Using Election 2016 in the Classroom

A teacher who brings elections, political processes, and government into the classroom is actually priming students to get involved…

Here is a problem that many professors have.  My syllabus has been set since the start of the semester, and any potential change might throw my students off or change my grading system.  But my students are interested in this year’s election, and I do not want to pass up a chance to teach history as it is happening.  How can I make it happen online, use no more than 10 minutes of class time each week, and easily incorporate it into my grade point structure?

The many different activities in Globalyceum’s Election 2016: Follow the Vote have provided me with the easy solution to this problem.  The first activity I chose was the mock election because I knew my students would appreciate the opportunity to vote and then analyze their votes.  For many of my students, this presidential election would be their first as potential voters.  

The mock election was online, and it collected not only the vote but demographic data about the voters.  I could assign it for homework, and the students could complete it at home in under five minutes.  In the following week, I would then be able to throw the results up on the screen for the first five minutes of class time to hold a brief discussion.  Globalyceum has organized it so I can manipulate the data with the students, comparing voting patterns of groups–age, gender, ethnicity, education, etc.–and digging a little deeper into the election.  Last week, my students completed the first mock poll of opinions about the issues and candidates, and I look forward to a similar and even more interesting discussion with those results this week.  If you missed the first round of elections and polls, it is not a problem because there is a second mock election the week of September 26 and a second survey in mid October, followed by the final mock election the week before US voters go to the polls on November 8.

Mock Election Results
Mock Election Results

Brief videos (under four minutes) about events of the election is another great feature of Election 2016 that I have chosen to use. The most recent was “The Battleground States.”  It not only explained the Electoral College and how it creates the phenomenon of battleground states, but also Dr, Melinda Jackson’s analysis of this year’s battleground.  I added my own variation — I showed the video at the start of class and asked the students to rate which candidate had the better battleground state strategy.  This in-class assignment took seven minutes, and dramatically enhanced my lecture.  I was using the Globalyceum lecture by Jack Rakove, “Three Myths of the US Constitution,” which talks about the Founder’s reasons for creating the Electoral College.  This allowed me to make a great connection between past and present.  The next video about the debates will be available October 3, and I plan to do a similar strategy of video and then poll.

Globalyceum’s Election 2016 suite of materials also has primary source problems and readings on our electoral system.  If you have the time, you can use these in class or as homework.  I have chosen to do just the videos and mock elections and polls, but I know other professors who have added one or two of the other activities.  

I had the good fortune last fall of talking with Dr. Melinda Jackson, the author of Election 2016.  I asked her what was the biggest problem with teaching students American government and history today.  She responded quickly–”student political apat hy.”  Professors should do more than tell students about politics and government. They also need to turn students into “engaged citizens who can make a difference.”  A teacher who brings elections, political processes, and government into the classroom is actually priming students to get involved by voting, volunteering in an election, writing a letter to a representative, or registering others to vote.  It only takes 10 minutes a week, but it can make a world of difference.

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The Active Learning Lecture?

I add a question mark to this title because most people when they think of active learning do not think of a lecture. A lecture by its very nature is supposed to mean passivity on the part of the student, and active learning means student engagement in their own learning. But the first part of that statement is simply not true. As I noted in my last blog, lecture that is handled well in the classroom can be incredibly active. Today, professors are finding ways to create a lecture experience that makes the classroom a dynamic place and gives more responsibility to the student. In order to transition to an active learning lecture, there are five principles to observe.

  1. Reduce lecture duration to 40-60% of the available classroom time.
  2. Move factual information to reading or online listening and leave more challenging conceptual information to lecture.
  3. Provide structure and good visuals without bullet points to your briefer lecture.
  4. Poll students during lecture for both opinion and understanding.
  5. Offer an active learning assignment for before or after the lecture.

Reduce lecture time.
Even the best lecturer has a hard time sustaining student attention past 20 minutes–according to science, the limit of sustained attention span. If your class is 75 minutes of lecture, you are truly asking for nap time. If you are naturally a good speaker and have a very engaging lecture style, you can talk for 45 minutes. But if lecture is not your strength, consider limiting yourself to 30 minutes as a standard practice.

Make Conceptual Information Shine in the Classroom.
I have observed enough lectures to know that, in the social sciences, about 75% of a 75-minute lecture is simply recitation of facts that a student could get by reading a book. Many professors admit to me that they are lecturing in parallel to their assigned reading texts, and students end up not doing the reading. But almost all lectures by a well-trained academic have a conceptual core, where there is real benefit in having a person explain it. It is this 30 minutes of concept explaining that should shine in the classroom. The other 45 minutes of factual information can be left to the students reading at home or by simply putting the remainder of your PPT online and creating a voice over–the flip in what is known as the flipped classroom.

