Category Archives: Active Learning

Report from ISA2017: When Jen goes walking in her students’ shoes… or why her ‘alt assignments’ need a bit more thought

Day one of my International Studies Association marathon in Baltimore and I attended a full day session on creative teaching.  So much to report and so many ideas for future lectures.  However, in terms of the most impactful moment of the day, the hands down winner was a session I participated in on ‘Authentic Writing Assignments’ (I had to leave early unfortunately, but the first half was incredible).  Run by two scholars who are clearly passionate about teaching, the session was taught in the form of active learning.  The facilitators had the participants (a room full of not-yet-fully functioning-academics due to most of us having spent the day before on long journeys)  actually attempt the writing assignments that they were proposing as useful additions to our courses.  In this case, I had to try my hand at writing an internal memo from the point of view of a managing director of a private company working in a conflict zone and then an editorial for a notable publication on a current human rights issue.

Now, incidentally, I had my students write editorials this year in my Conflict Management/Peacebuilding course.  I thought it was a fantastic idea, and had visions of all the wonderfully engaging yet theoretically informed pieces my students would write.  And of course, many of them did– but not before sending me dozens of emails about ‘what I was expecting’ and ‘how to start’ and ‘how it would be graded’ and ‘did it need a bibliography’ and…….  I recall being a bit frustrated at the time. I thought I’d written a pretty good explanation of what I wanted in the syllabus and I spent a whole 5 minutes (insert sarcasm here)  in class talking about what was expected of them. I then got a fair few complaints about this assignment in my formal and informal teaching evaluations after the fact.  I’ve remained stubborn, sure in my belief that this was a good assignment choice– teaching a different type of writing, for a different type of audience that would sever them well in the future.

So then today, my facilitators made me write an editorial.  I stared at my screen, unsure where to start, growing more frustrated by the second.  I knew the facts of the case, I knew the arguments one side would make, I knew the counter arguments that others would present.  I knew where to find all the facts and figures I needed to support either side.  But, the words simply did not come to the page.  I thought, ‘well, keep it simple’ ‘what are the main points you want to get across’  and ‘no academic jargon either– no isms, ologies or izations’.

The best I managed after 5 minutes of staring at my screen  was the following: ‘diversity is good’ ‘human rights abuses have to stop’ and ‘regional actors have a key role to play’.  Nice. Work. Peterson.

Now of course, my students have had more time than the 10 minutes we were given to get started, but still…. It gave me a real flavor of the confusion, discomfort and frustration that my students must feel when I throw some of my ‘alt assignments’ at them.  They finally come to terms with writing in an academic manner in the form of a formal research paper, and then some prof throws a completely new format at them and asks them to write for a totally different audience. It made me realize how much more work I have to do with them to help them develop the skills I want them to develop through these assignments– otherwise it just becomes busy work.

As a challenge to myself this summer, when I am working on my usual course renewal, I will force myself to at least start each of the types of ‘alt assignments’ that I plan to give to my students.  I will do this not because I feel I need to hold their hand and help them get a good grade, but to ensure that the reason I am assigning these modes of writing, the lessons I hope they draw from them, are not lost and the assignment does not just come to be seen as a ‘barrier to getting an A’ but rather an opportunity to learn new skills and material.  Hopefully I do better than I did on my rather sad editorial from earlier today.

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There’s an App for That! My (unexpected) highlight of the term

Just thought I would write a short post on what turned out to be one of my most successful sessions last term—it is an activity that I think can easily be adapted to any class and might be something you could experiment with yourselves.  It is fairly low stakes in terms of prep time, the students really got into it and I believe it reinforced several lessons from the course, simultaneously.

Now, first I should note that I was, initially DREADING this session.  The ever-so-well- thought-out-plan when I wrote my syllabus in the summer was to have a guest speaker run a workshop on technology and peace where students would actually create/map out a piece of technology that could contribute to the aims of peacebuilding.  You know, bring someone in who actually works with technology, and not numpty-me who considers it a major win if she gets her power-point up and running at the start of the class.  I made the mistake of putting this workshop into the syllabus, printing it and circulating it to students before I received confirmation from said guest speaker.  Said guest speaker could not make it.

