the following characteristics of the paragraph being analyzed:

    1. WHO is the author addressing? WHO does the author imply he or she is, and who readers are?
    2. In both literal (the physical and historical universe) and textual (the storyline) terms, WHERE and WHEN is the paragraph set? Is there a difference between the literal and textual settings? If so, what is the effect of this difference?
    3. WHY did the author construct the paragraph in the particular way that it is constructed?
    4. WHAT mathematical or logical patterns exist in the paragraph? WHAT are the meanings conveyed by these relationships?

Because the class has seven groups of four students each, and each group presents a total five times during the semester. I get to completely avoid lecturing on the days that presentations are scheduled. Instead there is a fairly rapid sequence of different people talking at the front of the room interspersed with Q & A discussions between presenters, the rest of  the class, and myself. Students get multiple, low-stakes opportunities to practice their presentation skills, and I get to avoid a week or two of torture at the end of the semester.  

I can email the complete directions for the above exercise to anyone who wants them.

How do we Teach Oral Presentations?

Greetings from Geneva!  I’m here attending the 17th Annual Humanitarian Conference, hosted by Webster University on the theme of Refugees and Armed Conflict.  The audience of the conference is about half students, and the presenters range from academics to practitioners, particularly from UNHCR and the ICRC.  Presentation skills also widely range, with many succinct and interesting talks, and others that commit a wide range of sins, from going 20 minutes over the time limit, putting way too much text on powerpoint, including too great a level of detail, or pitching the talk at a level that goes well over the heads of the students.

Afterwards I discussed this with some colleagues, and admitted that I really do not know how to teach students to give a good public presentation.  I’ve had students give presentations before, but how do we teach them to improve their skills?  Giving them chances to practice is not teaching, not by itself, and lecturing to them or showcasing good presentation skills does not satisfy either.  I am also not interested in teaching them to debate–some of the best debaters I know are actually not particularly strong at giving a succinct, informative, and interesting presentation.  Debating is a useful skill, but not my primary interest today.  The problem is compounded by having to fit such skill development into a regular class.  For my usual class size of 25 students, having students give, say, 10 minute presentations, would require 5 full class sessions of 50 minutes each–and that is only for the final presentation, not including practice sessions, lectures, activities, etc.

Today I have no solutions to offer, but instead a request for readers to share their own experiences and ideas on how to teach these valuable skills effectively.  What say you?

Building a multiple-choice quiz

One of the things I’m trying out this semester is a open-book multiple-choice quiz, both of which are new things for me.  My traditional mistrust of MCQs is that they promote closed thinking and don’t allow the student to express their own thoughts.  However, a mix of circumstance and willingness to try out new things presented me with the opportunity to do this, so I’ve embraced it with open arms.

Today’s the day I’m writing out my draft questions and it has been instructive for me to think about how I can make the most of the MCQ, which I’m running in class in two weeks’ time.

Firstly, there needs to be some element of summative assessment, checking that students have got the main points of substantive knowledge. The module deals with European integration, so there’s no shortage of such material, especially since we’ve covered 70 years of history in the previous weeks.

Secondly, there also needs to be a strong dose of formative assessment, helping students to reflect on what’s central in working through the rest of the module (which deals mainly with institutions).  Here I’m looking to get them thinking about the key principles that emerge from the historical overview and which shape the current situation in the EU.

Thirdly, I want to tie in the seminar summaries that students have been producing each week on particular case studies.  These summaries have generally been a good exercise, both for encouraging student preparation and participation in seminars, and for creating learning resources.  By making this link (which I’ve been stressing repeatedly to students), I hope I can both valorise their seminar discussions and focus future such discussions towards supporting their work for assessment (since the summaries aren’t assessed themselves).

Finally, the MCQ needs to underline the importance of preparation. Students will be allowed to bring any materials with them into the exam, and can talk to each other, but I have pointed out that this will not be a substitute for revision. With 45 questions in 45 minutes, I also want to make sure that any such activity has an impact on their ability to complete all the questions, so I’m likely to create some longer texts on which to base questions.

I’ll report back when it’s done, but comments are very welcome.

Taking Student Motivations Into Account

Great session at TLC this year, with lots of interesting papers and ideas for simulations and games, including another wonderful workshop by ALPS’ own Victor Asal.

My own paper (with Nina Kollars) dealt with the issue of student motivation and engagement.  Our previous work was on the first principles of simulation and game design: that is, the instructor’s purpose for the game and its function within a classroom.  This new paper is on the next stage of design: taking student motivations into account.  Students approach our classrooms with different skills and motivations.  On the skill side, some may be expert, experienced gamers, while others may have little knowledge of how to work with the rules of the game; they may also differ in their teamwork abilities.  These differing skills–which may have nothing to do with our material or content–may impact the play of the game and the readiness and ability of students to learn from it.

Just as important is the differing motivations that students bring to the classroom.  This is not a groundbreaking observation by any sense of the word–psychologists have known this for decades. To use their terms, some students may be intrinsically motivated–interested in mastery of the material for its own sake–while others may be extrinsically motivated by a grade or some other reward or fear of punishment.  Such students will approach a game very differently, and our design of games should take these differing motivations into account.  An ungraded simulation or grade may fail to elicit full participation or learning in an extrinsically motivated student, but a game that IS graded may focus the intrinsic learner on external rewards, and perhaps lessen their intrinsic interest (see Deci 1971 and 1972 amongst many others).

