Teaching ‘difficult’ subjects

As I mentioned last week, I was in Germany for a European Studies conference, including panels on L&T. A common theme which emerged was the notion of the European Union as a ‘difficult’ subject, both for students and teachers.

The former think of it as complicated and dull, while the latter are too often complicit in this, frequently focusing on the intricacies and so raising more barriers to students’ learning. Even when lecturers are positive, this generates suspicion about normative and political agendas on the part of students, who may not be as pro-EU as the typical academic. Thus the EU joins research methods towards the bottom of the pile of preferences for all involved.

This is clearly problematic, since both these areas are integral parts of contemporary political studies in Europe. Regardless of one’s attitude to them, it is essential to have a working understanding of methods and European governance.

The panels suggested two paths towards doing this.  The first (which I have long subscribed to) is that teachers need to start talking about the subject in a positive manner. This doesn’t mean proselytising, but rather focusing on the simplicity of underlying concepts that can act as heuristics to learning. Thus, EU isn’t any more complicated than a national political system, just as the relationship between EU and national institutions is a classic two-level game. Likewise, talking about referencing as transparency of sources can often illuminate much more than a bevy of rules on plagiarism.

The second path is to reframe the subjects much more radically. One colleague talked about how presenting the EU as a site for politics allowed students much easier access to the internal dynamics. In research methods, this is equivalent to problem-based learning, where students will need to use various methods to reach conclusions.

As our discussion went on, I realised that I have actually been doing this, largely without realising, in my negotiating politics module.  Here, several of the exercises are very generic political set-ups, often with no reference to any actual case, but can be applied to the EU very simply. From a two-level game on budget cuts (see here) to an exercise on the formation of political parties within a parliament, there is scope to approach the subject in a fresh way.

All of this should remind us that even the most ‘difficult’ of subjects (and perhaps, especially these ones) can be amenable to new approaches: we just need to step back and try again.


I stumbled across Quizlet, a website that lets users learn factual information with flash card exercises. People can use the flash card sets that are already on the site, or they can create their own. The games and quizzes are simple but addictive. Want to learn capital cities of the world or improve your Arabic vocabulary? Quizlet is a quick and easy way to do it. I can see an assignment in which students design content on Quizlet for a particular topic, which they then share with other students as a study aid. Or students could compete against each other in class to see who scores the highest on tests in the shortest amount of time.

(As a disclaimer: I have no financial interest in this company)

Join us at TLC

Just a quick reminder that the deadline for proposing papers to the APSA’s Teaching and Learning Conference (TLC) is coming up on September 13th.  The conference will be held in Long Beach, CA from 8-10 February, 2013.  The call for papers can be found here.

The conference is organized according to 12 tracks and participants stay with their track the entire time.  The tracks range widely, from Civic Education to Teaching Research Methods, Political Theory, Graduate Students, and Internationalizing the Curriculum.  There are also workshops throughout the conference that are well worth attending.

It is a small conference, but well worth attending (in part due to its size, which encourages community-building).  The editors of this blog are regular participants in the Simulations and Role Play Track; in fact, it is at the 2011 TLC where we met and the idea for the ALPS blog first germinated. I find that more than any other conference, I come away from TLC reflecting on my own professional work and eager to try out ideas shared by colleagues.

Plus, this year it’s in southern California in February.  That can’t hurt.

Improving pedagogy for academics UPDATED

Just a short post today, as I’m in the middle of the UACES annual conference in Passau, Germany, and am just about to go and be a discussant on a learning and teaching panel: I’ll talk about those ideas next week.  Instead, I’m going to talk about how we run conferences.

We make a lot of effort to improve the learning environment for students, creating engaging and active activities to improve learning. But come conference time, we treat ourselves almost always to the old, passive model of listening to presentations.  So why don’t we try something different (NB I do know why, but let’s get past all that)?

My thought on this was as follows.  Have a panel with 3 or 4 papers, as normal, but with a twist. Each paper presenter is guaranteed a 2 minute slot (yes, 2 minutes), after which they have to shut up. You then give the audience the power to decide if they want more: maybe with voting handsets to avoid awkward conversations in the coffee-break afterwards. Each round of voting would give a presenter a further 2 minutes. This continues until no one wants any more.

The structure would encourage presenters to focus on the key messages, rather than the extraneous detail. It would allow the audience an active role. It would enforce more meaningful time management than often takes place (or doesn’t). And it would be memorable (if possibly for the wrong reasons).

