Review of Creating Significant Learning Experiences

L. Dee Fink’s Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses * is a book that is just as useful for college instructors as Classroom Assessment Techniques by Angelo and Cross. While the latter focuses on measuring teaching effectiveness at a granular day-to-day scale, the former provides a framework for designing an entire course.

Fink’s taxonomy emphasizes what I would call human-centered rather than content-centered learning. Yes, the acquisition and application of foundational knowledge are present, but psycho-social outcomes rank higher on his list of characteristics that mark good teaching. He argues that students should gain an awareness of themselves and their relationships with others. Ultimately they should develop the cognitive and emotional machinery necessary for learning how to learn.

The may sound like vague, feel-good mumbo jumbo, but the book is in reality a very practical step-by-step guide. According to Fink, the course design process should begin with the instructor identifying situational factors that can affect how and what one teaches: Continue reading “Review of Creating Significant Learning Experiences”

Review of Handbook on Teaching and Learning

Handbook PS IRI’ll begin a series of posts on curriculum design with a brief review of the Handbook on Teaching and Learning in Political Science and International Relations, edited by John Ishiyama, William J. Miller, and Eszter Simon (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015). Be forewarned that this snapshot review is probably biased given that I’m the co-author of one of the book’s chapters.

I commend the editors for ensuring that all the chapters in the book are concise and directly relevant to teaching. There is a complete absence of the convoluted verbiage that normally characterizes writing by academics.

Chapters in the Handbook neatly flow from curricular structure to teaching particular subject areas to classroom exercises. Both beginning and experienced practitioners will find topics like effective syllabus design, course-based writing,  and best practices when lecturing incredibly useful.

My one criticism is the very occasional inclusion of bogus assertions that have established themselves as “fact” in much of the political science pedagogical literature. A good example is the quotation on page 158 from Baranowski (2006), who cites Stice’s (1987) statement that “students retain only about 10% of what they read and 20% of what they hear [but] up to 90% of what they do and say.” This claim was thoroughly debunked in 2008 by Keith E. Holbert and George G. Karady of Arizona State University.

That said, I believe book ought to be a standard tool used in the training of political science doctoral students, along with Classroom Assessment Techniques by Thomas Angelo and Patricia Cross.

When a Book Becomes Your Spirit Animal…

As a professor of politics I’m frequently reminded of my obligation to be a contributor to my discipline’s development. Ergo, I publish works about political science and security studies. This is the proposed purpose of my being…(particularly pre-tenure) and certainly NOT to publish in gasp pedagogy, or god forbid….other fields.

As such…I want to talk, briefly, today about the most extraordinary book I’ve read this year…


Operations Analysis in the U.S. Army Eight Air Force in World War II
– By Charles W. McArthur

It’s not a teaching book, it isn’t a political science book, it isn’t even a methods book. This book is weird.

Before Charles W. McArthur passed away, he was a Mathematics faculty member at Florida State University. I know right? Math prof? McArthur’s book is about a bunch of academics who worked in the European Theater of Operations in the 1940s helping U.S. pilots learn how to fly and fight more effectively. The book details all the ways in which research and science were a fundamental part of winning the war. McArthur himself flew 35 missions as a bombardier for the Eighth Air Force in WWII. He wrote this book as a historical recovery of the work done by Operations Analysts during that time.

McArthur’s book was published by the American Mathematical Society in 1990. It is part of a series of books published by the AMS called “History of Mathematics”

What does this have to do with pedagogy?

McArthur’s book is phenomenal all on its own merits, but what truly makes this book unique and relevant to pedagogy (and political scientists who research it) is that his work is a meta analysis of the honing of his craft (understanding how to conduct military operations analysis), through his craft as a professor, published by the academic community that he claimed as his discipline–Mathematics. Even though there are ZERO mathematics in the book itself.

McArthur’s book is complex, beautifully written, and fascinating to read. But most importantly…this book now sits on my desk as a reminder, that my lasting contribution to this world…should be about writing about those things about which I am passionate, no matter how far outside my field, or tenure requirement…erm okay maybe after tenure….

