Category Archives: teaching philosophy

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr Critical: Or how I learned to hate the term ‘Thesis Statement’

It is essay season.  A season sometimes dreaded by students and faculty (and most likely always by TAs who often are burdened with the majority of the marking).  Now, I say dreaded because of the marking involved, but actually (because I’m a huge nerd) it also a season that I secretly love as it is one of the few chances I get to meet with students about the research they wish to conduct.  This year I feel particularly spoiled as my 3rd year Peacebuilding students are choosing some truly original case studies, and case studies I know little about.

I know there are a few essays coming down the pipeline (no pun intended) on Indigenous-Settler relations in Canada, the USA and New Zealand.  Another student is writing a paper on memory and forgiveness in relation to Comfort Women, whilst another student is tackling the unique dilemmas of DDR in relation to female ex-combatants.  None of these topics or cases were on my ‘question list’ in the syllabus, but I have been more than happy to approve these topics, encouraged by my students’ passion for these cases and the originality in their approach.

However, in my office hour, the first question I often get is ‘Professor, will you read over my thesis statement’.   Urgh, yes I will.  But also, Urgh, here we go again.

To be clear, a good academic essay needs a clear argument, and if you want to call it a thesis statement, fine by me.  However, I worry that the getting the ‘Thesis Statement Right’ often becomes the first and primary focus of students.  I often feel that they just want to know they’ve got this piece right, they want a simple yes or no and that this approval will equate to a giant tick mark that guarantees a good mark.  When expected grades don’t materialize, one of the first bits of ‘push back’ I get from students is actually ‘but you said I had a good thesis statement!’.

I believe that this  fascination and faith in having a thesis statement approved (and my further concerns below)  can actually be detrimental to their intellectual growth and progress.  I say this for two reasons.

First, I often see students starting with a thesis statement.  Before they have done their research, grappled with the issues, thought about what part of the intellectual puzzle interests them, they feel the need to have a clear thesis statement.    The idea that they can tell you what their argument will be before they’ve done the heavy lifting of research and analysis is so problematic.   It often leads to an introductory paragraph that doesn’t match what they then go on to do in their essay (ie they get their thesis statement approved by teaching staff, slap it at the beginning and then go off on a tangent related to what they are really interested in).

This can be easily fixed of course by having students return to their ‘thesis statement’ after they write the essay to make sure there is a match.   I might also start refusing to ‘approve’ thesis statements until students can produce the research that shows me how they arrived at said thesis statement.

However, what is more concerning to me is that once students have their thesis statement ‘approved’ they become trapped/stifled for the rest of the writing and research process.  They’ve said ‘This essay will prove A by exploring XYX’  so dog-gonnit, that’s what the  essay will do, even if in their further reading  and research they become fascinated by ABC.    They didn’t get a thesis statement approved for ABC so they’d better not risk it.

I find this second scenario particularly problematic in terms of the fact that I’m increasingly seeing students think that a ‘good thesis statement’  proves something and has three parts (don’t even get me started on my hatred of the 5 paragraph essay—well, at least wait for a future post on that!).  This concern is perhaps a product of me now being in a more empirically driven department (whereas during my time at Manchester you couldn’t  fall over without taking out a Critical-Post-Positivist scholar), but I feel that the way we sometimes talk about and teach about ‘thesis statements’ signals to our students that the only types of knowledge-moves they are free to engage in are things that prove ‘A led to B’ or ‘C causes D’ or ‘E and F are locked in a dangerous feedback loop’.

These are interesting questions and I’m happy for students to go in this direction.  I want them to discover their own epistemic identity of course!  But I also want them to be aware of other knowledge-moves, ways of knowing, ways of understanding the world and I feel that in some cases the way we set up and define a good ‘thesis statement’ mitigates against students developing more critical, post-positivist epistemic identities that are so central ensuring plural ways of understanding the world around us.

As such, I’ve tried to have an honest discussion with my students about this in the lead-up to this semester’s term paper.  I don’t want them to feel like I’m trying to destabilize all prior learning and advice.  Further,  they will still certainly take courses where they are expected to have a clear/traditional/empirically grounded thesis statement.  But for my class, I leave them with the following slide and discussion to try to encourage those who want to take intellectual risks or move towards a different set of knowledge-production techniques.

