Make Discussion More Inclusive with the Raised Block

Facilitating discussion is one of those teaching tasks that is sneakily quite challenging: you need to have goals (beyond creating noise); keep the discussion on track to achieve those goals in the allotted time; manage the speaking order; address incorrect information or offensive remarks; enforce norms and rules; actively listen to students and capture themes; and encourage students to listen and respond to each other. Increasing inclusion is its own challenge–ensuring that every student has the access, opportunity, and encouragement to actively engage in the discussion and learn by being part of it.

A particular challenge can be the Dominant Derailer: the student(s) who speak up far more than their peers, sometimes on a pet topic that isn’t aligned with the learning goals, and has the result of shutting out other voices. When Dominant Derailers run the discussion, they turn their peers into Silent Spectators, who are no longer actively listening but instead just waiting for the ‘discussion’ to end.

I’ve already written with some tips on addressing or preventing a Dominant Derailer, but today I want to introduce a new tool that can help with this problem and others: the Raised Block.

Continue reading “Make Discussion More Inclusive with the Raised Block”

Wargaming for Learning: A robust examination of how educational gaming adds value to traditional instructional techniques

My latest article is out in Journal of Political Science Education and I’m excited to share it with ALPS readers. Alongside Dr. Lisa Kerr, also at the Naval War College, we set out to do a robust examination of whether educational gaming is worth the extra time it takes; in other words, do students learn more by playing a game (in this case, a bespoke war-game called War at Sea) when they’ve already encountered the material through traditional methods of learning such as reading, lecture, and discussion of a case study? Our research says yes.

Continue reading “Wargaming for Learning: A robust examination of how educational gaming adds value to traditional instructional techniques”

“The Joy of Asking for Help: Getting students to read (anything?)”

I found myself in an all too well-known situation this week: my students didn’t read the assigned readings. In my opinion, I had set up the most fascinating set of readings to address an important issue in one of my classes. Every should want to gobble that knowledge up, said my hybris. But nada. Maybe a handful had read; the rest of the class became experts at looking straight ahead or down to their screens. I am not rediscovering the wheel with this not-reading problem, but the wheel certainly ran me over this week.  

Credit: Mercy Pilkington (Good E Reader)

I left the classroom after the lecture, wondering how I had created this environment, and how I could pivot away from this mid-way through our semester. Frustrated at myself, but knowing that somehow it had to change, I reached out for help on social media and in real life to people in academia.  I was in awe of the number of helpful responses I received. Although, I did not plan to write about it for ALPS (see Chad’s earlier work on that here), I decided to at least have – for the record – a collection of thoughts and ideas for others, who might find themselves in a similar situation at any point in their academic lives.

  1. Clarify for yourself and the students why we are reading (anything); what the purpose of the readings are; how they aid us in or learning process; and – importantly – do not assume that a one-time explanation covers that. Frequent reminders are helpful and necessary to the learning environment.
    • Here, I also received some online and offline advice about having a session at the beginning to demonstrate how to read articles. Folks have developed different techniques on how to guide students through a sample reading, including developing key questions students should keep in mind when reading (as guiding posts).
  2. I noticed an interesting debate regarding the use of reading quizzes or some sort of grading mechanism regarding doing the readings (or not).
    • I am not in favor of reading quizzes. For one, selfishly I do not want to have more grading work throughout the semester, and I am not sure how effective these quizzes are in motivating the students to read for understanding. And two, I do not want to create this sort of potentially punitive environment in our shared learning space.
  3. Nonetheless, there were some interesting grading mechanisms for readings: 
      1. This includes several recommendations for Perusall, which encourages more a communal reading practice, in which students engage with one another and can annotate readings. I am certainly not sponsored by them, and it also depends on whether your institution has a subscription to the service, but I like the idea.
        1. See similar thoughts on CritiqueIT by Dr. Colin Brown at ALPS.
      • Some faculty structure their entire lesson plan based on students’ reading reactions (required prior to class), focusing on things students did not understand or want to know more about. My planning anxiety stands in the way of this method.
  4. Similarly, the idea of cold calling was brought up. I have fallen to these temptations in the classroom, but at the same time, that does not really solve – for me at least – the reading issue. Then, I am just embarrassing folks in the classroom (if they haven’t done the readings).
    • Folks have suggested to use tools such as Menti, PollEv, or JamBoard (even though the last one is being phased out). They are interactive online boards, that you can project in the classroom. You can pose a question about the reading, and students can (anonymously) respond to that. The collection of the answers as well as the anonymity can overcome social anxiety and the fear of saying “something wrong”.
      • Anecdotally, I already tried a PollEv exercises in one of my classes this week, and I received responses from approx. 2/3 of the class vs. the usual 2-3 hands that shoot up when I start talking about the readings. I did not ask specific questions but rather focused on what stood out to them in the reading or if they had any questions (as the mind-hive suggested). Given my mid-semester pivot, I will stick with that for now.  

