Make Discussion More Inclusive with the Raised Block

Facilitating discussion is one of those teaching tasks that is sneakily quite challenging: you need to have goals (beyond creating noise); keep the discussion on track to achieve those goals in the allotted time; manage the speaking order; address incorrect information or offensive remarks; enforce norms and rules; actively listen to students and capture themes; and encourage students to listen and respond to each other. Increasing inclusion is its own challenge–ensuring that every student has the access, opportunity, and encouragement to actively engage in the discussion and learn by being part of it.

A particular challenge can be the Dominant Derailer: the student(s) who speak up far more than their peers, sometimes on a pet topic that isn’t aligned with the learning goals, and has the result of shutting out other voices. When Dominant Derailers run the discussion, they turn their peers into Silent Spectators, who are no longer actively listening but instead just waiting for the ‘discussion’ to end.

I’ve already written with some tips on addressing or preventing a Dominant Derailer, but today I want to introduce a new tool that can help with this problem and others: the Raised Block.

Continue reading “Make Discussion More Inclusive with the Raised Block”

Reflecting on the “World Climate Simulation”: Extra Credit? Bueller? Bueller?

I am following up on an exercise I introduced a few weeks ago (see this post from Nov 3, 2023). Strangely enough, for the first time ever, it did not go entirely as I thought it would. To remind you, I provide two incentives for the classroom while they try to stop climate warming and get it below a 2-degree temperature increase by the year 2100.

  1. If the whole class manages to get below the desired temperature increase, everybody receives an extra credit point.
  2. The group with the least amount of commitments receives an additional extra credit point.

Based on prior experiences, what usually happens is that students are initially confused by the exercise, the numbers, and the task at hand. Through two rounds of thinking, talking to their teammates, and then later negotiating with the other countries’ team members, they eventually manage to figure out a way to slow down climate warming. Largely, this happens because they realize that if they do not manage to find some compromise and agreement, no one will receive an extra credit point. They eventually accept that not everybody can commit the least, and they are willing to take that hit in exchange for everyone at least receiving one extra credit point on their final grade.

Image: Media for Literacy Blog, Reggie Grant

Not this time. Although after two rounds of negotiations, my students were stating that an agreement had been reached, when the first group provided their new commitments on carbon emission, deforestation, and afforestation they apparently provided not the numbers that had been agreed upon. This in turn prompted ALL the other groups to renege on their climate commitments, and the class did not manage to decrease climate warming below the desired temperature point. And this outcome genuinely surprised me.

Granted, simulations are never guaranteed to provide a desired outcome. I operate in a realm of unpredictable actors (aka my students) who do not live in my head and know what is “best”. I know that when I provide these two types of incentives, I pour fuel in the fire. But I incorporate them to simulate more clearly the need to overcome a collective action problem. In the case of “solving” climate warming, the countries represented harbor historical, economic, and cultural tensions that require taking the high road to address this transnational problem, which will ultimately affect all countries around the world.

I was comforted in the past by the students’ realization that the breaking of the fourth wall in the simulation was necessary (overcoming their obstacles and motivations to receive all the extra credit points) to receive at least some of the carrot that I was dangling in front of them. One extra credit point –in the past – was better than no extra credit point.  This semester, though, that realization never materialized. This is truly strange to me. A debrief after the exercise showed that the students did not consider the fact that they would not get any extra credit at all. They were largely motivated by the second additional extra credit point, without realizing that they came together. There was just a lot of frustration going around on how the first team reneged on the initial agreement. It surely was an interesting lesson in the trust component in international agreements.

Although I want to continue this exercise next semester, I wonder if this was a fluke, a fault in the set-up, or a changing understanding of what it means to cooperate transnationally.

Tools for Discussion: An Interpersonal Growth Toolkit

Today’s guest post is from Dr. Allison Anoll at Vanderbilt University!

Classroom discussion is a common pedagogical tool, but many instructors and students alike find themselves lost with the lack of structure.  Equally problematic, standard approaches to grading participation that simply count how often students speak can (re)produce racial and gender disparities.

How can we, as instructors, lead effective discussions? How can we help students grow in their interpersonal skills while also ensuring classrooms are inclusive spaces?

In my small, seminar classes I use a tool for structuring and assessing participation I call the Interpersonal Growth Toolkit.This tool relies heavily on a framework developed by Stephen Brookfield in The Skillful Teacher, where he argues that classroom discussion skills need to be taught just like any other learning goal. The Interpersonal Growth Toolkit provides students with learning goals for classroom discussion, tools for achieving these goals, and regular sources of feedback from the instructor about progress.

