Curiouser and curiouser

What do we, university professors who are employed to teach others, know about learning? If your graduate training was like mine, it’s very little. We are a self-selected group of people, good at memorizing and synthesizing information from a very early age, for whom learning has almost always been easy and/or enjoyable. We tend not to think consciously about the mechanics of learning because for us they are routine. In the classroom, we try to model those individuals whom we have the most vivid memories of  — that third grade teacher who taught us multiplication tables or the professor in our doctoral program who could deliver a spell-binding lecture without notes.

The vast majority of our students are actually very different. They still have not adopted (or in some cases, haven’t even been exposed to) the skills that facilitate learning.

There is actually a lot that is scientifically known about learning, and it would be nice if such knowledge was a standard component of doctoral programs, but it’s not. If you are looking for additions to your summer reading list, here are three books on the subject that I’ve found especially enlightening. All three examine the role of narratives, emotion, repetition, and context in learning. They are based on a large body of psychological and cognitive science research, and contain ideas that are quite applicable to the classroom:

Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (2010). Willingham is a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia. The book is a compilation of his “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” columns for American Educator, available for free here

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), which I’ve referenced here, here, and here. Kahneman is a recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on cognitive biases, heuristics, and decision making.

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (2012). Duhigg is a journalist for the New York Times. This book is a straightforward, easy to read explication on the formation and effects of habits in human behavior.

The Methods Silo Effect and Fixing Poor Research Skills

Today I want to discuss the Methods Silo Effect: the belief that a single methods class or sequence is sufficient to teach our students the skills of a political scientist.  Following this course, no more instruction in research skills should be needed, and students should be able to employ these skills without additional practice.

This is a dangerous assumption.

First, a confession: I LOVE teaching methods.  People don’t believe me when I say that, but it’s true.  There is something so freeing about teaching a skill, rather than content, and ties into my longstanding interest of using the non-political to teach the political.  Want to teach students about how to evaluate evidence and look for contradictions?  Great: use Zendo.  Need a way of showing students the difference between a random source and The Literature?  There is a scene in episode 1:3 of Sherlock where Watson notes some interesting details about a piece of evidence, and Sherlock’s reply notes how Watson ‘missed almost everything of importance”. It is therefore somewhat easy for me to suggest that methods training be incorporated more widely into our content courses.

In isolation,  a single methods course or sequence is simply not enough to really build the research skills of our students. First, one class must by nature be a hodge-podge that includes at a minimum research design, ethics, stats, qualitative approaches, philosophy of social science, writing, professionalization, and basic research skills.  Choices must be made about where to go in-depth and where to make cuts, and it is unlikely that students will be truly proficient in all these areas at the end of a course.  While other methods and skills courses may be available, this is not necessarily a panacea: if required, they pose opportunity costs at the expense of content courses; if not required, students are unlikely to take them.  Regardless, there are logistical issues for smaller departments in terms of finding faculty to offer these classes.

Second, skill retention is an issue. We all have seen the student who recognizes a concept or name, but cannot define or identify it despite having previously done well on a test on the subject.  Methods in particular depends on reinforcement and active use of the concepts, and three or four activities and assignments on the same area is not necessarily sufficient for students to have truly internalized the skill. As with a  foreign language, constant exposure and use is needed for the skill to really develop.

Third, restricting methods to a single class makes students question the very value of taking the class. They tend to come in suspicious or scared of methods as it is, and if they only encounter the ‘math stuff’ in the one class, they may not fully appreciate the role of methods in political science and thus end with a distorted view of the discipline.

My particular concern is less on stats and more on the basic research skills that we expect all of students to have. And I worry that it is in this area that we are most in danger of failing our students when we fall prey to the methods silo effect.

Yesterday I attended a session on research skills at my university’s Global Citizenship Project Summer Collaboratory, a venue for discussing the implications of our new general education program. The facilitator’s passed out a handout on information literacy from the Association of College and Research Libraries that said the following (paraphrased):

A competent researcher is able to:

  • Determine that additional information is needed (ie, their own opinion is insufficient)
  • Access the necessary information (find sources effectively)
  • Evaluation information and sources critically
  • Reflect on the information and potentially reevaluate existing opinions
  • Use the information effectively in making an argument
  • Cite appropriately to avoid plagiarism

The facilitators then asked us to consider at what stage in the process do students tend to get into trouble.  Most people cited the second and third areas as the most troublesome spots. My answer: ever single stage.

Sobering, but true.  I’ve seen every step go wrong.  I get papers that are full of first-person opinion with not a single external source, as it never occurs to the student despite explicit instructions that outside opinions are necessary to make their point.  Others have “sources,” but rely on Wikipedia and the first five results from google.  Few papers are brave enough to include potentially contradictory evidence; more common is what I call the 2 AM Problem, where students discover a piece of evidence that contradicts their thesis several hours before the paper is due, and rather than struggling with it or revising their work, they pretend it never existed.  Then we have the papers that are strings of endless quotes with no original argument, or where the evidence and the thesis don’t quite match.  And then we finally have the papers that commit none of these sins, but instead lack footnotes, citations, or have a bibliography of simple URLs.  I suspect we all have our horror stories.

