Survey and competition on learning and teaching of international students

The ECPR standing group on Teaching and Learning Politics is collecting data about teaching practices that enhance learning for international students. We particularly seek responses from teaching staff members from the UK. Completing the survey takes between 10 and 15 minutes.

You can also describe your teaching model (part B of the survey) – the best 10 models will be each awarded a €400 prize.

The survey remains open until 18 September 2020 and you can ask for an extension if you want to send your model.

Find out more and fill in the survey here:

Back up, back up

Somewhere in these crates is a pile of acetates.

Since I’m older than I like to think about, I remember when data projectors were a new thing. When I started out , we would either use acetates, or write directly on to whiteboards/blackboards (and yes, I’ve certainly been in meetings/arguments about why we MUST KEEP BLACKBOARDS).

Even when I finally switched over to PowerPoint, I kept all my acetates up-to-date for a couple of years after, mostly because the technology wasn’t reliable: kit not working, laptops updating, the kind of thing you’ve probably not had trouble you of late.

But I mention it because we’re going through a similar thing now with the move to on-line/mixed models.

As the big Zoom outage last month showed us – as have various anecdotes from colleagues in recent days – we should always have a back-up plan for tech failures, especially if we’re using that tech across various locations.

Obviously acetates (let alone blackboards) aren’t the solution, but you need to be ready for any one bit of your plans not working as planned.

(and if it’s any help, listen to this on why we might take some different lessons from Murphy’s Law).

PS – you can ask me about how to cope with most of your office being in boxes for a year some other time.


But don’t let this image haunt you at all

Let’s assume that your teaching plans are intact for present and that you’ve not had to work through more changes just yet.

Let’s also assume that you’re the kind of person who can imagine having to change things around in the near future, because situations can change.

I’m certainly one of those people, which is fortunate for this blog, since otherwise I’d never have anything to write about.

So let’s just unpack how we might cope with a student body that’s moving between delivery modes; from in-class to online and (theoretically) the other way round.

The obvious cause of this is another Covid outbreak, locally or nationally, with institution-wide effects, but we shouldn’t ignore the smaller switches too, especially if our institution allows individuals move at will (grounded in changing circumstances/health).

Put more bluntly, we might find that some students chose to study online some weeks rather than come into class. It’d be like those weeks around assessment deadlines, when your classroom suddenly gets a lot less crowded, except students’ll nominally be continuing to do the same workload.

Continue reading “Flip-flops”

Creating Community IV: Access and Culture

Taking a step back from collaborative exercises and assignments, and in line with Simon’s recent post:

If students are to develop a sense of community in a course, they have to know how to access it and they need to be aware of its cultural norms. For us, both are obvious, because we designed the course. For students, neither might be immediately apparent. Since I’m teaching fully online, partially synchronous undergraduate courses for the first time this fall, I decided to create a pre-semester checklist to inform students about basic technological requirements and behavioral expectations. A template for you to use to create your own checklist is below. A specific example of what I’ll be sending students is here. Feel free to use both. As usual, the views expressed herein are my own and not those of my university; your needs may differ.

Continue reading “Creating Community IV: Access and Culture”

The longer-run effects of Covid for UK universities

On-campus art

It’s lovely that the ambition of some in British politics to produce ‘world-beating’ processes in response to Covid-19 has finally borne fruit in the surprisingly-not-that-contested category of ‘mangling school exam results.’

Whereas other countries simply reinstated some exams, or developed an adjustment regime that had widespread buy-in, or flexed on university provision, the UK has performed a masterclass in closed, unreflective and ultimately unworkable policy-making, with a very large dollop of changing-of-minds.

As may be apparent, I’m not a fan of how this has gone, even if yesterday’s U-turn on English results does (finally) provide a more much adequate degree of social justice for school leavers.

However, it now leaves another set of problems, mainly for universities.

The delay in getting to the current system means that universities have already made many tens of thousands offers to students, who now will be able to revisit their choices. Even in a system used to only discovering its freshman intake six or seven weeks before teaching starts, this is not a good position to be in, especially if you’re an institution trying to make ends meet and considering the position of staff and resourcing.

Even in the least-disruptive scenario, we’re going to end up with a lot of people starting their studies at institutions other than the one they planned to go to, or at their original choice but after being initially rejected.

That’s going to be tough for colleagues, because we know that such students are more likely to have weaker affective links to the university, resulting in poorer engagement and performance than might otherwise be the case.

This isn’t to say it can’t work, since it evidently can, but the chances of disengagement are going to be higher than for those getting unproblematically to where they planned to go, especially in a socially-distanced environment.

Already we knew that we’d have to work harder and more carefully to build and maintain a sense of community with our students in such an environment, but that is now compounded by this additional disruption.

That requires a short- and a long-term response from us.

Short-term, we need to be very alive to the specific composition of our new cohort of students. That means as much 1-2-1 contact through tutors as possible, facilitating the creation of connections within the cohort and between returning and new students, as well as ensuring that our learning spaces are run with ample opportunities to receive and implement feedback on the go.