So, of course I could have cancelled the session or just waxed lyrical even more about the politics and ethics of technology in relation to peace (as I had done in the previous lecture), but me being possibly the most stubborn person in any given room on any given day decided to burn ahead with my workshop idea regardless of my star-luddite credentials.

Working with folks in the humanitarian sector in my previous job, I was well aware of some of the App development going on in that sector, so I thought it might be interesting to have students develop ‘Peace Aps’.  Given that there was no way I could actually teach my students the basics of how to build an app (and trust me I did look into this, but after 8 hours wasted on reading the ins and outs of how to build your own App, I had to admit defeat).

I decided to have them story-board potential Apps.  Their task was to map out and illustrate a landing page and 3 further ‘screens’ for an App.  Groups were given only two prompts to get them started—a very general prompt and an audience (examples included “Audience:  Children 6-10 in Sri Lanka Purpose: Land Mine Awareness; Audience Black Lives Matter/Civil Rights Activists in USA/Canada Purpose:  Support and Facilitate Activist Work;  Audience: Aid Workers in and Around Syria, Purpose: Information and awareness of Non-State Armed Groups).   Each potential App was linked to a concept or theme explored in previous lectures.

Students were given a piece of poster paper to sketch out their initial planning of the App (see picture at bottom of this post– the quality of which I assume will solidify my luddite credentials).  They were encouraged to integrate  ideas, debates and issues from previous lectures (on peacebuilding more generally and technology and peacebuilding specifically).

There is not too much I can say here, except that my classroom came alive.  I was worried that the students would find the activity a waste of time, and maybe focus on the ‘cool technology’ side of the assignment, rather than engage with the issues. However, I saw so much evidence of integration of concepts from previous lectures, that it was both affirming to me (they were listening!), but also reinforced student learning and helped them make connections between classroom learning and the application (no pun intended) of this to the real world.

I think in this day and age we would be hard pressed to not be able to link whatever topic we teach to technology in some way and I really do think that this is something that could be adapted for most classes (my husband agreed to test my crazy active learning pedagogy on this one, and tried it out in his Sociology of the Family.  Another success!).  Of course with all active learning the key is in the pre-amble, prep and debrief of lessons learned.  A lecture on the key debates around technology in relation to the themes of your course sets a valuable foundation for the activity, and time to discuss lessons learned via the activity is essential (I’ll admit I missed the trick on this one and didn’t leave any time for a proper debrief—something I’ll fix for next next year).   app

And the gold medal goes to… Critical thinking on how we label states—Case Study Rwanda

In opposition to the silver medal winner, the learning activity that was OVERWHELMINGLY  considered to be the task that most influenced student thinking (as voted for by students via their final reflective writing assignment), did require a lot of work—on both our parts.  It was in fact an activity that I had planned on scrapping  because it is so labor intensive on me[i], requires students to really engage and think independently during the class (which is of course OK! But this class is scheduled right around mid-terms when students’ energy levels take a big dip and some students are generally resistant to ‘heavy’ forms of active learning), and it requires a really good debrief at the end to ensure that the lessons learned are reinforced.  I find it exhausting, even though I always feel it has gone smoothly.  Also, if I’m honest, I wasn’t sure the students were learning as much as I had hoped from it.

I was wrong.  The fact that almost twice as many students wrote about this session in their final reflections compared to the Saliency activity (the silver medal winner) has left this activity, or at least some version of it, firmly established in my syllabus.    The lessons learned here by students (taken from their end of term written reflections)[ii] reveal the activity’s ability to simultaneously teach a range of intellectual skills and offered some interesting moments in terms of students’ personal and academic growth.

In preparation for the class, students read the course textbook where the ‘basics’ of the categorization of ‘strong v weak v failing v collapsed’ states is described.  Here the indicators that allow these measurements to be made are defined and described.  Their second reading for the week presents a more critical view of this categorization.[iii]  I also put a folder up on the course website that contains a series of short articles/data sets regarding Rwanda.  These documents include reports on Rwanda’s progress from the Human Development Index,  internal crime and safety reports, local and international news articles etc.