The beauty of having a problem with anything in this day and age is that none of us are special enough/unique enough to encounter it for the first time in all of human history. I realized relatively quickly that my problem is not just about “why aren’t they reading” but more importantly “what can I (!) do about this to improve our shared learning space”. And I think that is a better motivator than frustration. Reaching out and asking for help was probably the best way to handle this problem for myself. Aside from the fact that people provided advice/technique, what stood out to me what the fact that there are folks who care and that they care enough to help me out. Thank you!

Classroom Discussion Techniques: Handling the Dominant Derailer

We all know the type: the student who is the first to speak in response to every question and drags the discussion in their preferred direction. Either unknowing or uncaring that they are dominating the conversation, they suck out the air from a room of open discourse, creating a challenge for the instructor and potentially frustration for students who might otherwise want to join in. Of all the challenges facing us in leading a productive conversation, this is the one I hear about the most.

Let’s examine five ways of handling the Dominant Derailer.

  1. Establish Class Rules
  2. Acknowledge and Ally
  3. Redirect to a Parking Lot
  4. Return to an Essential Question
  5. Use Discussion Entry Tickets
Continue reading “Classroom Discussion Techniques: Handling the Dominant Derailer”

“How to spark curiosity”

Hi everyone, my name is Jennifer Ostojski. I am a Visiting Assistant Professor in International Relations at Colgate University. In August 2022, I defended my dissertation on European identity. I recently joined the ALPS team, handling some of the day-to-day stuff, contributing weekly (on Fridays) my thoughts on teaching, and also soliciting guest posts to present new and exciting teaching tools. Looking forward to our time together!

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What is it that we do in Political Science? That’s a question a faculty member prompted us to think about in a department meeting I recently attended. The Geology department “produces” geologists”. The Physics department “produces” physicists. But what do we mean by “producing” political scientists? I could give you the old spiel of pre-law tracks and policy-oriented folks. They have clearer expectations of what happens in the great beyond when they leave their undergraduate institutions. But what about my students, who focus on International Relations or Comparative Politics, who have internships in consulting firms, architectural firms, or even on the stock market? I don’t know about you, but I am not producing consulters, architects, and stock market experts in class.

Reflecting on this question, I realized that the “what I do” in class is to try just genuinely spark curiosity and excitement for everything that politics is (see Chad’s three-part series on the Death of Curiosity here, here, and here). I find that when students come to class, their perception of politics is much more limited to distant actors, processes, and things they think they have no power over. Missing from their radar is the consciousness that ultimately everything they do, engage with, and consume is and can be tied to politics. And more importantly, they are not passive observants but actors in the political world. This realization does not happen organically, but when achieved it can create a curious mind about the world around them – maybe not in perpetuity but at least for the length of the semester.

Over time this transformation and realization can take place when prompted by the instructor (you and me!). Over the last couple semesters, I have put more emphasis on creating activities and classroom designs to elicit this realization in my students and involve them and their ideas more strongly in our classroom environment. Below, I outline some of examples that I am currently doing in my two courses.

