Less is more

Painfully aware as I am that I’m writing this in the 11th year of almost weekly blog posts, it’s still worth considering when the best thing you can do is nothing.

This is going to be focused on the classroom, but you can draw your logical extensions to whatever arena you like.

Given we talk and write a lot about increasing participation, it might seem odd to even raise the question of participating less, but the two are necessarily interlinked, in three key ways.

Firstly, drawing back on your participation as an instructor leaves more space for your students to participate more.

No one likes a silence and I’m guessing you’ve noticed this in class. I’m also guessing you went to fill it, because that’s a natural thing to do and because you’re the person ‘in control’: it feels like your duty.

But holding back will encourage your students to step forward and do the filling for you. If they see that you aren’t going to fill the empty void, then they are more likely to do it instead. The moral hazard that comes with you always being the chatty one is that there’s no need to participate as a student.

At the most extreme, you can absent yourself completely from the teaching space, but even just holding back for a few seconds in a seminar might be enough to get students to open up.

Secondly, don’t talk if you’ve nothing to say.

Again, you’ve noticed when other people talk a lot without saying much/anything. Some of them might be in your class; others in meetings you’ve attended. Don’t be that person.

Think about whether your interjection is adding value to the discussion or not. That might be about new substantive information, or about resolving misunderstandings, or about different solutions to issues, or something else that moves things along. But it should always be about purposeful intention.

Again, this is practice that can help students too: they learn from your practice as much as from your discourse, so model the kind of debate you want to get out of them. Signal where there is more to be extracted from a discussion and when it’s time to move on.

Finally, there is a developmental aspect to this as well. As your class progresses, you might want to redraw the line of where to hold back, to give more space to them and less to you.

Behind all of this is a model of student learning that places them in the centre of things: you adjust to them as much as – if not more – them to you. Knowledge, ability and confidence all should be growing through their time with you, so your teaching interactions should usefully reflect that.

Ultimately, this is yet another post about being a reflective educator; thinking about what you do, why and how you do it. Thinking about when silence might be the best choice is certainly part of that process.

Update on CHAMP Forecasting Project

My impressions so far of the political forecasting project (described here, here, and here) that I created for the undergraduate course on the Middle East that I’m teaching this semester:

The quality of student writing on the different elements of CHAMP has improved over the first three iterations of the assignment. Their analyses are more specific and relevant to what they are trying to predict. I’m hoping that this is a sign of students’ increasing interest in the project. Citation of sources remains problematic for some students. No, a string of URLs is not a bibliography.

The quality of no-stakes classroom presentations has similarly improved. After each forecast, one member of each team presents his or her team’s collective conclusions without using any visual aids. The first two rounds of presentations were terrible. The third round was adequate. I’m now wondering, if I use this project in the future, whether I should grade the presentations against a simple rubric and introduce a rule that a different team member presents each round.

As for the forecasts themselves, here are the average probabilities assigned to each event for the three rounds of predictions students in the class have made so far:

Three tests to see if your presentation’s working

Keeping everyone gripped with bananas

This blog post is all about the value of being clear.

Recently, I’ve been doing some work on helping colleagues get work out to audiences, both academic and non-academic.

Being able to communicate effectively is a central skill for all parts of an academic’s work these days: teaching, research and leadership/admin.

As such, it gives me pause to reflect on how we can check with ourselves about whether we’re on the right track, since the key issue is typically one of clarity.

Communicating is a necessarily loss-y process. What I think has to be turned into what I say/do, which then have to be received by my audience and turned back into something they might think: each step is imperfect. That’s as true for a discussion at home about the laundry as it is for a presentation you might do for work.

And I’ll focus here on presentations because they are the set-pieces, when you are very overtly trying to put ideas into the minds of others.

So, how to check? Three questions to ask yourself:

Is the core message clear? Whatever you present on, there needs to be a point to it. So do you know what the point is and have you put that front and centre?