 

Part One:  Evidence based categorization

The activity is split into two main tasks.  The first is more of a data gathering and interpretation exercise.  Students are provided with a worksheet that includes a chart they need to fill in. Using the documents provided on the course website and using any other statistics or data they can find online, they try to make an evidence based conclusion regarding whether Rwanda is currently a strong, weak or failing state.  They are challenged to categorize Rwanda as strong/weak/failing on each of the indicators explored in the textbook (capacity, autonomy, internal legitimacy, external legitimacy) and provide the exact statistics/pieces of data they are using to make that claim.  Many students found that Rwanda was ‘strong’ on some indicators and ‘weak’  or even ‘failing’ on others.   During the debrief we discovered that students had ranked Rwanda differently in some categories, despite working with the same data sets.

Many students noted how this was a useful exercise in terms of thinking about methodology and subjectivity in analysis.  Some  discussed how it reinforced the importance of making evidence based statements in class discussions and assignments.   In this regard, one student noted:

‘I also enjoyed how the worksheet allowed me to move from my own perceptions and opinions of what I already thought I knew to showing me how to do proper research and analyzing the nation myself in order to strengthen my knowledge of weak/failed/strong states’

And of course there are large data sets that combine all of the indicators and provide a broad ranking of each country in relation to others on a scale.  However, several students noted the use of such a big data set might obscure some interesting anomalies or conflicting data—making note that even though overall Rwanda might be classified as ‘weak’, such a generalization or ‘averaging’ of indicators obscured policy areas where Rwanda was doing well.  These students noted how numbers and quantitative indexes help us generalize and rank but qualitative data and the exploration of individual indicators is needed to get a complete picture of a case study.  This was a particularly important moment in terms of some students reconsidering their epistemic stance and the need to delve more deeply into statements presented as ‘truth’.  As one student noted in their reflection on this activity:

‘I recognize slants that I have within myself, as well it has allowed me to be more critical of the sources of information and whether or not such an argument or statement is more or less powerful; before I would assume all statements to be equal as I would not challenge such ideas much past their grammar or obvious rhetoric.’

 

Part Two:  Critical thinking—assessing critiques of the ‘weak state’ discourse

On the back of the handout is where I expect students to engage with the critical reading—to reflect on the experience they just had regarding categorizing Rwanda, and consider it in relation to concerns raised by those who critique the ‘weak states’ discourse.  With the people around them, students are asked to discuss and record their answers to the following questions.

  1. Based on your answers above—how would you classify this state OVERALL: Strong, Weak or Failing?
  2. If you had different answers in the first column (ie some indicators suggested a strong state, other indicators suggested a weak state) how did you make a final decision about the overall categorization of the state? Did you view some indicators as more important?
  3. Were there any interesting debates between you and your colleagues on how to categorize and what evidence to use?

In their reflections, a lot of students discussed how  exploring these questions led them to a belief that the rankings were unfair as they failed to capture progress/positive moves forward—states could still be labelled pejoratively as ‘weak’ despite making significant progress on some indicators (which suggests strength).  For example, one student noted that

‘Its HDI went from 0.277 in 1980 to 0.434 in 2012, which means, although the current HDI value is still quite low, there has been significant progress in human development in the country and it feels unfair to classify such a leap forward as weak; especially after the tragedy it went through in 1993’

While independent critical reflections such as the above were encouraging to see, there were also great moments of students understanding the ramifications of such critiques and addressing counter-arguments to the critiques of the discourse.  For example, one student concluded that

‘Determining the difference between a strong, weak, failing, and failed state is hard as contradictions in the data are apparent. However, politics itself is hard to define, but as political scientist we have to define with the best and legitimate system available in order to make comparisons. Comparisons allow for better policy decisions, thereby, a more stable political order’

What was nice to see in all of the examples above is students’ growing ability to be specific and concise in applying concrete facts/data to quite abstract conceptual debates that they were very briefly exposed to in readings and lectures.   One of my biggest concerns with essays in undergraduate level essays is students inability to link case study data in a meaningful way with some of the conceptual debates to which they are drawn.   For example, it is not uncommon to see students say something akin to ‘Country X’s relationship with Country Y is neo-colonial’ but then fail to provide the richer explanation of exactly why.  This case study allowed them to practice this in a supported and low stakes way and their reflections showcased their growing ability to do so.   It has encouraged me to make greater use of Case Study type activities, even if labour intensive.  The payoff makes it worth it.