Here’s how it works. I start by identifying skills I want students to learn and practice in the discussion setting. In my classes, that’s: 1) humility; 2) confidence; and 3) social science thinking. I provide students with a detailed list of tools for how they can practice each of these themes. For instance, to practice humility, students can,

  • Provide credit to classmates for ideas and inspiration by using their name in comments.
  • Ask the group for a moment of silence to slow the pace of discussion and allow you (and others) time to gather your thoughts.
  • Find a way to express appreciation for what is new, interesting, or challenging in the discussion. Be specific about what has helped you understand something new.
  • Make a comment or ask questions that encourages others to elaborate on their ideas.

I then ask my students to identify which of the three areas—humility, confidence, or social science thinking— they are weakest in as a discussion participant.  My students then develop an individualized growth plan by identifying 2-3 skills in their area of weakness they want to try out in class. They write these skills on an index card that I hand back to them at the beginning of each class for the first two weeks. At mid-term, they write a brief reflection on how they think they are doing in their area of growth and what they want to work on for the rest of the semester. In combination with my own notes, I prepare mid-term feedback for each student about their performance in the three areas and tools to try in the second half of the semester. Students receive a final grade for their participation based on their growth and performance in each of the three areas.

This approach increases the quality of classroom discussions immensely. Not only do students and the instructor have a clear sense of what people are supposed to be doing during discussion time, but students themselves can become advocates of inclusivity in the classroom. Students who lean towards dominating a discussion are asked to think about how they can use their skills to draw others in; students who are nervous speaking up are provided with skills for finding their space and ways into a discussion. Using this technique, I have seen students grow immensely over the course of a semester with quieter students getting bolder and more dominant students using their skills to build bridges between other’s ideas. In my seminar courses, it is the norm to hear from every student multiple times over the course of a discussion.

This approach and assessment are well-suited for relatively small classes (less than 20 students). In larger classes, it is more difficult to build a community of trust that fosters vulnerability and to find enough time for all the students to practice their skills. However, this tool is suitable for any level of instruction: I use it with freshman, seniors, and even new graduate students. Instructors should feel empowered to adapt the skills they want students to learn in the discussion as long as they also provide specific tools to complement these skills. Want students to practice intellectual curiosity as a core skill instead of humility? Develop a list of tools that students can practice in a discussion to build this skill. You can look at chapter 8 of Brookfield’s The Skillful Teacher for more tools to consider.

To implement this assessment, remember to include a learning objective in your syllabus that highlights interpersonal growth as a key goal of the course.  I use, “By the end of the course, you will be able to:demonstrate growth in discussion techniques including close listening, speaking with evidence, challenging with respect, and summarizing others’ contributions.’’

Keeping track of student contributions and how they fit into each assessment category can be difficult to do on your own while also leading the discussion. When I use this tool, I hire an advanced undergraduate or graduate student to sit in class with me and keep track of student contributions. I use these notes to develop feedback and grades for my students.

You can find details about The Interpersonal Growth Tool Kit here. The document also includes a rubric. (In general, I’m a big fan of rubrics, but that’s a topic for another day.) Happy discussing!

“The Joy of Asking for Help: Getting students to read (anything?)”

I found myself in an all too well-known situation this week: my students didn’t read the assigned readings. In my opinion, I had set up the most fascinating set of readings to address an important issue in one of my classes. Every should want to gobble that knowledge up, said my hybris. But nada. Maybe a handful had read; the rest of the class became experts at looking straight ahead or down to their screens. I am not rediscovering the wheel with this not-reading problem, but the wheel certainly ran me over this week.  

Credit: Mercy Pilkington (Good E Reader)

I left the classroom after the lecture, wondering how I had created this environment, and how I could pivot away from this mid-way through our semester. Frustrated at myself, but knowing that somehow it had to change, I reached out for help on social media and in real life to people in academia.  I was in awe of the number of helpful responses I received. Although, I did not plan to write about it for ALPS (see Chad’s earlier work on that here), I decided to at least have – for the record – a collection of thoughts and ideas for others, who might find themselves in a similar situation at any point in their academic lives.

