Category Archives: challenging classroom situations

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.

Hiding the Vegetables? On explaining your pedagogical choices and teaching philosophy to students

I don’t have children, but on my Facebook feed I often see my ‘parent friends’ posting articles about how to get their children to eat more vegetables.  Many tips seem to focus on somehow managing to hide or sneak in vegetables into foods their kids otherwise love—‘add carrot juice into fruit smoothies’  ‘blend up spinach and put in pasta sauce’.   In other words,  if you want them to eat their brussels sprouts, do everything you can to make sure they do not know they are eating brussels sprouts.

What on earth does this have to do with teaching, you ask?  Bear with me.

The necessity of ‘labelling’ my pedagogy this semester

Several of my upcoming blog posts will focus on a funded research project I did this semester on active learning in large undergraduate classes.  The research project did not require any change to my pedagogy or any redesign of my course.  I taught my Introduction to Comparative Politics class exactly as I had four times before in previous years.  Other than updating a few case studies, fixing typos in my lecture slides and nixing a few activities that just didn’t seem to work,   there were no changes to how I taught the course or my general teaching philosophy.

There were, however, two significant changes that seem to have come back to haunt me.  The first is that I added what I called an ‘Active Learning Journal’  where students had to upload some evidence of their engagement with class debates, activities and simulations (very small-stakes—a snapshot of a completed worksheet or their notes capturing both sides of the debate in class would suffice). Secondly,  because I was conducting research on my teaching,  I of course was ethically obliged to inform my students of the research project, its aims etc.  My Research Assistant also recruited students to participate in focus groups to help me gain further insight into my teaching (warts and all).  The ethics requirement and the methodology thus required students to be reminded several times this term that I was using ‘Active Learning’.

I actually thought all of this would be a good thing.  I thought being more transparent and open about my pedagogy and teaching philosophy would diminish the small amounts of resistance to my teaching style that I’ve encountered in the past (which I would stress has been up until this term minimal—some students would just prefer I stand up and talk at them for 3 hours a week).  Oh, how naïve and wrong I was.

The curious case of my teaching evaluations in this one section

While I admit there are things that I can and will change regarding my use of active learning based on some of the qualitative feedback from my focus groups, other types of feedback from students have left me more generally torn and confused.  Having reviewed my formal course evaluations, it appears that the labelling of things as ‘Active Learning’, signaling to students that ‘I am doing things differently’ has possibly backfired.

My numerical scores are pretty much unchanged (in fact they have gone up slightly since last year, despite it being a larger class and me having health issues near the end of the semester that led to a delay in getting grades out).  However, the comment section was filled with notes about students’ dislike of active learning.  There were positive comments too of course, regarding my skills as a lecturer, my being available and helpful to students, and some students were positive about my pedagogy—but  the comments regarding active learning were roughly 75% negative.  This is quite surprising given very good scores on all of the quantitative elements of the evaluations which measure students’ assessment of the quality of me and the learning experience as a whole.  It also does not match (at all) with the incredible evidence of learning that I saw in their reflective writing on active learning.

Now, the reason this is so interesting to me, is that I have NEVER had these comments (or at least so many of them) in the 4 others sections that I teach the course—even though the course and active learning elements are unchanged.  In fact, I taught two other section of this same course in the same semester (with pretty much exactly the same pedagogy and exercises) and the comments section was overwhelmingly positive regarding the activities that I did. The only substantive difference in these other two sections being that I was not explicit about my active learning pedagogy/philosophy in any of my other courses.

Moving forward:  what are the pros and cons of sharing your teaching philosophy with students?

So what to make of all of this?  I’m not sure.  I’m still processing the whole experience.  I had a good group of intelligent students (many, though certainly not all) engaged with everything I threw at them during the term.  The reflective writing that they also did on some of these activities also generally showed thoughtful engagement with the aims and lessons of these activities.  So in terms of student learning, I’m still confident that the course works.

