A is for ‘awful’ or ‘awfully good’?

One of the joys of the teaching process is that you tend to get your feedback at a point when you can’t really do anything with it until the next time you run the class. You might argue that students get the same deal, but that’s another matter.  So here’s a quick and easy way to do some mid-stream modifications, using an “A-B-C” exercise.

After a few sessions of your class, when things have bedded down a bit, take 10 minutes to do this.  Give everyone in the class 3 post-it notes (other brands are acceptable).  Ask them to put one idea (anonymously) on each note as follows:

  • One note on something that they want to Abandon in the class;
  • One note on something that they want to Begin;
  • And one note on something they want to Continue.

Once they’ve written them, they can post them on the whiteboard/blackboard/wall.  With all the notes, you can then do a quick review with them, grouping similar points together and giving your first impressions.

The next class, you need to come back with some constructive feedback, to show that it’s not just been an exercise in raiding the stationery cupboard. Think about what’s reasonable to change, both in terms of effort and benefit, and about the reasons for not changing something (rather than just dismissing it out of hand).

This all works surprisingly well, it’s timely and it shows students that you do listen to their constructive input.  Even if it doesn’t result in big changes, it’s still a valuable group-building technique.

The only word of caution is if you have a class that is not working in some major way: because this is quite public and open as a process, it might cause more instability than it solves.

Getting to know you, getting to know all about you…

This exercise comes from Resli Costabell, who of the most energetic and sparky people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.  It’s all about breaking down the barriers when you’ve got a group coming together.

When people arrive for the first meeting, they are handed a sheet of paper with a grid full of tasks (maybe a dozen or so).  These can range from simple (‘find out where someone went to school’) through to less simple (‘learn a new dance step from someone’ or ‘find something you have in common with someone’).  People have to mill around the room, getting the tasks done, each one with someone new (get people to sign off the sheet).  If they finish them all, they start again.  The winner is the one with the most.  Think of it as bingo, without the sitting down.

It’s easy, it’s fun and it’s a very good way to break the ice: we’ve used it with groups up to one hundred with good effect.  Compared to the ‘tour de table’ thing, it makes it much easier to remember people and to get beyond the standard things.

Getting the class ready and prepared

A slightly different one this time. Colleagues (around the world) often remark on the problems of getting students to prepare for class. To be frank, it’s not hard to work out why: the lecturer’s holding a class and can’t chuck everyone out and you probably get asked a question, or if you do, then you can wing it, etc., etc.

Here’s something that has worked for me and do fit into the whole notion of active learning. At the start of the semester, I get a pile of lolly sticks or sticks for mixing hot drinks from the refectory/canteen. On each one, I write the name of a student in the class. Then each week, I tell the students that I will randomly select two sticks the following week, and those people will each present a short (5 minute) presentation on the topic that I’m about to give them. The following week, I check at the start of the class that everyone has their notes: anyone who does not, gets to spend the class visiting the library, to then return just before the end of class to present what they’ve found. Then during the class, where the topic fits in, I pick a stick (or ask a student to pick one, just to show it’s totally random).

This has been an excellent way of focusing minds on some key points of the class; ensuring that everyone has some knowledge of the subject material coming into the class (so I can focus on further development); producing a set of revision materials for students to use in assessment; and generally helping students to avoid falling into the all-too-common trap of thinking that education is a passive exercise.

Naturally, students do have doubts about this. Mainly, they dislike having to do work that might not be used (I’ve had cases of students begging to be allowed to present), although they do come to understand the benefits listed above. They’re also not keen on the unevenness of it all: some people presented several times, others not at all. This is actually a key point: instead of only hearing from the prepared (and typically stronger) students, this methods makes sure you’re hearing from a more representative cross-section of the group, so you can pick up on any misunderstandings that might otherwise get missed. And it helps you to avoid accusations of favouritism.

The Agrarian Society Card Game

I sometimes model life in a poor agrarian society with a deck of cards. I divide students into “peasant households” – one, two, or more students, but each household functions as a single decision-making unit. Each household receives the same number of playing cards, which are dealt face down.

