Engaging Students, Part 1: Quotes

Hello ALPS world!  I’ve been letting Chad and Simon do all the talking lately, and we can’t have that!  I’m back with the new year and ready to share more ideas on how to make our classes more active.  My focus is going to be on techniques, large and small, aimed at engaging students and improving learning, all which you can apply in your classes without a lot of extensive planning.  Many of these ideas are published, but that doesn’t mean they are widely known, so my plan is to feature some of them on this blog.  Try those that appeal and let us know how they work!

This week’s technique comes from Elizabeth Barkley’s (2010) book, the aptly named ‘Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty’.  What I like about this book is that it talks about general tips and strategies for improving engagement as well as specific techniques.  Each of the techniques is explained and categorized, has step by step directions, examples, and ways to vary the technique or apply it in an online environment.  It is a great resource for promoting active learning in your classes. Today’s technique is the fourth in her book, called ‘Quotes’.

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Graded Online Discussions: Update

Switchboard OperatorsBack in August I complained about the lack of student discussion in two sparsely-enrolled online graduate courses. I’m now past the mid-point in two other such courses, and I thought I’d post an update.

When teaching online, I frame each week’s discussion around a question that relates to the week’s reading assignments. Now that I explicitly grade the discussions using a feature of the Canvas LMS, I see comments that are much more on point and thoughtful, so to me there is no reason to revert back to the old format in which I really just tallied the number of comments made by each student.

In contrast to the summer courses, I’m getting a lot more discussion. I believe class size is the driving factor, not the season. In my current courses, there are still some students who post comments rarely or not at all, but in absolute terms there are more people in each course who are willing to carry on a conversation — which leads to more conversation.

In the first week of these courses, I did notice what appeared to be an upper bound on class size for productive discussion. Students who commented later in the week repeated ideas that many of their classmates had posted earlier. There is little chance for originality after reading fifteen responses to the same question. I solved this problem by switching on another Canvas feature, “users must post before seeing replies.”

Death to Student Presentation Day

Special thanks to Dr. Dean Hammer for these insights

We’ve all been there….. I designed my course to maximize scholarly thinking as well as “real-world” skill development…..so in a stroke of brilliance..tah dah!… in-class presentations with obligatory questions expected from the audience…..

And what followed were many many minutes of zzzzzz inducing info-pedia. Student presentation day was just chunk after awkward chunk of soul breaking data spew… artfully guided by ubiquitous but quirky fonts on ppt slides.

I hated it, the students hated it….we all become lifeless automatons inching our way through class time.


Active class + Student Presentations = check email and update the Facebook status.

I had reverted to the stone ages in the pedagogy of active learning…..

Luckily, this day was also in-class observation day…so my senior colleague was available to witness the disaster….ahem…..awesome….juuuuust awesome.

In his wisdom he gently offered ……”Why not have them present an argument instead of just giving information?”


See that? not only had the light gone on in my head…but it was a compact and efficient one..

I said “give presentations. ”

They heard “write a lecture and deliver it to a passive room.” I gave them no context, no real role, and no motivation to participate…..and I expected them to be active.

The only real benefit to the exercise was to the students speaking at the front of the room…which was fine but…no…not it wasn’t.



In-Class Presentation Day
Pandemic Philly: Simulation with Embedded Press Conference Briefings

This Fall….Students will present arguments for a pandemic containment action plan. Each team must convince leaders and press of the soundness of their vision. The role of the presenters is to make a sound case for the thoroughness and unique approach of their 30-day plan of quarantine containment. The media, (the rest of the class) will ask questions for clarification and challenge each presenter’s conclusions. Following all 4 group presentations individual class members will vote for the most effective action plan to be put into place.

What I love about this….is that there is context, motivation, argumentation, and roles for every student.

Stay tuned for how this turns out!

Perils of Small (Online) Courses, Part 2

How I see my course design
How I see my course design

Two weeks ago I wrote about the lack of discussion in two online graduate courses with a combined enrollment of eleven students. These two courses ended yesterday and I’m now taking a break from grading final exams. Discussion decreased to zero in the last week of one of the courses and remained paltry in the other.

I created an ungraded, anonymous survey to try to find out what students thought was most useful about these courses. Perhaps how I think about course design, which includes weekly discussion, is very different from how students think about it. However, only two people responded to the survey, so I have to guess both about the causes of the problem and about potential remedies.

None of these remedies are very attractive to me. I could increase the weight of discussion participation in the final grade to something like 20 percent. But as I wrote previously, my online courses are populated primarily by adult students who have competing demands on their time — such as family and full-time careers. I do not want to penalize people too severely if writing about the course readings is all they have time for, especially since it’s my belief that students learn more from this than from participating in discussions with classmates who often have erroneous or biased points of view.

