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.
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.
Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time with cardboard. Mainly because I’m moving jobs, partly because that’s how the booze arrives.
As I walked back yesterday with another box of ‘stuff that will probably end up in the new office’, I bumped into a friend who was asking about the move. He reflected that 17 years was a very long time to be in a post, to which I could only agree.
That got me thinking about what I might learn from that experience and what might be worth sharing from it. True, it’s a much less common one than the precariat have to endure, moving every year and never settling, but it still comes with its challenges.
So, in no particular order, some thoughts:
1. Make the most of the opportunities your position offers. Yes, I’ve been at the same institution since 2003, but in that time I’ve held a slightly-ridiculous range of roles. Some years have been all about teaching, others about research, still others about managerial roles, and a couple about public engagement. I’ve been on pretty much every committee going, and done every single role within my Department bar one (we’ll come back to that).
In short, I’ve tried to explore what’s been available. Part of that is just my own curiousity: the breadth of my ignorance about how things work remains a key driver of my entire life. But also it’s about seeing what you can make of your situation and how you can tackle issues in different ways.
Certainly, if I’d not had so many opportunities here, I’d not have stuck it out so long.
2.Think about what comes after what you’re doing. This was possibly the only piece of good advice I got from a particular manager: their point was that if you take on a similar role to the one you’re doing now, then you start to bake in a trajectory for your career. In my particular case, it was a significant administrative post and I didn’t really fancy doing that for a job.
Of course, this is a counterpiece to the first point, in that if you’re keen to mix it up, then you have to keep mixing. Certainly, I’ve noticed how people’s views of me within the institution have shifted around over the years, as I take on new activities. So if you don’t want to become type-cast, don’t let yourself become type-case.
3.Lemons, lemonade. I could lie to you and pretend that the heart of my long stay here has been because it’s always been so hunky-dory, but I won’t. Yes, I have valued my immediate colleagues very much indeed throughout, but that hasn’t meant the wider environment hasn’t been difficult at times.
And by ‘difficult’ I’m being polite. Let’s just say that I’m still very grateful to colleagues across the discipline for their support six years ago when the institution had some very unfavourable plans for us.
That did knock us and we did suffer for it, but it also produced some opportunities to advance some agendas and move things along.
Hopefully you never have to go through such a thing, but the message here is just that no position is perfect and durable, so rolling with the punches (within reason) can be a way to getting more out of it all.
4.Use your leave. It turns out that in all my time there will have been only two years when I’ve used all my leave: the year after I joined (because I got married and had decent length honeymoon) and this year (because, well, because I’m leaving). That’s stupid.
I know we feel the pressure of our commitments, and we also often enjoy the work we do, but breaks matter. Doubtless your institution (like mine) offers the opportunity to roll over some days of leave, but I’d say it’s probably safe to assume that the mythical period of ‘a quiet time’ when you might take that leave will never arrive.
So use it.
If nothing else, some places are talking of cutting back leave allowances because they don’t get used.
5.Get out more. I’ve always had good cause to make connections outside my department and university, mainly because we’ve been a very small group and so the networking opportunities lay outside. But it’s also a good thing to be doing in any case.
External networks provide intellectual stimulus, useful correctives to institutional groupthink and a counterweight to your ‘day job’. Frankly, they’ll also remind you that everyone’s got some kind of problem with their work, so you’re not alone.
Again, a big reason for sticking here was that I got to benefit for building some great collaborations (like this one) while also getting a sense-check that the deal here was working for me. So even though I always kept half-an-eye on opportunities elsewhere, I’ve very rarely found something that looked clearly better.
6.Don’t become a cog. All of which leads me to this last point. I hope that throughout my time here, I’ve kept my priorities in sight. Yes, I’ve had to do some duties that haven’t been my first choice, but I’ve used those to help me get to where I want to be. And yes, I’ve had to toe the line on some decisions that I didn’t particularly agree with, but that was part of the trade-off for getting to move some other things on.
The big danger in staying somewhere, anywhere, for a long time is institutionalisation. Walking yesterday through the campus that I’ve know for so long I can see that it’ll be a process to move on (possibly one helped by the IT people’s efforts to help me migrate my account), but I look forward to something new and different at my new employers.
As a response to the situation described in my last post, I created an in-class exercise for my comparative politics course — this worksheet:
1. Write the main thesis of these articles by changing each article’s title into a declarative sentence containing “because,” “causes,” “is caused by,” etc.:
Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, “How Development Leads to Democracy: What We Know About Modernization,” Foreign Affairs 88, 2 (March/April 2009): 33-48.
Alfred Stepan, “Brazil’s Decentralized Federalism: Bringing Government Closer to the Citizens?” Daedalus 129, 2 (Spring 2000): 145-169.
Larry Diamond, “Why Are There No Arab Democracies?” Journal of Democracy 21, 1 (January 2010): 93-112.
Javier Corrales, “Authoritarian Survival: Why Maduro Hasn’t Fallen,” Journal of Democracy 31, 3 (July 2020): 39-53.
Scott Mainwaring, “The Crisis of Representation in the Andes,” Journal of Democracy 17, 3 (July 2006): 13-27.