 

[i] Why is it so labour intensive?

  1. The case study materials you select need to be carefully thought out, and succinct. Posting whole journal articles, 30 page NGO reports etc is not really an option unless you want to turn this into a much larger assignment or have it spread out over several weeks (which wouldn’t be such a bad idea, but is difficult in an intro level course which covers a lot of topics)
  2. The above materials need to be updated year on year so as to reflect any political changes/major events
  3. The above materials need to be posted on course website in a timely manner, so no last minute lesson planning!
  4. I always bring a few hard copy packages of these materials so that students who don’t have their computers with them in class or have problems reading off computer screens aren’t excluded.
  5. I personally prefer to use a handout to keep students on task/structured in their work. So this needs preparing, copying, handing out etc.

[ii] A note on research ethics: students were able to opt out of this research project and the content of their written reflections has not been used for the study.

[iii] I assign the following reference, but there are many other’s one could use. Gruffydd Jones, Branwen (2013) ’Good governance’ and ‘state failure’: genealogies of imperial discourse’. Cambridge Review of International Affairs26(1),49-70.

 

And the Silver Medal Goes To…. A REALLY Brief Activity on Identity Politics

Continuing with my series of reflections on what learning activities students found impacted their understanding of politics the most (part of my aforementioned research project) comes an activity that literally takes about 15 minutes of class time and requires pretty much no additional prep on the part of my students (other than completing the week’s required readings).   One of the reasons I am particularly thrilled to see this activity make the top three is that it also required very little of me in terms of prep!  There were no scenarios to write, no data sets or graphs to carefully select,  no photocopies to make, no elaborate debriefing to perform etc. From the time I had the idea, through the time I worked out in my head how it would play out in the lecture, to the time I included it the lecture slides, it was maybe 20 minutes of my time.  It isn’t something I need to update every year as datasets change, or new case study material becomes relevant.

I think one of the things that puts some profs ‘off’ active learning is the extra time it takes to plan, think through, develop materials, do a practice run in one’s head before unleashing the idea your students etc.    Without a doubt, writing a 90 minute lectures takes about ½ the time it takes (at a minimum) to plan a session centered around active learning (if you want it to go well and really relate to learning outcomes).  So, finding something so easy and non-time-consuming that really resonated with students has been quite exciting for me.  It has made me think about the possibility of doing similar ‘small interventions’ that can keep my workload more manageable.*  So here, I present the content and impact of the 2nd most popular activity I ran with my comparative politics students last semester.

 

The difficulty of studying ‘identity politics’:  Thinking about the concept of ‘saliency’

The activity that I ran was an attempt to get students to think more critically about some of the claims regarding the role and impact of ‘identity’ on politics (from conflict to voting behavior and beyond).

The activity was done verbally, part way through a lecture on ideas related to identity politics—no need for activity sheets etc.  I asked students to write down 5 of their identities.  I engaged in the activity along with them on the board.  I wrote down the following

  1. Canadian
  2. Woman
  3. Swedish-Canadian
  4. Peace Scholar
  5. Wife

I then asked students, one by one, to strike off their identity that least impacts their political beliefs and political decision making.  Again, I engaged in this on the board with them until I was left with ‘Peace Scholar’.  We talk about how in relation to the question posed, one could say that my most ‘salient’ political identity is Peace Scholar.  However,  I also talked about how if I had run this activity with myself at their age, ‘Canadian’ would have come out on top.  This allowed us to discuss important methodological and conceptual issues related to generational issues and the time scales of one’s research.  It also allowed for a discussion around how one’s most salient identity might change given the circumstance (so in my personal life, my identity as a Peace Scholar is much further down the list etc).