The experience certainly hasn’t shaken my teaching philosophy, but it has made me think about if it is necessary (or at all beneficial)  to share your teaching philosophy with students.  Does holding something up as different create resistance from the start?  If a set of pedagogical tools are shown to be effective for student learning through research, should we just use them and hope for buy-in from students?  Is active learning the carrot juice or brussels sprouts of the pedagogical terrain— good for you, but best kept secretly mixed in with the things more familiar and liked?

I’ve no clear answers for these questions, but despite my experience this year, I think I will still be explicit at some stage with my students about my approach to teaching.   However, perhaps I won’t give it a label, won’t characterize it as ‘other’.  I do want to have my students reflect on the process of learning, take ownership of their own education, so I still believe that being open about the aims of and rationale of your teaching approach is important for students’ intellectual development.  Perhaps the answer lies in more subtly inviting students who are interested and intellectually curious about teaching and learning to have these conversations with you, without belaboring the point and just allowing the pedagogies to work/speak for themselves.

 

There’s no crying in academia! On emotion in the classroom and our profession

In the 1992 film A League of Their Own, a film about the creation of an all-female baseball league that was created in the US during WWII whilst many men were off fighting in Europe, Tom Hanks’ character (used to coaching young men but now adjusting to a team full of athletic young women) bellows at one of his young players who has not taken to his coaching style particularly well— ‘There’s no crying in baseball!!!!’.

Whilst playing on a dangerous gender stereotype of the ‘overly emotional female’ which I don’t want to perpetuate (all genders are emotional beings for goodness sake!), this moment in the film occasionally pops into my head.   For in moments where either the demands of my job or the topic of my study (political violence, injustice and peacebuilding) strike a particular chord—I do occasionally become emotional.  And although I have had (and still have) wonderfully supportive colleagues of all genders who act like ordinary (emotional) human beings on a regular basis, there are times where I become paranoid that any displays of emotion on my part will be met with a Tom Hanks-esque response!  I then attempt to quickly push those  emotions aside and get back to my rational, objective status quo.

Now of course, our profession is open to discussions of many emotions ‘on the job’: fatigue induced exasperation (ie I had to pull an all-nighter to get that conference paper in. This was one of those 70 hour work weeks. Thank god it is the end of term!  I need a break!);  student or colleague induced frustration (ie why don’t they just read the syllabus!  Why are we dedicating another staff meeting to this issue?’  Why haven’t they responded to my emails on the proposed policy changes!) and last but not least  moments of  joy (ie My article/book/chapter got accepted!  I received a huge research grant!  My grad student landed a tenure track job!).

However, in many (if not most) situations, emotion is frowned upon in our profession.  We are expected to ‘objectively reflect and analyze’ in our research and act rationally (or even coldly) in the face of specific policy changes  that affect our jobs.  This focus on objectivity and rationality that is so central to our jobs is transmitted to our classrooms, where we encourage student to focus on the empirics of a situation, not be clouded by personal opinions or normative statements of what ‘should be’.  Students are welcome to opinions, but these must be prefaced by an objective, verifiable set of rational arguments.  Emotion, if permitted at all, must first be mediated by these non-emotional filters.  And of course, in most cases and in most situations this is perfectly fine and desirable, but what are the limits of this strict adherence the rational/unemotional academic mode?

Without going into too much detail, the stark reality of the limits of the non-emotional approach to knowledge, service and leadership that are dominant in our profession came up and smacked me across the face a few weeks ago.  A deeply personal situation intersected with my own field of research and teaching (peace studies specifically and politics more generally).  Every cold hard fact and every abstract theory that I have used over the course of my scholarly career failed me.  Failed me in terms of my ability to understand the situation I found myself in, failed me in terms of understanding what could be done, what should be done to resolve the injustice and suffering that  political violence creates.  In that moment I felt that my life’s work and the knowledge I  would be imparting to my students in the coming days and weeks was insignificant—perhaps even counterproductive in the way it tried to quantify, qualify, explain and examine in a detached, objective  or ‘rational’ way.