Craft the Briefer Lecture.
When you confine yourself to a 30-45 minute lecture, you can put more effort into a quality lecture with 3 attributes. (1) Choose a subject for the lecture that can be explained in 1500-2500 words (about 5-9 pages double spaced if you were to write it out). (2) Create a 3-part structure like a well-written essay, including an opening hook to engage the students, a clear thesis with several points, and a final summary. (3) Make a visual PPT with 10 quality visuals that illuminate what you say about every 2-4 minutes. By illuminate I mean images that have some detail and are directly on point with your lecture. There are no bullet points in a quality lecture–the scientific literature on this issue is absolutely clear. The minute you put up bullet points, it is a signal to students to stop listening, start copying, and go into zombie mode.

The Punctuated Lecture.
You want a lecture where all students are engaging, not just the top 10 students. To ensure this, there is a new lecture idea called the “punctuated lecture” that builds poll technology, readily available today, into the lecture and actually grades students for lecture understanding in real time, not 5 weeks later. First, make sure that the poll technology you use will give participation points for student opinion with multiple choice, true-false, and free response answers, but also gives varying points for right and wrong answers. Create provocative opinion questions for the start or end of the lecture, and a couple of right-wrong answer questions for the middle of lecture to check for student understanding. Practice keeping your discussion of these questions to 1 minute of implementation and 2 minutes of discussion, which provides about 12 minutes of punctuated engagement time for each 30-45 minutes of lecture (about a 25-30% ratio).discussion

Active Learning Assignments.
This is a larger subject for another blog, but active learning assignments of this type have 4 features. (1) They use primary sources, case studies, and actual evidence, because the student is practicing being the social scientist. (2) The exercise has an analytical question and the student must use the evidence to answer the question. (3) The assignment is related to the topic of the lecture or the general topic of the week, so that the lecture and the assignment work hand in hand. (4) Generally, it is best if the student does most of the assignment outside of class; works in groups in the beginning or end of class to clarify understanding, and finally debriefs or reports out as a group to the whole class for a discussion of the concepts in class. The whole process would be about 30-40 minutes of class time.

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Strategy for Effective Assessments

board-361516_960_720As you finalize your courses for next term, you might want to reconsider two questions about assessment:

  1. How much should my students be assessed?
  2. How much should I grade?

The immediate answer to both might be: as little as possible! However, the well-considered answer would be: a lot of student assessment with only a little high-value professor grading.

How is this possible? Think back to a time (before graduate school) when you were a student and had an assignment that was graded in such a way that it became a turning point in your academic life. Can’t? Well, that is likely because research shows the way students improve academically is through the cumulative feedback, frequent grading, and the rating of performance over time.

Assessment is most effective when it provides a consistent message about standards and practices through frequent and timely feedback that shapes academic behavior by preventing students from repeatedly making the same mistakes.

When you formulate your assessment strategy, do not think about what is common or traditional.  Instead, make a list of 3-5 activities that improve student performance.  Create an assessment program that does an effective job of shaping student behavior through automation of simple tasks.  Reserve your personal grading intervention for the higher-value academic tasks.

Below is my personal plan for students to achieve the 5 student goals I identified when I went through this process.
Student Goal
Student Task
Goal for the Student
Professor Effort to Grade
Take weekly MC/TF online tests on the assigned reading.
To improve reading skills by holding students to recommended 150,000 words per term.
Zero. Set up automated online grading.
Submit weekly reading study guides of key terms online.
To conceptualize readings into small chunks that prepare for assessment.
Zero. Students are granted participation points for completing assignment.
Take up to 8 in-class poll questions online about lectures during class. Submit small group problems online.
To collaborate through active discussion of the material in small and large groups.
Zero. Use on-line polling to collect and update the gradebook automatically. Give participation points for problems.
Formative assessment: Submit 3 parts of the writing process of the paper during in the term.
To systematically build an analytical paper and correct errors in the writing process before they accumulate into incoherent writing.
Grade 1.5 hours per student for the term, divided into 3 grading sessions.
Project-based learning: Submit 3 parts of a research process in the term and works with a research team.
To obtain information from varied sources about a topic of high interest to the research team: collaborate, plan, discuss, analyze, and present.
Grade 1 hour per group for the term. Up to 3 collaboration sessions overseen in class. Teams present online or in finals week.
Notably, I do not include the two activities that currently dominate college teaching-lecture assessment with blue books and end-of-term paper or report.  They would look like this:
Student Goal
Student Task
Goal of the Student
Professor Effort to Grade 
Write 3-5 pages of information in a blue book in class.
To regurgitate what the professors taught or what the student read.
1.5 hours of repetitive grading per student, divided over 2-3 sessions in the term.
Write 5-10 page paper to a writing prompt and submit at end of term.
To demonstrate the state of the student’s writing skill.
1 hour per student,  possibly 1.5 hours to correct the writing of weaker students.
With limited time spent grading, you can improve students’ academic performances in a more significant range of skills and disciplinary learning through the smart use of technology. Research calls this the frequent, low-stakes assessment plan. It works well, particularly with the availability of online submission and grading. Professors just need to shift their priorities and make use of the online tools. Do yourself and your students a favor by instituting a new assessment strategy this term.