  1. Clarify for yourself and the students why we are reading (anything); what the purpose of the readings are; how they aid us in or learning process; and – importantly – do not assume that a one-time explanation covers that. Frequent reminders are helpful and necessary to the learning environment.
    • Here, I also received some online and offline advice about having a session at the beginning to demonstrate how to read articles. Folks have developed different techniques on how to guide students through a sample reading, including developing key questions students should keep in mind when reading (as guiding posts).
  2. I noticed an interesting debate regarding the use of reading quizzes or some sort of grading mechanism regarding doing the readings (or not).
    • I am not in favor of reading quizzes. For one, selfishly I do not want to have more grading work throughout the semester, and I am not sure how effective these quizzes are in motivating the students to read for understanding. And two, I do not want to create this sort of potentially punitive environment in our shared learning space.
  3. Nonetheless, there were some interesting grading mechanisms for readings: 
      1. This includes several recommendations for Perusall, which encourages more a communal reading practice, in which students engage with one another and can annotate readings. I am certainly not sponsored by them, and it also depends on whether your institution has a subscription to the service, but I like the idea.
        1. See similar thoughts on CritiqueIT by Dr. Colin Brown at ALPS.
      • Some faculty structure their entire lesson plan based on students’ reading reactions (required prior to class), focusing on things students did not understand or want to know more about. My planning anxiety stands in the way of this method.
  4. Similarly, the idea of cold calling was brought up. I have fallen to these temptations in the classroom, but at the same time, that does not really solve – for me at least – the reading issue. Then, I am just embarrassing folks in the classroom (if they haven’t done the readings).
    • Folks have suggested to use tools such as Menti, PollEv, or JamBoard (even though the last one is being phased out). They are interactive online boards, that you can project in the classroom. You can pose a question about the reading, and students can (anonymously) respond to that. The collection of the answers as well as the anonymity can overcome social anxiety and the fear of saying “something wrong”.
      • Anecdotally, I already tried a PollEv exercises in one of my classes this week, and I received responses from approx. 2/3 of the class vs. the usual 2-3 hands that shoot up when I start talking about the readings. I did not ask specific questions but rather focused on what stood out to them in the reading or if they had any questions (as the mind-hive suggested). Given my mid-semester pivot, I will stick with that for now.  

The beauty of having a problem with anything in this day and age is that none of us are special enough/unique enough to encounter it for the first time in all of human history. I realized relatively quickly that my problem is not just about “why aren’t they reading” but more importantly “what can I (!) do about this to improve our shared learning space”. And I think that is a better motivator than frustration. Reaching out and asking for help was probably the best way to handle this problem for myself. Aside from the fact that people provided advice/technique, what stood out to me what the fact that there are folks who care and that they care enough to help me out. Thank you!

Classroom Discussion Techniques: Handling the Dominant Derailer

We all know the type: the student who is the first to speak in response to every question and drags the discussion in their preferred direction. Either unknowing or uncaring that they are dominating the conversation, they suck out the air from a room of open discourse, creating a challenge for the instructor and potentially frustration for students who might otherwise want to join in. Of all the challenges facing us in leading a productive conversation, this is the one I hear about the most.

Let’s examine five ways of handling the Dominant Derailer.

  1. Establish Class Rules
  2. Acknowledge and Ally
  3. Redirect to a Parking Lot
  4. Return to an Essential Question
  5. Use Discussion Entry Tickets
Continue reading “Classroom Discussion Techniques: Handling the Dominant Derailer”

“No to E! News red carpet events in the classroom!”

I struggle with technology in the classroom. And not in the “should I allow my students to use laptops or not” way. I am firmly in the camp that allows the use of laptops and tablets in my lectures. There is plenty of debate on this issue: some encourage it; others discourage it. There is no right answer, and ultimately how we handle this “problem” is up to each of us. My choice for laptops is largely based on my feeling like a hypocrite if I insist on pen and paper. I use my laptop/smartphone in my teaching, research, and just general existence. The last time I wrote by hand thank you cards, my hand started aching.

My struggle comes from the “appropriate” use of technology in the classroom. Or better: my students’ changing understanding of what is “appropriate”. Or better-better: What is my role in educating young adults on what is appropriate in the classroom regarding technology? Can I expect certain things? Or are we starting at zero?

I am fully aware that on their lists of priorities, attending my class with 100% devotion ranks relatively low: behind the lunch menu, their friends, weekend plans, and whether somebody texts them back. And yet, in the recent past I have encountered a myriad of strange situations in the classroom that required my intervention because students either forgot where they were or thought they could get lost in the anonymity of the crowd. I had to call out a student who was watching four (!) basketball games at the same time on a split-screen, another one for watching an E! News red carpet event during a group assignment, and another who was so furiously typing while we were watching something as a group that I had to inquire whether they were transcribing the clip (they immediately stopped when I said something). At a guest lecture I gave this week in hybrid form, the inviting professor muted me for a second to admonish two students for playing chess and watching soccer respectively on their screens: they hadn’t noticed that the angle of the zoom cameras in the lecture hall meant that their shenanigans were being projected to the big screen.

