My Latest Iteration of Teammate Evaluations

A brief note about end-of-semester teammate evaluations:

I again used Google Forms to distribute a survey for students to evaluate each other’s contributions to team projects, but I changed how I calculated this component of the course grade. Each student had twelve points to distribute across all team members, including themselves. The more valuable a person’s contribution to the team project, the more points that person was supposed to get. People who made equivalent contributions could have been awarded the same number of points, and if a person was judged as having made no contribution at all, he or she could have been given zero points.

When the Google Form closed, I computed an average number of points received for each student. I then divided this mean score by twelve and multiplied it by fifty (the teammate evaluation was worth 50 out of 1,000 points in the course). I used this formula because teams were larger than in previous semesters, and I assumed a few members of each team would do the heavy lifting with the rest doing little or no work. If the resulting number was fifty or higher, a student earned the full fifty points toward his or her course grade. If the result was below ten, the student earned nothing. For any number in between, I rounded to the nearest ten.

This past semester, I had a total of thirty-seven undergraduate students in two courses. Only thirty completed the evaluation. Four of the thirty completed the survey incorrectly — the scores they distributed across team members did not sum to twelve. I deleted their responses, as I had specified in email and in the Google Form’s directions.

In sum, approximately thirty percent of my students did not perform a simple task that could have benefited their own course grades.

As I speculated at the end of the Fall 2020 semester, I was able to label the teammate evaluation as being worth zero points on Canvas. Maybe that partially explains why no students have (so far) complained about this portion of the course grade.

Judson College: Dead

Yesterday Judson College’s board of trustees voted to close the institution.

I briefly profiled Judson’s financial woes back in February.

My advice? If you are working at a college with fewer than 1,000 students and an endowment of less than a billion dollars, find employment elsewhere.

Exam Essays that Develop Research Skills: A Second Look at Zotero

Today we have a guest post from Adam Irish, an assistant professor of political science at California State University, Chico.

Like many professors, I change my teaching to fit the class or, in the past year, the Zoom discussion I am leading. My lower division, survey courses focus on building a scholarly vocabulary and an understanding of concepts; upper division courses dive deeper into issues so that students can wade into the intellectual fray. However, this past year of online teaching revealed a potential for overlap for this dichotomy: the development of research citation skills through the incorporation of Zotero.

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The Mysteries

It’s what I hope is my last day in the office, doing more push to make sure the email account transfer worked, and to parse the big pile of books I left for colleagues for any hidden gems that I actually do want to keep.

Walking in, I was reflecting on my time here. It’s made all the more poignant by ending up in the same building that I had my first office in, and indeed my interview (which I recall was marked by uncharacteristic bullishness). Circle of life, and all that.

And because it’s the same building, I was confronted with the acrobat sculpture that has dangled here for at least 18 years.

For me, it’s one of the mysteries of this place.

I have no idea why it was chosen, given the building has no obvious links with either gymnastics or visual arts.

I also doubt that it’s ever been cleaned, given the build-up of dust on the (few) flat surfaces.

And I never got to the bottom of the semiotics of the piece, a topic of numerous discussions in the mid-2000s with my colleagues specialising in gender.

Those queries and unknowns now pass into the big pile of stuff that I’ve never got round to addressing during my time here: they might not have been that important at all, but it is now my movement away that makes me think it would have been good to find out.

Which is the more general point: in a perspective of being in a role or a situation for an indefinite period of time, it’s easy to leave things for later.

Just as I did a lot more sightseeing around London after I stopped living there, so too with work: curiosity often gets trampled by familiarity.

Which is a shame, since curiosity is perhaps one of the most valuable attributes to bring to pedagogy. If you can get someone genuinely interested in a subject, then they will bring themselves a long way in the process of learning about it.

So why not take some time to explore the mysteries of your place of work and your situation: maybe you’ll find some enlightenment and open some doors.

Can Final Exams Be Active Learning Exercises?