And yet how many of us go forward with assigning research papers, trusting that students either have the above skills already or will somehow manifest them before turning in the work for our course, only to be disappointed in the final product?  I have certainly been guilty of this. At best I require a one-page topic description and annotated bibliography and offer to read rough drafts; many instructors go further and require rough drafts and peer-editing.  Such measures are crucial, but they are often designed as assessments rather than continued skill-training exercises, or are more aimed at defeating the average student’s poor time management skills than reinforcing skills. Noble goals, but still, not enough.

Just as we require students to learn the content in our classes, if we wish to assign research papers, then we must be willing to teach students how to do them, step by step, and give them a chance to practice the skills before they are assessed on them.  We must escape from a methods silo mentality: A single methods class (or even a sequence) will not do; these skills must be practiced and reinforced throughout the major.

I have a few exercises already on these skills and I will post a few of them in the coming weeks.  But I want to invite comments pointing to ideas and assignments that readers have found useful in helping students not only break the research process down into manageable chunks, but to actually practice the different stages before being graded on a final effort.

Jumping On the MOOC Train

A brief update to what I’ve written recently (here and here) about the sweeping changes that massive open-source online courses (MOOCs) are bringing to higher education:

Coursera has announced partnership agreements with twelve more universities, including Caltech, Johns Hopkins, the University of Illinois, and the University of Washington. Three of its new partners are universities outside the USA — in Canada, Scotland, and Switzerland.

According to the story in the New York Times, the University of Washington plans to allow students who enroll in Coursera’s MOOCs to obtain course credit, possibly through additional assignments and interaction with an on-campus instructor.

This development is another nail in the coffin for traditional classroom instruction.  Students will not pay thousands of dollars for lectures and a reading list when they can get the same content for free online, especially when that content comes from the best scholars at the best universities in the world.

At most colleges and universities, the traditional campus experience only provides a sufficient return on investment to students if it delivers what can’t be delivered  online — an inverted classroom. It will become the norm for students to enroll in a MOOC, complete lessons online first, and then engage in collaborative problem-solving exercises in classes on campus.

Additional details about Coursera and the University of Washington can be found in the Seattle Times.

Challenging Opportunity Costs in Learning & Teaching

As befits a country that’s about to welcome the world, the weather has been particularly dismal here in England.  With this in mind, I’ve been thinking about economics, and particularly about the notion of opportunity cost.

At one level, this is an obvious truism in the observation that doing one thing means you’re not doing another, especially with its logical conclusion that there are no free lunches.  However, as we come to the end of a first year of this blog (more or less), I have been struck by the potential challenge this throws up.

When I tell people that I write a 400 word piece pretty much every week for this blog – and that I do the same for another blog in my School (which I heartily recommend) – they tend to look aghast, ask how much time this all takes and what the point is. Even when I explain that I have a slot in my calendar on the two days I arrive early at work and a post takes about 30 minutes, they still wonder whether I couldn’t be doing something “more useful” (usually undefined).

From my perspective, this is more useful for me.  It’s helped me get back into the habit of writing regularly, of testing out my thoughts and getting feedback, of laying down markers for future research: indeed, pretty much all the things we tell our students to be doing. Going back through the past year’s posts, I can see things that I want to revisit and things I’d like to write up, as well as links to resources that I might use during next academic year.  For an hour a week, that seems like a good deal to me, especially since I’d otherwise be dealing with some random paperwork or checking my Klout score (42, since you ask).

Economics talks about comparative advantage, optimising the resources and abilities one has available to maximise utility.  In Learning & Teaching we have gone some of the way towards that, setting out learning objectives in curricula and aligning teaching to maximise the chances of achieving them.  But it strikes me that sometimes we need to step back from utility maximisation and instead dwell on alternative utilities. In simulations, for example, I typically do not specific very closely what students should gain from a particular game, since I recognise that each person might get something very different, each of which might be of personal value: my priorities are not necessarily universal. As long as people can recognise what is important to them, then surely we should count that as a success.

So the summer break beckons, including a long trip to South East Asia. I’m going to miss posting again until late August, but I hope that I can bring back some new ideas for you. Until then.

The eBay of Education

In my post on the end of the university as we know it, I outlined the financially unsustainable system of higher education in the USA and how organizations like edX (the soon-to-launch amalgamation of MITx and Harvardx), Coursera, and Udacity offer low- to no-cost education to hundreds of thousands of students through open-source online content. I’ve since stumbled across two other platforms that deserve attention, Udemy and Alison.