Let us know if you have any questions or if we can help.


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To Lecture or Not to Lecture? That is Not the Question.

Sometimes I am told that I am anti-lecture because I spent much of my career writing active learning pedagogy. That is absolutely not true. I lecture, I enjoy a good lecture, and I see real value in lecture in the college classroom. In fact, experience has shown me that truly great lecturers are usually great analytical thinkers.

But I personally find this whole debate about lecturing a non-starter. If you read carefully, most people who advocate for the lecture, and presumably against active learning, actually argue for high-quality lecture and combinations with active learning methods. And people who advocate for active learning do not discount the lecture and pretty much arrive in the same place–advocating a blend of the two.

In the final analysis, quality teaching is whatever works in building ever more sophisticated thinking in the majority of students. In my 4 decades of teaching, I have found that no one method has a lock on that goal.  The problem as I see it is instructors’ lack of diversity in methods, not the use of a so-called “bad” method.  Research shows that the higher education classroom is over 75% dominated by the method of lecture. On the other hand, the high school classroom has migrated over the last 40 years to a very active learning space.  Is it better?  No one makes that argument. But the truth is that neither classroom has been well-served by taking one side of this useless debate.


For example, in high school classrooms today, you see students going from one small group assignment to another with no lecture in between–because of the mantra that active learning is supposed to be good and lecture bad. But what is the result? Many students come to college lacking mastery of knowledge or any sense of the discipline. The students seem to think that the classroom is like a series of “fun” games. I like fun too, but learning is also work. Students seem to be mystified by the idea that they are supposed to do something to further their education outside the social group of the classroom–such as individual study. And individual work is necessary if you are going to read, research, and write–skills essential to graduating and functioning in the real world. But these skills have truly lost ground in recent years in the secondary space.

Now the same students come to college and find that the classrooms are, as I said, dominated by lecture. The knowledge being conveyed is more sophisticated but the involvement of the student is pretty low, if the classroom follows that usual pattern of 75 minutes of straight lecture, 2 days a week. This college classroom is an information space, where building the fund of knowledge is emphasized, but not necessarily the student’s ability to do something with it.

The interesting parallels in these two scenarios is the following. First, each creates a lot of student dependency on the instructor. Independent learners and confident students are not necessarily being nurtured. Second, if the instructor is not careful, each method can easily and quickly deteriorate into a superficial educational environment with limited learning. So let’s take a look at the advantages of each method when it is done well.

  • It provides quickly and efficiently a fund of knowledge upon which the student can rely to proceed with in-depth study.
  • It models problem solving, analytical skills, evaluative judgments, and passion about the knowledge set forth and the discipline itself.
  • And it creates a narrative glue that holds together all of the active learning sessions, readings, research, and other in-depth study opportunities where students demonstrate their own analytical thinking and expression.
Active Learning:
  • It asks students to use knowledge acquired from lecture and reading to do analytical thinking for themselves.
  • It gives students opportunities for both individual and collaborative in-depth learning, both in and out of the classroom.
  • It provides detailed steps and practice in the classroom for how to do analysis, research, reading, study, and writing to assure that all students know what to do outside the classroom and on their own.
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Authentic Academics: The New Job Readiness Plan

Take a look at this ranking of most desired skills, which was collected from a survey in 2010 by Hart Research Associates for the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

1. The ability to communicate effectively, orally and in writing (89%)
2. Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills (81%)
3. The ability to analyze and solve complex problems (75%)
4. Teamwork skills and the ability to collaborate with others in diverse group settings (71%)
5. The ability to innovate and be creative (70%)
6. The ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information from multiple sources (68%)
7. The ability to work with numbers and understand statistics (63%)

It must be a poll of university professors about the goals of a college education-right? Wrong. It’s a nation-wide poll of employers identifying the 7 essential skills of entry-level employees. It looks like the most-valued skills of today’s knowledge economy are also the goals of the much-maligned American liberal college education. And employers are not just saying this, they are acting on it.  Note the way net new jobs since the Great Recession are overwhelmingly biased in favor of college graduates.