A newer contender in the distracting technology game is the rise of Air Pods and other small Bluetooth headphones. They disappear under a student’s hoodie or their hair. A colleague and I recently exchanged thoughts on that, and we both agreed that it is strange to tell students to take out their headphones…in class. And yet, we do it. Has the bar been lowered from “pay attention” to “don’t obstruct your only tool to hear”?

As a teacher I can prepare well for class, make sure the activities are pedagogically sound, and I can set clear boundaries of what the purpose of our classroom is. I do that at the beginning of the semester with the syllabus and my laptop guidelines, which I reiterate in person. I encourage responsible and positive use, and I also highlight – hopefully in a not intimidating way – that in our learning community I can see what they do, just like they see what I do.

What I don’t want to do is play whack amole with Air Pods and E! News. This frustration that I harbor over the misuse of technology and the disregard for our shared learning space stands in odds with my aims of creating an open, inclusive, and comfortable learning environment. And I am not even certain if my frustration is appropriate as an educator. Even as I am writing this, I keep going back and forth on whether it is okay to be frustrated, whether I should be more understanding, whether my students need even more guidance on appropriate classroom behavior, whether I am too harsh or not harsh enough, and whether I should retrain my hand to write with a pen and demand the same of my students.

Maybe someone here will know how to fix all my problems. Perhaps cut off the Wi-Fi?

“How to spark curiosity”

Hi everyone, my name is Jennifer Ostojski. I am a Visiting Assistant Professor in International Relations at Colgate University. In August 2022, I defended my dissertation on European identity. I recently joined the ALPS team, handling some of the day-to-day stuff, contributing weekly (on Fridays) my thoughts on teaching, and also soliciting guest posts to present new and exciting teaching tools. Looking forward to our time together!

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What is it that we do in Political Science? That’s a question a faculty member prompted us to think about in a department meeting I recently attended. The Geology department “produces” geologists”. The Physics department “produces” physicists. But what do we mean by “producing” political scientists? I could give you the old spiel of pre-law tracks and policy-oriented folks. They have clearer expectations of what happens in the great beyond when they leave their undergraduate institutions. But what about my students, who focus on International Relations or Comparative Politics, who have internships in consulting firms, architectural firms, or even on the stock market? I don’t know about you, but I am not producing consulters, architects, and stock market experts in class.

Reflecting on this question, I realized that the “what I do” in class is to try just genuinely spark curiosity and excitement for everything that politics is (see Chad’s three-part series on the Death of Curiosity here, here, and here). I find that when students come to class, their perception of politics is much more limited to distant actors, processes, and things they think they have no power over. Missing from their radar is the consciousness that ultimately everything they do, engage with, and consume is and can be tied to politics. And more importantly, they are not passive observants but actors in the political world. This realization does not happen organically, but when achieved it can create a curious mind about the world around them – maybe not in perpetuity but at least for the length of the semester.

Over time this transformation and realization can take place when prompted by the instructor (you and me!). Over the last couple semesters, I have put more emphasis on creating activities and classroom designs to elicit this realization in my students and involve them and their ideas more strongly in our classroom environment. Below, I outline some of examples that I am currently doing in my two courses.

1. Participation now makes up 20% of my students’ grade. It is a lot – I think – compared to other courses, but ultimately I decided that I need to motivate my students to speak up in any capacity, share their ideas, and allow themselves to play around with concepts without necessarily feeling the need to say the “right” or “correct” thing.

  • Caveat: I have seen an uptick in participation. But the hurdle of “saying the right thing” is ever present. I had a student recently apologize to me after class for not knowing the answer.

Assuring and reminding my students about the opportunity the classroom provides to freely exchange ideas has worked so far only in parts for me. 

2. I begin every class session with a 5-minute news recap session. It wakes up the students (especially those pesky early Monday morning sessions), and it allows students to share news stories that peaked their interests about domestic or international issues.

  • Caveat: If students don’t read, and I come across that a bunch (maybe you too?), it can become an exercise in cricket sounds. I counter that by keeping in my metaphorical back pocket a couple of stories when students are not sharing anything on their own. They can then at least respond to that and communicate their thoughts.
    • The cynic in me is a bit baffled when I encounter folks who just don’t read anything. But that is beside the point here.

3. A core assignment in my class, which I have done now for a couple of semesters, is a short in-person presentation, in which each student picks their own topic in relation to the class theme (this semester it is broadly “International Relations”). For me, it is Important that they are free to choose the topic and put their own mark on our class. Often, they contribute fresh new case studies that enrich our understanding of core concepts. Also, if they choose on their own, they are more likely to genuinely like the topic, which can be felt in the way they approach the presentation research itself. Students in the past have talked about Princess Diana as an international diplomat, the efforts of the NBA to start an African basketball league, the emerging norm of returning stolen artifacts to former colonized states, and the rise and fall of the Adani Group.