Either way, Charles W. McArthur’s book is an inspiration.

Book Review: Student Engagement Techniques

My dog-eared copy of Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty.
My dog-eared copy of Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty.

This post-it note littered copy of Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Elizabeth Barkley can usually be found on my desk. I often recommend this book to instructors new to active learning or those just looking for some new ideas to adopt. The book begins by providing conceptual context for student engagement and learning, including background on active learning. Barkley includes fifty tips and strategies for promoting active learning, getting student “buy in,” and building a classroom community. These tips are useful, particularly if active learning is new to you or to your students.

But what really earns this book a spot on my shelf (or often on the floor next to my messy desk) is the fifty techniques described in detail, with practical tips for using the techniques.   The “student engagement techniques” (SETs) are divided by learning objectives. Each technique includes classroom examples, suggestions for online transferability, step-by-step directions, and advice. When I am looking for ways to get my students engaged with a particular lesson, I frequently turn to this book. And rarely do I walk away without an activity to adopt for that class.

One of my favorite techniques is “Jigsaw”. Briefly, students work first in “expert” groups “to develop knowledge about a given topic and to formulate effective ways of teaching it to others” (289). Then they move to new groups, comprised of a student from each of the “expert” groups and they teach each other. I find this is a useful way to construct group work. Since all students in the “expert” groups will have the responsibility of teaching their peers in the second set of groups, they have an incentive to stay engaged. In the second set of groups, everyone has to contribute since each group is made up of one “expert” from the original groups. This tends to be an effective way to engage quieter students and reduce free-riding.

As with any teaching book, many of the tips and techniques work best as a starting point. I do find myself modifying the techniques to fit my needs. That said, when I am struggling for a way to make material more engaging I always turn to this book first.




Review of How College Works, Part 1

How College WorksI recently read How College Works, by Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs (Harvard University Press, 2014). The book details the authors’ study of Hamilton College, a small, private undergraduate college in Clinton, New York. This review will focus on what the book has to offer for administrators and faculty. I’ll write a separate review that discusses the author’s recommendations to new college students.*

Chambliss and Takacs argue that the benefits students acquire from college are a function of institutionally-shaped campus-based social interactions. Encounters with professors and peers, especially early in students’ college experiences, result in social networks that affect what and how students learn. The “pervasive influence” of these relationships makes college “less a collection of programs than a gathering of people” (p. 5, emphasis original).

Schools need to increase the chances that students will form the social relationships that are most beneficial to them, which means deploying limited resources where they will do the most good. If your university decides, as mine recently did, to mandate a first-year seminar for incoming students, then it better staff those seminars with its most enthusiastic and engaging faculty members, regardless of their fields or departments. Doing otherwise sends a terrible message to new students: that they aren’t valued and should go to college somewhere else.

Maximizing the effect of the most talented instructors means getting them in front of as many students as possible, which might require that they be freed from particular departmental, research, or service obligations. It also means scheduling those courses for days and times when the largest number of students can enroll in them.

As the authors state at the end of the book, the fundamental task for institutions of higher education is to decide who the right people are and to create pathways that make it easy for them to connect with each other:

“Which professors can do the most good? For which students? And when? Which students do you want to bring to your campus, and which ones not? Who are the students you most want to support? Around which groups and activities do you want to build your institution’s culture?” (p. 174).

If these questions are answered effectively, students will feel like members of a community instead of customers. At the same time, the college or university will have identified its brand and the market in which it wants to compete.

*postscript: the review for college students is here.

Book Review: Collaborative Learning Techniques

CoLTHere is a review of another practical guide for teaching:

Elizabeth F. Barkley, K. Patricia Cross, and Claire Howell Major, Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty, Jossey-Bass, 2005.

Collaborative Learning Techniques is organized much like Classroom Assessment Techniques and in fact there is some overlap in terms of content.