Our point is that our knowledge of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations should impact the way we design our games.  We should not assume that a grade–even one of participation–is necessary to engineer participation in our games.  Games that are used in place or supplemental to lecture should be graded no more than attendance at a lecture.  Grades in fact might produce perverse incentives for students in a game, where they respond to the external motivators and not the game as we have built it.  Thus we must carefully consider how grading and other extrinsic motivators might influence the way students interact with our sim, and design accordingly.

Don’t start what you can’t finish

One of the more regular observations I make of (and to) students is the way they start to make a point – either in class or in their coursework – and then don’t follow it up properly.  This offends both my logical and aesthetic sensibilities.

Thus, it was with some discomfort that I found myself doing exactly the same the other day on Twitter.

Having now moved on from my complete dislike of the site (see earlier posts for context) to an only partial dislike of it, I spotted a comment that I felt I should respond to, because it piqued my interest: in essence I just wanted to point out the inconsistency of the person’s views.  It wasn’t the only aspect that I challenged, but it was the most obvious, as well as the easiest to squeeze into the space available.

This then triggered an exchange, in which the original poster sought to rebut my comment and re-emphasise the exceptionality of their case. [You’ll note I’m dressing this up in fancy language: it was rather more prosaic in reality].

At this point I gave up.

Since I’m a good reflective learner, I thought it might be a good idea to think about why I gave up.  Firstly, I needed to challenge the entire normative underpinning of the discussion and Twitter is not the place to do that.  Secondly, in order to do this, I needed to understand better the poster’s thought-process, another thing Twitter isn’t designed for.  Thirdly, someone else was in the discussion with a similar view to my own (although not identical) and it seemed easier to let him keep on going.  Fourthly, tweeting isn’t high in my job spec, and I needed to get back to the rest of the pile of work on my desk.

It’s all classic motes/beams or pots/kettles territory here.  Students often present the same kinds of rationalisations (OK, maybe not the normative thing) when I talk with them and it would be foolish of me not to recognise it in myself.  In retrospect, I should have refrained from replying on Twitter, and instead written a blog post where I could have properly unpacked my thoughts, tweeted the link and gone from there.  What will be interesting is whether I’ll learn from this or not: looking to my students, I’d say it’s 50-50.

Time Well Spent

Maybe it doesn’t matter what techniques we use in the classroom; maybe it’s how much time students spend with the material we want them to learn!

I got this idea after an experiment on the learning efficacy of a collaborative group exercise. Half the students from my and my colleague’s Intro to Political Science classes were split into problem-based learning (PBL) working groups and lecture-discussion groups. The experiment took place during a single class period and included a pre-test/post-test plus a retention test two weeks later.

In contrast to other studies, I found no significant relationship between participating in the PBL exercise and better learning. It’s possible that these results were caused by not debriefing the PBL groups (to keep the experiment to one class period), or because the PBL groups were busy learning skills rather than the content (like how to get along).

It’s possible that the better learning from collaborative projects reported in other studies occurs simply because their participants spend more time with the material than those in more standard settings. Thanks to the two-teacher feature of the quasi-experimental design, I was able to test this ‘time-spent’ hypothesis in two ways.  First, my own classes required all of my students, regardless of treatment group, to write an individual paper that drew on the same material used in the exercise.  This paper was assigned after the post-test, and was due a week before the retention test.  Students who spent the time to write the paper scored significantly higher on the retention-test than those who didn’t.

Second, my students faced the threat of a pop oral quiz each day while my colleague’s didn’t. The data showed that my students were significantly more prepared for class the day of the experiment.  They scored much higher on the pre-test, and held onto that ‘bump’ in the post-test and retention-test.  Again, it seems, students who spent more time doing the reading actually learned and retained more.

Bob Amyot, Hastings College, Hastings, NE – ramyot@hastings.edu

Waffle Shopping and James Franco

Two minor personal takeaways from this year’s Simulations & Role Play II track at the APSA Teaching and Learning Conference:

The James Franco Effect:

When students fail to demonstrate as much learning as expected because the instructor is not James Franco.

Waffle Shopping:

Deliberately engaging in an activity or behavior in which the outcome is unpredictable and the risk of failure exists.

While the James Franco Effect is fairly self-explanatory, Waffle Shopping is not. As readers of this blog know, I believe being able to make connections between seemingly disparate pieces of knowledge is fundamental to learning. I personally find that I am most often able to make connections when I am cognitively prepared to encounter the unexpected. Since I started attending Teaching and Learning Conferences several years ago, I’ve made a point of sampling local restaurants that are often off the beaten track. This entails embracing a certain level of risk — any restaurant might be much worse than expected, and I might fail myself and others by choosing an obscure restaurant that is obscure for a very good reason.

This year I ate breakfast at the Waffle Shop, a nearby diner located by Dr. Amanda Rosen. While walking there, hoping for a plate of tasty waffles but ready to encounter a horrible meal, I noticed a building with an ornate facade containing a retail clothing store. I continued round the corner, and saw a “Woodward & Lothrop” sign on the side of the building. I realized that this was the site of the now-defunct Woodward & Lothrop that my father worked at a half-century ago, on the day that JFK was assassinated. Continuing down the street, I noticed that I was passing Ford’s Theater, made famous by John Wilkes Booth.

This is a simple illustration of the fact that opportunities for creative thinking often involve embracing risk, and that failure — whether as a possibility or an actual outcome — is a useful learning tool.