  • Caveat: I have found that when first confronted with the assignment, some students “get it”, while other students are a bit overwhelmed. Two reasons stand out: (1) the freedom of choice is almost too much, but providing examples helps quite a lot for students to be able to narrow down; and (2) a lack of interest in seemingly a lot of things, which then transpires into not knowing where to start and how to proceed. In the case of the second option, I have found that it takes a lot of probing and pulling to define half-heartedly some “interesting” topic.

These three are by no means perfect, but they have created a warmer and more engaged back-and-forth that I appreciate and prefer over my monologues. I try and improve upon that regularly. No empirical evidence exists on the effects of my efforts (yet), but I see it as my responsibility of “what I do” to instill – especially in introductory courses – a sense of curiosity and ownership by our students over politics. Maybe in twenty years one of them will reach out about their international political efforts in architectural design.

The Death of Curiosity? Part 1

Our fall semester is nearly done, and I’ve already started mentally reviewing it. Although this might be a consequence of recency bias, the teaching-learning environment feels like it has been below average.

Given their annotations on Perusall, many students seem to still have great difficulty identifying the thesis, independent variables, and dependent variable of assigned readings — despite the accurate comments written by classmates.

Attendance in class has frequently been below fifty percent, and a greater portion than usual of the students who do come to class look like they mentally check out during discussions. For context, see my October series on physical presence in the classroom here, here, and here.

Possible solutions to the above problems? Instituting pop quizzes based on Perusall readings and class discussions, machine-graded in the Canvas LMS, comes to mind. If students don’t want to voluntarily eat the carrot of knowledge, then perhaps I should use the stick of multiple choice questions that directly affect the course grade. Two potential drawbacks to this method: first, the difficulty of guiding in-class discussions toward quiz questions that were created before the discussion occurred, and second, potential complaints about not being allowed to “make up” quizzes that were missed when absent. My general policy is not to complicate my life by scheduling alternative testing dates, granting deadline extensions, etc. As I’ve stated before, I regard students as legal adults capable of setting their own priorities.

Before classes end this week, I’ll be gathering slightly more objective feedback on the “skills” components of my two undergraduate courses via anonymous surveys. I’ll report the results in my next post.

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.

Behavior Management

Things might be bit different in the classroom. In the USA, we are now seeing undergraduates who spent the last two years of high school at home and online. Healthy psycho-social development and adequate academic preparation for college, in decline long before the pandemic, might be at a new low. Your students may be exhibiting behaviors that make classroom discussion more difficult to manage than in the past. It might be a case of the socially cueless, the know-it-all with verbal diarrhea, or the off-topic tangentialist. Or, worst of all, the rage-filled misogynist.

I’ve never been a fan of tossing out a question to the whole class. The practice often leads to complete silence or one of the above types of students derailing the discussion. There are several alternatives, many of which we’ve outlined here before. Splitting the class into small groups for a few minutes gets the whole class involved in discussion rather than just one person. Given the perceived social ramifications, students are often more likely to communicate, civilly, with each other than with the professor. Soliciting a concise verbal report from some groups immediately afterward also tends to filter out irrelevant or objectionable remarks.

The result of a previous exit survey, a.k.a. the muddiest point technique, can be used at the start of class as a small group discussion prompt.

Cold calling — directly addressing a question to a single student — can also work. The trick, however, is to ensure that all students, not just those eager to talk, get an equal chance to speak and feel safe enough psychologically to do so. This can be done via a random number generator, seating chart, or Cards of Fate — a deck of note cards on which are written students names. Shuffle the deck with names face down, and pull the top card each time you ask a question. A student can choose to pass once in a specified time period — per class, per week, per semester. Just write a “P” on the card to record this and set the card aside the next time it is drawn. Names of students absent from class can be removed from the deck beforehand, if it’s convenient — this doubles as an attendance-taking method.

If a student who is called on does begin to ramble, interject with something like “That’s an interesting topic, but right now I need to keep the discussion focused on X.” Then ask a different student the same question.

The last remedy for the over- or inappropriate-talker is the one-on-one meeting in your office. State that while you appreciate the person’s interest in the course, other students need an equal opportunity to participate. Then set a rule that limits how and when this student can speak. Document the meeting with, for example, an email to the student’s advisor. If needed, ask your department chair to be present.