2. Fill in the blank cells in the table below with information from Larry Diamond, “Why Are There No Arab Democracies?”:
3. Given the above, what causes the value of the dependent variable? How do you know this? Is this a Most Different Systems Design or a Most Similar Systems Design?
I gave students 10 minutes to work on these questions individually, followed by 10 minutes in breakout rooms with teammates to discuss their answers. Afterward, I reviewed the lesson by asking students to state what they wrote for each thesis or blank table cell. This occupied the remaining 30 minutes of class. While I don’t know what students thought of this exercise, it’s something I can use in the future either in the same way or as part of an exam.
Four weeks until classes end, and I’m noticing some of the same problems in my comparative politics course that I saw a year ago. First, some students are not able to consistently locate a journal article’s main thesis, even though I simplified the assignment’s format, students discuss their work among themselves when creating presentations about the articles, and I review the organization of each article after the presentations. Second, students aren’t sharing notes about assigned articles despite my adaptation of Helen Brown Coverdale’s study huddle system. Since collaborative notetaking with Google Docs didn’t work, I assumed that students would at least share their completed article analyses with their green or red teammates. Nope. While the analyses are graded as individual assignments, the “sharing” aspect is not, so probably students see no reason to do it.
Seven years ago, I wrote about mistakenly assuming that students knew the meaning of methods in social science research. A similar problem might be occurring with thesis. Although students have probably heard the term since ninth grade English, maybe they still don’t really understand it. Or, even if they do understand, they could be unwilling to make the effort required to identify what and where it is in a text. As a more direct colleague put it, the problem can originate with stupidity, laziness, or a combination of both.
A solution might be to ask students to find where in the body of an article its title has been converted into a cause and effect statement. For example, I recently assigned “Authoritarian Survival: Why Maduro Hasn’t Fallen” by Javier Corrales (Journal of Democracy 31, 3). The thesis is essentially “Maduro hasn’t fallen because . . .”
As for the unwillingness of students to share their ideas about readings via collaborative notetaking, I would not be surprised if this stems from being taught since early childhood that reading is an isolated rather than a social activity. I.e., the ideal reading environment involves a room of one’s own, a blanket, a cup of tea, and possibly a cat, to ponder silently the meaning of what one has just read. This technique works fine for people like ourselves, because academia self-selects for the highly literate. But the average undergraduate student probably doesn’t know really know how to think about what they’re reading while they’re reading it. According to colleagues who know much more about this subject than I do, if reading is instead a public activity, the metacognition that occurs in the truly literate becomes visible and transferable to others. Social interaction facilitates a better understanding of the text.
Luckily we live in an era of digital tools that allow a reader to easily interact with a text and with other readers. One of these tools is Perusall, which a couple of English professors on my campus have been raving about. I have asked our IT support unit to link Perusall to my Canvas account so that I can start experimenting with it, hopefully before the semester ends. If that happens, I’ll report my observations here.
In keeping with pretty much every adult I know, imposter syndrome is an ever-present menace. Yesterday’s manifestation for me was the announcement that I are going to be the next Chair of UACES, the UK’s European Studies association (and the world’s largest such, by membership), from this September.
My anxiety over this stems from the confidence that numerous colleagues seem to put in my hands, which doesn’t really fit with my self-image as someone who is barely in control of even the basics of social niceties, let alone leading a big study association.
This feeling was heightened by my simultaneous clearing-out of my office, ahead of my move to the Open University. The clear-out is necessitated by the twin forces of a much-reduced shelf space in my home office and the despair that I still have my undergraduate lecture notes. Or rather, did, until yesterday.
But all this is an aside to the main topic here, namely how I might best use my time as UACES Chair to support colleagues’ work on Learning & Teaching.
I ask this because I’m not sure that I know what the answer might be here.
Already, we have a proliferation of L&T groups, plus a number of national, European and international events, so doing more of that feels rather marginal for the effort. Likewise, the past year has demonstrated that it takes a global pandemic to get a significant number of those who aren’t usually interested in the matter to participate, and then for only a couple of months, as the panic of new delivery modes sets in.
Perhaps we have to think about what the issue is, before the solutions.
All through my career, teaching has been treated as secondary to research in the sector. My own trajectory of maintaining an active interest in, and work on, pedagogy is still very much the exception. And this despite the intellectual benefits of seeing as a co-equal, not to mention the financial logics of higher education these days.
So perhaps it’s less about doing more events, and instead trying to work on changing the debate about L&T’s role in academia.
That might include working on framing research and teaching as co-constitutive: we use our research to inform our teaching, but we also can use our teaching to advance our research. The skills of effective teaching – dialogue, clear communication, responsiveness – are also essentials of research and getting it out to the world.
I’m still thinking this one through, but I’d love to hear your ideas about what might work for you, so that as I pick up my new role I can be of use to you and to all of us: if I can do that, then maybe I’ll feel like a bit less of an imposter.
More musings about higher education in a post-pandemic world . . .
