Changing a Course on Development, Part 7

I’ve been a fan of the quality of failure essay since Amanda introduced me to it several years ago, and I’ve tweaked it several times with varying degrees of success. In an attempt to avoid a mistake I made with it last semester, I have altered the assignment yet again by shortening the instructions considerably:


In a 2-3 page essay, analyze how you learned in this course. What actions helped or hurt your learning? Which components of the course most enabled you to better understand ideas or apply them in new ways?

Note that I have moved significantly away from the assignment’s original theme of failure. I am doing this for two reasons. First, in other courses this assignment has produced a lot of commentary from students about what I will label the superficial aspects of failure — as in “at the beginning of the semester I promised myself that I would get an A++ on every assignment but I failed at this because I didn’t manage my time well.” Second, I am curious to find out whether students regard the SCAMPER-based game design exercises as worthwhile, but I’m not going to influence their thoughts by explicitly asking about it.

Links to the full series of posts on redesigning this course:

ISA 2018 San Francisco Report

I’m just back from the International Studies Association’s Annual Meeting in San Francisco, and it was a pedagogy bonanza! Great attendance at the pedagogy panels (even those held at off-times) and excellent discussion all around. One thing I love about us pedagogy types is a commitment to leaving plenty of time for Q&A and discussion, since everyone in the room has some expertise to share.

Victor Asal and I ran a new Career Course on Teaching the Intro Class. We focused on both intro to IR and comparative politics, covering such topics as what to do on Day 1, reading/text options, writing good exams and written assignments, classroom management, and of course, games and other activities to teach the material. Our participants had a ton of great ideas and insights.

On the panel on Theory and Practice in IR Teaching: Effectiveness, Political Engagement, and Active Learning, Marcelo Valenca of Escola de Guerra Naval discussed the changing nature and approaches toward pedagogical training in Brazil. He pointed particularly to the impact of the pedagogy workshops held by the College of Wooster’s Jeffrey Lantis, Kent Kille, and Mathew Krain as being instrumental in bringing change to that country. The Wooster Three were mentors of mine when I was in graduate school, so I wasn’t surprised but still pleased to learn about the far-reaching impact of their efforts.

I presented a paper on using a game-version of the television show Survivor to incentive my students to complete the readings, pay attention to current events, and learn geography. The results on the geography front were…not what I expected. Students who took a single, traditional Map Quiz performed much better than this students in the game that had regular, weekly practice in geography! But as we’ve said many times before, failure can be a useful learning tool and this has prompted me to really investigate the key variables about the game that may have hindered learning, so more on that in the future.

An audience member on that panel (Ian Manners, University of Copenhagen) pointed out the utility of using student-created learning modules as a way of engaging students in learning content at a high level. I love this idea, and i’m going to use it in my seminar on sex, marriage, and violence in the fall.

Finally, some conference news: ISA is holding its first Innovative Pedagogy Conference on November 15th in St. Louis, the day before ISA’s Midwest meeting. There will be a plenary, keynote speech by ISA President Patrick James, a graduate student teacher training certification session, and 8 workshops on subjects such as faculty led study abroad programs, designing curriculum, research literacy, civic engagement, assessment of active learning, publishing in the scholarship of teaching and learning, designing simulations, and using simulations and games to teach political violence. At least two members of Team ALPS (myself and Victor Asal) will be there, so please join us!

ISA now has a Professional Resource Center which includes a syllabi archive and a great site for finding some good simulations to use in your classes. You do have to be a member to access the PRC but consider sending in your materials for inclusion!

Finally, a note on submitting to ISA: the two sections that tend to sponsor ALPS-style papers and roundtables are Active Learning in International Affairs (ALIAS) and International Education. I’m section program chair for the latter, and talking with the program chair for ALIAS, we not that we don’t get a ton of first-round submissions. If you’ve thought about presenting a paper or organizing a panel or roundtable relevant to either section, please do so–we are eager for more submissions for next year’s conference in Toronto. There are also opportunities for Innovative Panels, Career Courses, and Flash Talks–check out ISA’s website for more details. Some topics that I know are of interest to my section include best practices in study abroad, transformations in higher education (particularly from a comparative perspective), the challenges of being a faculty administrator of international programs, and curricular design features for IR programs.

That’s it for now! As usual, conferences spur me into thinking in new directions for my pedagogy, and I’m excited to start putting some of these ideas into practice.

Continuous Improvement, Perhaps

As another semester begins to wind down, I remain convinced that it is always a good idea to tell students what they are doing and why. They are unlikely to figure this out on their own.

For students, my first-year seminar has evolved into a semester-long exercise in problem-solving, yet I don’t mention “problem-solving” anywhere in the syllabus or in the directions for any of my assignments. So as a first-pass attempt at improvement, I’ve yet again tweaked my end-of-semester meta-cognitive Quality of Failure assignment. Directions for the Quality of Failure essay now read as follows:


Write a 2-3 page essay that analyzes your learning in the course in relation to your Knowledge Plan from the beginning of the semester. Respond to the following questions:

  • What helped or hindered your learning about the problem solving process when reading, writing, and designing games?
  • Are your experiences similar to those of Robert J. Moore and Soledad O’Brien? Why or why not?
 I don’t think the results are ideal, but they are good enough for now.

