Category Archives: assessments

But I HATE Group Work Part II: What to do about free-riding

Following on from my last post about student aversion to group work and how to get them off to a good start by being more deliberate about group formation, this post will explore what I (anecdotally) assume is the reason why most students avoid and dislike this mode of working—those pesky free-riders.

There is, perhaps not unsurprisingly, quite a lot of published material on this—and not just in the general organizational-behavior/social-psychology/economics literature, but specifically as it relates to group projects in university classrooms.  I won’t do an extensive literature review here of what I’ve now read on the topic, but this literature does contain some really interesting things for us to consider.  Several articles offer great insight into specific strategies for dealing with free-riding (for a good list of strategies and other resources see Martin, 2009).  For example, El Massah’s (2018) article focuses on the use of technology/mobile applications in facilitating and monitoring fair group work, whilst Swarary (2012) reflects on how to design projects that are built to reduce free-riding.

Renee Monson (2019) asks the provocative question of ‘Do they have to like it to learn from it?’.  My gut reaction to this question was an admittedly adamant ‘No of course not!!’. In the same way my parents likely justified forcing me to eat all manner of healthy foods as a child, I initially thought ‘I don’t care if you like it or not, it’s good for you!!’.  Ignoring my knee jerk reaction and with a bit of trepidation that I wouldn’t like what I was about to read, I pressed forward.  The author’s findings were in fact mixed and should cause us all to more carefully consider our use of group work, if our goals are indeed to improve student learning.

‘The answer to the question, “Do students have to like small-group pedagogy in order to learn from it?” is both no and yes. Individual students who reported more negative experiences with the group project were not more likely to earn lower grades on their final papers … However, groups whose members reported more negative overall average experiences were more likely to earn lower grades on the research project …and (as noted above) an individual student’s grade on the final paper was influenced by the group’s grade on the project. In sum, students’ negative experiences indirectly affected their individual learning’  (Monson, 2019: 130)

Also concerning are some of the findings from another study (Davies, 2009) that linked debates around free-riding to a related phenomenon known as the ‘sucker effect’.  This effect sees good students actually reducing their energy/efforts and related outputs when concerns about free-riding emerge.  In other words, students don’t want to look like a ‘sucker’ – working  hard, only to allow the free-riders to get the same grade as them.  This potential effect of group work should concern us all and requires us to think carefully about group formation, project design and grading practices, if we really care about our learning objectives being furthered by group work.


Relationships vs Policing

At this point, I’ll admit—I’m no expert—unlike the authors of the above articles, I’ve not looked at things methodically, in a systematic way.  What I explore below is how I’ve tried to address the problem of free-riding over the last ten years or so from my personal experiences of trial and error.  And, since dealing with free-riding is a huge  issue and there are dozens of directions one could go in terms of self-reflection and strategies one could use, I’ve decided to focus quite narrowly on one general tactic I’ve adopted.

Overall, my approach to dealing with potential free riding is relational, as opposed to one of policing.  I have neither the time nor motivation to try and over-police individual contributions (though stay tuned for a future blog post on grading for a couple small interventions I’ve instigated in this regard).  I also do firmly believe that students need to learn to work through inter-personal dynamics in group settings.  So whilst I am cognizant of issues of equity, and also now concerned about some of the impacts on student learning from the studies noted above, I genuinely feel that part of guiding students through group work is teaching them how to navigate the realities of professional settings (whether they be in the academy or beyond).  I do this not because I feel it is my job to provide career training—but because we are training junior scholars and part of being a *political scientist* [insert your discipline here] is working on collaborative projects, be they research, teaching or administrative.  Group work is a way of teaching our students the realities of the discipline; it can teach them disciplinary knowledges and practices.

So what is this ‘relational approach’?  First I work on creating a culture where students feel they can be honest and open with me about concerns regarding free-riding.  In the syllabus and through regular in class check-ins, I try to make it clear to students that I do care about equity and that I am happy to talk through solutions to free-riding with them.  Of course, some students don’t raise these until the very end of class in their end-of-term reflections on group work.  But when students do come to me during the term, or even after, I try to engage them with one or more of the following types of questions


Why might this colleague be engaging in what you perceive to be free riding behavior? 

Asking this question aligns with parts of Hall and Buzwell’s (2013) piece which asks us to challenge beliefs/discourses that free-riding students are simply bad/lazy individuals who are strategically manipulating group-work situations and the concomitant solution that these students therefore need to be monitored, controlled and/or punished.  They note how a range of factors can lead to what we and other students might define as free-riding, including but not limited to feelings of inadequacy from a scholarly skills perspective, or a lack of confidence in participating from English Language Learners.

Whilst not wanting my students to make guesses or assumptions about personal circumstances of their peers, what I do want to encourage is both empathy and self-reflection in how they are labeling the behaviors of others.  Are they taking time to notice cues that their colleagues are struggling academically or personally?  Can they recognize that by reflecting on the situation of others, there are lessons to learn about effective, emphatic leadership?  How does reflecting on the above lead to leadership/peer to peer learning opportunities that will also foster deeper learning of content and professional skills?

In having this discussion with students who are concerned about free riding group members, I suppose what I’m fundamentally trying to get them to recognize is this: You are not being a sucker.  You are being a good person and a good scholar.


What professional/viable options are available for you to deal with the situation? What are your next steps?

Of course, even if being reflective and empathetic about group members’ participation, I do not expect students to just turn a blind eye to unequal work distribution and supposed free riding.  But, I also don’t feel it is my role to police things or intervene unless things have become totally out of control and one or more of the group members is just clearly taking advantage of the situation. I have to say that in my ten years of teaching and probably a couple hundred  group projects, I’ve probably only seen truly terrible situations that required my intervention about half-a-dozen times.

Thus, when students come to me with concerns about potential free riders during the semester I try to ask them a series of questions that eventually leads them to come up with their own solutions to the  problem. These questions will depend on the specific context/situation of the assignment/class.

In relation to students who don’t come to me early enough in the semester (or at all) to talk to me about free-riding concerns,  I also pose the following question  in the final end of term (individual) reflection assignment: ‘If you did not feel group work was fair—what did YOU do to try and improve the situation’.  My goal in both of these scenarios is to help students develop more self-efficacy, professional responsibility, and a stronger sense of agency.  One thing I have thought about doing is having students do this kind of reflection part way through a project to try and be more pro-active rather than re-active to concerns over free-riding and to create more opportunities for students to try and resolve the situations on their own earlier and in the project cycle.

I of course always ask if there is anything they would like me to do.  I would estimate that 95% of the time students do not want me to intervene.  Being heard and helping them strategize regarding what they can do is often what they want or need.


Why does free riding bother you so much?  In this instance what is your most pressing concern?

At times, I’ve  had students for whom the problem of free-riding is more than just a mild inconvenience or a pet peeve that they know they will sometimes have to manage/work to overcome.  I’ve had several students in my office in or near tears over the situation and some who have even used strong words such as ‘being traumatized’ over group work.

I’ve no patience for colleagues who are now rolling their eyes or thinking ‘snowflakes!’  We do not know what is going on with our students and what we might perceive to be an over-reaction to group dynamics could be masking something else.  On several occasions, more general issues related to a student’s health issues (both physical and mental) have been uncovered through my discussions with them.  Serious anxiety about group work can often be concealing something that students need or want to talk about, and only through careful conversations does this come through and allow me to connect them to proper supports.  I have also had students talk about feeling discriminated against in previous group projects because of their political opinions or identity.

