Equal Ground Game: Word Challenge

I owe 100% of the credit for this game to Ashley Rondini at Franklin & Marshall College.

The Game: Word Challenge

Potential Topics: Social Justice, Attribution Error, Levels of Analysis, Methods and Measurement, Bias and Hidden Assumptions

Materials: Envelopes, letters for each team (listed at the bottom of this entry), timer
Prep Time
: 5 minutes (mostly cutting squares and putting them into envelopes
Play Time: 5 minutes
Class Size: 6-100
Debrief Time: As long as you like, this one just keeps opening up the more you look at it. I bridged directly into my lesson. So… 15 minutes debrief and then to lecture.

How to Play:

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Enough with the problems. Give me solutions!

Florentine in practical application of political thought shock!
Florentine in practical application of political thought shock!

This past week, I got to fly down to Florence, to take part in a workshop on studying the European Union, hosted by the European University Institute and the College of Europe (my alma mater). With a beautiful setting and Italian food and drink aplenty, it was certainly a very convivial environment.

At the same time, we ended up covered a lot of the same ground that all of us have covered many times before. We talked about how multi-/inter-disciplinarity is good, but difficult to actually achieve; we talked about how some basic concepts remain poorly conceptualised (‘euroscepticism’ this time); we even talked about the difficulties of sharing good practice in learning & teaching.

In short, we were good academics: long on the problems, much shorter on the solutions (or even, a solution).

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Teaching about Variables

The concept of a variable is something that students in my methods course have trouble understanding. The difference between a variable and a constant, what a value is or how a variable can be measured in different ways with different sets of values–all of these things they find very confusing and abstract. I have two ways of dealing with this. First, I ask them to imagine they are in a room filled with toys for children with a series of unlabeled toy boxes lining the walls. It is their task to put the toys away (note: you can make this an interactive, hands-on experiment either by bringing in some toys yourself, or in a brilliant stroke of work-life balance, asking your students over to clean up your kid’s playroom/bedroom). Ask them how they organize the toys as they put them away. They tend to volunteer answers like ‘by size’, ‘by age range’, ‘by color’, ‘by purpose’. You can point out that the organizing system is the variable, and the labels they put on the actual toy boxes–large, medium, small, or educational toys, or toys for infants–are the values that the variable can take. Start with this example, and then whenever you are working with a variable, you can replace the toys with the variable in question. Toys can become regime types, with toy boxes labeled ‘democracy’ or ‘authoritarian’, or they can become ‘vote choices’ with candidates names appearing on the imaginary labels. Just as a framework for understanding this central concept, this thought experiment can work really well.

A more active way of doing this (besides my obvious joke about having your students tidy your house) would be to bring in a deck of cards and pass out a card to each student and then invite them to group them together any systematic way they choose, with the rule that there must be at least one group and that to start, at least, each group must have at least two cards. Once they are done, they have to tell you the category by which they chose to organize the cards, and how they would label each group. Write the method on the board, then have them do it again three or four times. With a deck of cards, there are a lot of organizing systems–by suit, by number, by face card v. number, by color, by odds and evens–by the end of the exercise, they see how you can gather multiple variables about the same information or data points, and that you can measure them in different ways. For example, if they organize by number, they can do cards from 1-3, 4-6, and 7-9 or from 1-5 and 6-10 (I usually leave out face cards with a small group).

From either of these, you can then easily define variables and values and start talking about them in a political context or move into discussing hypotheses or measurement. I’ve used the toy box example in three different sections with great success; I just tried the card example and the students definitely seemed less confused then in the past when I’ve tried to work with them on this building block of methodology.

More fun with playing cards

I love it when a great idea pops into my RSS reader and I can put it into action immediately. This week, I shamelessly stole this idea from this ProfHacker post: Playing Cards in the Classroom for Student Collaboration.  What a fantastically brilliant and simple idea!

Take a look at the post for a full description, but here’s a quick summary: you use a deck of cards to assign (or let students choose) a card at the beginning of the semester. Then, on any given day, you can make groups based on the cards, using various combinations. For example, you could divide students into groups by suit, by number, by a combination of color and number, and so on (the ProfHacker post lists a number of possible combinations). You can change groups as needed simply by using a different combination of cards to make new groups.