While isolating at home during the winter Covid-19 surge, I re-established contact with an academic fellow traveler from my pre-21st century days as a doctoral student. Our conversation turned to the declining popularity of traditional humanities and social science disciplines among undergraduates, a trend seemingly initiated by the 2008 recession and possibly accelerated by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. As professors tend to do, we each had previously identified a second possible cause of this trend: the failure at the undergraduate level of these disciplines to evolve in response to technological change. Back in 2013, I wrote an ALPS post about the need for faculty to examine assumptions about curricular content and delivery given the new technological demands of employers, but my friend expressed it much better late last year here. His basic point: students are more likely to study what reflects their daily experiences and clearly connects to attractive careers than what does not. Universities, being subject to finite resources, will institutionalize the former while casting aside the latter.
As my friend wrote, technologies like internet search, smartphones, big data, and social media were already having an effect before 2008, but they radically altered life afterward. Yet how many undergraduate political science, history, or English literature programs now train majors in app design, predictive analytics, or video production? I’ve taken a few small steps in this direction, with online video content, ArcGIS storymaps, and KnightLab timelines, but always at my own expense and independently of the formal curriculum. My friend has made a much deeper commitment to learning and teaching these technologies, but again, he’s done it despite, not because of, the norms of his discipline.
The big question of how we forward (not back) in our teaching practice is one that continues to bother me, partly because it’s going to be a major personal challenge for me in the coming years, but also because the variety of discourses about this vary rather more than I’d expect.
As a case in point, I noticed that my VC/President wrote a long blog about this question just the other week. In it, he writes about the possibilities that digital technologies open up and how we need to be receptive and pro-active in making the most of these.
And that’s all fine.
However, what strikes me about the piece is that there’s no mention at any point about pedagogy. Instead it posits a system driven by what the tech can do.
Having gotten to spend some time with him, I know that he does have a genuine and deep interest in teaching in itself, rather than simply as a side-show from research or a money-generating activity (unlike some VCs I’ve encountered), but it’s a bit disappointing to see a senior leader get caught up in the tech.
Tech matters. This past 12 months have demonstrated that all too clearly, but tech is (and can only ever be) a function of pedagogy. More precisely, the fundamentals of good pedagogic practice – clear learning objectives; alignment of content and assessment; responsive design – are just that, fundamentals.
Consider last spring, when you were scrambling around for a means to continue your classes. You probably had an institutional VLE or platform intended specifically for that purpose, plus access to some other tools, either supported by your institution or not.
In the first instance, I’m guessing you took the path of least resistance in setting up ad hoc ways to get content to students and/or having interactions with them.
But then you started to look around at the world of possibilities, just like my VC is suggesting. But in making your new choices, the key driver was likely to have been “what works best for my and my students’ needs” than it was “what amazing thing is possible here”.
In twenty-something years of teaching, I’ve gone from acetates to Zoom, blackboards to Google Docs. But I can think of very few technologies that have fundamentally changed how I teach and only one that changes what I’m trying to achieve with my teaching.
The one change in objectives was the arrival of the digital world and the cornucopia of data that made available. The result was a need to shift from prioritising the acquisition of techniques to find data to stressing ways of managing all-too-much data. And even then, I still find myself telling students how to track down hard-to-find sources.
But otherwise, the bulk of my learning objectives are the same: building substantive knowledge of a topic; acquiring and using skills that make the student into a critical learner; situating all of this within a wider body of understanding.
In short, tech is a means, not an end.
Again, I’ve tried lots of different technological options: some have been great, others alright, a few rubbish. But I could only judge that against the yardstick of my pedagogy and the learning of my students. Great that they can make a whizzy Prezi, but does it actually help them to learn? And I say that as someone who’d love experience more engaging presentations.
So, in the time-honoured cliché of science-fiction, we have to stop wondering what what we can do and start thinking about whether we should do it.
If not, then we risk falling into another cycle of expensive tech acquisition that doesn’t work for our needs, just like we did most of the other times our institutions bought some tech.
A brief response* to Simon’s last post about not slipping back into old habits:
The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran this article (paywalled) about how the pandemic might have permanently altered campuses. People interviewed for the article believed that the use of a hybrid delivery format that includes online, asynchronous components will persist, because even full-time, traditionally-aged students like the convenience and flexibility.
Another reason to continue the practice: hybrid design enables students to get out of a passive environment and into more active experiences. For example, last fall my previously 100% face-to-face course on economic development went on Zoom. I do not teach by lecturing in fifty-minute increments three times per week; students in my classes experience a lot of interaction with peers. However, many of these activities can’t be easily replicated in an online environment given the usual tools I have at my disposal. So as a substitute I created a series of assignments in which students documented evidence of economic inequality in the local community with photos and presented their findings in online asynchronous discussions. The assignments met my intended objectives and the students were really engaged, so I’m going to use them again in Fall 2021, when (most likely) the course will once again be delivered face-to-face on campus. But the assignments can’t be completed effectively in fifty-minute time blocks. My proposed solution? Just cut the students loose — not hold class on certain days. My hope is that the institutional hype about maximizing student learning matches reality, and my plan isn’t quashed by higher ups.