Of course, on occasion, serious and legitimate concerns about grades come into play, and again, I can have discussions about this with students and advise them to come see me once grades are in if there are still concerns. These concerns have sometimes been linked to needing to maintain a certain average to secure an ongoing financial scholarship.  Not something to be brushed aside.

Yet in other cases what is really bothering students is not an actual concern about unequal distribution of tangible work load or the quality of other students’ work.  Through my discussions with some students, it is often revealed that their colleagues are actually putting in a decent amount of work and producing quality outputs.  Instead, what I have sometimes uncovered is that a student’s frustration actually stems from a sense that their colleagues don’t seem to care as much about the topic or project as they do.  This has come through in cases where students either begin the project with, or over time develop a very deep and often very personal connection with the subject matter or case.  What is actually bothering them is a sense that their colleagues are treating things simply as an assignment as opposed to an important issue of peace, social justice, human rights etc.

Again, in these conversations, I’m able to talk through this with students, explore things such as the concept of compassion fatigue, what we know about political will and how/why some issues make it onto political agendas or become a dominant issue in the public consciousness (or not).   I would say that these conversations have been the most unexpected and transformative for me.  The first time I finally was able to trace back that is was this factor  that was bothering some of my students,  my own opinions around ‘complaining students’ and the hatred of group work were really transformed.


Of course, even having gone through all of the above with students, some students remain adamant that free-riding is a serious problem, that there are no viable solutions to free-riding, and that profs should simply not assign group work.  And trust me, in the few times that I’ve had group work go terribly wrong, I’ve been tempted towards this opinion myself. Having to intervene when you yourself see group dynamics going astray (I often have check ins with student groups that allows me to get a sense of this myself—without student’s raising the alarm at all!) or when a student raises serious concerns is not easy.  It can create a lot of stress and extra work. Things can quickly deteriorate with individuals blaming each other, and ganging up or one person in the group.  Sometimes it is impossible to recover the situation, and the chances of a good group dynamic and project completely disappear.  So yes, sometimes (very rarely in my opinion), things will just go terribly wrong and require much more serious interventions than what I’ve described above– but from each of these occasions I’ve also learned and have created much more successful group projects overall.  I am hoping that this series of blog posts will help others do the same.



Works Cited

Davies, WM (2009) ‘Groupwork as a form of assessment:  Common problems and recommended solutions’ Higher Education, 58(4), 563-584.

El Massah, SS (2018) ‘Addressing free riders in collaborative group work: The use of mobile application in higher education’ International Journal of Higher Education Managementi, 32(7), 1223-1244.

Hall, D and Buzwell, S (2013) ‘The problem of free-riding in group projects: Looking beyond social loafing as reason for non-contribution’ Active Learning in Higher Education 14(1): 37-49.

Monson, RA (2019) ‘Do They have to Like It to Learn from It:  Students’ Experiences, Group Dynamics and Learning Outcomes in Group Research Projects’ Teaching Sociology 47(2), 116-134.

Swaray, R (2012) ‘An evaluation of a group project designed to reduce free-riding and promote active learning’  Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 37(3), 285-292.








But I HATE Group Work Part I: Getting group formation right

In the next series of posts, I’m going to tackle something that is close to my heart– as I recently finished grading 100+ individual assignments that reflected on group projects across two of my upper year courses.

I am struck by the number of reflections that start off with or contain the phrase something along the lines of ‘I normally hate group work, having had a number bad experiences in the past…’.  If I had to estimate, I’d say at least 80% of student reflections contained something along these lines.  And, by the way, whether or not they like group work is definitely not part of the prompt they are given to guide their reflections!

I find this somewhat alarming for a few reasons. One of these is student well-being. The number of students who follow up their ‘I hate group work’ statement with some kind of reference to how much stress it causes them is concerning.  Second, most (well designed) group projects are meant to improve student learning, both in terms of content and  the development of professional skills such as leadership and team-work.  That these learning outcomes are either not being achieved or recognized by students is something we should reflect on.

Finally, given the topics I currently teach (Conflict Negotiation, Peacebuilding, Human Rights Advocacy) I’m concerned that students’ initial and sometimes sustained reaction to group work is so negative.  Whilst of course they are there to learn content, which can be learned individually,  many of them aspire to work in these or related fields.  No jobs in these areas allow for purely individualized work.  None of the global issues about which they are learning  will ever be solved without extensive cooperation between individuals and institutions.  Indeed the following line appears in one of my syllabi in a prominent place:

 “One last note on group work:  this is a course on peacebuilding and conflict resolution”

I even make a note of reading this line out loud to the class on the first day, followed by a dramatic pause and a stern look towards the audience.  This often elicits a few awkward giggles, and several students have noted to me how this was actually really important for them to hear—how they were actually considering dropping the course when they saw it had group work, but this convinced them to stay.

Yet, the ‘I hate group work’ refrain persists.

In this first of post four posts on group work, I’ll explore some options on how to formulate groups in the first place– to try and ensure not only a better start, but a more productive experience for students (and therefore also a less stressful experience for instructors).  In my next three posts I’ll offer some further thoughts and advice on designing and delivering group work on issues that come up frequently in discussions with students and colleagues:  what to do about free-riding; preventing the ‘divide and conquer’ mentality; and some of my thoughts on grading and assessment.

Below I will describe the following options for group formation, and briefly reflect on my own thoughts about their strengths and weaknesses: a) Student Choice/No Instructor Input b) Student Interest c) Mixed Ability/Skills/Diversity d) Random Allotment

I should note that I don’t think there is one right way to ‘do’ group formation. I have used all of these in some way with varying degrees of success and failure.  For me, making a choice depends on the number/type/attitude of students I have in the room, the reason for choosing group work and my current workload.  What follows is simply a list of things to think about and consider regardless of which approach you choose.

Student Choice/No instructor input: This first options is probably most familiar to all of us.  How many times have we, either for informal class discussions or even for formal group assignments just told students to ‘get into a group and do xyz’.  Simple, straightforward—let your students make their own decisions with little to no direction.

Strengths/Reasons to choose this option:  This does allow students to have greater ownership over the process.  It can increase their sense of agency and with a bit of instruction (ie giving them advice on WHAT to consider when forming groups), it can work very well.  Also, our students are adults and so many people feel that on these grounds alone they should have the freedom to make their own choices as it pertains to their learning, and indeed that there are lessons for students to be learned in terms of making their own  academic/professional decisions. To be honest it can also prevent, if things go pear shaped, them being able to ‘blame’ the professor–ie ‘If you hadn’t put me in such a crummy group or made me work with this student, I wouldn’t be in this mess’…

Limitations/ Reasons not to choose this:  This system can also be exclusionary.  Perpetual nerds with no natural athletic abilities like me will remain scarred for life after a childhood full of being picked last for gym-class baseball, soccer, volley-ball  teams.  OK, I’m being melodramatic and I actually didn’t care.  I learned to love/own my bookishness at a very young age. But I digress.  In a classroom setting as people rush to get into groups based on either already existing professional/friendship groups or based on who they think are the ‘smart kids’ they want to work with—various groups of students will be excluded.  These include but are not limited to exchange students, transfer students, students who because of caring/work/chronic health conditions have not been able to be on campus as much/foster friendships within their programs, student who have struggled on a previous assignment for reasons out of their control and are thus deemed unreliable/unintelligent.  The list could go on.