1. Participation now makes up 20% of my students’ grade. It is a lot – I think – compared to other courses, but ultimately I decided that I need to motivate my students to speak up in any capacity, share their ideas, and allow themselves to play around with concepts without necessarily feeling the need to say the “right” or “correct” thing.

  • Caveat: I have seen an uptick in participation. But the hurdle of “saying the right thing” is ever present. I had a student recently apologize to me after class for not knowing the answer.

Assuring and reminding my students about the opportunity the classroom provides to freely exchange ideas has worked so far only in parts for me. 

2. I begin every class session with a 5-minute news recap session. It wakes up the students (especially those pesky early Monday morning sessions), and it allows students to share news stories that peaked their interests about domestic or international issues.

  • Caveat: If students don’t read, and I come across that a bunch (maybe you too?), it can become an exercise in cricket sounds. I counter that by keeping in my metaphorical back pocket a couple of stories when students are not sharing anything on their own. They can then at least respond to that and communicate their thoughts.
    • The cynic in me is a bit baffled when I encounter folks who just don’t read anything. But that is beside the point here.

3. A core assignment in my class, which I have done now for a couple of semesters, is a short in-person presentation, in which each student picks their own topic in relation to the class theme (this semester it is broadly “International Relations”). For me, it is Important that they are free to choose the topic and put their own mark on our class. Often, they contribute fresh new case studies that enrich our understanding of core concepts. Also, if they choose on their own, they are more likely to genuinely like the topic, which can be felt in the way they approach the presentation research itself. Students in the past have talked about Princess Diana as an international diplomat, the efforts of the NBA to start an African basketball league, the emerging norm of returning stolen artifacts to former colonized states, and the rise and fall of the Adani Group.

  • Caveat: I have found that when first confronted with the assignment, some students “get it”, while other students are a bit overwhelmed. Two reasons stand out: (1) the freedom of choice is almost too much, but providing examples helps quite a lot for students to be able to narrow down; and (2) a lack of interest in seemingly a lot of things, which then transpires into not knowing where to start and how to proceed. In the case of the second option, I have found that it takes a lot of probing and pulling to define half-heartedly some “interesting” topic.

These three are by no means perfect, but they have created a warmer and more engaged back-and-forth that I appreciate and prefer over my monologues. I try and improve upon that regularly. No empirical evidence exists on the effects of my efforts (yet), but I see it as my responsibility of “what I do” to instill – especially in introductory courses – a sense of curiosity and ownership by our students over politics. Maybe in twenty years one of them will reach out about their international political efforts in architectural design.

Notes From a Conference of Damp Showers and Wet Snow*

Continuing on a theme . . . some notes on today’s pedagogical discussion at ISA 2023:

Teachers want to create an environment that facilitates learning and stimulates a spirit of curiosity. Students may have different expectations. As one session participant put it, students can have the purely transactional attitude of “I’m not going into debt so I can feel emancipated.”

In a similar vein, we talk about what students should get out of a college education, but we don’t ask what they bring to it; e.g., a K-12 education where the teacher was the sole authority in the classroom.

So we are frequently faced with a situation where students don’t want to engage unpredictably with new knowledge because it makes them feel uncomfortable, which they do their best to avoid.

To resolve this dilemma, students need to become familiar with tools for giving and receiving feedback productively so that they can learn from each other. They also need to learn how to articulate why they hold certain positions, why those positions are important to them, and what they mean when they state those positions.

During the conversation, I thought of a tweak to an assignment that might help with the above. As I have written previously, many of my students are unable to identify the author’s thesis, independent variables, and dependent variable in Perusall readings. I’m thinking of adding “What is a question about this article that you want answered?” to the assignments, with the stipulation that the answer needs to come from their classmates, not me. This could also be a way of getting students to design their own quiz questions.

*Allusion to 19th Russian literature, of which I am mostly ignorant — a known unknown that I am at present mostly comfortable with.