Alison’s courses are free, but it uses advertising to generate revenue. The more traffic a particular course gets, the more Alison can charge for advertising on the course’s webpages, and instructors who have designed a course of their own supposedly get a share of that revenue. Students can also pay a fee to avoid advertising or to obtain certificates of course completion.

Udemy uses a different business model. There is no advertising. Some courses are free, while others aren’t. Udemy retains thirty percent of any tuition charged for a course; the instructor gets the remainder.  So Udemy has the potential of functioning as an auction system, similar to eBay, that determines the market clearing price for any course. Like carbon credit markets identify how much companies are willing to pay for the right to pollute, Udemy could reveal what students are willing to pay for instruction on a particular topic. My guess is that for most traditional universities — the ones without prestigious brands — tuition is priced higher than what this new market will bear. Unless universities figure out how to drastically cut costs, they will need to radically alter what happens in the physical classroom to convincingly demonstrate that there is value-added to being on campus. Climbing walls and French Fry Fridays aren’t going to do it — people can already access these products for much less off campus.

For people who want to learn for free, Udemy is a superior platform, simply because its pages aren’t cluttered with advertising. The same free content is often on both Udemy and Alison, as well as at the content’s original online location. If a person wants to watch Khan Academy videos for free, no one is going to choose to go to a website plastered with ads when they can watch them ad-free on Udemy or on Khan Academy’s YouTube channel.

One last note: according to this press release from MIT, of the 155,000 people from 160 countries who enrolled in MITx’s initial course this past spring, only 7,157  successfully completed it — a pass rate of less than five percent. That extremely low percentage signifies how difficult the course was and makes completion a very meaningful credential. Most universities, because of limits on enrollment and grade inflation, can’t provide students with a credential that is as meaningful.

Hunger Games v. Battle Royale

In the pedagogical battle between The Hunger Games, a book (and now film) by Suzanne Collins, and the Japanese film Battle Royale, the former is the clear winner.

Spoilers for both follow, so fair warning!

Background: I teach a course on Politics in Film and Fiction, which is based on the premise that we can learn about major political concepts by watching and reading non-political works of fiction.  Thus, the syllabus includes no documentaries or ‘political’ films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; the closest we get to that genre is 12 Angry Men or Elizabeth.  I’ve used the Hunger Games in the class before, and having heard a similar plot was used in Battle Royale, I figured I would give it a shot.

Both works are about a group of kids forced to fight to the death in a game run by adults.  In Hunger Games (HG), this is a punishment given to outlying provinces for a rebellion, and acts as a tool of oppression.  In Battle Royale (BR), the punishment is aimed at an unruly youthful population who, due to high unemployment rates, are engaging in criminal activity. Both works are enjoyable on their own merits, with the gore content much higher in BR, but for teaching politics, HG stands superior.  Here’s why:

In choosing fiction for the classroom, we need to be sure that the political themes are present, relatively easy to spot, and worthy of lengthy discussion.  Showing an entire film to make a single point wastes the time of our students, as does giving them something so complicated that they need everything spelled out for them.  The sweet spot is the film or book that they enjoy on its own merits and also happen to learn something from.

BR is an enjoyable film at times, but the themes are rather muddled.  There is some interesting stuff on how people respond to authority and violence, and some great work on human nature (I particularly like the scene in the lighthouse, where four girls working happily together end up killing each other on the slightest suspicion of treachery).  But the role of government in what is happening is very weak.  Certainly they passed the original BR law mandating these contests, and they kidnap the students and maintain order–but beyond that we can only speculate as to what the role of the government is and the motivation behind these games. The battle is not televised; indeed, this crop of students had never heard of them.  The winners become fugitives when they return to Japan and are decried as murderers.  Thus there is no real connection between the world within the Battle and world outside, and its completely unclear as to how the BR will solve the problem it aims at.  The world in which BR takes place is simply ill defined, and that leaves us talking solely about events within the game, rather than the broader context of why the games exist at all.

This contrasts with HG, where the themes of oppression, rebellion, wealth inequality, and the role of the media and entertainment in politics are quite clear and consistent throughout, and thus allow us to talk about both what happens within the Games as well as the wider world in which they occur.  Viewing of the games is mandatory, and the participants are treated both as celebrities and prisoners.  Wealth inequalities play a crucial role, as poorer kids are more likely to be selected as tributes, poorer districts are unable to train their kids for the game like wealthier districts, and popular tributes receive expensive gifts during the games that can make the difference between life and death. And HG gives us the added dimension of seeing how the event impacts the wider world, with Katniss becoming a symbol of rebellion against the Capitol.

I use the HG book in the class (as usual, it is much better than the film) and will continue to do so.  I may show some scenes from BR to benefit from some of the interesting insights it has into social behavior, but overall, if you are looking for a good fictional work to help your students explore themes like revolution, wealth inequality, behavior in a state of nature, information control, and totalitarian governments, think about using either the HG book or film in class.