I’m not saying student choice is NEVER an option to consider, and often times there are one or two super empathetic students who are actually on the look out for this and address exclusion without being asked. But, we can’t rely on these students always being present or fully aware of the exclusions happening in the room.  For this reason, I think there are things we should consider and steps we might want to take if utilizing this strategy  to prevent forms of exclusion in our classrooms.

Student Interest:  With this method  students are asked about their interests (for example in terms of project type if there are different projects to choose from or case study/thematic area of interest…).  Student groups are then created based along these interests/preferences.  In small classes this can be easily managed by having students email you.  In larger classes a google form or other survey tool might make it more manageable.  I usually ask students to tell me their top 2-3 interests in case certain a project/case study fills up faster than others.

Strengths/Reasons to choose this option:  SPOILER ALERT: This is my favorite method to use for assessed group work. I really like this method, first of all because it creates student ownership over the process and therefor has many of the benefits seen in the ‘Student Choice/No Instructor Input’ option noted above.  Related to this, students come to the group all knowing that their colleagues also have a shared interest in the topic/project.  It can immediately reduce some of the anxiety around free riding (which I’ll blog about in a future post).  There is also an automatic ice breaker built into this model as once students get into groups one of the first things you can have them do  is discuss why they listed this as their preference. Shared interests and these personal narratives can also lead to quite strong professional-personal friendships—which I’d like to add, I’m actually quite shocked at the number of students who in their final reflections make note of this.  Related to this, and this is a whole other set of posts, I am shocked at how many of my 3rd and 4th years students also say they have not made many strong friendships within their classes.  Concerning, but I digress.

Limitations/ Reasons not to choose this:  It can be a lot of work in a large class as you try and ensure everyone gets their top choices.  If you ask students for their top choice(s) there will definitely be an expectation (rightly or wrongly) on their end that they will then get one of these choices.  In cases where certain projects or cases prove popular this can be very difficult.  You either have a massive jigsaw puzzle on your hands trying to get it all to work out—this  can be VERY time consuming if you take everyone’s preferences in at the same time.  Or, if you do like I generally do and go with a first-come-first-serve approach (ie first to get their preferences in get first dibs), popular choices fill up fast and then students who are late to the game  are disappointed.  In some cases (but not always) the last options to fill up (whatever is left) are not full of entirely committed students, and the benefits noted above are lost.

Mixed Ability/Skills/Diversity    This is admittedly a system I have never tried, but have spoken to colleagues who’ve had great success with this method.  One colleague has students self-assess their skills in different areas related to group work (research, writing, organization/leadership etc) and then tries to formulate groups that have a good mix of skills sets.  Other colleagues who teach in classes where there is a real mix of students for example, in different years of study, will try and create groups where there is a mix of students from different years and/or programs.   In classes where there is a diversity in terms of international v domestic students and/or nationalities, colleagues might try and create mixed groups in terms of nationalities/background of students.

Strengths/Reasons to choose this option:  Diverse groups are often strong groups—with multiple skill sets and perspectives coming together to create dynamic/well rounded teams.  If done well/right, this method can increase the likelihood that each person feels that they have a unique role to play, whilst other team members model/mentor other skills sets or positions.  A diversity in perspectives can also encourage greater critical thinking and can increase the likelihood of an output that has balance, innovation and/or considers a range of counter-arguments.

Limitations/ Reasons not to choose this:  As with the previous model (Student Interest) this can be a lot of work as you either have to conduct a skill survey, or trawl through the class list trying to make decisions based on available data about year/program etc.  Students might also not like not having any choice in who they work with which can limit their sense of agency.  Further, if a student has self-assessed as ‘strong in XYZ’ and then is actually not strong in XYZ, it can somewhat defeat the purpose.  Students might also develop a ‘divide and conquer’ mentality—deciding to divvy up the work based on what THEY are good at or their perceived role in the group, leading to less than ideal learning outcomes and threatening the coherence of the project/task.  I’ll blog about this problem in a future post

Random Allotment: With this strategy the professor simply creates groups using one of several techniques that lead to randomly selected groups.  For example, when creating groups for my simulation of the Good Friday Agreement, I simply assign students Alphabetically (Last names A-D will play the role of the British Government, E-G the role of the Irish Government and so on and so forth).  I’ve heard other professors (in smaller classes) draw names out of hat, lottery style (for a bit of drama and excitement).

Strengths/Reasons to choose this option:  If done right, this can prevent the issue of exclusion noted above.  Though, see cautionary notes below.  This is also the simplest instructor led process to manage.  I myself use it for ‘low stakes’ types of group work not associated with grades and where diversity of groups/opinion/approach etc doesn’t matter too much.  Other colleagues feel this is a good model as it also replicates the ‘real world’ where you don’t get to choose your colleagues and where who you are working with on a committee/project can indeed be quite random.  In this sense, it can teach students important transferable/professional skills related to leadership, conflict management and team work that they will encounter in their future lives.

Limitations/ Reasons not to choose this: An exception to the ‘this can prevent exclusion’ argument above  (and one of my fears about the lottery style allocation in particular) is if students have a way of voicing (dis)pleasure over the assignment of a particular student to their group. Envision everyone cheering when Popular Student A’s name gets pulled out of the hat and there being zero response to Unknown Student B’s name being pulled.  Even if groups are assigned less publically, the kinds of displeasure that might be signaled by some students that we couldn’t possibly be aware of could be problematic for students already feeling marginalized.  Further, leaving things entirely to chance can lead to real forms of inequity in group work if one group finds itself made up of mainly strong students who breeze through, other groups being of mixed abilities, and some groups possibly made up of primarily struggling students.  In these cases the groups and individuals within them could have vastly different learning experiences (and, grades) that don’t reflect either our aims for the assignments nor each individual student’s true potential.

Student Experiences as Living Content: Auto-Ethnographic Reflection as an Alternative Assignment

At a recent International Studies Association conference, I had the opportunity to speak on a panel entitled ‘Social Justice as Experiential Learning:  Activism and Advocacy in the Classroom’. Although the panel was quite small due to a range of unforeseen circumstances, we benefited from an incredibly engaged audience (and a fairly large one for an end-of-day Friday slot!).  Productive conversations were had about the strengths, limitations, and cautionary tales related to exploring advocacy and activism in academic settings.  I’d like to thank my co-panelists on the day (Dr. Aggie Hirst, currently at King’s College London and Dr. Chris Rossdale, currently at the LSE and soon to start at Bristol University) as well as the dozen or so actively engaged audience members for their input (some of which is included below). They all really pushed me to think through some of my own assumptions and fears about teaching and activism.  Of course, any mistakes or controversies in what I say below are my own, as I reflect on the session weeks later…


A broad range of learning strategies that in some way integrated activism or advocacy into courses were explored. Some were deliberate and were a central feature of a course. For example, in some cases students were required to engage in advocacy/activism as part of their course work as a form of experiential learning on courses related to Human Rights.  In other instances, the class activities were more informal, simply asking students to reflect on things they have participated in/witnessed in their own lives related to activism, social justice etc in order to understand processes, cases or ideas that emerge in class.  For example, some of my co-panelists reflected on how students might be asked to discuss current strike action being undertaken at their university, or reflect on a time where they themselves pushed back against patriarchy (or watched others do so) as a way of really trying to understand the processes/power relations related to labor or gender relations.