My reaction came as a shock to me.  I have studied and spent time in conflict affected zones for over a decade.  I have met and interviewed countless individuals who have experienced the worst that political violence has to offer.  I have felt with my own hands, seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears the realities of war.  The problem(?), I now realize, is that in all of these cases I then filtered my experiences through an objective set of frameworks (liberalism, hybridity, agonism) via accepted  social scientific methods (interviews, coding, software packages).  In doing so, it appears that I was able to shelter myself from much of the reality of what I had learned—the emotional, the struggle, the tangible and often unresolvable injustices that human beings are experiencing daily.  Self preservation some might say, shoddy scholarship in the sense of failing to capture a significant reality of the situation I might say!

The collision of what was fundamentally a personal issue with my professional life (and in particular, how and what I teach) led to tears.  Yep, I said it.  I cried about my research, cried about my teaching, cried about the tangible situation in front of me, all together, all wrapped up into one.  Perhaps this will make me seem ‘silly or weak’ in the eyes of some students or colleagues.  So be it.

But I know I’m not alone. Talking to others and engaging with my students, it is clear to me that learning is often deeply emotional.  I watch my students, international and domestic, struggle with heightened emotions when the topics we are covering force them to consider sometimes uncomfortable truths about their own countries, or what they were taught as children.  I watch my students respond emotionally to comments made in class that are occasionally based on racial or gender stereotypes, that go against their core beliefs or personal sense of ethics.  I watch students try and find the words to express their opinions only to find that the academic  language I have provided them with often fails to sufficiently capture the core of their debate and their concerns (which are often deeply personal and emotional and  therefore easily dismissed as ‘subjective’–which seems to have become quite a pejorative term)

Education is not therapy, but the issues we explore with students (in all disciplines) often evoke an emotional response. We can ignore them, wish them away and consider emotions as ‘un-academic’.  But I believe we do so at our own peril as it detaches their understanding of the ‘topics’ we are teaching our students from how these topics are actually experienced by the vast majority of the population.  If we want students to understand anything, from identity politics to the science behind vaccinations, I believe we must equip them with the tools and language to understand the emotional responses and realities that these topics evoke in the general population.  Otherwise, the knowledge that students gain will only allow them to uncover part of the story in their future professional lives and limit their ability to enact change that is meaningful and desired by large segments of the population (for whom issues of conflict, identity, decisions on drug treatments and investment options are not merely academic puzzles, but lived realities with tangible consequences)

I’ve no easy answer to how we deal with emotions in the classroom.  I feel like our current default is to shy away from these.  When students get emotional, we try to ‘bring it back to the theory/concept/framework’–  I know I certainly do this.  In future iterations of my classes I hope to draw on and introduce more readings on political psychology, emotions in IR and the growing literature on aesthetics as starting points.  It will certainly top my summer reading list and goals for course renewal for the next academic year.

Forget it, I’m not following the lesson plan today: An unscripted conversation on violence, terrorism, religion and fear

Things were ticking along nicely during my Monday morning lecture. Short reading quiz—tick. Get up to Slide 5 in powerpoint-lecture on IR Theory by the first break—tick. Start prepping TAs on logistics of running the post-break simulation on sovereignty during the break—ti…. Interrupted by lingering student who clearly had a question to ask.

The question of course was about what happened in France over the weekend. The attacks that killed over 100 (mostly young) people doing things that my students do on a regular basis without any fear—drinking at a bar, eating at a café, going to a concert, attending a football match. As I talked about the different ways we could address his question and noticed the other students who had begun to linger as we talked, I realized this was a conversation I should be having with the whole group, not just the four or so who were now stood around me.

I looked at my remaining slides, I looked at the simulation on sovereignty/humanitarian intervention I had so carefully crafted and printed for them.   I realized that as much as I needed to ‘teach them the basics’, there was a potential for them to learn a lot more about the world today by have a totally unscripted conversation. So, in both my classes that day I ditched the last half of my lesson plan and my TAs and I simply answered questions the students had about what was going on in the world.