We are not often asked to consider that college professors and employers might be on the same side. After all, there has been a lot of discussion today about whether a college education is worth it for two reasons. First, the price of college is leaving students in severe debt. Second, many students who have a bachelor’s degree are not able to get employment in their fields. Therefore, many graduates end up in minimum wage jobs after getting a rather expensive degree.

So, are employers blowing smoke when they say they value these skills? The operative word here is “skills.” It is presumed that when students have graduated from college, they will have the 7 essential skills above. Not so. In 2003, the American Library Association published the results of an extensive adult literacy test that found only 31% of college graduates in America actually had college-level reading ability. They did not assess the writing, computation, and reasoning skills suggested above, or the percentage would have been much lower. And that same reading assessment conducted today would probably garner even worse results.

We can argue about how we got into a condition where so many students are “inauthentic” graduates. For example, there are the financial formulas of colleges and universities today that cram too many students into classes, so there is little professor-on-student time to assess sophisticated liberal knowledge, let alone train and assess complex skills. Then there is the 3-unit system of the bachelor degree, which rewards students for passive attendance rather than reaching benchmarks of skill and knowledge acquisition. Also, we have the pattern of universities to emphasize “access,” so much so that they admit millions of students each year who simply are not ready for college.

But the professoriate also has problems. In the face of data that suggests that students need more skill development and more active demonstrations so that they can blend knowledge, skills, and academic behavior, the majority of professors still regard themselves as primarily transmitters of sophisticated knowledge in their disciplines, and teach accordingly. Moreover, universities and professors tend to ignore, financially and pedagogically, the lower division where the futures of so many disadvantaged and under-prepared students are made or broken. Finally, when faced with an avalanche of students who are weak to start with, there is pressure from the administration and from social media (for example, to dumb down the whole curriculum and let students pass through, even though they show minimal or no skill, or even knowledge, acquisition.

What to do? A lot of things, even though most are beyond our control because they involve money. But nothing gets done unless you can agree on what you are trying to produce. So, the first thing is to identify what is a successful college education-authentic academics-using a language that professors who train and employers who employ can at least agree upon. Here is the evaluation formula I would suggest.

Authentic Academics =  7 Essential Skills + Liberal Education + Major Field Training

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The Ever Expanding Textbook

There is a secret method in education called “pre-teaching,” where students are taught a concept the week before it is presented in class. This strategy is incredibly effective because it uses an important factor of student success that I refer to as “pre-knowledge.”

Students with a higher level of subject knowledge (“pre-knowledge”) going into the class tend to succeed. Not only is there less new information to absorb, but new information can be tied to previous information that has already been organized in the mind. More importantly, students with pre-knowledge maintain the powerful social role of “experts” in the classroom. Novice students know little about the subject, lack confidence, and feel as if there is an insurmountable amount of information to learn. Pre-teaching turns novice students into expert students.

What does pre-teaching have to do with textbooks? The typical textbook is not written for novice students or expert students; it is actually written for instructors. Instructors are not mere experts, but exceptional experts. When an instructor reads the textbook, she already knows the information it contains and is able to be critical of its content. Instructors question why some information is not in the text or why certain material is not given more prominence. These concerns are communicated to textbook representatives, who alert the editor. The editor adds more text to the already dense textbook to accommodate the exceptional experts—the instructors.

Since 1980, typical textbooks have grown 50% in length. Not coincidentally, the most frequent inquiry on professor rating websites is, “Do you have to buy the textbook to pass the class?” And, increasingly, the answer is “No.” Professors understand that their textbooks are too dense, even for the expert students in their class. Most instructors test students more thoroughly on material from the lecture and less on material from the readings. Consequently, it is not surprising that current national studies indicate students show little to no growth in reading comprehension during the first two years of college.

Research shows that the 8 best-selling textbooks are written several years beyond the median reading level of entry-level college students. This is an important problem. Textbooks are not only expensive, they are becoming irrelevant. One University of California professor recently stated about the most frequently adopted history text today; “The best textbook students don’t read.” It is time to leave the ever-expanding textbooks behind and assign reading content that is designed to promote each student’s education and development.

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The Great Reading Debate: Digital Or Paper?