Of particular importance were discussions around the reality that there are incredibly diverse political viewpoints within our student cohorts, and the need to respect/not-alienate students whose political opinions and beliefs about ‘activism’ may differ from our own and in some cases from the majority of other students. These issues seemed even more pertinent now than they have been in previous years of teaching with increasing polarization in society and on campuses.  This led to rich discussions surrounding the use of the terms ‘social justice’, ‘advocacy’ and ‘activism’ themselves, which can sometimes be misconstrued and/or misused in both academic and political settings.

The panel and audience explored alternative languages and frames which could be used to describe the types of things we are interested in having our students reflect on that are broader, less politically or ideologically charged, and thus potentially less alienating to students who neither see themselves, nor wish to be labelled as activists or engaged in social justice.  These alternatives terms included having students reflect on things they might do in their own lives to ‘encourage or work towards policy change’, how they are ‘active in the world’, or even just the reality of their ‘being in the world as members of society or a given community’.   These alternative phrasings have the benefit of allowing students to reflect on their own role in politics (whether big or small, deliberate or not) without faculty or their peers forcing a particular label on them or their experiences.  It also ensures that students who don’t believe their actions to be part of the ‘social justice world’ but still see their energies/opinions going to support political or social change in some way to find a place within discussions, course readings, and assignments and can similarly benefit from experiential learning.

Questions from the audience were raised in terms of how to assess student learning in these circumstances. Several ideas were put forward. I, myself, mentioned an auto-ethnographic assignment I have given to some of my students in the past.  There was interest in this, but alas, not enough time to go into extensive detail, and I promised to blog about it.  So, here we are.


Background & Benefits of Student Driven Auto-ethnographic reflection in a Peace Studies Context

First, I should preface this with the fact that in the course that I used this assignment, one of the weeks of the course examines a range of ‘critical methods’ where students complete a reading on auto-ethnography[1]. In a small seminar format, we discuss/explored the reading in more detail.  Ethnography is of course a specific method that is also sometimes mis-used (abused?) in our disciplines.  It is different from simply ‘observing’ and so care must be taken to also ensure students understand the difference between ethnographic methods/qualitative work generally and Ethnography.  Still, through this assignment, I hope to give students a sense of what auto-ethnography entails, its strengths and limitations and its utility in understanding their own position/actions in the world.

I’d also like to highlight what the students (and I, myself) got out of this assignment.  Student gains have been surmised from informal discussions and also the content of their auto-ethnographic reflections, but I am generalizing to protect their privacy.  First, from the student point of view it really allowed them (often for the first time in their studies) to ground their own experiences, in a formal written manner, in relation to course materials and concepts.   For some of these students, this assignment was a profoundly personal experience, cathartic even, insofar as it was the first time they had been given concrete scholarly tools to reflect on their own experiences of violence, their own activism/resistance, work-abroad, volunteerism and so on.  Not only did this help them learn the course material in a different/deeper/more profound manner, the personal impacts it had in some cases was notable (what one might call ‘the hidden curriculum’). I have also found that auto-ethnographic reflections allow students to be more analytically-critical of course concepts than they might feel able to in a more informal class discussion. As the written assignments are relatively private (only I see them) they feel safer to deconstruct and challenge ideas and literature based on their own lived experiences in the relative safety of this assignment.

From my point of view, I also have learned a great deal by allowing students to reflect on their own experiences.  It has helped me understand my (generally) younger students better. I like to think I’m still a ‘junior’ or early career scholar, but I am told that now that I’m 10 years post PhD I maybe need to reign that in. The issues, hopes and fears of my undergrads is often very far removed from my own and very different from what I remember being important as an undergrad.  It has improved my sense of empathy, but also provided insight into issues and cases that are more relevant to them that I can include in future courses.

Further, on a scholarly level, I’m of course well versed in the facts and dynamics around political opinions and group which are removed from my own interests and beliefs.  However, not infrequently, a student will write something auto-ethnographic about their experiences or political efforts with which I have no personal experiences with (only professional). And here, deep learning also occurs for me as I gain momentary insight into lived subjective experiences regarding a certain topic, as opposed to the more ‘objective’ journal article/book/policy documents from which I would otherwise assemble my knowledge.  I feel that some of these moments make me a better ‘peace scholar’ as it forces me to reflect on my own work and understandings of difference, negotiation, resistance, hybridity, agonism, and on and on.   In other words, allowing students to be producers of knowledge in the form of auto-ethnographic reflections has made my teaching environments more reciprocal.


Things to consider and cautionary notes

I think it also worth noting that if you hope to use this assignment—that there being a relationship of trust and reciprocity between you and your students is essential.  For the benefits above to accrue for either side (student or instructor), there needs to be a mutual understanding regarding the ability to be open and to have one’s privacy and vulnerability respected. At the same time students have to understand what is expected of them—that you are still required to hold them to a scholarly standard and that they may need to accept some criticism of the scholarly aspects of what is otherwise a very personal piece. To help achieve this,  I ‘modelled’ the auto-ethnographic approach by telling very personal stories regarding my doctoral research in Kosovo with my students, which I think was essential in helping them understand what auto-ethnography might look like.  Whilst talking about my research experiences, I linked it to debates from the reading and seminar discussion on critical methods.

The vulnerability I showed in this exercise also, I believe, allowed student to trust me more in terms of sharing their own stories.  This assignment also came at the end of term.  I’m not sure this assignment would work in a larger class setting or in any setting where I was unable to develop a good/trusting relationship with the class. I feel very fortunate to have created an environment in which (some) students feel comfortable exploring a wide range of ideas and beliefs with me in their assignments, and from these students I have learned a great deal about the more personal narratives of political beliefs and organizations of which I have limited personal and only professional knowledge.   I recognize that perhaps not all students feel this same sense of security of course, and can endeavor to do more.

Two further cautionary notes in relation to this assignments.  First, I am a firm believe that this type of assignment should be optional— for a variety of reasons, I believe students should, not be forced to explore their own lived experiences from outside of the classroom in writing with an instructor. In my courses, the auto-ethnographic reflection assignment has always been an option (in place of something more traditional like a term paper or case study portfolio). This relates to the second cautionary note regarding the emotional or psychological impact of this assignment type.  I encourage all students who plan to undertake this assignment to meet with me ahead of time so I can discuss this assignment with them and consider what (if any) supports they might need during and after the assignment is completed.

Marking this assignment also requires special care, not only in terms of it meeting the required ‘academic’ rubric—but also in terms of us as instructors providing feedback that is both academically rigorous whilst at the same time is supportive and empathetic to the students’ experiences.  My feedback on this type of assignment often requires more time as I have to not only explore the academic merits of the piece with the student (as a scholar), but also respond (as a human) to some of the quite personal reflections that do tend to come up in this assignment type.  It is not a type of feedback that can be rushed, nor is it formulaic as it can tend to be with other assignment types.  One should consider this in their assigning of similar assignments—the impact on our work load, both in terms of time and emotional labor is considerable.

What I give to students

Option ‘X’ Auto-Ethnography

For this assignment students will write a 3000 word piece which uses their own personal experiences as ‘data’ for exploring a course theme/topic.  Students may write about their own experiences living in community impacted by conflict, their own experiences in trying to build peace as an aid worker/volunteer/citizen or their own experience as a member of a resistance group/community.  If there is another personal experience that you believe relates to the course themes, please discuss this with Jen before beginning this assignment.