Methods presented in the book that I had used before required adjustment and iteration before they met my expectations. From this perspective I think that the book is most useful as a starting point for experimentation.

For example, in the technique of “Test-Taking Teams,” students (1) study course content as a team to prepare for an exam, (2) take the exam separately for individual grades, (3) discuss the exam among themselves, and (4) take the same exam together for a group grade.

I see the technique’s general applicability, but to me the initial joint study session is problematic for two reasons. First, given students’ wildly conflicting schedules, a joint study session will have to be held in the classroom to avoid inconvenience, which eats up time that might be more productively used in other ways. Second, some students have much better study skills than others and those students should not be required to devote time and energy on their lower-performing peers prior to an individually-graded exam. A better option might be for students to (1) study individually before the initial exam, (2) discuss how they studied with their teammates after they know their exam scores and are more receptive to altering how they study, and (3) collectively take the team exam. 

“Grading and Evaluating Collaborative Learning” was the most thought-provoking chapter for me. The authors state that:

“[s]ince achieving individual accountability while still promoting group interdependence is a primary condition for collaborative learning, it is most effective if grades reflect a combination of individual and group performance. One way to achieve this is to . . . ensure that individual effort and group effort are differentiated and reflected by a product that can be evaluated” (84).

I still haven’t quite figured out how to do this efficiently. Students often default to chopping up group tasks into discrete chunks. No real collaboration takes place and the final product can be disjointed and of uneven quality. Or there are free riders. Teammate evaluations help address this problem to some extent, but this assessment mechanism is summative rather than formative — it occurs at the end of the semester when it’s too late for a student to change his or her behavior. 

Book Review: The New Science of Learning

New Science of LearningWe’ve talked previously about Classroom Assessment Techniques by Thomas Angelo and K. Patricia Cross (here, here, and here), so I thought I’d post a review of another book:

Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek, The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain, Stylus Publishing, 2013.

The New Science of Learning is a very concise and easy-to-read advice guide for undergraduates that is based on the findings of cognitive science research. I’ll be using it this fall in my first-year seminar. My hope is that it will help students, many of whom are not that well prepared for college, improve their academic performance. Here is one of the book’s authors speaking at Quinnipiac University, from the perspective of how to teach more effectively.

I’ve created these writing assignments that correspond to the chapters of the book:

  • Of the different practices that help people learn more effectively, which is the one that you currently use the least frequently? What would you need to change in your life so that you used it more frequently?
  • Think about the last three nights. How well did you sleep on each of these nights? What changes would enable you to sleep better? How can you implement these changes?
  • Thinks about the last three days. At what times were you physically active and for how long? How did your levels of mental alertness change during the day? Do you notice any pattern between physical activity and alertness?
  • Do you write notes by hand in your college courses? Do you annotate text that is assigned in these courses? Why? Given the benefits on learning of note-taking and annotating reading assignments, how well will you perform academically this semester? 
  • Describe an assignment in one of your courses this semester that reflects the pattern recognition principle of similarity/difference, proximity, figure-ground, or cause/effect. What is the assignment and how does it reflect the principle? What will be the effect on your understanding or memory of the material?
  • Name an activity in which you use either distributed practice or elaboration. What is a specific change that you can make in your daily behavior to better incorporate either one into your college experience?
  • What is your approach to failure? Do you embrace the possibility of it or try to avoid it at all costs? When you fail, what is your reaction? Based on your answers to these questions, do you have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset toward learning? Why?
  • Do you engage in task shifting? When? What is a specific change that you can make in your daily behavior to reduce task shifting?

Puncturing the Balloon of Self-Ignorance with CATS

Balloon CatMichelle’s recent post on classroom assessment techniques got me curious enough to look for the book she referenced, Classroom Assessment Techniques, by Thomas Angelo and K. Patricia Cross. Conveniently our Center for Teaching and Learning had a copy that I was able to borrow.