The (dreaded) thesis statement

  • Your essay should of course have a clear focus/purpose
  • I use the language of the ‘thesis statement’ cautiously– I know it is a term students understand and use, but I worry it narrows understandings of what they can write about
  • Your essay does not need to prove You do not have to prove causation for example. You are welcome to do so, but this is not the only type of research political scientists engage in.
  • Think more about the purpose of your essay— the puzzle you want to solve, the issue or fact you want to explore in an in-depth or innovative way, an issue or policy you want to apply a critical lens to. This wider/more general purpose might be your ‘thesis statement’.
  • This may include—exploring how themes of victimhood materialize in your case study, how a project reinforces patriarchy in society, how definitions of peace are exposed in a political negotiation, how a specific ideology acts as a foundation for a peace talk (or how two ideologies seem to be at odds), is there a tension between rationality and emotion in the policy you are analyzing? Be creative, be original.

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.

Guest Blogger Audrey Tong, UBC Political Science: ‘Encouraging Student Participation’

As one of Jen’s undergraduate teaching assistants, I had the welcoming challenge of contributing to Jen’s lecture activities in the second term of the school year. Whereas Jen and the students have already established a working relationship and good rapport from first term, January marked the first time I was meeting the students – and being a teaching assistant. As a senior undergraduate student, I have had plenty of good and bad professors, lab instructors, and teaching assistants. I found that having a good teaching assistant that I could go talk to and ask for advice really made a difference in my learning, especially in grasping new concepts. As such, I was motivated to be an active, empowering and encouraging teaching assistant. However, I found that this is a big responsibility, and one that takes time to grow into.

One immediate challenge that I faced was keeping the students engaged and getting them to talk. Jen always prepares carefully planned classroom strategies and lesson plans that prompt lively student discussion. However, what I’ve come to realize is that active learning strategies is completely dependent on active student interest and participation, and thus, are particularly vulnerable to student apathy. As an undergraduate teaching assistant, I have the opportunity to observe class discussions, facilitate discussions, and try to engage students. Sometimes I am simply greeted by blank stares and silence; for reasons beyond my control, students just refuse to talk at times. As a TA, I was motivated to minimize these occurrences and crack the cycle.

As I walk around the classroom to listen in on discussions and chime in at the appropriate moments, I do my best to create open, safe, and supportive spaces where students can feel comfortable speaking up and voicing their own opinions. One major concern that students usually have is saying the ‘wrong’ answer. Students perceive this as an outright negative phenomenon, so they tend to remain silent. This results in diminished participation through fewer responses, and responses of lower equality that lack critical thinking or analysis.

To model the type of participation and curiosity I would like the students to exhibit in class, I tried a couple of strategies. During in-class discussions, I would go around the groups and if students have trouble grasping the question, I would rephrase the question and give an example by thinking out loud. Since the students are often discussing in pairs or groups, I would ask them for their ideas and ask a follow up question that would lead the student to further develop their answer. I then go over and repeat what they just said to demonstrate what a full response would look like and offer a positive piece of feedback. Finally, I encourage them to raise their hand and speak up when the professor is asking for student examples. If it’s a great point and the student is still not willing to convey their point (ex. shyness, English barrier, not sure if it’s the ‘right’ answer, ‘too cool for school’), I have the ability to give them a voice on their behalf (“Student X had a great point, and I would like to share what they said to the class”).

Over time, the students got the hang of active learning and participating in group discussions. I think another big piece in motivating student participation is how a TA or professor responds when students speak up, either in lecture discussions or in office hours. It’s a two way street: if you want students to participate seriously, you have to take their contributions seriously. By being an active listener and seeing things from their perspective, I always try to provide specific and thoughtful responses to a student question or comment. What I found interesting was that once a student sees that I’m making an effort, they would make an effort and try harder too. I had a group of students who voluntarily came to my office hours today to share their case study progress. By creating a safe and encouraging environment and nurturing a positive TA-student relationship, I have seen signs that the wall of silence is breaking and that the groundwork for voluntary participation is slowly building up.

Guest Blogger: Oren Adamson, UBC Political Science ‘Teacher or Student– Which One?’

As an undergraduate member of “Team Political Science,” I had the pleasure of contributing to Jen’s lecture activities during the first semester of this school year. What I was most excited about was being on the other side of the student-teacher relationship, and contrasting the two different – though similar – perspectives. How would POLI 100, which I had taken not so long before, differ when approaching the material with an eye to communicating knowledge, and helping students develop analytical skills, rather than sitting in a lecture hall jotting down notes for myself?