What I like most about this method of creating groups is that I have some control over the groups that form; for one, I can ensure that the groups are the same or different from a previous day, depending on my objectives for the group work. Having students count off or choose their own groups won’t always accomplish that.

I can also see a number of useful extensions of this method. If you want to assign roles to group members, you could attach a role to a card value (e.g. students with the 2 in the group will record the group’s work). You could assign cards to students rather than have them randomly select; this could give you the ability to form specific groups if you need. This could help mitigate some challenges of collaborative work.

The question that remains is: will the students remember their cards all semester?

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.




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. 

Google Forms

Google Cookie MonsterAs I wrote in my post on the perils of small classes, this past semester I used Google Forms to create a digital ballot for presentation competitions. The ballot worked well — students could hide their votes from other students, and tabulating the results only took a few seconds on my part.

The success of the ballot led me to adopt Google Forms for end-of-semester teammate evaluations. This turned out to be a much simpler method of incorporating individual accountability into collaborative projects than the worksheets I had used previously in a first-year seminar and a capstone course. No time wasted in class while students complete evaluation forms, and no entering of numerical data into a spreadsheet. I create one form for the whole class, which I send out by embedding the link in one email. Google does the rest for me.

Some students failed to follow directions, but that happens regardless of whether an evaluation is on paper or electronic. As stated on the forms I created, I just deleted those responses from the results.

More ripping up, more starting again

A bit too much removal of constraint

A few weeks ago, I wrote about what my ideal programme of Politics study might look like. In it, I sought to embed a student-led approach that took them more seamlessly into becoming political actors (in the broad sense).

I got some really useful feedback on the idea which I’ve been turning over ever since. And because I can see some potential here for further development of the idea, I’ll use my opportunity to work through those points now.

The big issue is clearly one of operationalisation. As I’ve argued before, usually my view that one should see practical constraints as an opportunity to try out something different: indeed, I often find that it’s mostly because of those constraints that I try something different. Most of us simply don’t have the time, incentive or inclination to go tearing it all up.

Now, in the spirit of the original idea – to think of what I want, rather than what I must – I should be doing the same for turning the three-stream model into practice.

Ideally, I’d be running those streams alongside each other, so they could reinforce and develop each other, and I’d be letting them run as long as was needed to give students the necessary opportunities to learn. If we were dispensing with academic years, then you might see this becoming a multi-year process, where students ‘develop’ into more and more advanced learning and practice, until they reach some pre-determined set of learning objectives. And part of that would be students’ ability to know that they had reached that level (rather than being told by someone else).

Now, writing that last paragraph has given me mild palpitations (and it’s my idea). To dispense with everything is fun, but it’s also rather disquieting. Not least because it lies quite a long way beyond what we might reasonably encounter. So let’s try something more conventional.

Let’s assume the following. You have academic years and you have to run some kind of summative assessment. Someone is going to ask for a formal structure of a degree programme and will check that you’ve following it. And you don’t get to do anything too radically different from the rest of your university.

In my case, I have to run four 15-credit modules in each of my two semesters, so already I’d have to struggle to fit a three-stream model into that. One option would be to have more ‘exploration’ early on, with more ‘research’ and ‘engagement’ as students developed, but with a constant presence of all three in each semester. Activities might be run that cross-cut modules: a a big activity might provide ample opportunity for all three streams to draw on, and give a natural coherence to the overall package of study.

We also have a lot of joint-honours students, who only take a limited number of our modules each semester, so if we wanted to keep that, we’d need to think about activities that could contain particular strands where those students could take part, without having to become completely involved. So an activity around an election campaign (for example) might include specialist activities of relevance to sociologists (studying ‘the bubble’) or economists (costing manifesto pledges) that would also feed into the work of the single-honours students.

Assessment in these modules would have to be broadly constructed, since the detail of the activities might be largely co-constructed with the students, but if this were embedded at the start of each module (much in the manner of problem-based learning (PBL)), then that needn’t be a major problem, since mutually-acceptable goals and assessment would be set. These might combine both practical activity and self-reflection.