For me, I like to start presentations not with an overview of the structure of my talk, but with the core message. It’s not a murder-mystery, where we find out what’s actually been going on at the end, so push your core idea out directly and unadorned right at the top. That way, the rest of the presentation keeps speaking back to that, everyone (including you) can see why you’re talking about what you’re talking about, and if anyone does lose attention as you go then they still got the key bit.

If you don’t know what you’re trying to say, then you’ll want to find something sharpish. Personally, I find this is also a good exercise for deciding whether to make a contribution in a discussion, given that there’s already plenty of people out there who talk without saying anything. Be useful in your participation.

Are you sticking to the brief? Whatever the situation, there are expectations or rules about your presentation, so work to them.

Most obviously, this includes keeping to time. You should never have to say you’ll trying to keep to time, because a) you will be keeping to time, and b) saying that simply wastes time, likely making the problem worse. If you’re not sure how long you’ve got, err on brevity and save time for Q&A, because that’s where you can say stuff that your audience actively wants to hear, rather than what you think they want to hear. If you’re not sure how long your presentation takes, practise and assume the real thing will be a bit longer than that.

But it also includes keeping to the subject. Think about what the purpose of the presentation might be and what the needs of your audience might be: work to those, rather than starting from “what would I like to talk about”. Again, brevity is good if it allows more time for discussion.

Finally, are you practically clear? Think again about the loss-iness of communication: are you sticking barriers in the way?

You know those presentations you go to where someone puts up a slide and says “you probably can’t read it” or “don’t worry about all this”: that’s really annoying, right? Either the content is important – in which case make it legible – or it’s not – in which case remove it. Include as little as possible and as much as necessary: this is part of having a clear core message.

Likewise, cut the guff: try to talk plainly and directly as much as possible. Think about what jargon or technical terms your audience will understand and that your presentation demands. This doesn’t mean be simplistic, but rather than your choice of words conveys clearly the message.

And speak to your audience. This is about actually trying to engage them in the moment: making eye contact, reading their reactions for (mis)understanding, adapting to them. It’s one of the trickiest elements here, precisely because you can’t practise this alone: try watching other people and how they succeed/fail in this.

If you can be confident you’ve cleared these three tests then you’re on your way to better communication.

And that’s the big gain of being clear.

Physical Presence, Part 3

To continue the subject of Part 1 and Part 2 . . .

Like equating time spent in a physical classroom with knowledge learned, the assumption that learning always matters most to U.S. college students does not mesh with reality. U.S. universities in the main operate on the basis of their customers’ revealed preferences. Experiences that seem to be just as attractive as or more attractive than learning to these students:

Where there is smoke, there is fire
  • Occupational credentialing. Like it or not, students are aware of the economic benefits of college. Accurately or not, many students perceive that these benefits derive from meeting the requirements for a diploma, not from what is learned. Given that elite universities in the USA function as prestige goods, I can’t say that this view is entirely incorrect.
  • Maturation and individuation. Students are willing to pay (or, in reality, borrow) tens of thousands of dollars to live independently of their parents for the first time. Colleges that cater to 18-22 year olds are happy to provide this revenue-generating service.
  • Recreation and entertainment. Many first-time, full-time students choose a four-year institution on the basis of whether they will be able to continue to play the sport that they played in high school, for example. Others are quite willing to watch this happen, even at taxpayer expense.

How did the pandemic affect student demand for and access to these experiences? It’s probably too early to identify any changes in what a bachelor’s degree from State U. signals to employers, given the economy’s current strong demand for labor. College certainly wasn’t a maturation experience while campuses were closed. Anecdotally it seems like students were happy to return to campus dormitories and apartments, regardless of the cost, and university CFOs breathed a sigh of relief as auxiliary revenue streams kicked in again — despite the continuing national decline in college enrollment. And I don’t know of any collegiate athletic programs that have been dismantled post-pandemic.

