Identifying How Assumptions Meet Reality

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.

Changing a Comparative Politics Course, Part 4

My previous post explained how students will complete the template that identifies possible causes of either increased democracy or increased authoritarianism in two nation-states from 2000 to 2020. The next step in this project is for students to work in teams to produce qualitative comparative analyses. Here are my instructions for this collaborative assignment:

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Changing a Comparative Politics Course, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed changing my approach to teaching students how to analyze the arguments contained in journal articles. I also think it is important for students to actually do some discipline-related research rather than just read about it. Previously in this course, my students compared two nation-states using either a most similar systems or most different systems design. That assignment never worked very well because of student confusion about the basic nature of cause and effect. I’ve decided to replace this with a scaffolded process culminating in a team-produced qualitative comparative analysis.

There are three individual assignments that I’m calling Comparison 1, 2, and 3. For Comparison 1, each student chooses two nation-states from a list. That’s it. The list comes from Freedom House’s rankings of citizen freedom in countries around the world; I selected a subset of states for which scores differed between 2000 and 2019 — so that students choose cases where the dependent variable varies over time.

For Comparison 2, students calculate a value for the dependent variable. Here are the instructions for the assignment:

Continue reading “Changing a Comparative Politics Course, Part 2”

Changing a Comparative Politics Course

Looking back at Spring 2020, and making changes accordingly for 2021, despite that semester’s pandemic-induced weirdness:

I decided to use Helen Brown Coverdale’s study huddle technique, in the hopes that it will allow students to become more proficient in decoding academic literature. I am dividing the class into teams of 4-5 students each. Half of each team will be “green” and half will be “red.” Each week, students are responsible for analyzing a journal article of the corresponding color. I chose to use green and red font in the syllabus instead of red/blue because my hyperlinks are blue, and I did not want students to be confused. In addition to the font color, I have included the words “green” and “red” in case of students with colorblindness.

For the analysis assignments, students will be completing this template, which I believe is simpler than the worksheet I used last spring. I also expect it to be easier for me to grade, given my rubric, shown below:

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Fall 2020: Looking Backward and Forward, Part 3

One last post about successes and failures from the previous semester: last summer a colleague pointed me toward Knight Lab Timeline JS, and, inspired by Matthew Wilson’s work on crowd-sourcing and self-instruction, I decided to include a timeline project in my undergraduate course on the Middle East. Setting up the project was relatively simple:

Students were already divided into teams for breakout discussions, presentations, and note-taking; I used the same teams for the timelines. I chose five Middle Eastern countries that featured prominently in assigned readings — Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia — and created corresponding files in Google Sheets using the spreadsheet template provide by Knight Lab. I gave each team access to its Google Sheet.

Students completed five graded individual assignments that were designed to prevent free riders and guarantee that teams were working on the project throughout the semester rather than only in a frenzied rush at the end. Here are the instructions for the assignment and its associated rubric:

Continue reading “Fall 2020: Looking Backward and Forward, Part 3”

Fall 2020: Looking Backward and Forward, Part 2

To continue evaluating my successes and failures from last semester: the attempt to create community in synchronous online undergraduate courses by dividing students into teams for breakout discussions, note-taking, and memo-writing.*

Zoom breakout discussions for reading responses worked fairly well. Before the semester started, I created a Google Slide file for each team to use for building presentations, and I randomly selected one team to present its conclusions once Zoom breakout rooms closed. I screen shared the presentation from my computer, since I had access to all the files. Students who did not participate in breakout discussions or in creating presentations were held accountable by their teammates in the evaluations completed at the end of the semester. The one aspect of breakout discussions that needs to change for next semester is also true for synchronous classes in general: students need to turn on their webcams. Video of faces is much better at facilitating community than black boxes.

Teams were allowed only one slide per presentation, but often the slides were badly designed — too much text, font too small, etc. In the future, I should require that students follow a specific format.

The Google Slide files ended up being a written record of breakout room discussions for each team; however, I don’t know if students used them as notes. Students definitely didn’t collaboratively write notes in the Google Doc files I had created. Teams either left these files blank, or just pasted screen captures from my PowerPoint presentations into them. Yet another example of students’ lack of note-taking skills.