I have to say, I was a bit nervous. The attacks, terrorism, religion, military interventions, immigration—if my Facebook page and the conversations (nay I say, fights) that were happening there were anything to go by, this could get messy, and fast. But it didn’t. My students asked incredible questions focused on understanding the situation not simply reacting to it. My TAs responded with honesty (some things we just don’t know) and a recognition of the deep divides that exist in our field and in the public domain about many of the questions the students had (often noting things were ‘just their opinion’ and pointing to a range of ideas and arguments that exist, without judgement of those ideas).

But it was more than just a QnA. Reflecting on this after classes were done for the day, I realized how much students had learned about the social sciences more generally—the kinds and types of debates we have that they are now participating in.   They came to realize how global problems require a multi-disciplinary approach, how evidence for ‘competing truths’ can be found. In terms of learning about politics, they came face to face with so many of the issues we’ve been talking about this term—power in all its guises, authority, freedom, sovereignty, civil society.

It has made me question the whole way I have approached teaching this course. I teach it thematically, Week One: Power, Week Two: The State and so on and so forth. Would it possibly make more sense to teach politics through real political events? The ‘themes’ would likely expose themselves regardless—though it would take more time and care on my part to really draw these out each week and to ensure students were not only learning about the event, but also the crucial ‘political science canon’ that I am supposed to be providing them with. It would mean a rewrite of my course and an acceptance that these unscripted conversations might take us to places my powerpoint slides are not ready to take us to!

Below is just a small glimpse of the questions asked along with some bullet points on political themes and debates that we were able to have because of those questions. I’ll be looking back on this experience to consider how I might bring in more current events to my teaching in a way that is meaningful and doesn’t take away from the other ‘content’ that they also need to learn. While the timeframe didn’t allow me to go into great detail on any of the below— it did allow me to introduce new concepts and debates and make links to a wide range of concepts we’ve already covered during the term. For me, it really taught me the value of unscripted conversations with students.

***

  1. Is there going to be another World War? This question allowed us to talk about who has the power to define and label political events; the criteria used to classify wars; the shift in thinking about war as something between states as opposed to something that also involves non-state actors; the difficulties political scientists have in making predictions
  2. Why did they (ISIS or the extremists) do this? What do they want? This question allowed us to talk about religion/identity and politics (what different theories tell us about the role of religion and identity in relation to war); the heterogeneity found within all religions; Islamophobia; the central role that power has in political science and the understanding of different ways of acquiring it—both legitimate and illegitimate; the politics of fear.
  3. Why are we seeing so much about France!? What about what happened in Turkey last month, Lebanon the night before etc etc etc? Why don’t people care about these other cases?  Probably one of the most difficult questions, this discussion helped students recognize the importance of being specific in our questions—the reasons individuals vs the media vs states ‘care’ about a political issue is quite varied. It also allowed us to raise issues of power, wealth (and the connection between the two), the salience of our different identities as well as difficult questions regarding stereotyping, racism and ‘othering’.
  4. What will we can we do to stop ISIS? This question was probably most clearly linked to our topic of the day and we tried to answer it by bringing in theories liberalism and realism in IR.   It also allowed us to again think about the nature of state vs non-state actors (and the relationship between them); I was also able to introduce ideas found in strategic studies—(air campaigns vs ground campaigns, counterinsurgency) as well as my own research interests of peacebuilding and pacifism.
  5. What can we do to stop Islamophobia? My students are rightly disgusted by the recent and ongoing attacks they are seeing around the globe but at the same time many voiced fear over the Islamophobia that is also emerging (there is nothing contradictory in holding these two positions at the same time). This was one of the harder ones for me to talk about for personal reasons—and was actually a great opportunity to frame my own thinking on the problem rationally, conceptually, without flying into a blind range. My TAs took the lead and handled it like stars—linking it to conversations around domestic politics, elections, ‘othering’ and civil society movements.

 

 

Would you like to supersize that? On active learning in large classroom settings

When I first arrived at UBC one of the first classes I taught was a 200 level comparative politics class. For whatever reason (I don’t take it personally) I only had 40 students in a class that is normally capped at 150. Hurrah! It was a new course for me and the average size of my cohort at my last gig was around 35 so my ‘new job and new course’ stress was somewhat reduced.