Starting off the semester, I was of course apprehensive. Would I blank? Would students respect me? How would I handle questions on topics that I know hardly anything about? These issues certainly came up over the course of the semester, forcing me to address them head on (and often, ad hoc), with varying degrees of success. Below I will outline a few of the key take away points that I gained from my experience as an undergraduate TA. These relate both to my role as a teaching assistant, and my inherent role as a learner in the process of teaching.

Level of Abstraction

Of course I know as a general rule that when teaching, it is easiest to “start simple” and gradually build on concepts from the base. It is somewhat ironic, then that I recognized this general abstract rule, but did not fully comprehend its practical implications until I had to put it into practice – what level of abstraction is appropriate for POLI 100 students? At what rate can we add complications to theories and concepts, while still keeping students engaged?

Probably not my first blunder on this issue, but the most memorable one, was in Jen’s lecture on civil society. As Jen stood at the front of the room explaining where civil society fits into the private/public divide, I piped up and said “Jen, where would political parties fit into this discussion?”  My intention was to contribute to the lecture and students’ learning by bringing in a relevant and somewhat complicated example (as well as encouraging of question-asking among the often reserved students). As soon as I asked the question and saw the confused look on Jen’s face, however, I realized that my question was ill placed. This moment made me reflect on the knowledge and questions I possess that may not be conducive to student learning in an introductory setting such as POLI 100. In this instance I saw the possible value behind a teacher saying, “let’s worry about that tomorrow.” Evidently putting the “start simple” rule into practice didn’t come quite as naturally to me as I may have expected.

Guiding Students’ Thinking

Related to gauging the appropriate level of abstraction, I often struggled to effectively guide students’ thinking, rather than leading them to a pre-ordained conclusion. For me, this was the most intellectually stimulating part of being a teaching assistant. It forced me to step back from concepts and theories enough to ask somewhat vague questions that force students to think, while still providing something for them to grab onto and work with. In doing so, it tested not only my knowledge of political science, but my ability to manoeuvre varying levels of analysis and abstraction in order to point students in the right direction.

This was most evident to me when weighing the merits of different models of democracy with students. At each station, they were tasked with brainstorming the benefits and drawbacks of direct, representative, deliberative, and elite democracy. Being assigned to the elite democracy station, I helped students think through the implications of such a theory – what could be a positive implication of limiting individuals’ decision-making power in society? And conversely, what are some negative consequences of this? After doing this with a number of groups, I found that I repeated the same questions to each group in order to help them along the way. Additionally, each group seemed to leave the station with similar answers for the benefits and drawbacks of elite democracy.

Once I realized this, I asked myself: were my questions too concrete? Did they encourage a certain response? (All questions do to some extent I guess, but we can do our best to limit how much our values come through when posing questions). Going further, I found it difficult to vary my questions, causing me to reflect on my knowledge and value judgments regarding the concept in question. In what ways could I alter my thinking about it? And how can I begin to limit the extent to which my political views taint the questions I ask? I was learning as much in this process as the students were; the line between teaching and learning is an ambiguous one.

Silence is Okay (sometimes)

One piece of feedback I received from a fellow member of Team Political Science was to allow for more silence when interacting with students. At first, I interpreted silence as the student implying, “I don’t understand, and you aren’t asking me the right questions.” When in reality, silence can say this, but is also a signal that students are thinking. Which is exactly what we want them to do! My discomfort with silence, I’m sure, goes hand in hand with a tendency to lead students too much, rather than guiding their thinking in a more hands-off manner. Gauging what is productive silence, and what is apathetic silence, is key to discerning whether or not students’ are engaging with the material.

To be sure, apathetic silence is certainly a thing and I did experience it in the classroom. However, in another instances, my tendency to interrupt silence came to the fore. This was when I was leading the whole section of 40 students in identifying different international relations theories in an excerpt of text. I would read out the text, ask which theory it related to…and wait. Wait for what felt like an eternity, with 80 eyes staring back up at me, but in reality it was probably 2 Mississippis. In this instance, as I look back, silence was not necessarily bad. It signals students’ brains starting to work (whether this is because they want to think, or because the silence makes them so uncomfortable that they feel the need to speak, is irrelevant, as long as they’re thinking!).

All of these reflections have made clear to me that we are all students and teachers alike, even though we may not recognize it right away.