The memo exercises were also a failure. In an individual graded assignment, students were supposed to make a recommendation in response to a prompt, and provide two different reasons in support of that recommendation. In teams, they were supposed to write a draft of a complete memo, guided by a template I had provided. I then chose one team’s memo at random to discuss as an example with the whole class. There were five iterations of this process. In the individual assignments, students sometimes submitted one reason, just stated in two different ways, in support of their recommendation. The drafts of complete memos produced by teams were usually disorganized and unpersuasive, and the quality of the writing did not improve with successive iterations. Most undergraduates simply lack the writing skills necessary for collaborating effectively on a task like this. Students should instead each write a single memo over the entire semester, in a step-by-step process requiring multiple revisions.

*Additional posts that were part of this series are here and here.

Improve Breakout Groups with Collaborative Document Editing in Google Slides or MS Teams

If you are teaching synchronous virtual classes on Zoom, Webex, or any other teleconference platform you are probably using breakout groups for small group discussions or student presentation preparation. Breakout groups are a great technique to break up a session and help build connections between small groups of students, but they suffer from three core problems:

  1. Students don’t remember or understand the prompt and take awhile to get started.
  2. Coordinating how to take notes or otherwise share the group’s work with other groups can be difficult and time-consuming, and may result in a single student doing most of that work.
  3. Students don’t get a quality set of notes from the presentations of other groups, reducing the likelihood that they will get much value from what other groups have done.

Collaborative document editing solves all three of these problems.

This idea is courtesy of Dr. Jenny Cooper of Stonehill College, who has found great success in creating a seamless breakout group experience in her classes. Instructors create a shared slide presentation in MS Teams or Google Slides that contains a slide with the prompt, instructions for the group work, and any expected output. This is followed by individual blank slides for each group to fill in, labeled ‘Group 1’ ‘Group 2’ etc. Share the link to the presentation with students, and then every member of each group can access and edit the document in real time during breakout groups, recording notes, images, or graphics in their assigned blank slide. The result is a single shared document that contains the work from each group, eliminating the need to share screens or additional files during presentations and ensuring that students have a complete set of notes they can review after the class.

This method can be used by anyone regardless of what teleconference system you are using. I advise that only those classes already using MS Teams should use the Teams method; everyone else should use Google Slides. This is easy to use for students: Google Slides does not require students to create an account to access or edit a document; all you have to do is send your students a link with editing privileges to the slide presentations, or post one in your LMS/VLE. They will click on the link and immediately be able to edit the document in either platform. As for faculty, if you have ever created a PowerPoint or other slide presentation, then this method will require minimal effort to adopt.

The only drawback is that there can be connectivity issues if a lot of people are accessing the same document at once. If you see that happening, you may want to ask a single student in each group to act as notetaker, and to share their screen within the breakout group so that their group mates can easily see what they are writing. In addition, students accessing Teams or Google Slides on a mobile or tablet may not have full editing functionality, so notetakers should generally be students using a computer.

Here is an in-depth guide with screenshots on how to do this in both MS Teams and Google Slides:

Creating Community V: Final Touches

Some final attempts to build community into my courses before they start this week:

I scheduled a few Zoom meetings at different times so students could test their access and ask me questions. I had created a poll with the following questions as a way for them to assess their readiness (possible answers were “yes,” “no,” and “unsure”):

  1. I will have reliable and convenient internet access when the semester begins.
  2. I feel comfortable learning how to use Zoom.
  3. I am looking forward to the fall semester.
  4. I am worried about the possible effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on me or my family members.
  5. I am worried that non-academic demands on my time, such as employment or care for family members, might interfere with my studies.
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Creating Community III: Memo Exercise

More on creating community in an online course (previous posts are here and here): a collaborative writing exercise.

For several years, I’ve used memos as an authentic writing assignment. Or tried to. Often the results haven’t met my expectations. I have had students write multiple complete memos in a course, all in the same format, assuming that they will apply my feedback from the previous memo to the next one. Instead, students repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

For the upcoming semester, I decided to turn memo writing into a group activity, on the chance that collaborating with peers might produce better results. As in previous semesters, I will provide source material and the prompt. In a graded individual assignment, each student will write only specific portions of a memo, described below in the sample instructions and rubric. Students will be able to use a new memo template and guidelines that will be available on Canvas.