Something to think on. I’m off now, to see if I can convince anyone else of trying out.

UPDATE: 6 September 2012

I talked to some people after this: I got mixed reactions, which I’d expected. But no-one I talked to was totally opposed (maybe I talk to odd people).

However, I’m not totally satisfied with the idea, so I spent more time thinking about it. And here’s version 2. The audience has voting pads, as before. Each speaker now has 15 minutes, but this can be changed by the audience. The voting would be continuous (Microsoft offer something like this), expressing interest (or lack of), which in turn would either add extra time (or remove it). Each speaker would be guaranteed 10 minutes minimum, 20 minutes maximum. You’d need to project remaining time somewhere (and probably the aggregate voting), but it would work better than the original idea, because it’d flow more, there would be scope for the speaker to respond to the audience’s needs, and drop-offs in attention would be more clearly marked.

Sunny Days in Montreal

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’m an advocate for learning outside the classroom. To be honest, I really don’t know how students can be taught to think about learning in (for them) unconventional ways. The problem occurred to me today, as I was observing other tourists in Montreal. The differences I’ve noticed during my short visit here made me wonder why a city that is not very far from the USA is worlds apart in terms of lifestyle. So maybe the key to learning outside the classroom is asking questions, but then one has to be interested in asking questions in the first place. And I don’t know how to get students to think that asking questions is important or beneficial. They just want answers.

Knowing Your Resources: Help a Colleague, Help Yourself

The other day a colleague came into my office and said “hey–  I have class in twenty minutes on X.  Any ideas for a game I could use?”  I wish I could say that I immediately pulled a game on X off my shelf, dusted it off, and handed it to him, but X is a bit outside my usual wheelhouse.  We traded a few ideas for a way to make X into a manageable activity, but did not have a concrete plan by the time he had to head to class.  Afterwards i went online, and sure enough found explicit instructions for an activity on X, complete with teacher resources, handouts, and images to show students.  The site, by the way is The Foundation for Teaching Economics, and it is chock full of teacher resources and activities on all kinds of topics at the intersection of economics and politics.

A quick example:  whenever I teach international relations, I always start the class with this question: ‘how has the world outside of the United States had an impact on you today?’  They are skeptical at first, but as the answers come stumbling out, they eventually realize all the ways in which the world is connected and that serves as a solid foundation for why understanding IR is crucial regardless of their major.  The big reveal on this is when they realize that their clothing is usually all made outside of the US—rarely do they have even one thing on their person entirely ‘made in the USA’.  For me this is a short introductory discussion, but FTE has an entire activity on the subject, involving putting push pins in a map and discussion questions to follow.  I’m not sure that I want to upgrade my activity to this level, but its wonderful to see a version of the idea documented and free to use by instructors.

I always like finding a new source for games, and would not have found this one if not for my colleague challenging me to find one for him.  I get the satisfaction of helping a colleague, and in return, not only did I find new games for myself (the ones on water use will be particularly useful for my environmental and energy security class next term) but I saw evidence that my obsession with games and active learning is having an effect outside of my own classes.

Managing Transitions

After my summer hiatus, I find myself back in the office, working through the pile of things that has accumulated on my desk in my absence. At one level, it’s a classic case of work-as-usual, in that there’s nothing that I haven’t had to deal with before at some point; but it’s also a key transition point.

In the past month, Surrey has switched over to its new VLE, SurreyLearn, after an extensive purchasing and implementation period. The switch to a completely new platform was predicated on the need for a step-change in functionality and robustness: my various responsibilities in learning & teaching have meant that I’ve been involved in the process from an early stage and I’m aware of the potential that the new system holds.

However, I now find myself asking how I am going to use this new system. On the one hand, I know that I can now do things that were impossible before, notably in integrating a number of other systems and networks into a single space. On the other, I am very dubious about innovating for innovation’s sake. One of the biggest barriers that I encounter when talking to colleagues across the sector is the fear that having an interest in L&T means having to constantly change one’s practice to accommodate the ‘latest thinking’. This concern is a real one, especially in situations where institutions are ambivalent about the place of teaching in their provision. Even here – where that does not apply – there are enough other areas of change that change-for-change’s-sake is not appropriate.