Already Closed Minds

CrybabyTaking Simon’s recent post about encouraging student feedback in a different direction:

Yes, students often perceive and understand differently than I do, and I agree that removing barriers to their acquisition of knowledge as an important part of my job. But in many cases students are as different from one another as they are from me, and some of them are simply not interested in learning.

For example, I’m still using the Quality of Failure essay in all my courses as an end-of-semester exercise in meta-cognitive reflection. Compare these quotes from essays written by two students in a course that just ended:

When I realized that we only really went over the homework in class, I mentally decided that I didn’t really want to participate because I had already written my response and it had already been graded.”

While I feel that I have achieved my goal of learning about new populations, I also feel that this was achieved for other reasons than what I previously mentioned. For instance, the one thing that I never really took into consideration was the fact that discussions with my peers would end up being the most influential factor in learning what I did this semester.”

The first student decided early on that she would learn nothing from hearing about the perspectives of her peers during classroom discussions, while the second student was surprised to find that this aspect of the course was by far the most valuable.

The pedagogical “experts” might say that I should meet all students where they are and adjust to all the ways in which students define their interests. But I refuse to accommodate those who are too close-minded to try something that challenges their own view of themselves.

Professors Fail Too…

dictionary content kidnapped from Google+Wiki


  1. 1.
    lack of success.
    “an economic policy that is doomed to failure”
    synonyms: lack of success, nonfulfillment, defeat, collapse, foundering More

Another in a continuing effort to help advocates of good pedagogy is the online publishing of our failures as a means to reflection and learning. Not only is this an interesting thought exercise for faculty…but it seems like an equally useful exercise for our students. Have a look.

What kinds of reflective activities might this be well-suited to in the classroom? Please comment!

Engaging Students, Part 3: The Muddiest Point

Transforming students from passive listeners into actively engaged learners need not be a grand task that requires extensive planning. It can start with a simple decision to reserve a short period of class to review and clarify the lessons of the day.  Taking us beyond the relative uselessness of just asking whether anyone has any questions, and seeing none, moving on, the ‘Muddiest Point’ technique requires students to actually think through what they do and do not understand, and forces us as instructors to ensure that comprehension is universal.

Continue reading “Engaging Students, Part 3: The Muddiest Point”

Learning from (other people’s) failures

DohWe talk a lot about failing here on this blog, possibly because we do it a lot. As such, it’s always good to see other people fail too, and also pick themselves up from it.

Today’s example is the apparent failure of British psephologists/pollsters to predict the outcome of the general election last week. Pretty much every one was in agreement that a hung Parliament beckoned, with attendant coalition negotiations.

Instead, the Conservatives pulled out a clear majority. Cue much pulling of hair and gnashing of teeth.

The academics and pollsters involved have already produced a great range of post-mortems, before anything official kicks off. Below are some of the best bits of these dissections.




Number Cruncher Politics

Stephen Fisher (Elections etc) 

 As an exercise with students about how academic research progresses, this offers an excellent opportunity to explore the testing of models against real-world data and the way in which lessons are learnt and internalised.

Too often, we present ‘research’ as simply ‘correct’, so showing a bit of humility (as these people have done) is a helpful corrective.

Fail Safe Not

Fail SafeThis is the fifth semester that I have used the quality of failure essay as an end-of-semester exercise in meta-cognitive reflection, after Amanda* first posted about the concept almost three years ago.

Even though the essay is only two to three pages, I make it worth the equivalent of half of a letter grade because it forces students to acknowledge that they are responsible for their own learning. Or so I thought. 

Out of my forty-five students this semester, sixteen failed to submit the assignment on time or at all. This occurred despite an eight-day window in which students could upload their work to the course website and my continuing effort to prevent them from engaging in learned helplessness. Those who did not meet the deadline ranged from freshmen to seniors and most of them had performed at a mediocre (or worse) level throughout the semester. Some approached me after the final to ask if they could turn in this and other unsubmitted assignments to salvage their grades (no). Conversely and as usual, the best students submitted their essays the earliest. 

To avoid the stream of “Uh, I forgot” emails next semester, I’m creating a “failure to learn from failure” assignment, worth half as much as the quality of failure essay. This second essay will be only for those students who do not meet the deadline of the first one, and I’ll set the window of availability for forty-eight hours. Students will have to specify why they failed to take advantage of the first essay in addition to following the same instructions on the essay’s content.

Although my perceptions might be getting clouded by age, I believe that my experience this semester is part of an increasingly stark bimodal distribution among students at my employer. Some come in already possessing the motivation and skills necessary to succeed in college. A nearly equal portion arrive assuming that they will never be held accountable for their willed ignorance. Unfortunately some in the latter category apparently never discover in four years of college that this assumption is false.

*recently tenured and promoted, evidence that good things can happen to good people.