But there does seem to be something different in the wind. I know of several institutions where enrollment began declining several years ago, federal pandemic aid provided a temporary stopgap, and now broad swathes of academic programs are being eliminated as they try to budget cut their way to financial viability. I also am seeing reports of the customer-facing employees of higher education — faculty and graduate students — abandoning academia for better salaries and greater job satisfaction elsewhere. The same seems to be true of mid-level non-instructional university staff. Last, the few campuses that I’ve been on over the last year seem less lively than has customarily been the case. Fewer people walking between buildings, less crowded parking lots, and more empty chairs. Maybe this is because people discovered during lockdown that the benefits of working or studying remotely were at least equal to its cost.

It looks from my biased perspective that the pandemic might have been my long-awaited inflection point for higher education. The online experience may be quantitatively or qualitatively different from in-person instruction, but as I’ve stated above, learning for learning’s sake has not been the top priority for many college students for quite a while.

I’m reminded of MIT president L Rafael Reif’s statement in June 2020 about MIT’s plan for its upcoming fall semester — “Everything that can be taught effectively online will be taught online” (italics original). I’m also reminded of last year’s purchase of edX, MIT’s non-profit MOOC platform, by the publicly-traded company 2U. In ten years, edX went from nothing to a market valuation of $800 million. There are at least some people out there who think that physical presence in the classroom is no longer essential to the educational experience of college.

Typologies for Conflict Simulations and Games

Fresh off the virtual presses is my latest article, Simulations and Games (SAGs) to Teach Conflict and Political Violence, a literature review in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies. In it, I pose several new typologies as I consider the key considerations for instructors who are considering what kind of game or simulation to use in their classes. This piece will be useful both to scholars publishing on SAGs, providing ways to categorize their activities, and also to instructors who are trying to decide what kind of SAG to use in their classroom.

Here are 7 considerations or decision points for choosing a game or simulation, according to my analysis of the existing literature:

Continue reading “Typologies for Conflict Simulations and Games”

The democracy of knowledge

I couldn’t have done this without all of you

This weekend I’ve been in Turkey, speaking at a workshop and being treated with a huge amount of respect and deference, because I’m a professor.

Whether those same people would have thought the same of me in the airport as I walked away from security without my mobile phone, forcing a very unseemly effort to resolve the issue is a moot point.

So let’s moot away.

A major challenge in many parts of our education system is deference to seniority: we stick labels on people that somehow means they know better.

Yes, a part of getting a fancier job title is knowing your subject, as expressed through publications and engagement. But it’s not the whole picture.

And knowing something doesn’t necessarily mean knowing everything.

All weekend I listened to colleagues just starting out on their independent research journeys, talking about subjects they knew about and which I didn’t. As much as I could offer some insights from my own understanding, I was very aware of the limits of the utility of this to the needs of those colleagues, so became more intent about trying to leave spaces to those who could say something more, or about asking questions that might open up more reflection on their part.

Just as we want workshops or conferences to be spaces for developing ideas, so too the classroom.

Students and teachers very often fall into their socialised roles: one lot listen to the other lot to gain knowledge and ‘be taught’. But again this misses the potential to recognise that everyone in the room has something to give.

My fervour for active learning comes precisely from the realisation that I didn’t know it all, couldn’t know it all and needed to have my students’ insights to gain more. The more we can place students into positions where they can take control and make contributions the better the chances of creating not only a more rounded understanding of the matter in hand, but also the skills and comfort to continue doing that in whatever future role they take on.

Inquisitiveness about others and their understanding and knowledge is central. We have to open to what others can bring to the table, not because of their title, but because of the knowledge and reflection they have.

As the security guy at the airport could testify, just because you’re a professor doesn’t mean you can’t also be a doofus too.

Physical Presence, Part 2

As promised in my last post, here are the results of my unscientific survey on absenteeism. I anonymously polled the 47 students enrolled in the two undergraduate courses that I’m teaching this semester. I received 41 responses.

The survey contained three questions:

  • What has been the main reason you have not attended one or more classes for this course?
  • Does attending class in this course have a positive or negative effect on your mental health?
  • Does attending class in this course have a positive or negative effect on your learning?