Lest auld acquaintance…

One of the very best things about contributing to this blog is the way that it has let me maintain contact with a great group of people who – in other times – I would have probably not heard from again: indeed, it’s fair to say that I struggle to keep up with most people I meet at conferences and workshops, except at later conferences and workshops.

This point is been underlined today by the simple fact that I’m meeting one of my fellow bloggers – Amanda – who’s here in the UK discovering some of the joys of Higher Education.  Despite not having see each other since APSA in February 2011, we have had this space to share ideas and maintain a community with colleagues.

“That’s very nice for you, Simon, but what’s it got to do with me?” I hear you ask. Three things spring to mind.

Firstly, it highlights the conditionality of interpersonal relations: not everyone gets on with everyone else. I’m going to guess that you have all met at least one person at an event with whom you would happily never have anything to do again.  Thus, when you do meet “people you can work with” then it’s worth building on that.  This is true both for students and academics, if we give any weight to peer-learning models (which we should).

Secondly, relationships need work.  Our group has been far-sighted (or at least fortunate) is not only having the blog, but also a project to produce a journal special issue on simulations (which we’re hoping to get out before too long).  These activities have given us good reason to talk with each other and to build our collective output.  Likewise, interaction without purpose doesn’t work: ask any student who doesn’t understand why they are doing a particular activity.  Sometimes, we create group tasks from students without really giving that meaning beyond the opportunity to work in groups (the classic here would be to have a seminar discussion without any scope for valorising that peer interaction). This is particularly true in situations without physical co-location.

Thirdly, learning shouldn’t be dull.  This is an enjoyable group of people to work with, which makes it very much easier to do.  Our interactions have allowed us to interact beyond our narrow starting point and have eased the way in following through on future projects.

So there you have it: keep up with those with whom you work well; find purposeful activities and; enjoy it.

Rocket Pitch Redux

In previous semesters I’ve tried without much success to get students to collaborate with each other online. In a moment of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” inspiration, I decided that this fall I will use the same rocket pitch presentations that I used in a spring semester course, but with a twist: teams of students will get 30 minutes of class time to put together their presentations. To prevent advance preparation, I will not list the dates of the rocket pitch competitions on the syllabus — I’ll make a surprise announcement at the beginning of class and see what the students can do.

That Which We Call a Rose…

I have a friend, a linguistics PhD, who on the first day of class completely memorizes all of her FIFTY students’ names.  She has them introduce themselves, and then without consulting her class list she runs through the names forward throw the rows, then  backwards, then has them change seats and does it again.  I call it her superpower.

I can’t do that, but I do learn all of my students names within two weeks of the course starting–although its much easier these days with my classes capped at 25 than it was when I too had 50 students and was still struggling by the time of the first exam.  I have lots of tricks for this, and could cite a number of pedagogical reasons for why learning the names of students is important, particularly when you want to engage in active learning techniques.

But this post is not about the merits of instructors learning the names of students.  Rather, I want to adovocate for forcing our students to learn the names of EACH OTHER.

This is my top pet peeve in the classroom–students engaging in discussion and debate in class after class with each other, and never knowing or using the names of their fellow students.  The implied lack of respect, the disengagement, the lack of true listening skills, and the focus on engaging with the professor directly rather than the group–all of it drives me bonkers.  In debate, students can go wrong in two ways: either they refuse to disagree with or criticize their peers out of politeness, fear of social ostracism, or shyness, or they end up disagreeing very loudly and openly, sometimes falling into the realm of personal attacks. Neither of these is productive.  Forcing them to know–and USE–each others names in the discussion opens up the classroom for true, respectful interaction.  It doesn’t guarantee it, but it does cut down on the ‘yeah, what HE said’ type of responses.

There are several ways to accomplish this.  First, reinforce names by using them yourself in class, and when students respond to each other and say ‘he’ or ‘she’, gently correct them with the name.  This by itself establishes the norm, but does not usually help them learn the names.  Thus we turn to everyone’s favorite type of game: the ice breaker.  In the first class, don’t have students introduce themselves one by one, but play one of the standard games: have them chat with a neighbor for 2 minutes and then introduce each other, or do a person-based BINGO game, or stand in a circle, and everyone has to offer their name with a theme-based adjective (eg, I’m Sporty Simon” or “Charming Chad”) and repeat all the names of everyone before them.  Pick your favorite, as juevinile as you like, but just be clear with the students as to WHY you are doing this, and keep reinforcing the lesson as the semester goes on.  Finally, you can always take advantage of our secret weapon: extra credit.  Offer the students a few points of extra credit if they can put a name to everyone in the class.  That will quickly motivate them more quickly than any of the above!