I then explain the structure of the game and write the rules on the board. Each household begins with two adults and three hectares of land. Each hectare can produce two bags of rice each year, but it requires the labor of either one adult or two children. An adult can farm only one hectare per year while a child can only farm half a hectare. Each adult in the household must consume two bags of rice per year to survive; a child must consume half a bag of rice each year. If an adult or child does not get enough rice for the year, that individual dies and no longer supplies labor to the household. Uneaten rice can be saved for consumption in a future year or distributed to other households.

Each household is free to engage in any transaction with another household as long as it falls within the parameters set by the instructor. Typically households will rent out surplus land and labor or sell land in exchange for rice.

At the beginning of each year, all households flip over a card. An ace through a five indicates that nothing happens. A five through ten means that a child is born (for the purposes of the game, that child can immediately be put to work). A jack or a queen indicates a child has died. A king means an adult in the household has died. Households then calculate how best to use their resources.

Due to the cost-benefit relationships in the game, households have to devise strategies for survival. Some households merrily sell excess rice and acquire land, which they then rent out to other households that fall into debt and despair. Occasionally households pool their resources. More often than not a household asks “if we eat a child, how many bags of rice is that?”

The game can be used to demonstrate a wide variety of concepts, such moral economy, rational choice, locus of control, and path dependence. Sometimes I alter a rule (for example, each household begins with two adults and two children) and have the class play a second time, and then we discuss how the change affected the play and outcome of the game.

Playing with Blocks

I love games.  Card games, role playing games, board games, video games, computer games, online games, etc.  When I first started teaching, it was only natural to start scheming on how to bring games into the classroom and share them with my students.  What originally started as simply a way to enliven the classroom has developed into a scholarly interest in the role of games in the classroom.  Now every time I sit down to play a game I find myself considering the possible classroom applications.  I will be sharing my discoveries in this blog.

My current favorite is a game called Zendo by Looney Labs.  In this game, a designated ‘Master’ chooses a rule of some kind and then creates two arrangements of plastic pyramid shaped pieces (called Icehouse pieces) that come in four colors and three sizes.  One arrangement, or ‘koan’, follows the rule, and is marked with a white stone by the Master.  The second koan violates the rule, and is marked with a black stone.  Play proceeds with each player (fittingly referred to as ‘Students’) building a koan in an attempt to figure out the Master’s unspoken rule.  After building a koan, the Master will judge the koan (marking it with a white or black stone to indicate if the arrangement follows or violates the rule) .  Students can earn ‘guessing stones’ in the judging process, and can spend the stones on their turn to guess the rule.  An incorrect rule is countered with a new koan from the Master, and play proceeds until a student correctly guesses the rule.

The game has a host of applications for the classroom.  It can be used to develop critical thinking skills (as students must puzzle out what the rule is) in any class.  Students must also develop their ability to reason inductively and use evidence to support their claims (as they must analyze the existing koans to determine what rules are possible).  The game can also teach the importance of understanding culture: one student may look at a series of koans and suspect the rule has something to do with color; another student may not notice color differences but instead focuses on how many pieces are touching the table in the koan.  Finally, the crucial role played by the types of koans the master builds can illustrate the importance of experimental design.  The same rule can be guessed in one turn or ten, depending on the way the Master presents and builds the koans.

The game is therefore abstract enough to work in a variety of classes but still teaches a number of important skills.  It scales well in terms of number of players and difficulty, and the Icehouse pieces are easily acquired in bulk for larger classes.  I plan to use it in my Research Methods course next spring. While students eventually can take over the Master role, I highly recommend that any Master play through the game a couple of times first as a student.  I can tell you from personal experience that it is rather humiliating to have your rule guessed on the very first student’s turn.

Zendo is currently out of print, but you can easily make your own set, as I did.  Looneylabs.com as well as many retail game stores sell the Icehouse Pyramids/Icedice, and you can purchase stones at a craft store (or just use poker chips or some other two color marking device).