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Improving Breakout Groups in Online Courses

For those of us holding synchronous online class sessions, you will probably end up using breakout groups at one point or another. Most of the major video conferencing platforms have some capacity for splitting participants simultaneously into separate virtual rooms, letting you hold small group discussions or facilitating other kinds of group interaction and work. Here are five tips for increasing the effectiveness of your breakout groups.

  1. Design concise prompts with clear instructions and outputs. More so than when in the physical classroom, it is really important to have very clear prompts so that students know exactly what it is they are supposed to be doing in the allotted time. The Transparent Teaching project calls on us to ensure students understand the purpose, required tasks, and criteria for success for any assignment, and this holds true for discussion prompts as well. In particular, make sure students know what output is expected, whether that is a collective answer to a question, a summary of their key discussion points, or a written product of some kind. Having an output will increase student focus on the prompt and motivate discussion.
  2. Excessively communicate your prompts. We’ve all been in the situation when an instructor asks us to do something, and after we move around or open the required software we realize we can’t quite recall the instructions. Breakout rooms are particularly susceptible to this, especially as it can take a couple of moments for everyone to transfer from the main video conference room to the breakout room. Simply telling students the prompt right before the move to the breakout groups, then, will likely result in many students being unclear on what they need to do. It is much better to over-communicate your prompts then the reverse. So, post the prompt on your LMS/VLE prior to or during class, so students can download it. Put it in the written chat. Share it on your screen while also explaining it to everyone. Pause and ask if anyone has questions about what they are supposed to do before you send them into their groups. And if you use Zoom or another program that lets you broadcast a message to everyone, do so 30 seconds after the breakout rooms start as one final reminder. This will make sure that students don’t spend the first two minutes of your breakout room trying to recall what they are supposed to do.
  3. Decide whether you want stable teams or constantly changing groups. Stable teams help students get to know each other as they work with the same small group again and again. That can be essential in a fully online course where building connection and community can be very difficult. Teams can name themselves and even compete with each other during the course. At the same time, if conflicts develop, students can feel stuck and isolated if they are always with the same group again and again. Plus if you can’t set breakout rooms in advance, you’ll have to manually assign each student to their correct team every session. One possible solution is to change teams up every few weeks. That lets students get the benefits of a stable group, but they also know that if they are unhappy they will have a new team soon. Alternatively, use teams but regularly poll your students to see whether they are happy or would like a change, so you can tailor groups to their preferences.
  4. Stay visible while the groups are running. In the physical classroom, you can look at into the room and get useful clues about who is doing well and who is struggling. You can easily see which groups are in animated discussion, and which ones are silent and looking confused. You can also easily wander from group to group. While you don’t get some of those clues in the virtual world, it is still important to check in regularly with your groups. You need to know that they understand the task, that the time you’ve given them is sufficient, and to give them the opportunity to easily ask you questions or get your input. Pretty much all breakout room platforms let the instructor jump from group to group. Do just that–pop into each group, stay for a couple of minutes and provide answers or assistance as needed, and then jump to the next.
  5. Use collaborative documents to capture the work of each group. One challenge with breakout groups is figuring out how to share the work of each group. In most platforms, students can access a whiteboard or share their screen, but they have to then save that document while still in the breakout group, and then figure out a way to share it with the rest of the class. A better idea (courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Cooper of Stonehill College) is to set up a single collaborative document that all the students can use to record their presentations or answers. Create a Google Slides presentation with a number of blank slides, labelled ‘Group 1’ ‘Group 2’ or with team names, if you are using teams. Share the link, allowing anyone with the link to edit the document. Ask students to record their prompt responses or other outputs in one of those blank slides. All the students can access and edit the slides at all times, meaning that every member of each group can record their thoughts or help build the team’s presentation. This also makes it very easy share their work with other groups, as everyone will already be looking at the same document. Once the synchronous session is over, they will still have access to it, which can be a helpful addition to their class notes.

There you go! Five tips that will improve your use of breakout groups. If you have additional tips, please share them in the comments!