Long-term, that close engagement needs to endure throughout this cohort’s time with us, even more than usual for our students. But we also need to look again at the admissions process in the round.

A post-qualification system would avoid a lot of the uncertainty and stupidity inherent in the current model (if you’re not familiar with it, Google yourself silly and wonder at how it ever came to be thus), and the likelihood of future disruption to school education in the coming year(s) means this summer’s stop-gap isn’t going to work again.

Part of that is going to have to be about universities working together with schools and students on pushing for change in policy, and developing fairer and more inclusive systems to replace what we have.

Right now, that might seem like a very low bar, but then so have been many others during this pandemic: maybe for once we might try to clear it with a bit of a run-in, rather than by first smacking our heads into it, repeatedly.

Creating Community III: Memo Exercise

More on creating community in an online course (previous posts are here and here): a collaborative writing exercise.

For several years, I’ve used memos as an authentic writing assignment. Or tried to. Often the results haven’t met my expectations. I have had students write multiple complete memos in a course, all in the same format, assuming that they will apply my feedback from the previous memo to the next one. Instead, students repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

For the upcoming semester, I decided to turn memo writing into a group activity, on the chance that collaborating with peers might produce better results. As in previous semesters, I will provide source material and the prompt. In a graded individual assignment, each student will write only specific portions of a memo, described below in the sample instructions and rubric. Students will be able to use a new memo template and guidelines that will be available on Canvas.

Continue reading “Creating Community III: Memo Exercise”

Improving Breakout Groups in Online Courses

For those of us holding synchronous online class sessions, you will probably end up using breakout groups at one point or another. Most of the major video conferencing platforms have some capacity for splitting participants simultaneously into separate virtual rooms, letting you hold small group discussions or facilitating other kinds of group interaction and work. Here are five tips for increasing the effectiveness of your breakout groups.

  1. Design concise prompts with clear instructions and outputs. More so than when in the physical classroom, it is really important to have very clear prompts so that students know exactly what it is they are supposed to be doing in the allotted time. The Transparent Teaching project calls on us to ensure students understand the purpose, required tasks, and criteria for success for any assignment, and this holds true for discussion prompts as well. In particular, make sure students know what output is expected, whether that is a collective answer to a question, a summary of their key discussion points, or a written product of some kind. Having an output will increase student focus on the prompt and motivate discussion.
  2. Excessively communicate your prompts. We’ve all been in the situation when an instructor asks us to do something, and after we move around or open the required software we realize we can’t quite recall the instructions. Breakout rooms are particularly susceptible to this, especially as it can take a couple of moments for everyone to transfer from the main video conference room to the breakout room. Simply telling students the prompt right before the move to the breakout groups, then, will likely result in many students being unclear on what they need to do. It is much better to over-communicate your prompts then the reverse. So, post the prompt on your LMS/VLE prior to or during class, so students can download it. Put it in the written chat. Share it on your screen while also explaining it to everyone. Pause and ask if anyone has questions about what they are supposed to do before you send them into their groups. And if you use Zoom or another program that lets you broadcast a message to everyone, do so 30 seconds after the breakout rooms start as one final reminder. This will make sure that students don’t spend the first two minutes of your breakout room trying to recall what they are supposed to do.
  3. Decide whether you want stable teams or constantly changing groups. Stable teams help students get to know each other as they work with the same small group again and again. That can be essential in a fully online course where building connection and community can be very difficult. Teams can name themselves and even compete with each other during the course. At the same time, if conflicts develop, students can feel stuck and isolated if they are always with the same group again and again. Plus if you can’t set breakout rooms in advance, you’ll have to manually assign each student to their correct team every session. One possible solution is to change teams up every few weeks. That lets students get the benefits of a stable group, but they also know that if they are unhappy they will have a new team soon. Alternatively, use teams but regularly poll your students to see whether they are happy or would like a change, so you can tailor groups to their preferences.
  4. Stay visible while the groups are running. In the physical classroom, you can look at into the room and get useful clues about who is doing well and who is struggling. You can easily see which groups are in animated discussion, and which ones are silent and looking confused. You can also easily wander from group to group. While you don’t get some of those clues in the virtual world, it is still important to check in regularly with your groups. You need to know that they understand the task, that the time you’ve given them is sufficient, and to give them the opportunity to easily ask you questions or get your input. Pretty much all breakout room platforms let the instructor jump from group to group. Do just that–pop into each group, stay for a couple of minutes and provide answers or assistance as needed, and then jump to the next.
  5. Use collaborative documents to capture the work of each group. One challenge with breakout groups is figuring out how to share the work of each group. In most platforms, students can access a whiteboard or share their screen, but they have to then save that document while still in the breakout group, and then figure out a way to share it with the rest of the class. A better idea (courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Cooper of Stonehill College) is to set up a single collaborative document that all the students can use to record their presentations or answers. Create a Google Slides presentation with a number of blank slides, labelled ‘Group 1’ ‘Group 2’ or with team names, if you are using teams. Share the link, allowing anyone with the link to edit the document. Ask students to record their prompt responses or other outputs in one of those blank slides. All the students can access and edit the slides at all times, meaning that every member of each group can record their thoughts or help build the team’s presentation. This also makes it very easy share their work with other groups, as everyone will already be looking at the same document. Once the synchronous session is over, they will still have access to it, which can be a helpful addition to their class notes.