The assignment should not simply be a 3000 word description of your experiences.  You should consult the literature on auto-ethnography and read through a couple of examples of auto-ethnography to get a sense of what is expected of you.  You will need to connect your experiences to the course in some way (and thus some of the wider peace studies literature). Do your experiences provide illustrative examples of the peace studies literature?  Do your experiences challenge or require us to ‘re-think’ some of the peace studies literature?  Do your experiences suggest that new ways of thinking/categorizations/conceptualizations are required to help us understand what ‘peace is’ and ‘how we build it?’.  These are some of the questions you may want to think through as you consider how you will link your ‘data’ to the course.  This should also be a structured piece of work with an introduction, conclusion, and references.

If your narrative includes descriptions of other individuals, please be sure to anonymize these people in the text.  If you share any personal details of people who it would be difficult to anonymize (perhaps a family member), please be sure to get their permission to include them in the text.

[1] Reitan, RH (2015) ‘Paradoxical Peace: A Scholar-activist’s Auto-ethnography on Religious Pacifism and Anti-capitalism’ Globalizations, 12(1): 25-42.


A tale of trusting others and taking a risk: Jen vs the Technology Based Assignment

As part of my attempt to shift my assignments to a more project based learning approach and increase student choice I created an assignment that, quite frankly, kept me up at night.  Although several of the other assignment choices used in my 2018 POLI 370 (Peacebuilding) course were new to me and thus also experimental, they only involved 4-5 students each.  Thus, if things had gone wrong with any of these assignments, I would have a small number of unhappy students who might therefore leave the course with a diminished learning experience.   This assignment, however, would be undertaken by over a third of the class and thus if things did not go to plan I would have over 30 students miffed at me and unlikely to have learned the important lessons I hoped they would acquire from this project.

Beyond the number of students that could be impacted, why was this particular assignment causing me a disproportionate amount of anxiety?  One word.  Technology.  I hate it.  I am not good at it.  It is my Achilles Heel. I am ‘That Prof’ who considers it a huge success if I can get my PowerPoint slides up and running at the beginning of a lecture without help from a TA or student.  If I can properly embed and then get a video to play within my PowerPoint slides, instead of having to close-file-open-browser-play-video-switch-back-to-PowerPoint, I do a little dance (in my head) and look around the room to see if anyone else is impressed with my technological prowess. Below I describe, what I did, the reasons it was successful and how it has impacted my thoughts about technology in the classroom moving forward.


What I did:  The Peace Database (Begins! And Continues!)

One of my aims in many of my upper year courses is to try and get my students to see themselves as producers of knowledge, not just consumers.  At the same time, whilst there are many examples of databases and resources on conflict, war and violence, notably fewer are more squarely focused on ‘peace’ (with some notable exceptions of course).  Putting these two together, I decided to have my students begin to create a Peace Processes and Policies Database (okay, not the most creative of names, but as noted, I had other issues keeping me up at night).  In groups of 2-3 students had to work to create an interactive timeline using ‘timeline js’ of a given conflict and peace process as well as create and embed (electronically) a series of analytical pieces and resources that form part of the qualitative, comparative database.

The goal was to create something both technologically and visually appealing, that would also be useful to peace researchers wanting to engage in comparative analysis between cases of peace negotiations or wanting to go more in depth on a single case.

Below is a screenshot of one of the cases covered last year (note the site is still under construction and I’ll release the database this spring). This coming semester, I will be adding to the Peace Database by having student groups work on a different policy area—Security Sector Reform.  I will be following a similar model—with student engaging analysis of the policy area in ways that allow for comparison.  Since timelines for the countries are already in place from last year’s students, students will instead be thinking spatially alongside their database entries, creating a visual story of this policy area alongside their written analysis.  To do this, student will be working with ‘Story Map js’  to show, geographically where troop/rebels were positioned whilst also marking out the relevant sites where SSR programming occurred.


All along the ways I received incredible support from my university in the form of one-on-one support from UBC’s ArtsISIT unit.  Here is a list of all of the big things their staff did for me (I’ve lost track of the little things)

  • Created the site based on my vision and specifications
  • Embed editing access into my course website so student groups could populate their entries
  • Create a step by step instruction sheet for students
  • Run a training session for students in my lecture
  • One-to-one trouble shooting for me and individual students when problems arose (particularly around the due date!)

The project was only possible and a success because of the infrastructure and people around me at UBC.  Thanks to them, I believe the project was a huge success. Students’ individual reflective writing at the end of term demonstrated not only how the project deepened their knowledge of concepts and cases of formal peace talks, but were also full of wonderful examples of self-reflection on personal and professional growth.  Nonetheless, there were some assumptions made that made the project run not so smoothly.


Faulty assumptions about young people’s technological fluency

So why do this to myself? Beyond wanting to address my own personal phobias of technology and become more adept at integrating technology in the classroom (because, well, 2018), I have had much informal feedback from my Arts students over the years lamenting at their own discomfort with technology.  I (along with many of my colleagues) have come to realize that we are making faulty assumptions about many of our students’ technological fluency, and I believe in a small way, this project helped address this.

Whilst it is unlikely that students will ever use the two programs they used to populate this database, what I did hear from students in their final reflections was that the project gave them confidence in trying out new technologies more generally.  There was a de-mystification of technology to be sure—several students had initially thought that I would be asking them to do coding in order to create the database. Realizing that they can use and create technological deliverables without such skills was a major win in these cases.

Do as I say, not as I do

Admittedly, I was useless when it came to helping students trouble shoot the technological side of the project.  There is zero chance this assignment would have worked without the support I mentioned above. When the troubles with timelines and lost text (inevitably) occurred—well if I had been on my own, I would have just told my students to submit everything they had in a Word document or something else terribly old-fashioned.  That would have been the extent of my trouble shooting.  I also did not attempt to build a timeline or enter text as my students were doing.  Not only did this limit my ability to help them with their assignments, but also meant that the whole process did very little to help me overcome my fear of technology.

Recasting Technology in the Classroom:  Students as producers as opposed to only users

What this experiment in assessment has really done for me is shifted how I think about ‘technology in the classroom’.  I feel as though most of my thinking and exposure to this area has focused what technology I as an instructor integrated into my classes in order to teach my students more effectively.  However, what this project reminded me is that integrating technology into the classroom is not just about how we as instructors use technology to teach our material better.  Whilst developing experience with augmented or virtual reality, classroom response systems such as IClicker or TopHat is one area of technological learning innovation that we rightly engage in to ensure student learning, it is only one side of the coin.

Mastery of a new technology on the instructor side is only one option. Technological innovation in the classroom can, and in my opinion should, include providing our own students with the opportunity to learn and master new technological skills. My above reflections on assumptions about student fluency with technology have really driven me to continue making this database assignment a core feature of the course moving forward.

Of course, I am not suggesting we turn our Arts courses into IT training sessions and I too am resistant to pressures that seek to turn our courses into a series of ‘employability targets’ that require us to tick ‘professional skills development’ boxes.  However, if we think about how we read, write, talk, argue, research, analyze, disseminate findings as *insert your disciplinary identity here* so much of this requires mastery of a range of new and emerging technologies.  If our goal is to not only teach our students the content of our discipline but also the practices of our discipline, then we have much work to do and a range of possibilities available to us that allow our students to learn content through and alongside, the development of technological skills.