My first reaction was “Why isn’t this book mandatory reading for every doctoral student in the country?” It’s a very practical guide for learning how to measure one’s own teaching effectiveness. As a first step in doing this, I took the book’s Teaching Goals Inventory, a simple survey that allows a college instructor to identify his or her personal teaching goals. The inventory enabled me to examine, in the context of one course that I am currently teaching, why I choose to do some things in the classroom but not others — in other words, what are the benefits that I think students should get from taking this course?

The questions are organized into six clusters:

  • Higher-order thinking skills
  • Basic academic success skills
  • Discipline-specific knowledge and skills
  • Liberal arts and academic values
  • Career preparation
  • Personal development

My inventory results were a surprise. The cluster in which I ranked the highest number of goals as “essential” was personal development, not something I had consciously considered to be extremely important given the topic of the course. These goals were “develop respect for others,” “develop capacity to think for one’s self,” and “develop capacity to make wise decisions.” However, higher-order thinking skills was the goal cluster with the highest average score. Broadly speaking, the inventory shows that for this particular course, I want students to develop their higher-order thinking skills so that they can become better decision makers.

The next step is for me to investigate whether the way I teach this course is actually effective at helping students achieve these goals. The book contains numerous techniques for doing just that, and I’m going to experiment with some of them. I’ll report on what I discover in a future post.

#postscript: one example is at

Teaching as a risky business

One of the very best things about working in Political Science is that almost everything can have a political angle, which in turn gives me an excuse to indulge my very catholic and eclectic tastes. An example of this turned up in the Guardian yesterday, with an interview with Gerd Gigerenzer on the occasion of his new book on risk.

The thrust of the piece wasn’t about politics or politicians, but about the way people make decisions in an illogical way. I’m always happy to stick the boot into rational choice, but it’s even better when there’s an alternative way to construct such behaviour.Gerd Gigerenzerger: 'We can teach kids to understand risk.'

Gigerenzer argues a lot for the importance of heuristics, short-cuts in understanding that provide ‘good enough’ answers, if not ‘perfect’ ones. Such satisficing is different from the Kahnemann System approach in that it doesn’t assume the rational approach is necessarily more efficient or effective. Thus, experts in a given field often can ‘see’ an answer in an intuitive way, in an extension of fuzzy-trace theory. Basically, Gladwell’s Blink, but with proper scientific underpinning.

This is interesting in all sorts of ways, but let’s confine ourselves to teaching for now. Gigerenzer’s emphasis on intuition is potentially very problematic, for it asks that we defer to expertise (as being likely ‘right’) and that this does not need to be unpacked (instead one becomes an expert), which rather goes against the grain of much education.

Even in an active learning scenario, the capacity to internalise knowledge and practice does not necessarily have to be matched by an ability to explain (which might be an issue come assessment time), while satisficing suggests that we have to be prepared to accept a wider variety of acceptable responses to challenges. Certainly, in many universities the idea that one should not push for maximising behaviour causes difficulties when looking for the best student assessment outcomes.

However, Gigerenzer does offer an important dimension that we need to consider in our teaching.

Firstly, it reminds us that people are not rational. That’s important for our subject area: why do politicians make ‘bad’ decisions? But it’s also important for our students and ourselves: everyone is likely to go for ‘good enough’ behaviour, so how do we make the situation require that such behaviour is of a sufficient standard?

Secondly, it emphasises the vital importance of critical thinking. Without a strong grounding in such basic techniques, students will not be able to depend that ability to intuitively grasp and conceptualise what they are presented with and make an appropriate judgement. Such skills become then not transferable, but universal.

Thirdly, it reminds us that understanding is as important as knowledge. Facts and figure – the old learning-by-rote method – are meaningless without an ability to use them. This goes beyond critical thinking, into the development of a world-view and models of conceptualisation. These can then receive new knowledge and join it to what it already there.

In short, people are sense-making creatures, even if that sense is not quite ‘right’, so it is incumbent upon us to help students develop their sense as far as we can.