Meta-Cognitive Reflection 2.0

MetacognitionWith another spring semester coming to an end, I’m mentally reviewing what I can change for the next academic year. I think that the meta-cognitive reflection exercises that I bracket all my courses with — the knowledge plan and the quality of failure essay —  need some minor adjustments. My directions for the knowledge plan currently read as follows:

Identify your goals for this course by writing a 2-3 page essay (double-spaced, equivalent to 11 or 12 point font) that answers these questions: 

– What do you plan to learn in this course?
– What will you need to do to learn the knowledge and skills that you want to learn?

– How do your goals for this course correspond to how you are living your life?

Answering the following question can help you construct your knowledge plan.

– What do I want to get out of this course, and what do I need to do to achieve that?
– How will my academic strengths and weaknesses affect my ability to achieve my goal?

– What can I do to improve my understanding of the subject beyond the minimum that is required?
– How will I respond if I start to struggle in this course?
– How are the different ways that I will be evaluated in this course connected to what and how I can learn?
– What are the available resources for learning that I can use to my advantage? What must I do to use these resources?
– What are the barriers I often create that diminish my learning, and how can I change these behaviors?
– How can I shape my interactions with fellow students to increase my (and their) learning?
– What is the role of the instructor in my learning process?
– What am I not asking but should be?

As is typical of professors, I have created a long list of questions that students probably find confusing or irrelevant. A better approach is:

Plan for this course by writing a 2-3 page essay (double-spaced, equivalent to 11 or 12 point font) that answers these questions: 

– What do I want to get out of this course?
– What do I need to do to achieve my goal?
– What are the barriers I often create that diminish my learning, and how can I change these behaviors?
– How will I respond if I start to struggle in this course?

For the quality of failure essay, I’ve already inserted short reading assignments to add a compare-and-contrast element. The revised directions for the essay:


– The assignment rubric.
– Robert J. Morris, “My Biggest Failure? Failing to Recognize Failure,” The New York Times, 16 June 2014.
– Adam Bryant, “Nancy Dubuc of A&E: Mixing Doers, Thinkers and Feelers,” The New York Times, 19 March 2015.

Write a 2-3 page essay that analyzes your failures in the course in relation to your knowledge plan from the beginning of the semester. Why did these failures occur? Are your experiences similar to those of Robert J. Morris and Nancy Dubuc? Why or why not? Explain what you have learned from your failures in this course.

What to do when a class fails

How do we handle the problem of class failure?  Let’s consider a hypothetical situation. Say you have an introductory class that by some metrics is going well–students coming to class, participating in class discussion, telling you they are learning a lot–that come midterms, you are expecting a typical or even above-average performance, compared to prior sections.  Grading arrives…and the performance is abysmal.  Say only 20% of the students pass the exam. The essay questions and exam as a whole reveal a complete lack of understanding of basic concepts and principles discussed extensively in the class.  You start to believe that maybe, in a reverse of the classic dream where a student must take an exam for a class they never took, that you hallucinated actually showing up and teaching this class prior to the exam.


In such a scenario, our minds first move to blame.  It is easy to view a high failure rate as a problem with the students themselves.  They didn’t read…didn’t study…didn’t meet with us to go over problem areas during office hours…eager to talk in class, but aren’t willing to put in the work necessary to succeed, etc. But reflection is essential here.  Maybe the test as a metric lacked validity as a test of their knowledge and understanding.  Maybe the instructor has become complacent, teaching the same material again and again, and is no longer tuned into whether students are really grasping everything.  Or perhaps this is a case of poor execution of standard instruction techniques, or in some other way a failure on the part of the instructor to check in with their students regarding their understanding of the material.

Understanding the causes certainly help us consider what solutions are at stake.  If it is a case of poorly prepared students, then you can either let them learn the hard the way the result of poor preparation and continue as planned, or try to create incentives to motivate them to put the work in (such as daily quizzes or weekly writing assignments).  If the instructor is at fault, then some self-reflection is in order, potentially in terms of teaching methods or assignment placement.  By the time the midterm arrives, it may be too late for students to withdraw from the class, so an earlier assignment that gives us metrics on how students are understanding the material may be crucial. Maybe reducing lecture and increasing more active-learning elements might help.

My recommendation? Talk to the students about what happened. Ask them about their preparation, and about where their troubles are coming from.  It may be that they are overwhelmed with other courses or life issues and aren’t making this course a priority.  Maybe they haven’t been taking good notes during the class discussions.  Or maybe you are speeding through the material and they feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of it and are having trouble making sense of the connections.  There can be any number of reasons, and only by asking will you get a more complete picture of what is going on.

Reflection, ultimately, is a two-way street, and we cannot move forward with potential solutions without having a clear sense of the data.  While it is crucial that we do not simply blame our students and absolve ourselves of responsibility for poor performance, we must also recognize that without their input, we are only operating with half the available information. In addition, having them go through a process of reflection may help mitigate some of the student-side issues that may be affecting their coursework.  It may also lead to a discussion of potential solutions that everyone can agree will be helpful, so that by the time of the final, both students and instructors have invested more heavily in seeing a higher rate of success in the class.