More on the recent topic of active learning strategies that don’t involve simulations . . . but first some meta-babble on how I understand the concept:

To be considered “active learning,” a task should require learners to apply prior knowledge in a novel way or within an unfamiliar context — what the cognitive scientists refer to as transfer. The activity should, in some fashion, resemble lived or expected experience, because people learn more if they see what they are learning as relevant (a feature referred to as authenticity). The activity should also be organized so that learning occurs efficiently. Finally, the learner should be cognizant of the learning process, which means reflecting on what has been learned and why.

In the social sciences and humanities, exams, especially final exams, are rarely regarded as opportunities for active learning. Perhaps they should be.

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Testing 1 – 2 – 3: More reflections on hybrid teaching and learning

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans, Maastricht University

I was recently asked to test a new touch screen to check its potential contribution to teaching after the Summer. While we’re all hoping to return to on-campus teaching by then, I used the test to get some additional insights about equipment and hybrid teaching. After all, if there’s one thing we’ve learned these past few months, it’s that it’s difficult to predict the development of the pandemic.

The new screen is vast, as you can see from the pictures below (and especially so in that relatively small room). It offers all kinds of options, including a decent hand-writing functionality (including a ‘pen’) and opportunities to add additional apps and equipment. This includes, for instance, the use of airplay to connect your Macbook, but also adding dedicated cameras, mics, etc.

But did the screen have an added value?

I first gave a lecture using the screen. Here its added value was quite apparent to me. I was much less bounded by screen and camera than I would ‘normally’ have been by my (home) office set-up.  This is despite the latter coming with a fairly large screen, plus a height-adjustable desk. I could easily move around and use much more body language. And when students’ faces popped up on the screen for questions, I had the feeling that we were less detached from each other due to the life-size images. The only drawback was that the screen was hooked on to an ethernet cable, which meant that I could not wirelessly connect my Macbook. But I’ve been told that this is going to be solved soon.

So far, so good.

I also organised two hybrid tutorial sessions in one of our first-year undergrad courses, each with 3 students accompanying me in the room, while the rest were online.* Students were informed in advance that this would be a small pilot. I also informed them about some of the possible complications that we might run into, such as those discussed by Chad last June. You should know that in Maastricht we tend to work with student discussion leaders and notetakers. I specifically instructed the discussion leaders to maintain a connection between online and on-campus students. In addition, I arranged to have an online discussion leader with an on-campus notetaker in my first group, whereas in my second group the discussion leader was on-campus and the notetaker online. This would allow me to see if there is a set-up that works best.

So, how did it go?

I asked students to complete a short survey afterward (20 out of the 24 attending students completed the survey). As expected, they had different views on how the hybrid setting impacted the quality of the discussions as compared to our regular online meetings.

In your opinion, how did the hybrid setting impact the quality of the discussions?
 The quality was much worseThe quality was somewhat worseThe quality was about the sameThe quality was somewhat betterThe quality was much better

Out of six on-campus students, five completed the survey and all thought the experience was better. As one of the students put it, “it was so good to have a class with real people and not through a screen”. All five referred to enjoying the discussions with their fellow students in the actual room. They noticed that not everything went well – some sounds issues, in particular, but also at times a disconnect between on-campus and online students. Yet overall, the on-campus students felt that discussions went better and were more lively, also with the online students.

The online students were less impressed. Plus they all virtually gave the same feedback, whether in the group with the online or the on-campus discussion leader. First, quite a few commented on the sound quality. On-campus contributions to the discussions were not always audible. Second, the on-campus group wasn’t always fully visible to the online students, which was party due to the camera angle and partly due to the need to keep a distance. The size of the room also didn’t offer space for a different seating arrangement. And, thirdly, there was the reoccurring disconnect between on-campus and online students. One online student referred to sometimes feeling like a spectator, which, another student wrote, was partly due to “the participants in real-life not looking at the screen all the time”.