I then invited students (who felt comfortable) to reflect on the process  of choosing their most ‘salient’ political identity.  Here again, interesting discussions were had.  Many students noted how hard it was for them to choose—how they felt torn between two identities in particular.  Many said it depended on what the political issue was (so on issues related to say, welfare spending, one identity seemed to influence their political thinking most, whilst if the question was about foreign policy, another facet of their identity seemed more important).  The class discussion was rich and highlighted many points I had hoped would come up. The notes in the written reflections were even more striking and confirmed that this simple exercise is worth keeping.

 

From the political to the personal: Understanding self as a way of understanding others

This was possibly my favorite set of reflections to read.  Because they weren’t tied to a specific case study, I believe students felt more free to apply their knowledge to a much broader range of cases.  I read about the role of identity politics in relation to BREXIT, Football , Pan Islamism, Colonialism, the media, elections, France, Germany, China, Quebec, the Maritime provinces, Occupy Wall Street, and the list goes on.  Not having to read multiple pieces of writing on the same case study over and over (which can be quite monotonous and lead to the marker having to take multiple breaks due to ‘similarity fatigue’), I realized the importance of not (always) linking activities to a specific case in terms of the well-being of the marker!

Returning to the students….Several students noted how it forced them to think about the methods and assumptions behind studies they had read or learned about in relation to identity politics.  As one student argued, the  ‘Identity of a person cannot be measured numerically, in order to study “identity” in an empirical, objective and scientific way’.  By considering the difficulty of being able to strictly categorize and code their own identity, they were confronted with epistemic and methodological concerns regarding some of the statistical analysis encountered in their studies.

But again, for me, it was the personal transformations and applications that I found most striking.  Nearly all students who wrote about this activity noted how the exercise related to specific events in lives—how it was useful for them in terms of thinking through debates and arguments they have had when people question them or challenge them on a political opinion linked to their identity.  Many students talked about their own ‘conflicted’ identities which sometimes leave them unsure about how they do (or should) feel on certain topics.

Reading about how this activity helped them think through some of these conflicts was not only moving on a personal level but also so encouraging in terms of them growing intellectually—in how many of them came to understand the need to really grapple with the complexity of identity politics before making claims about ‘the other’.  I’m hoping it has planted an important critical, reflexive and ethical ‘seed’ in terms of their future studies and research.  On this point, I’d like to end this blog post with a quotation from a student which I think reflects an important lesson learned regarding the need to consider time, place, complexity and context when attempting to make ‘conclusions’ regarding identity politics:

“I realized during this activity that my identity was absolutely fluid; I felt more connected to a relatively recent addition to my identity than a culture which I was raised on. Furthermore, I was able to reflect on the idea that as I grow older, my identity is becoming more of a personal choice and less about the environment I was born into.”

 

 

 

*as a side note, simulations and problem based learning activities by far take the most time for me to develop.  The bronze and gold medal activities are examples of these more time intensive types.

And the Bronze Medal Goes To….. Debating Direct Democracy

Avid readers of my blog (I know there are a few of you!) will have heard me mention my funded research project on active learning that I’ve been working on this past semester.  The final assignment related to this component of the course was to complete a written reflection on the in-class activity that ‘has most shaped/influenced [their] understanding of the political world’.  Now that the semester is over, my RA and I are diving into the data (including these final reflections, focus group transcripts and my own journaling) to explore where the ‘value added’ is in terms of active learning and what forms of active learning resonate most with students.

To get us warmed up, I decided on a very simple quantitative approach—we went through the 120 final reflections and tallied up the exercises that students themselves have chosen as the activities that impacted them as learners the most.*  In the next few blogs I’ll describe the ‘winning activities’ and discuss what students got out of these in terms of the learning aims of the course (and beyond!).

 

The (shocking)  third place winner!

In third place was actually my least favorite activity of the year that I put together for the lecture on my least favorite topic of the course.  I was somewhat shocked  to see this making the top three, but was also comforted by the fact that my own bias/lack of enthusiasm towards the topic didn’t seem to impact the students.  Note:  there is nothing wrong with the topic or lecture—it’s just not a theme that gets me going as much as the others in the syllabus.

