Hate Group Presentations? Here’s an Alternative

Today we have another guest post from Susan Allen, associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi. She can be contacted at shallen [at] olemiss [dot] edu.

Enrollment at the University of Mississippi has grown substantially over the last few years, with my upper division undergraduate courses now often exceeding sixty students each. To shepherd such a large number of students through the research process so that they could eventually write compelling papers, I initially tried using group presentations My hope was that presentations would challenge students to be creative (an explicit grading criteria), improve their ability to speak in front of a group, strengthen their ability to summarize important aspects of their work, and allow students with diverse strengths and weaknesses to step up.

What I got, however, were painful classes of undergraduates awkwardly reading their Power Point slides, mismanaging their time, and complaining noisily about the entire experience – both as participants and as witnesses of their classmates’ efforts.

Enter the research conference, an alternative suggested by a friend in psychology. In addition to writing research papers, groups create posters that are presented at a conference session.

Two class periods are designated for our research conference, and half the class sets up on each day. When possible, I also ask two or three graduate students to join me to interview the students about their work. Students who are not presenting are expected to rank and comment on the day’s posters. The ranking criteria, each on a 1-10 scale, are clarity, creativity, research quality, and group participation. The highest-ranking poster for each session generates extra credit for its designers. Only students who submit rankings for the other students are eligible to earn these points.

I had no idea what to expect for the first iteration of the research conference. The quality and style of the posters varied greatly, but not the enthusiasm with which the students spoke about their research. I was amazed by how excited they were about what they’d learned.

Since then, both poster and paper quality have improved. Designing the posters forces students to boil their work down to its essence, which translates into better organization and flow in their papers. On my end, I’ve learned how to provide clearer directions for and better examples of poster design. While poster printing imposes a cost on students, our library provides this service for a nominal fee. Students also have used local copy shops.

For me, the biggest benefit is being able to hear students talk about their work and learn from them about the development of their topics, how they collaborated, and what sparked the interests of individual students. When I face that stack of research papers at the end of the semester, I don’t dread it nearly as much as I used to because I’ve seen and heard their authors’ sales pitches at the research conference.

Making Students Make: Classroom Game Design Part 1

credit: Chad Raymond

In my 2016 first-year seminar, I had teams of students build games, something that originated with a vaguely-defined classroom exercise that I had created on the spur of the moment in class the year before. I’m going to include game design in the course again this fall, but with a few tweaks. Here is an overview of what’s going to happen:

Teams of students will go through three iterations of game design. An individually-written policy memo serves as a preparatory assignment for each round. The respective contexts of the games are the flight of a refugee from a location in South Sudan, the construction and operation of an NGO-managed camp for Rohingya refugees who have fled to Thailand, and the resettlement of a group of Afghan refugees in a relatively small community in the USA. Complete instructions for all of these game design exercises are at TeachersPayTeachers. Teams design their games in class over a few days and then they beta test each other’s games, evaluating them against a rubric. Points from the rubric get added to each student’s grade. Continue reading

Teammate Evaluations, Revisited

Students in my courses do a lot of team-based projects. In an attempt to prevent free riders, I have teammates evaluate each other. This semester I have again modified the evaluation system a bit, with an unexpected result.fusball-table

For the past three semesters I’ve been using Google Forms to distribute and tabulate anonymous surveys in which students rank themselves and their teammates. The instructions on this survey:

Evaluate the performance of everyone on your team, including yourself, by ranking all members of your team with a different number. Each number can be used only once, otherwise your responses will be discarded. Assign the number 1 to the person who made the most valuable contribution to the project, the number 2 to the person who made the second most valuable contribution, etc. Only enter information for your team. Leave questions for other teams blank.

My explanation to students of how rankings translated into points — in this case, up to 40: Continue reading

Beginner’s Guide to Simulations: Part 2, Benefits of Simulations

This is Part 2 of an ongoing series aimed at newcomers to using simulations and games in their classroom.  Part 1 introduced the series and focused on how to reduce the workload required in the design and use of these pedagogies.

Skepticism is a pretty standard attitude that we face when trying to convince instructors to try simulations and games in their classes.  Beyond the issues of workload and time that cause new adopters to hesitate, there is a more basic problem: convincing instructors that simulations and games have any place at all in a classroom traditionally dominated by lecture and discussion.

I won’t bury the lede: the ALPS team are all strong proponents of the value of simulations and games in the classroom.  That being said, we are also very aware of the limits of these pedagogies, and one of us publishes consistently on the failures of simulations.  So we are not die-hard true believers. I’m going to focus this post on highlighting some of the benefits of using simulations–such as increasing interaction, engagement, and skill-building opportunities– and then turn to a potential limit–the lack of solid evidence that they improve learning.

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How joined-up is your curriculum?

6318258412_b0209b8fa7_bWe’re rolling around to the end of our teaching here at Surrey. That means several things. First, that students are now focusing more on their final exams than on classes, since they don’t heed our advice that the latter will help an awful lot with the former. Second, that we’re trying to join the dots (again) between what we’ve joined over the past weeks. And third, that it’s nearly time for the amazing L&T new pedagogies workshop we’re running here (yes, since you ask, you can still book here).

But back to the second point, connectedness.

In my first year class yesterday, we ended up covering a bunch of concepts that I’d thought had been covered elsewhere, but which seemed not to have been. I did that because I needed them to explain some points that I knew weren’t being covered by anyone else. I could give you more specifics, but I’m guessing you know what I mean, because it’s something that happens pretty much every lesson; even if only in its mildly form of “you remember how you learnt about X in that other class? well, here’s an application.”