The Death of Curiosity? Part 1

Our fall semester is nearly done, and I’ve already started mentally reviewing it. Although this might be a consequence of recency bias, the teaching-learning environment feels like it has been below average.

Given their annotations on Perusall, many students seem to still have great difficulty identifying the thesis, independent variables, and dependent variable of assigned readings — despite the accurate comments written by classmates.

Attendance in class has frequently been below fifty percent, and a greater portion than usual of the students who do come to class look like they mentally check out during discussions. For context, see my October series on physical presence in the classroom here, here, and here.

Possible solutions to the above problems? Instituting pop quizzes based on Perusall readings and class discussions, machine-graded in the Canvas LMS, comes to mind. If students don’t want to voluntarily eat the carrot of knowledge, then perhaps I should use the stick of multiple choice questions that directly affect the course grade. Two potential drawbacks to this method: first, the difficulty of guiding in-class discussions toward quiz questions that were created before the discussion occurred, and second, potential complaints about not being allowed to “make up” quizzes that were missed when absent. My general policy is not to complicate my life by scheduling alternative testing dates, granting deadline extensions, etc. As I’ve stated before, I regard students as legal adults capable of setting their own priorities.

Before classes end this week, I’ll be gathering slightly more objective feedback on the “skills” components of my two undergraduate courses via anonymous surveys. I’ll report the results in my next post.

Behavior Management

Things might be bit different in the classroom. In the USA, we are now seeing undergraduates who spent the last two years of high school at home and online. Healthy psycho-social development and adequate academic preparation for college, in decline long before the pandemic, might be at a new low. Your students may be exhibiting behaviors that make classroom discussion more difficult to manage than in the past. It might be a case of the socially cueless, the know-it-all with verbal diarrhea, or the off-topic tangentialist. Or, worst of all, the rage-filled misogynist.

I’ve never been a fan of tossing out a question to the whole class. The practice often leads to complete silence or one of the above types of students derailing the discussion. There are several alternatives, many of which we’ve outlined here before. Splitting the class into small groups for a few minutes gets the whole class involved in discussion rather than just one person. Given the perceived social ramifications, students are often more likely to communicate, civilly, with each other than with the professor. Soliciting a concise verbal report from some groups immediately afterward also tends to filter out irrelevant or objectionable remarks.

The result of a previous exit survey, a.k.a. the muddiest point technique, can be used at the start of class as a small group discussion prompt.

Cold calling — directly addressing a question to a single student — can also work. The trick, however, is to ensure that all students, not just those eager to talk, get an equal chance to speak and feel safe enough psychologically to do so. This can be done via a random number generator, seating chart, or Cards of Fate — a deck of note cards on which are written students names. Shuffle the deck with names face down, and pull the top card each time you ask a question. A student can choose to pass once in a specified time period — per class, per week, per semester. Just write a “P” on the card to record this and set the card aside the next time it is drawn. Names of students absent from class can be removed from the deck beforehand, if it’s convenient — this doubles as an attendance-taking method.

If a student who is called on does begin to ramble, interject with something like “That’s an interesting topic, but right now I need to keep the discussion focused on X.” Then ask a different student the same question.

The last remedy for the over- or inappropriate-talker is the one-on-one meeting in your office. State that while you appreciate the person’s interest in the course, other students need an equal opportunity to participate. Then set a rule that limits how and when this student can speak. Document the meeting with, for example, an email to the student’s advisor. If needed, ask your department chair to be present.

Authentic Discussion

Some of you might have read last week’s Inside Higher Ed editorial on combatting internet-era cheating with authentic assessment. On this blog, “authentic” has been occasionally applied in the past to writing assignments, presentations, and marshmallows. Before reading the editorial, I had never before carefully thought about authenticity in relation to exams — something I can explore in future posts (and others’ thoughts on the subject are very welcome). Today though I’d like to provide an example of making class discussions more authentic.