Alternative Assessment: ‘Publish with your Prof’—Undergraduate Version OR The making of ‘Shifts in public discourses towards the use of violence and war: A comparative exploration of the impact of aesthetic encounters’ by Kieran Davey, Mir Muhtadi Faiaz, Chrisanne Kouzas, Yahe Li, Jenny H Peterson

Most of us are familiar with the idea of publishing academic pieces with our graduate students.  Although it varies by discipline and academic culture (my totally anecdotal findings are that this is a much more common practice in North America than the United Kingdom, for example), it is not uncommon for us to work with and eventually publish with research students under our supervision.

Let’s spend a few moments thinking about why this is common practice (admittedly this is an incomplete list).

  1. It provides much needed professional development for our graduate students. If one thinks about this relationship as a form of apprenticeship, publishing with students is one way that we train/prepare them for professional academic life. More concretely, mentoring them through joint publications leads to solid lines on their CVs, providing them with the type of experience that is most valued in our profession.
  2. The increased motivation and accountability that comes from working collaboratively: For both the students and for us, working together on something can push us forward in terms of productivity as one feels more accountable to meeting deadlines and is (perhaps/ideally) less likely to procrastinate. In the right circumstances collaboration can have tangible impacts on our productivity, and that of our students.
  3. Related to the above, there are the less tangible but no less important intellectual rewards of collaboration. Working with others can infuse our own research with new ideas, literature and methods that we might not have considered if working alone.  When working with our younger colleagues, this can be particularly rejuvenating.

At this juncture, I will make a personal admission.  Whilst working on the ‘teaching tenure-track’ here at UBC is incredibly rewarding in many ways, I do miss working with graduate students and all the benefits noted above that come with this.  I miss mentoring and encouraging these emerging scholars. More selfishly, I miss how much working with grad students invigorated my own research and teaching agendas. It is the one major ‘gap’ I feel I have in my current career. It is upon reflecting on all of this, that I decided to see if the same benefits (for all parties) could hold true when publishing with UNDERGRADUATE students.  Can I both provide and receive the above benefits, working with our most junior of colleagues?


Description of Project and Recruitment

I (stubbornly) pre-determined that the answer to the above was ‘yes’ and set about introducing a new assignment in my POLI 370 course called ‘Publish With Your Prof’.  Interested students were invited to write a short personal statement as to why they wanted to take part in this project– there was a choice of 8 projects to choose from for their final assignment.  I had initially thought I would work with just 3 students, but after  higher than expected interest (I had close to 30 students apply!) I selected 5 students to work with me.  Their personal statements were all quite different.  Some had done research on non-violence and aesthetics (the broad theme for the paper that I had already decided upon) to show their intellectual interest and personal initiative in regards to informing themselves of topic. Others spoke in much more personal terms, reflecting on their own individual experiences with either non-violence or aesthetics.  There was no magic formula for getting selected. I did not ask for academic writing samples. What I was looking for was students who seemed highly motivated for either professional or personal reasons to work on the topic and presented this in a detailed way.  I also tried to select a range of students in this regard, believing that diversity of interests, motivations and backgrounds would make for a more enriching experience.

I wanted to be able to give students the full experience of working on a paper—from initial idea to final product. Therefore, the assignment description was quite vague and the students I worked with didn’t just slot in to a pre-prepared project/help me finish something I had already started. Although I gave them a broad theme/approach (aesthetics, images, nonviolence/pacifism), the arguments/approach, cases, methods etc all stemmed from our discussions as a group.  At the end of this blog post I provide  a fuller description of the project that was supplied to the students (including details on grading).


What Worked

In terms of the third benefit listed above (intangible intellectual benefits), the project was a complete success.  The paper I had envisioned in my own head when I created the assignment did NOT materialize.  Instead, my students took the paper in a related but slightly different, more innovative direction.  Their enthusiasm, discussion, personal interests all led to the creation of an argument and approach that I would have never reached on my own.  The case studies they selected, though I was familiar with some of them, were not cases I would have been drawn to or have necessarily uncovered on my own.  I’m now left with such rich teaching materials (both in terms of content and illustrative examples) for any presentations or classes I teach on aesthetics and/or visual politics.

From the students’ perspective- and here I am just noting the learning I myself witnessed as I don’t have permission to quote their reflective writing assignments where they discussed what they learned from the project—I also saw some amazing moments related to the first benefit (academic apprenticeship).  In a short period of time I saw my undergraduates learn important lessons that I feel have been central in teaching them the difference between consuming and producing knowledge—what it means do innovative academic research (beyond the traditional literature review/argumentative style essay that we generally assign).

A key moment related to this occurred when several students noted to me (with varying degrees of stress) that ‘they couldn’t find any sources that analyzed the image they had selected using the two analytical lenses we had decided to use (aesthetics and counter-power)’. In some cases there was almost no academic literature at all on their selected photo, yet alone any using the aforementioned frames. What were they to do?  Should they find new cases?  This was a seminal moment in teaching them about the concept of ‘contribution to knowledge’—that dreaded term that scared the bejesus out of my younger-grad-school self and my PhD cohort.  I now found myself explaining and de-mystifying this term to my undergraduate students—noting that the lack of literature was actually a good thing, that what they had done was found that elusive ‘gap in the literature’, and that now they were going to fill that gap with their own analysis.    This was a clear and, I think, really effective learning moment for this students in regard to experiencing something so central to academic success.  Related to this, I feel there was a fear of speaking in an authoritative voice about ‘new findings’ (something I still struggle with myself of course). However, what I saw in their final submissions revealed great steps in overcoming this important barrier as well.


What Didn’t Work

Very early on in my academic career a wise mentor warned me about collaborative projects with a refrain that I am sure is familiar to all of us: “Collaborations only go as fast as the slowest contributor”. I have (painfully) experienced this a couple of times.  And, well folks, I’m ashamed to say that on this particular project, that slowest contributor was me.  On this front I really feel like I let my students down. I was managing 8 projects for this class and also teaching another intro level class in another unit. I overestimated how involved I could be in many stages of the project. I let the excitement of the project overtake my rational faculties. I know that the students likely felt a bit let down by this (though they never let on), but they probably didn’t feel as frustrated about this as I did.

Even though I am proud of them and happy with the nearly finished paper, I wanted to work more closely with them. Although I wanted them to work independently, I didn’t have the same time for the intellectual back and forths that I have had on some of my other collaborative projects.  Further, my responsibility was to fine tune the literature review, edit their sections, and write up the findings. We had decided on the framework together and discussed comparative findings during the semester, so this was more of a drafting rather than any intellectual heavy lifting on my part.  However, I of course did not have time to do this during the term (April). I had hoped to get it done by the end of June, but life got in the way and now I’m aiming for August.    This is of course ‘normal’ slippage in our world (2 months late you say!  Ha, that’s nothing!), but I can’t help but feel it is less than ideal for my students who have had to wait to see the final product when I was rather (and necessarily) insistent on them getting their parts in on time!

Finally, and as noted earlier, demand to participate in this project outstripped supply by a factor of 10.  With nearly 30 students applying to work with me on the project, I again feel like I had to let down a lot of good students. I’m now thinking of if/how I could increase opportunities for this, taking into account what I noted above regarding my abysmal performance time wise.  Perhaps if I had fewer projects (not all 8 were successes if I’m honest) and/or got my Graduate TAs involved I could consider expanding this option.