The upshot is that I’m going to wait for now. As the year progresses, I’m going to see when I can add real value-added via the new VLE, both from my own practice and from talking with others. This latter point is an essential one, in my view: Teaching can be a very personal activity, and often the most useful advice comes not from ‘the literature’ but from conversations with colleagues, especially those who have worked through the practicalities of a situation: educational theory is all well and good, but sometimes you just need to have a walk-through.

All of which leads me to a plug for internet resource on simulations that I was working on earlier this summer.  Thanks to the HEA, I was able to push on with a big part of the content. It’s meant to be a practical guide to using simulations and games (and draws on several elements from other ALPS contributors) and I’m very happy to talk about any of it with people and to receive more content.

The Word Problem Problem

Recently I was faced with the question of whether to use some of the same books in two different courses. Isn’t each course supposed to have distinctive content? But what about the unity of knowledge? My internal debate eventually led me to conclude that when it comes to curriculum design, most university faculty — at least at the undergraduate level — are like failed restaurateurs. Everyone who likes cooking in the kitchen thinks they can run a restaurant. Every faculty member thinks designing a curriculum is the same as constructing a syllabus.

We often preach about the importance of critical thinking and claim that our courses and curricula help develop this skill. Yet students are often unable to transfer analytical  reasoning techniques from one context to another. The classic example of this is the word problem from elementary school:

  • A Japanese train with seven cars travels between Osaka and Tokyo at a constant speed of 200 km/hour. How long does the trip take for someone riding in the second car?
  • A Japanese train with four cars travels between Osaka and Tokyo at a constant speed of 200 km/hour and someone accidentally drops a book from the window of the second car. How long does the book take to hit the ground?

Students who have learned how to solve the first problem will frequently fail to solve the second one, even though they are essentially identical.* Why does this happen?

As pointed out by the cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, the human mind is lazy — it is predisposed to look for familiar patterns, and when it thinks it has found one, its decision-making ability is often negatively influenced. To get around this habit, a person must learn to differentiate between a problem’s superficial aspects and what Willingham calls its deep structure:

When one is very familiar with a problem’s deep-structure, knowledge about how to solve it transfers well. That familiarity can come from long-term, repeated experience with one problem, or with various manifestations of one type of problem (i.e., many problems that have different surface structures, but the same deep structure).

How does this relate to the readings I assign in my courses? If I assign the same text in multiple courses, students get repeated exposure to the same problem, and their ability to solve it is reinforced, or I can use the text to demonstrate how problems with the same deep structure can manifest themselves differently in different environments. Students also get more training in the knowledge that they should look for a problem’s deep structure instead of erroneously focusing on surface aspects (like the number of cars in a train or the train being in Japan).

How does this relate to curriculum design? Many curricula follow a checklist paradigm — students must take one Western civilization history course, two math courses, one religious studies course, ten courses in a major, etc. We like to claim that problem-solving techniques learned in an economics class can be applied to situations presented in an anthropology class, and vice versa, but the checklist sends the opposite message — that knowledge resides in discrete boxes. The way we design our curricula makes it less likely that students will ever learn how to see past surface structure and become effective problem-solvers.

*The solution to both requires knowing distance; in the former, the distance between Osaka and Tokyo, and in the latter between the window and the ground.

Teaching Failure

Everyone should check out this fascinating piece on Inside Higher Ed, about how to help students learn from failure.  The instructor reserves 5% of the final grade for ‘quality of failure’, assessed by a reflective essay at the end of the course.  Students are encouraged throughout the course to try out new ideas and to fail spectacularly, and to use those moments as learning tools for the entire class.

I love this idea.  Like many of us, I struggle with getting students who feel like they don’t know anything to participate in class.  My way around it has been to find ways to teach political concepts through individual experiences, pop culture, movies, and books and to create a comfort zone for discussion and to help students see the connections of politics to their real lives.  This is easier in some courses (like methods) than others.  For content-heavy courses, we still have to deal with the actual content, and getting students to feel comfortable engaging with ideas they do not quite understand can be rough.  Creating an environment where failure is institutionalized and rewarded sounds like a great way to overcome some of these problems.

The new semester started yesterday and in 25 minutes my first methods class meets.  I am sorely tempted to reserve part of their participation grade for this ‘quality of failure’ idea.  Its certainly a risk.  But as the author of the piece says, modeling failure ourselves through our teaching choices can be rewarding to the students, so perhaps this is a risk that will work out regardless of how it goes…