A second option is to require that each student submit a certain number of responses to other students’ discussion comments each week. But with only a half dozen or so students in a course, I suspect they will quickly just be repeating what others have already posted. 

How students might see my course design
How students might see my course design

A third possibility is to alter the discussion medium itself by requiring video rather than text posts.  Video comments were actually suggested at the blended learning conference that I recently attended as a way of enhancing online discussion, and so I inserted brief introductory videos into discussions beginning with the fourth week of class. But there are major drawbacks to this technique, too. Videos aren’t captioned, which contradicts universal design principles. Listening to comments made on video takes longer than reading text when the instructor is grading the quality of the content. And some students will invariably be incapable of producing video of sufficient quality or in a usable format.

The last option is to just abandon online discussions altogether — one less thing for me to grade — when a small number of students enroll in a course. Given students’ lack of engagement with online discussion this year, they must not have found it very important to their learning or to their grades, so eliminating it might not have much of a negative effect.

The Perils of Small (Online) Classes

Shrinking ManA few months ago I wrote about a few of the effects of small class sizes in my undergraduate courses. I’m experiencing related problems in my online graduate courses, where per-class enrollments have dropped to only about a half dozen students.

With so few students, there is no actual conversation in weekly discussions. I fully understand and accept the fact that several factors probably diminish student contributions to discussions — these courses are online, asynchronous, and convenience for students is paramount. However, people did respond to each others’ discussion comments in previous semesters when enrollments were higher.

This is the first time that I’ve explicitly tied discussion posts to a rubric — at least two posts per week, with the first before midnight on Wednesdays, with cited examples from the reading assignments, to earn full credit — rather than vaguely categorize them as evidence of course participation. But making my assessment of students’ contributions to discussions more transparent should encourage rather than discourage posts, if it has any effect at all.

In sum, students are occasionally acknowledging the existence of their classmates but decide to forego interacting with them. They might be reading each others’ discussion posts, but there is no way for me to tell if this is in fact happening; if they are, they aren’t writing responses. Overall it seems unlikely that much social learning is occurring.

New Faculty, new opportunities

Staff meetings were becoming less and less managable

Alongside all the other stuff that’s been happening at my university this year, we’re also changing around our organisational structure, moving from four Faculties to three.* That means that from this summer I’ll be doing my current role not only for Politics, Sociology, English Literature, Languages, Film, Theatre, Dance and our conservatoire, but also Economics, Law, Management and our Business School.

[I’ll pause there, as I’m not sure I’ve written out that list in full before and I think I might need a moment.


Better now.]

As you’ll imagine, there’s plenty to deal with on a practical scale, but let’s focus for now on the more cultural aspect of building a sense of a joint venture.

In a such a diverse and large Faculty, there are clearly both barriers and opportunities: part of my work is to overcome the former and exploit the latter.

The barriers are the same that I imagine you all face, particularly the indeterminate position of the Faculty, neither close enough to the individual academic to really generate a sense of belonging nor in control of the institution’s overall direction. While our Faculties have become more meaningful units in recent years, I’d say that most people still look to their department or school as a relevant unit.

Moreover, because we’ll cover the full range of arts, humanities and social sciences, anything we might do at Faculty level might as well be shared with the rest of the university, since we’ll have to operate at a fairly a-disciplinary level in our L&T development work.

But this said, the bringing together of all these subjects does offer a great potential for making something useful for colleagues. The new Faculty team has already been talking about a number of ideas to do this, all framed by a general intent not to just do stuff for the sake of it. This is an important point, because in the longer run, our best bet of building new ties and activities is to have individuals feeling that this is something genuinely useful.

With that in mind, one suggestion is to use our inaugural talk from the Dean (and associated drinks event) to gather ideas from staff. Putting whiteboards at the side of the room, we’d get people to write down what they see as barriers and opportunities for L&T (and research) in the Faculty, which we would then use to shape an agenda of events through the coming year.

Even if the list they produce looks a lot like what we might draw up, the framing is that it comes from them and gives them a sense of ownership. As a Faculty we demonstrate that we both listen and act on our colleagues’ input and we all get something that we asked for, rather than what someone thought we should have.

The parallels to classroom practice should be pretty clear here. By moving from a didactic to a dialogic approach, we’re tying in people to the process, which in turn should improve their engagement.

Whether this works I don’t know. Indeed, I’d hesitate to make any strong conclusion for at least a year. However, as always, I travel hopefully and I’ll do what I can to help matters along.

Deep breath now.



* – we’re talking about the structures, rather than the people, to avoid confusing American speakers.