Having 40 students allowed me to do all sorts of active learning activities in my class: gallery walks, student presentations, small group work/breakout sessions, simulations, debates etc. It also meant that I was able to learn nearly all of my student’s names and engage with them one on one in lectures.  There were also many small assignments that allowed me to gage their performance nearly week by week; I could be responsive with written feedback and my time. For me, teaching this new class was a lot of work but a wonderful experience. Hurrah again!

Then. Reality hit. For another variety of reasons, the size of my 200 level class has pretty much tripled. Last year I had 100 students in this class. When I teach the class next term I will have 150. Comparative politics with Peterson has been supersized. I already learned from last year that active learning activities with 40 students do not translate well to 100 student cohorts—it is not just a matter of needing more handouts or more TAs. The class dynamic changes, the logistics change, the personal touch that makes active learning so valuable seems to diminish as you can’t physically get to the students in the middle of the room, and you simply don’t have time to engage meaningfully with everyone.

Passing a colleage today, fatigued by my current teaching and feeling a bit anxious about next term I joked (?) that I might just go back to ‘chalk and talk’. Well, of course I won’t but I can’t keep doing ‘active learning’ the way I am doing it. I’ve already had a chance this semester to think about how to make my active learning work for a bigger cohort. My Poli 100 (Intro to Politics) cohort has also doubled in size since last year. Here is what I have learned so far.

Make use of the natural leaders in your cohort and nurture new ones

For active learning to work in a large cohort, you need at least 80% of your students totally on board. Because you can’t be everywhere at all times making sure everyone is being ‘active’, peer pressure and accountability to each other has to be built into the activities themselves. Assign already and emerging strong students as leaders or discussants to help you keep everyone on track. Mix students up so these leaders (who often work together) are dispersed throughout the class.   At the same time, don’t rely on them too much. They might relish the challenge but they deserve a break– though they will learn so much by helping other students, they also should be allowed to work with their own peer groups regularly. Also be sure to not to have the same mentors all semester. Try to give as many students as possible this opportunity so they can see the benefits of leadership, grow in confidence and become more likely to ‘buy in’ to active learning in general

Save a tree, use the internet

Nearly all of my active learning pedagogies involve handouts. Often several. With 40 students I could come with a neat little ‘activity pack’ for each group of 5—a few short essentials readings, photocopies of some data, worksheets, paper/pens for post presentations. No biggie! Photocopying, compiling and then dragging 20+ activity packs to class just isn’t an option. Put anything that you would normally put in an ‘activity pack’ for students up online ahead of time and encourage students to bring their laptops to class so they have the materials for the activity already.   Handouts or activity sheets that need to be completed can likely be made as e-forms, that students can complete online and store in their own ‘my grades’ tab. This of course will require more prep time and last minute activity planning will have to go out the window… but that is likely a good thing in and of itself.

Insist on better spaces

Now, UBC has some wonderful learning spaces. But, the class-room-assigning gods were not smiling on me this year. I have tiered lectures theatres with terrible lighting (honestly, one of my rooms has the lighting of an old-school British Pub—think the ‘public toilets bar’ in Manchester on Oxford Rd for those of you who have been there. This room pretty much induces sleep from them moment I walk into it!). I digress. Neither of my rooms this semester have tables to make group easy. My students have to twist and contort to hear and see each other. These rooms are also built on the premise that ‘everything important happens at the front of the room’—meaning all of the wonderful knowledge be produced in every corner of my classroom through my students’ active learning is nearly impossible to share.

Space is a problem at all universities and there is often very little we can do about infrastructure. But we can be advocates for ourselves. Visit other classrooms, make lists of the ones you like and try and insist to the ‘powers that be’ that your pedagogy relies on better space. I haven’t always gotten the ideal room, but I have gotten improvements. Computer systems might do the scheduling, but there is generally a friendly human behind the screen who can help you find something better.

I’ve recently been awarded a small grant to conduct research on active learning and its effectiveness more generally, so if it is a topic that interests you—watch this space!