Within activities, there is obviously lots of scope for different approaches, as I noted in the original post. Certainly – as one colleague noted – there’s much in common with a PBL style, but equally there would be no particular need to use one style throughout. Indeed, there would be a strong argument to say that mixing and matching pedagogies would help to ground work and to expose students to a broad range of methods. As we like to say, methods should follow the question, not the other way around.

An example

Let’s try now to put this into effect on the most modest of scales: a module/course. This might be useful, since I imagine that’s what most readers will have to work with. And since it’s that time of the electoral cycle, let’s work on that idea I mentioned earlier of a project on a general election.

Since this would only be one module/course, we’ll assume the students are a bit further along in their studies, so not first-years. And I’ll run it through my second semester, which goes from early February to late May: the British general election is 7 May.

The ‘exploration’ element would be largely implicit, since students would know about electoral systems and political institutions, but would be developed by the ‘research’ and ‘engagement’ streams.

The former would consist of different sub-groups working on aspects of the campaign that they think are of particular interest: identification of party strategies, manifesto coding, media/crisis management, role of non-party actors in shaping debate, etc. This requires a number of different research methodologies, and students could be engaged in one or more of these activities.

The ‘engagement’ side would have two elements. One would be to organise a public event prior to the election, such as a hustings or a town-hall style meeting, where they would facilitate debate. This would side-step being party-political, while still participating in political debate and further embedding their research within a wider social context: indeed, the event itself could be used to provide data for later coding and evaluation.

The second element would be post-election, where students could present their research findings, again to a wider audience: probably this would need to be online, with a website providing speedy analysis of the data collected. Logically, that work would be more locally focused, but the site could also be run throughout the semester as a resource for voters too.

By blending research and engagement, students gain a much more rounded sense of how their study fits into a larger picture, teaching staff get to tap into key political debates with a bunch of young researchers alongside them, and the public get something that might help them participate politically.

And that’s just one module.


Theoretical Theatre: An innovative teaching method for EU Studies: Guest post from Viviane Gravey

This guest post by Viviane Gravey (UEA) was first published on Ideas on Europe.

The European Union has an image problem. The “permissive consensus”[1] (aka non-informed consent) that supported European integration up to the early 1990s is long gone, and the image of “the European construction” as a guarantee of peace is no longer sufficient. Even the last European Commission thought a “new narrative for Europe” was required. Of course, not all of the EU’s legitimacy problems are about its image or European citizens’ lack of information. As important (if not more) is a political debate on whether national sovereignty should be shared, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of shifting power to a supranational level.

As researchers studying European policy and politics, we all make different choices about where we draw the line between raising awareness of what the EU is and what it does and taking a stand on European politics. The possibility of a referendum on British membership of the EU will make this discussion, on whether to get involved and how to do so, all the more crucial. In this post, I suggest that a first and necessary step in engaging the wider public with Europe is to think about how we teach the European Union – and how we can do it better. As a student of EU environmental policies, I have long been keen to draw insights from environmental policy studies for wider EU studies discussions.[2] In this post I go a step further, reflecting on how an innovative teaching practice,  “theoretical theatre”, developed in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia could be adapted to teaching EU studies.

A growing need for better EU studies teaching

What makes the EU complex to teach? Part of the answer comes from the EU political system itself. In many European countries like the UK or France, where citizens are accustomed to a confrontational type of politics, the large number of veto players at EU level and the permeating culture of consensus is decidedly alien. Media coverage of the EU does not always help. EU citizens are often presented with a decidedly skewed account of EU policy-makingand very rarely with informative explanations of what people in Brussels – MEPs, Commissioners, ministers – actually do. Another key difficulty for teaching the EU is the need for teachers to find a balance between the history of European integration, the creation of EU policies, and the opposing theories explaining both. Teachers must find this balance while also trying to engage students in current debates on and in Europe.

How to (better) teach the EU is a topic of growing interest among EU scholars – as evidenced by the 1st European Conference on Teaching and Learning Politics, International Relations and European Studies, by the UACES Student Forum seminar in November 2014 or by the section on Teaching and Learning in a recent Journal of Contemporary European Research issue.  These forums are increasingly discussing innovative teaching approaches, such as greater use of simulations or harnessing the Internet for teaching purposes (see for example the Active Learning in Political Science blog).