None of this really came as a surprise to me. Yet, unfortunately, I was also unable to prevent these issues from occurring. Clearly the fancy screen with lots of trimmings also did not matter here. But, more importantly, this again raises questions about the viability of hybrid teaching. In my opinion, it is probably better to have separate on-campus and online groups – even though, as Arjan and I wrote before, this too comes with its own challenges. But these can be solved. The potential disconnect between on-campus and online students in a hybrid setting to me is more problematic, as it may result in unequal learning opportunities.

* A huge thank you goes to the students who attended the sessions: Jill Bartholmy, Emma Begas, Jeanne Brunhes, Adam Ceccato, Noah Chebib, Carl Colonius, Boti Czagány, Jos de Heij, Lilian Giebler, Vincent Halder, Xavier Heck, Sanne Hocks, Julia Hufnagel, Leila Kahnt, Anna La Placa, Carolina Lean Santiago, Liam Lodder, Arianne Michopoulou, Mayanne Pagé, Simone Palladino, Emili Stefanova, Mae Thibaut, Tessa Urban and Victoria Wenninger.

The Online Field Research Project

To pick up the gauntlet metaphorically thrown down by Amanda last week, here is the first of what will probably be a series of posts on my experience teaching an introduction to research methods course online this semester. When I last taught this course two years ago, I used Amanda’s Best Breakfast in Town project. Given the constraints imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, sending students into restaurants simply wasn’t an option this time around. Yet I still wanted students to experience the trials and tribulations of real-world field research. I decided create a new research project on specialty coffees from Central America, with teams investigating coffee from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, respectively. To increase the authenticity of the project, students are responsible for designing a survey (replete with a pilot test and my coaching to try to avoid problems like sampling bias), conducting remote interviews with the people who produce and sell these coffees, analyzing the resulting primary source quantitative and qualitative data, and communicating their conclusions in an industry-style report.

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Not another simulation…

Amanda’s post last week was, as ever, bang on the nose.

All too often, ‘active learning’ becomes a synonym for ‘a negotiation exercise’: just this week I’ve stumbled across at least three more people running mock Security Councils or European Councils in their classes, all portrayed as the embodiment of connecting with the students.

At one level it makes sense: what could be a better demonstration of big, chunky active learning than a role playing exercise? But that’s also a very reductive way of looking at it.

So, rather than rehash Amanda’s points, I thought I’d try to pull together a list of other kinds of active learning that I’ve used, just to get you to think about all the kinds that you use, and that could use. Which might be useful to us all.

And with that, off we go, in not particular order:

1 – Flipping your class. Yes, you did it last year because of the You Know What, but it’s also active learning, so long as you used the space freed up by pre-recording lectures to do something interactive with the students.

2 – Any discussion format that got the students talking to each other. Technically, talking with you is also included, but let’s not dwell on that for now. If you did some snowballing, fishbowls, producing joint presentations or reports: all of that fits with the idea of making students the centre of the process, making active use of their skills and knowledge.

3 – Generating feedback from students. Yes, this is basically the previous point’s aside – students talking to you is part of this, because you’re stimulating them to participate in the creation of their learning space. Me, I use post-its or a Google Form, but building a joint enterprise where they can see how they shape what happens is perhaps the most engaging process we can mobilise.

4 – Getting out of the classroom. I’ve run fieldtrips within my two-hour teaching block, visiting town or sending students out to collect data. I’ve had them stand on the playing field, sometimes in blindfolds. I’ve sat in the corridor while they work out what’s going on. Much of it could have been done within the space of the class, but breaking out of the walls is a very easy route to disrupting the passive transmission model.

5 – Letting students fail. Not in grades particularly, but in tasks. Setting them a task that’s potentially impossible can be a stimulus to reflection and a motivation to address that, but so too is there value in setting a reasonable task but giving them ownership. Not infrequently, they do not make the most of it – especially if it’s something long-term – but that’s still a means to generate their critical reflection on their own actions.