Lack of sleep or food, physical illness, and depression/mental health were, in descending order, the most common reasons given for not attending class:

These two courses meet at 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, so I’m going to assume that insufficient sleep, rather than food, drove the most common response to this question.

Some students said that attending class had a positive effect on their mental health, but more said it had no effect:

In contrast, most students said that class attendance had a positive effect on their learning:

So there you have it. Small sample, muddy picture, but I’ll draw two tentative “conclusions” from the data. First, given the well-documented links between sleep and physical and mental health, there is a good chance that these students’ stated reasons for being absent would change dramatically if they went to bed earlier or if classes did not begin until later in the day. Second, while it’s been my anecdotal experience that students who are chronically absent from class have poor academic performance, the former can’t be said to cause the latter given the likely presence of confounding, omitted variables. We also know from research on active learning pedagogies that people usually have a very inaccurate sense of how much and why they’ve learned. It would be nice to know when and why some students learn more than others when they are in a physical classroom.

The Rings of Power as teaching material?

A ring, yesterday

It’s been a while since we offered up a cultural product as material for teaching, but since I’d hate for Mr Bezos to have spent all that money for nothing, let’s consider the Rings of Power as an option for a minute or two.

For those who’ve missed it, this is a spin-off of the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit sagas of JRR Tolkien, a man who’d probably be working on an Impact Case Study these days, and concerns the events that lead up to those original texts.

Amazon snaffled up – if that’s the right word for years of negotiation and $250bn for the rights alone – the option to make this series which is just about to drop its final episode of its (presumably) first season. Given the investment, the number of characters and the quantity of pregnant pauses as someone says something weighty in import, there’s going to be more of this to come.

Those pauses also gave me an opportunity to reflect on the politics of the series.

On a quick reading, there are four obvious points to engage with the material in respect of our curricula.

Firstly, there’s a strong US draw-down in Iraq vibe in the early episodes, as the elvish leadership wants to wind up its orc-hunting operation and close its in-field placement of forces. Themes about obligation, trust and resilience are plentiful, as is the question of how effective any of this long-term activity has been in either rooting out the initial problems or the emergent threats.

Secondly, you might consider the tensions between cooperation and conflict, both within the various species and between them. None of the societies depicted have meaningful democratic mechanisms, but in each there are paths to influence and shape policy, even if in some cases that involves bits of convenient magic. There’s also a moot point of whether the orcs could even have rehabilitated themselves into Middle-Earth society without [spoiler] fighting and – somewhat related – they could operate in a non-authoritarian system.

Thirdly, you might reflect on the political values implicit in the production itself. That might include discussion on the use of accents to frame species (why are all the half-foots/half-feet Irish?), the diversity of casting and the placing of women into key roles and functions, all of which say something about how cultural products work right now. Comparing these points with the earlier Peter Jackson films would also open up more points.

Finally, there is a lot of political communication going on here. One might ask questions about whether all crowds are so led, but the value of clear and motivating messaging is made clear time and again, as is the power of symbols. The series hangs as much on how individuals imagine others to be as it does on how those others actually are, which isn’t a bad point to reflect upon in our contemporary political debates.

The challenge in all of this might be that this is already a big pile of screen time for students to engage with: each episode is clocking in at about 70 minutes. However, if you think they might already have watched it, then you certainly have an in to a set of useful discussions and potential activities.

To take one example, I’ll make the wild guess that season 1 ends on a cliffhanger: gaming out the possible paths and their political logics would easier fill a seminar session, plus you’d have the follow-up option to note and review the discussion with a new group once season 2 drops.

Or you could just find a volcanologist and try to work out whether the triggering of Orodruin in E5 is even vaguely viable.