Teaching theories, a key hurdle?

Out of the many difficulties encountered when teaching the EU, I suggest one of the key problems is to understand the great variety of theories mobilised to study the EU. This is an especially acute challenge when teaching students with no political science background. Applying theories for the first time – taking a step back and managing to explain the same event or issue with different “lenses” – can be pretty daunting.

A few years ago, researchers in UEA’s 3S research group developed an engaging teaching approach that breaks the ice and introduces students to the use of social science theories: the theoretical theatre. In this approach, a group of lecturers each impersonate a different theory/theorist and engage in a lively debate offering different explanations of an event, or solutions to a problem.

The theoretical theatre approach was first developed to expose students to different theories on sustainable consumption. The theories covered in this sustainable consumption theatre were Rational Choice Theory, Social Psychology, Social Practice Theory and Systems of Provision Theory. Each theory was impersonated by an academic who debated the best way to move toward more sustainable consumption from the perspective of their chosen theoretical perspective[3].

For the last two years, I have helped (with my blog co-editors) bringing together another session in a module on environmental politics and policy. In our theoretical theatre, contenders debate the 1932 Kinder Scout Mass Trespass and the development of access to land rights in the UK from the perspective of Stephen Lukes’ three “faces of power”. Instead of impersonating a theory, we chose to impersonate a theorist, with “Stephen Lukes” going head to head with “Peter Bachrach” and “Robert Dahl” in a performance with an arguably smaller comedic element (although we did use 3D glasses).

Both modules got very positive feedback from the students – which may partly be because the students get to see their lecturers dress rather originally to “get into character”. The different directions in which we’ve taken these modules demonstrate the flexibility of the concept – and is a sign of its adaptability to other fields.

An EU theoretical theatre?

I argue EU studies could benefit from such a theatrical treatment. EU studies is a broad umbrella term for what is a very pluridisciplinary field of study that includes law, political science, history and economics – but the theoretical theatre approach should be flexible enough to be applied to a variety of fields.

What would an EU theoretical theatre look like? In order to be easily understood, it would need to be clearly focused on a specific period in time and issue, with at least 2 (ideally 3 or 4) divergent theoretical readings.

The theatre could serve many different purposes: it could be an introduction to competing readings of an historical period (e.g. the empty chair crisis of 1965 or the 2004 enlargement), to debates on the reasons and modality of a given process (growth in power of the European Parliament) or to a key contemporary issue such as the euro crisis.

For example, a theoretical theatre could be organised around the issue of the EU’s democratic deficit and the role the European Parliament could play in addressing that deficit. Such a discussion might include the four following broadly sketched “theoretical readings”:


Pluridisciplinarity in teaching?

In a complex academic job market, teaching skills are becoming very important for early career researchers. The pluridisciplinarity and diversity of EU studies makes it a perfect field to experiment. The approach I presented here, the theoretical theatre, is only one of many examples of innovative teaching methods being used right now across the UK (and beyond). These methods (theoretical theatre included) may also lead to more pluridisciplinarity in teaching, not just in research.


[1]Down, I. & Wilson, C., (2008) “From ‘Permissive Consensus’ to ‘Constraining Dissensus’: A Polarizing Union?”Acta Politica43, 26–49

[2] For example, I co-organised a panel on “Debating EU Governance: Insights from Environmental Policy Studies” at the 2014 UACES Student Forum conference

[3] The Theoretical Theatre performance is available here.

Rip it up and start again

For a variety of reasons, I’m thinking about what we do as teachers in a fairly fundamental way. Today’s trigger has been a piece about how a group of Spanish academics set up a political party, Podemos, this January, which is now in serious contention for government. To quote Marx, “Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt drauf an, sie zu verändern.”

If you could start with a totally clean sheet, what would you do with with your students? What if that clean sheet was not just a module/course, but a whole degree, or even a whole university?