What comes next…

This is definitely an assignment I’ll be using again.  The timing problems were of my own making and now that I know what this assignment entails, I’ll plan better for the next round.  In terms of the paper from this year, I’ve submitted an abstract to my professional association’s annual convention and hopefully will be able to take at least one of the students to present alongside me if it gets accepted. At the time of writing this post, I’m also about 2/3 of the way through the edits to the paper and will hopefully be submitting it for peer review at some point (and even thought the students are no longer in the class, they will be contributing to this process along the way in terms of helping me respond to reviews).  Hopefully, the next ‘academic lesson’ this project teaches them isn’t about the realities of rejection and hopefully they don’t have an encounter with ‘Reviewer-2’ for their first experience of peer review!



Description of project provided to students

Guidelines and Expectations

This project seeks to give students a bit of experience regarding the life-cycle of an academic research project.  Together we will produce a 7000 word paper, and, if all goes well, we will submit it for publication to an academic journal or site. This project is combining two of Dr. Peterson’s current research interests—an interest in discourses surrounding non-violence and pacifism (for which she currently has an article under review), and an interest in aesthetic approaches (for which she recently had an article accepted).  She will email you both of these pieces for your reference/interest.

The aim of the article we will write together is to explore public discourses surrounding peace movements and or pacifism by exploring iconic images of peace movements/figures.  This will be done by engaging in analysis that makes use of theories/concepts coming out of the ‘aesthetic and narrative turn’ in International Relations.  Please note, I am seeing you all as co-authors as opposed to Research Assistants (who simply do the grunt work), so many of the important decisions regarding the article are still to be jointly made!

This will occur in the following steps

  1. Compilation of academic sources that will be of use to the project
  2. Completing a literature review around the topic to help us identify gaps in the literature, potential analytical frameworks and to narrow our research aim and analytical framework further (once we have agreed upon this, Jen will write up this section)
  3. The selection of 5 iconic images for each of you to analyze using the agreed upon analytical framework (to be selected as a team and each student to then write up an 1000 word max analysis of one of the images).
  4. Coming together to write a conclusion, answering the ‘so what?’ question
  5. Producing a final version to be submitted (time depending!)

How will we be graded?

Although this is a group project, Dr. Peterson has decided to give you each individual grades for the assignment.  This will be based on a) the quality of your contributions to discussions about narrowing the question and analytical focus b) the quality of your analysis in the individual analysis on your assigned image c) the quality of your contributions in terms of discussion regarding the conclusion.  By quality I mean the clarity of your writing/ideas and the analytical sophistication of your contributions/use of the literature/theories in all of the above.


Role Reversal: Turning my students into teachers via assignments

Last semester, students in my 4th year Critical Peace Studies seminar worked together to decide on a class project that all 20+ of them could do together. The goals were threefold— a) to integrate/use the critical peace studies literature in an advanced way b) to explore (and potentially critique) the concept of ‘activist scholarship’ that is also prevalent in the field of peace studies through experience, and finally c) to do something that had the potential to build peace locally; to have students challenge,  through experiential learning, binaries that persist in our disciplines (including ‘us v them’ ‘peace v war’ ‘peaceful societies v violent societies’)

After a few guided sessions where we explored a range of potential projects, we democratically decided to pursue the creation of a series of online education modules that could be used by high school teachers to teach students about some of the themes coming out of Critical Peace Studies (minus all the academic jargon).  In other words, the education modules were meant to transform/crystalize the broader lessons from critical peace studies into something accessible for an interested, but general audience of younger students.  The output of these resulted in a student-named and created website that offers the materials free of charge to be used by teachers.  Education modules based on an active learning pedagogical model on the following topics were produced: ‘An Introduction to Peace and Violence’ , the ‘Consequences of Consumerism’ and the ‘Complications of Foreign Aid’.


Image from Consumerism Module, Slide Deck


Image from Consumerism module, Teachers Guide/Table of Contents

Following the success of this in with my 400 level students, I adapted the assignment and included it as one of the ‘project choices’ in my POLI 370 Peacebuilding course last semester.  The course already included a week on Peace Education in the section of the course that addressed different peacebuilding policies—so it was already a good fit.  I had approximately 15 students sign up for this option, which resulted in more active learning based peace education modules (on the themes of ‘Reconciliation in Post Holocaust Germany’, ‘Peace Through Media Literacy’ and ‘Indigenous Peacebuilding’).

As there are unlikely to be high-school level courses in peacebuilding, in both of the examples above, students needed to think about building a lesson around a topic that would already be included in a school curriculum (ie it needed to fit into a course that might be taught in a high school such as history, social studies, communications technology, etc).  They then needed to integrate relevant concepts from peace and conflict studies into these topics.  This was important, as it ensured the students were not simply replicating/simplifying a topic or lecture that I had already completed for our class.  Below I reflect on the successes and limitations of this alternative assignment.

Learning Outcomes (expected and  unexpected)

Of course some of the most obvious lessons learned by students relate directly to further mastery of  course content.  As all of us who teach know, you often learn a topic in a much deeper (dare I say ‘alternative’) way when you have to teach it.  This is particularly true when thinking about how to teach something to absolute beginners. Yes, I can wax lyrical about agonism or hybridity as it relates to peace studies in 8000 + word academic papers or over conference dinners for hours (some might say ad nuaseum), but having to explain these concepts to novices in my field (even at the 300 or 400 level undergraduate level) has forced me to break down these ideas into smaller constituent parts, think about defining them in several different ways so as to aid in understanding, apply to case studies in a really clear and significant way (that speaks to young people), think about how it relates to other ideas/concepts in my discipline, prepare myself to answer questions and respond to critiques that my dozens of students might throw at me mid-lecture etc etc.  By requiring my students to become the teachers and prepare materials in the same way, a deeper learning of content ensued.  This was expected and part of the justification for approving it as a final project in my 400 level course and including it as a project choice in my 300 level course.

What is perhaps more significant are the unexpected learning outcomes I witnessed in my students from observing them as they worked towards the final product.  For example, class discussions about the integration of ‘critical peace research’ into the first set of lesson plans developed, often centered around concerns that the modules were taking on more of a ‘development studies’ or ‘social justice’ focus rather than a strictly ‘peace and conflict focus’.  This, of course, led to fantastic discussions about disciplinary boundaries (or the lack thereof).  Students, who up until now had been fairly accepting of the value of critical peace studies and its interdisciplinary history, were now querying potential dangers in muddying the disciplinary boundaries and terminology; they held wonderful discussions  about the values and limits of interdisciplinarity.  This also brought to the surface potential critiques of the field of critical peace studies (has it become too focused on structural violence as opposed to physical violence, for example?).  In both classes, I listened to students express frustration with the limitations of academic language, and through this frustration saw them make incredible moves towards developing their own epistemic stances and concerns about knowledge production.  All of this is to note the positive and often unplanned/unscripted learning that came from allowing students to experiment and take charge of their own learning through this particular assessment.