This activity is classed as a ‘simulation’, or a ‘problem based learning’ exercise.  Undertaken in a class of around 100, students were provided with a worksheet that began with the following:

  • The goal of this exercise is to understand what direct democracy could look like in a world where we are more used to indirect democracy and to consider the strengths and weaknesses of both.
  • The Totally Fictional Scenario:  The year is 2030 and it is clear that the Canadian government’s environmental policies have failed.  Canada’s forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, the ice caps are melting leading to increased flooding in coastal areas, and a lack of regulation on the oil and gas industries has led to many examples of polluted waterways.   Parliament and our elected officials have let us down, and they admit it.  With a loss of faith in our elected officials and the institutions in which they work there has been a call for a more direct form of democracy which would see Canadian citizens become more directly engaged in environmental planning and policy.  Canada has turned to you—emerging experts in political science—for advice on how to move towards direct democracy.

Students were then asked a series of questions that they were to discuss with the students around them that helped them explore the feasibility, strengths and weaknesses of direct democracy (if you would like a copy of the full activity sheet, please email me).  Following their discussion in small groups, I brought their attention back to the front of the room where I led a debrief and discussion of the answers they had come up with in their small groups.

 

Value added?  What students gain from this activity—critical thinking skills and reflection on their role as citizens

I’ve not the space here to analyze all of the findings from this activity, however, I have noticed two dominant themes in the reflective pieces.  The first of these, the development of critical thinking skills, was indeed and aim of the activity (phew, it worked). I had several  students note how before the activity they ‘hated’ the very idea of direct democracy (yes, they used the word ‘hate’!).  They  noted that while their overall assessment of the value of direct democracy had not changed, their reaction to it was less an emotional reaction or based purely on what they had memorized from a reading, but rather their ability to think through and defend their position rationally, using examples.  This was evidenced in the learning logs with students offering detailed explanations (drawing on the scenario) to explain the strengths and weaknesses of direct democracy.  What excited me most, however, is that several noted that the activity forced them to reconsider preconceived ideas of what they had learned in the textbook and in other classes.  One student noted how it made them realize they should not take anything they read in a textbook at face value.  Another reflection that I found quite striking in this regard was a student who noted that

                ‘it helped me understand the evolution of my own beliefs’

The other, more unexpected,  thing I heard had to do with students reflecting on their own personal political stance and role as a citizen (Canadian or global).  Several students noted how this activity made them realize how often they ‘take Canadian democracy for granted’.  One student noted that they certainly valued Canadian democracy, but weren’t sure why and were now really trying to think this through.  Others noted that it made them think twice about the ‘superiority’ they felt regarding their own system in comparison to others. In this vein, it was questioned how democratic we really were (how much does the representative form of government really give them ‘power’ within our system).

Some also reflected on what the activity meant for them in terms of their actions as citizens outside the classroom walls, with one student noting ‘

‘A core idea that I really took away from this week was that there is really no space for political absolutism in this world. In order to make changes and better the world, we have to understand the value of adaptability and diversity’

 

Things that need fixing: making it more accessible to non-Canadian students

Looking back I now see that this activity allowed fuller participation of my Canadian students, and that (my not insignificant) proportion of international students perhaps did not feel that they could participate at the same level as they lacked a basic understanding of Canadian political-culture, environmental issues and regional issues (which came up very strongly in the final debrief).  I do like the element of ‘grounding’ simulations with real case studies for obvious reasons.  Though, I also use fictional case studies in other simulations—in an attempt to allow students to all be on a level playing field—everyone has the same level of information/background knowledge.  The downside to this, I’ve found, is that students often become obsessed with trying to figure out what country I’ve based the scenario on, which detracts from the task at hand.  So, in the future, I think I will give a short reading ahead of time for the students to complete before coming to class that grounds everyone in the case study to a better degree so that everyone feels more capable of engaging.  This means sacrificing some of the ‘topic’ reading for case study reading.

 

*A note on research ethics: students were able to opt out of this research project and the content of their written reflections has not been used for the study.