Such situations might happen very rarely, and even more rarely for benign reasons, but as a thought exercise it is a useful way of focusing on what you feel to be important and how you might get there. I was fortunate enough many years ago to be part of a blank-sheet creation of a new department of politics, which let me try out a whole range of ideas that probably would never have happened otherwise: certainly the experience is one that continues to shape (positively) my sense of what one can do.

But let’s leave that aspect to one side for a moment, and focus instead on the first question: what does your ideal learning environment look like?

For me, there are three key aspects I would want to pursue.

The first is a deep embedding of experiential learning. While I would love to import wholesale the Finnish Team Academy model, I can see some issues in applying it to a politics setting. Team Academy essentially sets students out to create and run real-world businesses, with everything else a function of that. For a politics focus, the issue is…errrm… political. Consider again the Podemos example at the top of the page and you’ll see how pressing students into political activism raises problems of internal collective action.

The second idea is that of integrating subjects as much as possible. Modules/courses tend to encourage students to view elements of their study as discrete and siloed, for all our efforts to promote reflection across the bigger picture. This is particularly a problem for the ‘boring/difficult’ stuff, like research methods or political theory (apologies if you like/work on this, it’s not personal). Talking with colleagues, it is often when these elements get used in an applied way that students see their value and build their interest.

Finally, I think we would have to place more stress on team-work and collaborative learning. This is both a reflection of the realities of the world of work, where we are very rarely left to our own devices, but also of the more basic need to encourage students to become independent learners, drawing in from all sides, not just the traditional top-down teacher-student model.

You’ve got to have a dream

So what does that look like, in practice? I ask because I spend much of my day job asking just such questions of colleagues, who have to fit into the regulations and practices of the university.  Clearly, here I’m feeling less bound by that, although it obviously becomes an issue at some point.

The starting point would be a set of streams, rather than modules/courses, which would run through the programme as a whole. Each of these streams would form a home base for students to explore a particular aspect of their studies, as well as building a stronger corporate sense of identity with fellow students.

The streams would each tackle a basic element: exploration, research and engagement. The exploration stream would be closest to a conventional programme, taking a broad area of political activity (the state, the international system, civil society, etc.) and providing an integrated environment in which to study it. That might well take the form of an extended simulation, together with lecturers on hand to provide advice and to unpack key issues as they arose.

The research stream would be a space for students to get their hands dirty in the world of academia, by designing studies, collecting data and analysing it. Clearly, the role of staff would be vital here, since they would need to work with students in that process, sharing their research ideas and practice, as well as leading students towards ever more challenging topics. The Student-as-Researcher agenda is an ever-more prevalent one, not least because it makes the link between research and teaching more properly meaningful.

The engagement stream is a more modest version of the Team Academy idea: getting students out into the world, not simply to understand it (that’s the research stream) but to change it. Activities could cover anything from producing materials to influence public debate (e.g. local politics, national debates, consultation exercises) to participating in political activity (I’ll admit I’m always disappointed that my students still haven’t cornered the elections to the students’ union). It’s also potentially the place to embed professional placements.

The streams build on each other. Exploration gives a sense of the world, enabling research to asks questions of it, even as trying to shape it through engagement. Those can happen simultaneously, providing further reinforcement of the learning experience for students.

In all three streams, the content would be a matter of consultation between staff and students, within a broad framework of overall learning objectives. Because the work would be very dynamic, there would be some risk that less attention would be given to some aspects than others, but it wouldn’t be beyond the whit of those involved to manage that.

Back to life, back to reality

Of course, all of this runs into any number of practical problems, from regulations to rooming. Most obviously of all, such a system would require a very much more flexible relationship between students and staff. The former would have to know more of their mind and their objectives and be able to articulate that from the go. The latter would have to become much more responsive to students’ needs, in the sense of not having a pre-defined set of classes to teach, but rather to address the specific and emergent needs of each group, each time.

Likewise, the boundaries of politics would be severely challenged. In this set-up, you can see how we stray into sociology, economics, psychology, geography and a bunch of other disciplines. That might be a problem, but it’s also a useful reminder that the world isn’t disciplinary.

So there we go; some blue sky thinking. How much of this I can ever put into effect is a very moot point, but without thinking such things I can be confident that I will not continue to develop my practice: who knows what opportunities lie ahead?