A tale of two debate assignments

My teaching appointment is in a small, residential academic community (the Women’s Leadership Program or WLP). The students live together and take two classes together both semesters of their freshman year. The program is selective and the classes are small (about 20 students). For the past five years, I’ve included group debates in the two courses I teach in the program: Introduction to Comparative Politics and Introduction to International Politics. As an activity, these have been quite successful. The students select a debate topic related to course material and, through a short briefing paper and the debate itself, apply course materials to a contemporary politics question (e.g. free trade, intervention in Syria, prospects of democracy in Iran). Over the years, I have been impressed with how well the students do this, showing a fluency with the course material that is particularly impressive for first year students.

Building on the success of the debate assignment in these classes, I decided to include it in the other course I teach: an upper-level elective course open to all students. I modified the assignment by dropping the written debrief. The assignment was not nearly as effective and, by some measures, was a complete bust.

This leaves me thinking, what accounts for the difference? Is the written briefing paper critical? Perhaps. It ensures that the students at least think about their argument before standing up in front of the class. It forces them to put an argument in writing, cite sources, and plan ahead. I suspect it is a crucial accountability tool and I was remiss to drop this aspect of the assignment.

When group work is like herding cats
Group work?

I also wonder how much the structure of the class matters. Students in the WLP classes live together, making group work as easy as knocking on your neighbor’s door and walking down the hall to the common room. They know each other well and are generally high achievers; my impression is that the proportion of free riders is lower in this population than in the general university population. This suggests that group work, in general, would be more successful in these classes.

The experience left me thinking about the conditions under which the same teaching tool can be more or less effective.

Flipping conference presentations

Possible source of confusion

I’m back in the office after a fabulous week of learning & teaching-related events. OK, maybe the exam board I went to wasn’t fabulous, but it was certainly instructive.

However, the big thing was going out to Chisinau in Moldova – the world’s second-least visited country – for a workshop of INOTLES, to discuss how we implement all our fine work in the partner institutions.

As workshops go, it went well: sensible amounts of time of different activities, a healthy mix of presentation and discussion, all facilitated by a positive environment and (ahem) local produce.

But, as is usual in such situations, I got me thinking about how we run such meetings of academics, but least because I was also having conversations about the next European Teaching & Learning Conference (see my posts from the last one).

Asking for ideas about how to be more engaging, I came up with a bunch of very radical stuff. However, it lately transpired that I had been drinking and that very little of it was actually workable, so it was back to the drawing board on the plane home.

The one idea that did seem to have something to it was the notion of a ‘flipped conference presentation’.

Basically, you’d ask people to produce a paper (as usual), but to then record a podcast of their presentation to post online, so that people could watch before the conference, and then use the panel time for discussion.

This would obviate the situation we all know, of a panel that runs out of time for questions. It would also be a learning experience for many, so they could see how simple recording yourself can be, which they could then take into the classroom. They win, we win, lovely.

It’s something I’ve not heard of before, but a quick google search suggests that I’ve far from the first to have the idea – try Jack Yensen, for example, or this example from Michael Seery. And props to Daniel Lambach for the link to Rom’s piece in PS that I’d missed.

Of course, this is not without its challenges. Just as people don’t always read papers before a conference, they might not watch all the podcasts and then they have little to go on when they turn up to the panel. Lots of signposting beforehand might help, as might a panel structure where the chair ‘interviews’ the panellists on common themes in a first section of time, before opening up to questions from the floor.

Technical issues might also pop up. If it’s ‘something not working’ then a conference helpdesk would resolve it. If it’s ‘this is stupid’ then either you have to be flexible, or you could offer another way out.

However, my thought of a way out might not strike you as very desirable.

So, something to think about.

As you’ll note from the two examples of others doing this, it’s not a PoliSci thing, nor even a social science thing, but a pedagogy thing. Another good reason to cast your net widely.

Grading Discussion in Online Courses

Cat ErrorIf enrollment holds steady, on June 29 I will start teaching two seven-week online graduate courses.* I’ve been teaching these courses every summer for several years, and I’ve decided to experiment this summer with a different system for grading student discussions.

I incorporate student discussion into all my courses, whether they are on campus or online, because I believe it fosters student engagement. But–yet again–discussion in these two courses last year demonstrated that there is often a difference between my beliefs about what students should do and how they decide to achieve whatever objectives they have set for themselves.

The shift was also prompted by the adoption of a different instructional tool. When I began teaching these courses, my university used Blackboard as its course management system. Anyone who has used Blackboard knows that it lacks an intuitive user interface and requires that both students and instructors click through innumerable screens. I created this rubric for class discussion, but there was no way to easily link it to what students were writing. Also the rubric was much too complicated to use to evaluate every discussion post by every student. My assessment of discussion defaulted to digging into the student analytics feature after the mini-semester had ended, to weigh the total number of a student’s posts against a scale I had created. Students got little direct feedback from me on how well they were performing in this component of the course while it was still running.