6 – Not filling in all the gaps. Over the years, I’ve spent much time teaching about simulations and saying that you should try to scope any possible failures of gameplay beforehand, just so you’re covered. But it would be more correct to say that this doesn’t mean you have to make something that covers all the bases: indeed, by keeping your instructions as parsimonious as possible, you empower students to develop from there and create something they have more ownership of. And that’s true for all these activities, not just your model UN.

7 – Listen. Ultimately, all of the above is about engaging with your students and responding to them. Too often we treat them as passive units to be managed, rather than individuals with agency and ideas. So if you don’t do any of the rest, do at least listen to, and hear, what your students say and take it on board. From that, all the rest of active learning follows.

Online Global Negotiation Conference 2021

Applications are now open for the online Global Negotiation Conference, which will take place from 6 to 9 July, and will be co-hosted by the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich.

The Global Negotiation Conference was founded in 2014 to encourage the practical and theoretical study of negotiation among students of all disciplines. Each year teams of graduate students from across the world take part in a series of workshops led by practitioners and academics culminating in a multiparty simulation on a current global issue. This year the topic of the conference is negotiating an international treaty on the role of business in upholding human rights.

More information on the program and how to apply can be found on the conference webpage:

Active Learning is More than Just Simulations

I’ve been in a few sessions recently where well-meaning faculty point out how important active learning is—true!—and then immediately mention ‘simulations and games’ as key examples of active learning (AL). Also true! But let’s be clear, simulations and games aren’t the only kind of active learning. They aren’t the most common kind, the easiest to do, or even what I would recommend that most faculty start with. When the right simulation or game is chosen, executed well, and debriefed effectively, it can be a great learning tool. But games and simulations are neither necessary nor sufficient for active learning, and I want to encourage everyone to think more broadly about how to increase AL in their classes.

Active learning is any tool, technique, or approach that calls on learners to actively engage in the learning process. The point is not the tool itself, but adopting a learner-centric approach that ensures that students are not simply passive recipients of information. ‘Activating’ the students, then, is about asking them to think, process, and make connections about the material, rather than just listen, read, or write down information. In some cases, a passive approach makes sense! Sometimes you really do just have to transmit information. The problem arises when we consistently turn to passive approaches without considering and experimenting with active approaches, which have a solid record of producing better engagement and learning. See for example Deslauriers et al 2019, where even students who thought they learned more from a more passive approach actually learned more from an active one.

Simulations and games, then, can be active or passive, depending on whether everyone has the tools to effectively participate or actively watch and listen. Watching others play a game is only active if the observers are prompted to provide comments and input based on their observations. In such cases, they are active observers. Even participation doesn’t necessarily make the experience ‘active’. A simulation or role-play exercise where a student is too anxious about their performance or grade to pay attention and fully participate is not active for that student. So AL is not just about the activity you do, but how you use it and help students learn from it.

Moreover, AL encompasses so much more than simulations and games. Structuring a lecture around a provocative question, where students are encouraged to think through the steps as you go along, can be active. So can asking good discussion questions that lead to dynamic student to student debates. Asking students at the end of class to reflect on what they learned that day (or what was still confusing) is a method of active learning, and in can be done in one minute at the end of class, or as a written, audio, or video journal they create throughout the term. 

When you consider that active learning can really be just small interventions in teaching (as Jim Lang puts it in his book,Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning), it suddenly becomes achievable for everyone. Simulations and games are sometimes a tough sell—they can seem juvenile or take too much time away from other content. But active learning? The benefits are clear and centering such techniques doesn’t actually require much work or time.

Even this blog makes this mistake—we are Active Learning in Political Science, and yet most of our coverage is on games and simulations. So consider this a call for a broader approach, one that brings legions more faculty into the world of active learning, without requiring a conversion to the gaming world. Let’s look for the small interventions that anyone can use—from a great discussion question to a good group activity to great reflective prompts—and be more careful with how we define and explain what active learning really is.