Globalizing and innovating in the classroom: My mistakes and struggles

In this final piece on my lesson plan I reflect on the very real and sometimes not insignificant struggles I have faced and not yet resolved in my attempt to globalize my pedagogy and curriculum.  It is definitely something I have been more successful at in some courses than others (surprisingly, I feel that I have been least successful in doing this in my Comparative Politics class, so that’s my summer project sorted!).  Thinking about my attempts in Intro to Politics though, I have some real food for thought about how to move forward on this.

For example, reflecting back on my pedagogical approach and my concomitant efforts to try and teach a balance of orthodox and non-orthodox approaches at the undergraduate level, a few things stand out.    First, there needs to be more of an effort on showing students how to do things vs telling them how to do it.  The first few assignments on my scaffolded assessment schedule went, well, not great.  Lamenting to a colleague and questioning if I was even a competent teacher, yet alone a good one (it was one of those days) she simply asked me ‘Did you show them how to do it?’  ‘Well, I gave them very VERY clear instructions and went over it with them TWICE in class’ I responded emphatically.  ‘Yes, but Jen, did you show, them how to do it’.  No.  I hadn’t.  So the next lecture, I showed them, on the board, using our IT set-up, how I would have approached an article review, how I would have decided on a question and structure for my article comparison.  How I would have been critical and brought in diverse viewpoints myself.  I physically showed them how I constructed an outline on paper and talked them through my thought process. No prizes for correctly guessing that the assignments that followed were of a superior quality.

This isn’t just about good pedagogy and student support.  It relates directly to the issue of ‘globalizing IR’  which this series of blog posts is addressing.  If we are going to show our students how to engage with these alternative approaches, how to think globally, then we have to be able to show them authentically, what this looks like.  For me, this should be easy (but even I struggle).  I was trained in a critical tradition, I have a keen interest in the politics of knowledge production, I work (and love!) reading works by post-structural and post-colonial theorists.  Do I expect all my teaching colleagues to ‘beef up’ their alternative IR credentials?  No, of course not and it is not necessary—the breadth of expertise within departments is of value and we need not all become ‘alternative’ or worse yet, generalists.   What it perhaps implies is a greater need for team teaching, where a range of scholars work together to create a balanced first year curriculum and seriously reflect on how this curriculum will be effectively and efficiently delivered. It also requires courses and each lecture within them to be designed with diversity in mind and in a way that shows students how to think globally, think outside the box.

And here, the reality strikes. Both my desire for pedagogical advances and globalizing IR (which  think must go hand in hand) take a lot of time and resources.  My active learning sessions take a lot more preparation than a classic ‘chalk and talk’.  Further, my scaffolded assignment structure meant there were more written assignments in this 100 level course than one would normally have or be able to manage given resources generally available.  The amount and nature of marking would simply cripple most teaching teams for a large intro course (already a problem in my other classes where I have introduced reflective writing).   Even with a relatively small number of students (75) and an amazing team of TAs, the marking and  ‘assisted performance’ elements of the course were at times, nearly back-breaking.   Further,   the differentiated learning elements, whereby students were ‘held back’ on starting the next assignment until they had managed to properly complete the former assignment  was an administrative nightmare—and could also lead to feelings of unfairness by students who are getting things done ‘in time’ or fail and are not given a second chance.  A sense that some students are getting special treatment or a second chance can be a real problem for building a sense of trust and fairness in a learning environment.

Related to this, globalizing IR requires us to not teach from the textbook—it requires a different and often longer type of prep where one has to truly investigate and integrate alternatives into their learning plans.  With many intro textbooks coming with ‘teacher aids’ such as lecture slides, pre-prepared supplementary materials and even question banks for exams, the ‘globalized IR’ approach is not entirely enticing given the time constraints already facing most academics.

Team teaching also takes much longer.  It is not an issue of ‘well you are the expert on liberalism and realism, you teach in week three and four, then I’ll come back in week five and 6 and cover constructivism and post modernism’.  The orthodox and alternatives need to be integrated, it can’t be piecemeal, or ‘tagged on’.  Real collaboration and integration (as we know from our research lives) is often more difficult and time consuming than just going it alone– though the former is often more rewarding.  The same can be true of collaborative teaching, but with the current structure of teaching loads/credits and additional pressures on the time of staff who teach (both in the research and teaching streams) genuine opportunities for rewarding teaching collaboration might stand as the biggest obstacle to globalizing IR.

Perhaps ending this series of posts on with such a downer isn’t entirely productive, but I’ll set it as a challenge to me (and to my readers) to think about and share innovative ways to deal with the time constraints and institutional constraints we face as we attempt to move forward with innovate and more globalized approaches.  As always, onwards.