Physical Presence, Part 1

Last month, the Chronicle of Higher Education published “Why Students Are Skipping Class So Often, and How to Bring Them Back,” by Carol Holstead, a University of Kansas journalism professor. The piece is paywalled, so here is a short summary for those without a subscription:

You, again?
  • During the spring 2022 semester, Holstead noticed a very high rate of absenteeism in her courses. She surveyed 245 or her students about their reasons for not attending class; 175 responded.
  • Over a third of the respondents said they regularly did not attend class. Common reasons included physical illness, depression, attendance wasn’t required, boredom, tiredness, and conflicting family care commitments.
  • Students said they regularly came to class if they felt a connection to other students or the professor, if they felt it improved their mental health, or if attendance was required.

I thought this was an interesting exercise in gathering data, so I’ll be administering a similar survey in the coming week. I’ll report the results in my next post.

But I want to point out two underlying assumptions to this kind of survey, and my objection to her recommendation that faculty require students attend class. The assumptions are that learning is a function of time spent in the physical classroom and that students are in college mainly to learn. I’ve written before about why the first assumption should be discarded. I’ll belabor that point a bit more — always happy to beat a dead horse that people keep trying to ride — by connecting it to the pandemic.

This semester, and probably for the foreseeable future, students who test positive for Covid are required by my university to quarantine for at least five days. In practical terms, this means missing up to a week’s worth of classes. Faculty are expected to accommodate these students accordingly, and right so, in my opinion. But from my perspective, such a policy is long overdue, and it shouldn’t be limited to the latest communicable virus. Penalizing students when they are absent from class not only punishes those who are infected with contagious diseases, but also commuter students who decide not to drive to campus on icy roads during a snowstorm, and students with ailments that are periodically physically debilitating. The list goes on. It’s an accessibility and equity issue.

The credit hour is the quantum building block of college curricula. It is a proxy for how long a student sits in a classroom chair. As Matt Reed pointed out recently in Inside Higher Ed, this measurement exists because it meets the bureaucratic needs of the institutions that use it. It was never a valid or reliable indicator of learning. Maybe it’s time for a different measurement.

As for the faulty logic behind the second assumption, I’ll discuss that in an upcoming post.

Moar metrics!

Thoughtful herbs??

The UK’s Office for Students has now published its decisions on student outcomes.

As I discussed earlier this year, when the consultation went out, this is an intellectually-dubious way to ensure sub-standard university providers are held to account.

My dubiousness stemmed then from the metrics used, which focused on progression, completion and post-qualification employment: to reduce the ‘value’ of a degree to these points suggests a rather narrow view of what we try to do with our teaching and with students’ learning.

You’ll be shocked to hear that despite much grumbling from providers, the OfS has broadly stuck with its plans, albeit with a rather less automatic penalty process.

Speaking as someone whose institution is below its benchmark for various elements, I’m aware this might all sound like motivated reasoning, but equally I’m also aware that my university is easily the biggest provider in the UK, taking in mostly non-standard students (so typically mature and part-time), so I do wonder why a one-size fits all approach was deemed to be appropriate.

As others have pointed out, the discretion in the application of penalties effectively leaves us very uncertain about how any of this plays out: the OfS could take a very rigid view and just hit every infringement of metricised performance to make a point of how standards need to be raised, or it could be very relaxed about it all and treat this as a diagnostic tool for providing support.

Certainly, contextual factors are mentioned here, but equally it is fair to say that OfS has tended to be somewhat at loggerheads with universities about How Things Should Be, especially with a government standing over them that seems to want a recasting of Higher Education.

Even if we are [back?] in a phase of British politics being very much less than settled, it’s clear that all of this will mean more interest by providers in metrics, and that colleagues will need to keep in mind how that plays out in their subject fields.

As much as I like to say that the best and most sustainable route to good metrics is through good academic practice – i.e. not through metric-chasing – it’s also clear that we have to have a clear eye on what metrics count for internal managers and external regulators.

The more we can articulate a coherent and cohesive vision of how our efforts to build learning environments for our students, the better we can push back against the effects of trying to reduce such things to points on a dashboard.