In my comparative politics course, students analyzed these two articles for a Monday class (half the students read each article, using my modification to Helen Brown Coverdale’s study huddle method):

Continue reading “Authentic Discussion”

When students are unprepared for class

In line with Simon’s musings on whether or not he matters, I’ve been wrestling with whether all of my ideas about how to structure classes to get particular results actually work.  Do they matter?  

In one of my classes, only a handful of students were able to answer a pretty basic question: what is the main claim in this reading?  I’m sure many of us have experienced this before, but in line with my strategies on ensuring students do the reading, I thought I was well inoculated against the steady silence of puzzlement, for two reasons:

  1. Students have to write on all the readings each week.  Those papers include an annotated bibliographic entry for each reading, where in 1-2 sentences they must state the main claim of each reading.  Since about half the students wrote last week, they should know this.
  2. In this particular case I was asking about last week’s readings, which we had already discussed.  This was review!  I had mentioned these main points at least once before during our previous classes.

And yet, silence.

That’s not strictly fair.  A handful of students were able to answer my question for each of the readings.  But the bulk of the students just sat there, staring at me. First, let’s review Simon’s thoughts on getting students to talk, and then let’s consider the possible reasons for this, and how to solve them:

  1. They had not done the reading.  Since they only have to write 8 of the 12 papers, these students may have chosen not to write last week–and therefore didn’t bother to read.  
    • Solutions: require more papers. 8/12 was probably too generous, and it is clear that when students do not have to write, they don’t always do the readings very closely (often due to other legitimate commitments, such as work).
  2. They did the reading, but couldn’t remember it. Students may not take good notes when they read, and therefore can struggle with details.  They may also need training in how to identify key points so that they don’t miss the forest for the trees.
    • Solutions: teach students how to take notes on the reading.  Its an important skill, and we should not assume they already have it.
    • Continue to require the annotated bibliographies of the weekly readings so they build this skill over the course of the term.
  3. They did the readings, but were confused.  The readings I am assigning are a mix, but many of them are scholarly in nature.  Not all students in the class are majoring in the social sciences, and therefore may struggle with key terms. It was also a lot of reading–about 100 pages–and some of the chapters could have been split in two because they covered two widely different topics.  
    • Solutions: Review the syllabus to make sure that the mix of readings is appropriate in terms of amount and difficult.  
    • Take note of key terms and review them in class so that non-majors don’t feel lost.  
    • Continue to review the key point of each reading in class prior to discussion so that everyone is on the same page.  
  4. They may or may not have done the reading, but they did not make the connection between our discussions last week and the question of this week.  While I had mentioned the key points of the readings last week in passing, I didn’t make a point of it–I did not write them on the board, or encourage students to take notes of what I had said.  Often students don’t know how to recognize a key point that is made solely verbally.
    • Solution: anytime I mention a key point, make sure I put it on the whiteboard to signal to students that it is important.
  5. They may have known the answer, but chose not to speak up.  Even though I’ve encouraged my students to ‘fail’ in line with previous discussions on ALPS, many of them are afraid to say something wrong.
    • Solutions: whenever possible, use small groups to discuss the question first.  This allows students to check their answers with a small group of peers first, and then share them with the rest of the class if encouraged.  
    • Minute papers–where students take a minute to write down their thoughts–might also give them the time they need to choose the right wording for their responses.
    • Note who in their papers got the answer correct, and then cold call on those students to read their responses.  
    • Using encouraging language and thanking students for offering their response may also encourage quieter students to share their ideas in the future.  
    • Track and increase wait time.  What feels like an eternity to us in the silence is often mere moments, which might not be enough time to process the question and generate a response. There are plenty of strategies out there to do this effectively.

My takeaway: the students failure to answer my basic question is as much my failing as theirs.  We need to recognize the reasons WHY students can’t identify the key point of a reading, and exhaust all the structural and instructional tools and methods we have to get them to a point where they do the readings and are willing and able to talk about them.  Our job is provide the tools and training they need to succeed, and we should always make sure that any issues on the part of our students aren’t caused by a failing on ours.