What didn’t work— lessons for future iterations

To be honest, and even though the quality of what was produced in my 300 level course was excellent in many cases, this option worked much better in my smaller class.  It was not that my 300 level students were any less driven or intelligent, only that in this course, (where I was managing 8 different types of final projects with 90 students),  I was unable to have the degree oversight and input into the production of the education modules  that I had at the 400 level (with 20 students, all working on the same project type).  In the smaller class, I was able to lead discussions in ways that facilitated the types of learning discussed above.  Perhaps more importantly,  students who were working on different modules were able to talk to each other, bounce ideas off each other, and think about creating some coherence between modules.  Seeing exciting and creative things happening in one group, often led the other groups to ‘up their game’, leading to an improvement in quality across the board.

This same level of peer to peer learning did not happen in the larger class—partly because of my inability to manage discussions and partly because of a lack of shared purpose between the smaller groups working on these modules.  So, even though students had been given clarity of what needed to be submitted (a downloadable teachers guide and an accompanying slide-deck), a general qualitative rubric, as well as examples from the 400 level course)—there was a lack of integration and joined-up thinking across groups that I think prevented the type of deeper learning I saw in the smaller 400 level group.

Learning from this, I think it would be worth me dedicating a set time (or assigning a TA)  to meet once or twice with these groups  so that I could facilitate discussions and create opportunities for learning and sharing between groups.    I also think that having the groups work on ensuring some kind of consistency between groups (perhaps through peer review) would also improve the quality of the education modules overall. It would also give these students more experience in project management/dealing with larger group dynamics.


Opportunities for Greater Impact

One of the reasons I’ve decided to blog about this particular assignment (beyond wanting to showcase my students’ work—which they agreed would be up on the site before embarking on the project), is that I feel it is something easily replicated in the broadest range of disciplines (compared to some of my assignments which are much more arts/social science focused).   Even the most diverse of high school curriculums will still have gaps, and even though teachers will have limitations in terms of what they can include (due in part to teaching cultures but also simply down to time/having to focus on preparing students for state/public exams), the opportunity to include even the smallest elements of these lesson plans in order to expose younger students to a wider range of ideas is an exciting one.  Although reaching out and publicizing these modules is something that I have admittedly not been great at (we had a small ‘outreach and publicizing’ element to this project in the smaller class, which did not really pan out to the extent hped, and I have really only being able to get the website out through my own personal networks), the potential of partnering up with local schools and building in the delivery of these modules to local schools is another option.  Having worked more directly with local schools in my previous gig, I’d ideally like to reach out to local schools and have my students consult directly with teachers to help produce and deliver materials that address specific teaching needs of teachers in my local community.

Letting students choose how they will be assessed: Yes, you read that right.

Followers of my blog will have seen some of my writing on alternative modes of assessment, including a few that have proven most popular with my students (such as the infographic, artistic reflections and core-concept videos.)  Given the positive response I’ve had from students (both informally through out of class discussions and in my formal teaching evaluations), I really challenged myself in the past year (in my upper year courses) to  increase my use of these different types of assignments.  In particular, I have  I have focused on creating variety of assignment types in a single course in order to give students a choice of which type of assignment they would like to tackle (for example, in my 300 level IR class this past term, students could choose from one of eight assignment types for their final assessment– not 8 essay questions/options on one assignment type, but different types of assignments all together).  I’ll be challenging myself in the future to think about what this looks like in my first-year courses.

My reasons for integrating a range of alternative assessments, from a pedagogical approach, is two fold. First, alternative assessments, when designed properly,  teach students a broader range of skills that will be useful for them in their professional lives.  A well designed assessment can be used as something concrete to talk about in their cover letters or CVs and at job interviews. Allowing students to choose assignments based on what skills they want to further develop and be able to showcase can be combined with more traditional disciplinary learning goals creating a multifaceted learning experience that is also tailored to individual student needs.   Secondly, I have found that when students are able to choose how they will be assessed, it increases their sense of ownership (and dare I say, excitement) about a project, that often leads to increased quality of output.  Side note: One of my colleagues, who also gives students choice on assessment type, noted that they do this for reasons related to access, diversity and inclusion (something I hadn’t thought of  but will also consider, moving forward).

I have been able to glean evidence of both of these outcomes through reflective writing assignments where I prompt students to explore what they have learned in terms of content and professional skills, or what they learned about themselves more generally by completing one of these assignments.  While I can’t provide specific examples of student reflections due to confidentiality–  numerous students have spoken in detail about how a project links to (quite a wide range of!) specific career goals.  I also have had a few students note how they were surprised how they lost focus on ‘the grade’ they might get on the assignment and were almost entirely focused on the output—and how this in turn sometimes made the assignment ‘not feel like an assignment’.  There were also some very candid moments were students reflected on their own personal situation, or that of their family and how being able to choose this particular assignment actually allowed them to learn more about themselves, their background, their heritage and the struggles of people in their own community.

Most of my posts over the rest of the summer will explore some of the alternative assessments I used this year in my 300 level International Relations course on peacebuilding that I feel could be adapted to other topics.   This will include posts on ‘Publish With Your Prof’, ‘Peace Negotiations Database’,  ‘Education/Teaching Modules’ and ‘Roundtable/Event Planning’.  If I have time, I will sneak in some more, but I found these to be the most translatable to a range of courses. Although I’ll go into greater detail on the ins and outs of each particular assignment type in future posts, here are few general tips if you want to get started on creating your own ‘menu’ of assignment types for your classes next year.

Design for academic rigor first :  Designing new innovative assignments can be really freeing and creatively satisfying for us as scholars at we think about teaching the same course again for the umpteenth time, but there is of course a risk of our creativity getting the better of us and focusing too much on creating something new/innovative/dare-I-say-fun.    The focus on the innovation can take over quite easily (which I have learned the hard way in previous stages of my ‘alternative assessment’ journey).  Have a look at your learning goals and objectives for the course, specific readings/themes/concepts and build assessments around those. What does ‘mastering a concept’ or ‘acquiring a skill’ mean in the context of your course and types of assignments might allow students to demonstrate these?

Create a clear set of expectations for your students for each assignment type:  Just as you are taking a risk—so are your students.  You are asking them to step outside the comfortable bounds of assessment formats that they have come to know quite well (research papers, exams). This can be disconcerting for students. Despite the aforementioned students who reflected on how grades became a secondary consideration for them, grades still matter (to students and to institutions).  Many students have come to know exactly what a good essay or response to a short answer question in an exam looks like, without having to give it too much thought.  For alternative assessments,  you need to give them a solid sense of security—what does a good/excellent ‘infographic/database entry/concept video etc’ looks like?   How can they get that ‘A’ on this untested assignment type? Even if you are not one for creating very detailed rubrics (like myself), you need to give clarity on what excellence looks like if you want them to be creative and take pedagogical risks alongside you.  Be specific about what you will be looking for, what they should put most of their effort into, what you expect the final project to tangibly look like—otherwise, students themselves might get carried away with the creative/innovative element of the assignment at the expense of intellectual rigor and course content.

Be flexible with your students and ask them to be flexible with you:  This is particularly important the first time you try out a new mode of assessment.  What might be clear as day in your head might a) be envisioned and interpreted in a different way by your students and b) might not actually be possible in the confines of the course.  Expect the unexpected, be willing to alter what the project might look like in the end (without reducing the degree of intellectual rigor you expect at this level).  Very few of the alternative assessments my students have produced physically looked like what I had envisioned in my head when I wrote up the assignment instructions.  However, nearly all of them have still delivered in terms of the intellectual curiosity and scholarly standard I had expected.  And in some cases, their interpretation of the creative side of the brief was superior to my own.