Last year a few students did not participate at all in the weekly discussions. Because of how I structure my courses, they were able to exercise other options and still perform well in terms of their final grades. But their absence from the discussions meant that their peers were not learning from them and they were not learning from their peers. And it looked to me that the lack of transparency in how I evaluated discussion made this outcome more likely.

This time around the courses will be delivered via Canvas instead of Blackboard. Canvas allows the instructor to create interactive rubrics that can be linked to specific assignments or posts in a discussion. The instructor clicks on the rubric’s boxes and the resulting grade is generated. Students see how their work will be assessed without having to click through a myriad of webpages, and they get immediate feedback from the instructor. 

So I created this new rubric, simpler than the old one but still containing the criteria that I think are most important for peer learning in a professional environment, for grading each student’s discussion posts on a week-by-week basis.** I’ll let you know how it works.

*The courses are the politics of the Middle East and comparative political development, part of an M.A. program in international relations. If you’re interested in acquiring some transferable graduate credit hours, learning about a new subject, or learning how to design and teach online course on a compressed schedule, get in touch–you don’t need to be admitted to the degree program to  enroll in either course.

**My wife/colleague showed me how to do this.

Forcing Fair Participation in the College Classroom

Today we have a post by a guest contributor, Ryan Welch, a PhD candidate in the political science department at Florida State University.

HorshackTeachers and students  believe student participation in the classroom important for maximizing learning in the classroom.[1]  I define participation as verbal engagement [2] by the student with others in the class (instructor and other students) of the learning material.[3]  Participation has many educational benefits for students that often translate into life skills.

Although both students and teachers find participation important in the classroom, teachers struggle to get adequate student participation.  I know very early into teaching a class which 4 or 5 students (of 50 or so) will dominate discussion.  If left unchecked, that leaves a vast majority of students missing out on the benefits associated with participation.  Why don’t these students participate?  What can we do as instructors to motivate participation?

A number of students tell me that they wish to participate, but lack confidence in speaking in front of the group.  Research overwhelmingly comports these anecdotes.  So I attempt to increase participation by asking questions about the material.  Of course those few students mentioned above will volunteer their answers, but I also want to engage others.  Calling on non-volunteers presents problems of fairness.  No matter how hard we try, the decisions for which students to call upon will be biased.  In order to create a fair participation atmosphere we must randomly call upon students.

In order to create a more random selection process, I adopted my advisor’s poker chip strategy.  I assigned each student a number sequentially based on the alphabetic order of my class roll.  I numbered the poker chips and put them in a plastic container.  At times during the class period, I pulled a chip from the container, observed the number on the chip, and found the corresponding student on my roll.  That student must answer the question, or lose participation points.

This semester I tried a different method.  The process of drawing a chip, matching a number with a name, and then calling a student takes a non-trivial amount of time.  Enough time to break up the natural flow of class conversation; especially if a student does not know the answer, and I must call another student.  In order to rectify this issue, but continue calling students randomly, I tried something new this semester.  Instead of using poker chips, I used the R software package to create a random list of student names by drawing their names from a uniform distribution with replacement. With this list, I can seamlessly call on students without breaking up the flow of the class conversation.

But no method is perfect.  The most apparent drawback of this method is I am not able to learn the students’ names as easily.  Using the poker chips, I matched a number to a name on a printed roll with pictures.  Every time I called a student, I reinforced who that student was with a visual cue.  I did not realize how helpful that was for learning names until this semester in which I consult a list of names without pictures.  Knowing student names fosters a supportive environment that encourages participation  (which is the point of this whole venture).  The importance of knowing names has me brainstorming how to incorporate name-learning while still using the random list.

Student participation in the classroom leads to a number of learning and professional benefits.  So much so, that I find it reasonable to force participation. But forced participation should be done as fairly as possible, so I’ll use the list again.  If you want to try it out yourself, include the R code below to generate the random lists.  If you decide to give it a go, any comments and questions are welcome.

R Code

#set working directory

#load foreign package in order to write out the .csv file

#create a vector of student names
student.names <- c(“Student A”, ” Student B “, ” Student C “, ” Student D”)

#create vector of 100 randomly selected names with replacement
random.list <- sample(student.names, 100, replace=T) 

#create a .csv file in the directory folder which you can access and print or save to a tablet
write.csv(random.list, “student_list.csv”)


[1] For a comprehensive review of participation in college classrooms see Rocca, Kelly A. 2010. “Student Participation in the College Classroom: An Extended Multidisciplinary Literature Review.” Communication Education 59 (2): 185-213.

[2] The most common verbal engagement includes comments, questions, or answering questions presented by the instructor.

[3] Learning material is usually reading assignments, but may also include other media such as audio and video clips.