There you go! Five tips that will improve your use of breakout groups. If you have additional tips, please share them in the comments!

A quick checklist for the autumn

I laugh at your measly three-point checklist!

Let’s skip over your summer, since I’m guessing your institution has been like mine: pushing for us to get Covid-ready for the new semester, while not being particularly certain what that might actually look like.

Upshot, a load of prep to be able to cope with a bunch of different and dynamic scenarios and the dawning realisation that whatever room we work in at home is going to become the star of a large number of videos on the local student network [do check what’s on your bookshelf BTW].

Since I’ve had the good fortune to actually get away from work properly for a couple of weeks (albeit only a hour’s drive from home), I’m coming back into this with a bunch of work and a need to get through it efficiently, so I’m going to share my plan of attack in the hope it’s of use to you.

Step 1: Be clear about your teaching obligations this semester. I’m lucky that I know what classes I’m teaching, what support I might be getting for seminars, rough numbers of students, and even a sense of my timetable. You might not be in that situation, so make this your first port of call. Even just some ballpark figures for the latter stuff matters in making some very basic choices about what choices you’ll be making in designing learning objectives and methods of teaching.

Step 2: Remind yourself what your institution’s new protocols are. Again, my university has produced both strategic and more operational guides on what is and isn’t allowed, so I’ve a good baseline to go on. Let’s assume your institution has created such documents in good (pedagogic) faith to optimise both student learning and Covid resilience, so working with these is a positive step forward; plus it keeps you in step with the rest of your colleagues in creating more consistent learning environments for students. Check you’re reading the latest version and whether your local unit has any additional elaborations and principles in place too.

Step 3: Build the overall learning environment for your course. As you’ll remember, it’s not the technology that should lead your designing, but the learning objectives. You have to be clear – with yourself as much as with students – about what you want them to gain from the course, so ensure that the entire package of that course allows them the opportunity to learn that. That includes online and offline, synchronous and asynchronous, group and individual elements.

Step 4: Adjust your design to institutional protocols where necessary, while still keeping your learning objectives clearly in sight. This is where I’m up to right now; doing things like breaking up pre-recorded video into smaller chunks and developing more asynchronous online elements that tessellate with in-class work. Talking about this with colleagues is super-useful, both because trying to explain your thoughts can unblock ideas and because your colleagues have some great ideas you can re-use.

Step 5: Do the donkey work for creating all the new content you need. I’m planning to get at least the first four weeks of the semester ready in its entirety for the time that students are due back, since I’m guessing that’s going to be the biggest stress point, as we all try to work stuff out. I’d say to do more if you can, but also remember you will need to carry out running modifications in-semester, so don’t sink too many costs that you can’t recover.

Step 6: Teach. All the other stuff is going to take you through the rest of the summer, so there’s nothing else to suggest than getting into it and then doing those running adaptations I just mentioned. Talk with students regularly and specifically about your course’s design and highlight to them how you’re using their input to modify what you do; that can begin from the second or third week, once everyone’s a bit less fraught and the initial shock of the new has worn off. Also talk with colleagues about how it’s all going too: their ideas are still great and they might be able to head off issues you can see looming in the distance.

And that’s is.

Still a long list, though, so time to crack on with it and remember you’ve got it covered.

Creating Community II: Class Notes

As promised in my last post on the subject, here is another way to create community in your online or hybrid course: collaborative note-taking.

There is some empirical evidence that collaborative note-taking benefits student learning, but rather than repeat the details, I’ll refer you to this 2015 study by Harold Orndorff. [Update: Brielle Harbin, assistant professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy shared her work — here and here — with me after reading today’s post.] Collaborative notes might also help resolve my perennial problem of students not taking notes during face-to-face classes. So, having decided that this change might be worth making, here is a synopsis of my thought process so far:

Step 1: Choose a platform

While many online collaboration platforms exist — Padlet, Slack, Microsoft Teams, to name a few — I wanted a tool that both I and my students are already familiar with, so I chose Google Docs.

Continue reading “Creating Community II: Class Notes”

NASFA: Association for International Educators Call for Proposals

The Call for Proposals is now open for the Fall 2020 NAFSA Research Symposium*, which will be held virtually in partnership with George Mason University’s Center for International Education and the Office of Fellowships on Friday, November 20, 2020 at the end of International Education Week. For the first time, in addition to the standard research panels, we will also offer a virtual poster fair.

Please review the Call for Proposals guidelines before submitting either a 1-page paper proposal (due September 7) or a 250-300 word research summary for a poster (due October 5).

Paper proposals should present original, unpublished research in international education; poster submissions may focus on ongoing or completed research relevant to the broad field of international education.

*If you are interested in becoming a Peer Reviewer for this & future events, please email stating your research interests (topics/methods/etc).