This is a real issue for social sciences like ours. Unlike physical sciences, where there is a much more graduated progress from core concepts to advanced application, we tend to find ourselves plunging into assorted deep ends from the get-go. The reasons are simply that we have a lay experience of politics that we don’t with quantum mechanics, and that the former is something that sits well within our reflective practice and is indeed a key part of our engagement with our environment. Put differently, you can have a conversation about power and agency with a 6-yr old and quickly get into very profound considerations.

The problem that this creates is that the degree to which we can make assumptions about prior knowledge and understanding (being two distinct things here) is highly uncertain. While we try to plan curricula for our programmes of study, we do so on the basis of implicit understandings of what an average student might know about beforehand. And of course, average students don’t really exist.

All of which makes it very hard to work towards a solution. The classic approach would have been to just give students what you, the teacher, think is important, whether they’ve had it before or not. The more modern approach would be to map out all the key points of learning and ensure that they are covered in some way.

Perhaps we need another approach, that it is more student-centric.

If we adopt an active learning approach then we work out from the students’ experience, to address problems as they find them, rather than presenting pre-packaged ‘solutions’. In endeavouring to solve the problems they find, students can draw in new knowledge, into frameworks of understanding , in ways that make sense to them. As that process continues, so the elements become joined up and the gaps reduce.

However, we have to acknowledge that this doesn’t mean that gaps disappear automatically. One of the beauties of political science is precisely that there is more than one way to skin the proverbial cat, working from fundamentally different premises. Organic, student-led growth of understanding doesn’t necessarily capture that.

Two partial solutions offer themselves here. One is to continue with the thing of activity that I opened with – making connections in sessions. But the other is to create learning environments where there are incentives to seek out new connections and paradigms of understandings. Simulations would be just that sort of environment, where you can take students out of themselves and ‘be’ someone else.

And yes, if that sounds interesting, there is a workshop about that.

A little EU crisis game

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How would you simulate this? Why would you simulate this?

For someone who’s supposed to be a scholar on the EU, I don’t do many games about the EU. That’s because there are plenty of options out there, plus I don’t often have reason to run these kinds of games, which normally need a significant number of students. Plus, it’s hard to do something that’s different.

However, fortune occasionally brings forth moments to change matters, and this is just such a moment.

As part of the INOTLES project, we’ve been running an online module with students from nine European institutions, learning about the EU. As a capstone, we’re spending most of this week in Brussels, doing a variety of activities, visiting institutions, and trying the local produce. Continue reading

Mid-Semester Ruminations

Thinking things over.
Thinking things over.

A few thoughts on my teaching, having just passed the mid-point of the spring semester:

Students have almost to a person stopped taking notes. I don’t know if this phenomenon is caused by a lack of will, ability, or a combination of both, but I suspect it has its roots in the K-12 system. Or my employer is simply drawing students who are not as academically well-prepared for college. Ten years ago perhaps a quarter of my students wrote notes in class. Now I’m lucky if it’s one out of fifteen. I refuse to periodically collect and somehow grade students’ notebooks. An alternative might be open-notebook, end-of-class quizzes. It’s additional work on my end — more stuff to grade and I would need to think of question or two while teaching — but it might be a way of generating the desired behavior. Continue reading

Zendo Revisited: A Simple Methods Game for Large Classes

Zendo is a methods game that is the subject of the very first post I wrote for ALPS back in 2011. Since then, I have used it regularly on the first day of my research methods course.  Among its many advantages is that it helps reduce the anxiety students face on their first day of methods (a well-documented issue; at least six articles in recent years reference this concern) by having their first activity being a game.  The game itself allows students to engage in hypothesis generation and testing and begin to understand issues of generalizability and scholarly collaboration. It is a great introductory activity, but its utility has been limited due to the necessity of purchasing the physical pieces required for play.  Until now, that is! We now have a way of playing Zendo that requires no pieces and works for large classroom settings as well as small.

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Our review of APSA TLC Portland… in a podcast!

That’s right, we’ve decided to practise what we preach and have done a bit of experiential learning (well, the others did – I’ve got history on this one).

Myself, Michelle, Amanda, Chad & Victor sat down after a long day to talk about what we’ve got from the conference, as well as to look ahead to some new projects we’ve got coming up.

So sit back, turn up the volume and enjoy 20 minutes of conversation.

We’d love to get your feedback, both on our thoughts and on our podcasting. If it’s something you’d like to see/listen to more of, then we’re biddable, especially now that we’ve seen just how easy it is to set up.

Teaching EU online communication through simulation – the twitcol case: Guest post by Jon Worth

Guest author Jon Worth works across Europe, offering consultancy on a range of subject areas. This post was originally posted on his own blog and is reproduced with his permission.

wOb93E7uFor the first time in the academic year 2015-16 I am a member of the faculty of the politics department at the College of Europe in Bruges. My own MA is from the College of Europe (in 2003-04) and it is good to be back there as a teacher this time. The College operates a system of a kind of flying faculty – we are called upon to run courses or seminars, but are not actually based in Bruges. My own course is a short, optional one entitled Online Communications in EU policymaking, but this post concerns my contribution to a compulsory course for all 96 politics MA students run by Pierpaolo Settembri andCostanza Hermanin – the EU legislation simulation game.

The basic idea of the simulation game is relatively well known – each student gets allocated a role, and all of the aspects of an EU legislative negotiation are played out by the students playing these roles. Pierpaolo is the author of a book about how to use these sorts of games to teach about the EU. Continue reading