Do students understand and retain the material they read digitally as well as they do on paper? Recent research indicates that it depends on what is being read, and for what purpose.

Digital reading is problematic for the long novel because the reader is not able to retain the evolution of the plot as well. There is something about the physical sense of being part way, half way, or almost done with a book that aids the reader’s sense of time and narrative. On the other hand, a book that is simply a page-turner (sometimes called the “airport book”) does not place the kind of demand on the reader that James Joyce’s Ulysses would. This provides some explanation for the popularity of Kindle among the easy-reading public.

The amount of time spent reading digital texts is also an issue. Although recent studies indicate that the younger reading public is more accustomed to reading digitally than their elders, handing anyone a 400-page digital textbook is setting them up for quite a slog. In fact, students already tell us that a 400­-page paper textbook does not interest them either-30 percent of students nationwide do not even buy the text assigned for their class, and those who do buy it hardly get past the first two chapters before they give up on that particular reading experience.

The real problem here is selecting the right kinds of reading that will aid the various purposes of the classroom experience. Just one type of reading is probably not the most productive or effective reading strategy for either a modern reader or for today’s students, most of whom come to college several grades behind in reading ability.

Here are 4 types of reading to consider as preparation for the classroom setting:

  1. Shorter passages of digital information text of 2,000-­3,000 words or less (the “chunked” textbook, as reading specialists refer to it). These digital texts should return to where paper textbooks were 40 years ago, when they contained about 2/3 of the amount of information that they do today.
  2. Short background readings of 500-­700 words or less in digital or paper form to set up primary source readings which are also no more than 500-700 words.
  3. Digital or paper scripts for 2,000­ word lectures that are accompanied by a presentation (roughly 20-slides))-in other words, assigning a portion of your lectures as at-home reading.
  4.  Real paper books of the standard 65,000-­90,000 word length that contain a narrative quality and strong interest for young people. These might include historical fiction, biography, autobiography, or very straightforward monograph.
In the end, while professors consider the virtues and drawbacks of digital versus on-paper reading, let us not lose sight of the fact that various reading methods, their diversity, and their purposes, are actually most important as they relate to the student’s academic needs and preferences. Some reading experiences will better fit one particular learning environment, while another method will better support learning in a different context or for a different purpose. 
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Love The Student You’re With

Although I would like to enjoy the music most students today listen to, I confess that–like most people–I am a creature of the social and cultural world of my youth.  One of my favorite songs was a classic anthem to free love by Stephen Stills, “Love the One You’re With.”  The refrain contains the line, “And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.” Stills makes the point that it is not always easy to accept a new normal, but sometimes you should just make do.

While there are new norms in college teaching today that should be questioned and rejected, today’s students are a new normal that we need to embrace.

How have students changed since, “Love the One You’re With,” climbed the charts in the 1970s? In 1973, about 45% of high school graduates went to college, and of those, about 60% graduated with a bachelors degree within 6 years. Today, 70% of high school graduates attempt college, but a little less than 50% graduate within 6 years.

There are 3 types of students going to college today–top, middle, and low performing. In 1973, you would have seen the first (top) and second (middle), but rarely the third student. The increasing number of low performing students entering college has contributed to the falling graduation rate of the last 40 years.

The third category of student, the low performing student, did not need to go to college forty years ago because there was gainful employment for the non college-educated. That labor market has been globalized and automated out of this economy. Without educated labor skills, the third student will not obtain the employment that lifts him or her into the middle class. He or she hovers around the poverty level and, in a very disturbing recent trend, cannot afford to form a family. Either the student joins the working poor or gives college a try.

What happens in college to the students in the third category? Most are simply weeded out as part of the national 52% dropout rate. Over 20% of all students who drop out do so during the freshmen year and then another 30% in subsequent years. While many things contribute to the dropout rate, the core problem is that entering students do not have college-ready skills in reading, writing, computing, and problem solving. In fact, the average student arrives in college 3-4 years behind, with specific weaknesses in writing and problem solving.

The college professor’s responsibility to these struggling students can be hard to realize, especially if the professor is used to and has come to expect the college-ready students of the 1970s. Professors can either accept the dropout rate as reality or rethink their teaching strategy to help give students the tools and skills to graduate.

The latter route is worth the trouble. Raising the national graduation rate by 10% would translate into two extremely important moral outcomes the nation needs:

  • First, it will help arrest the trend of the decline of the middle class.
  • Second, it will improve America’s record on social mobility, something that has been declining for the last 30+ years.

That 10% goal is not unrealistic. It does not capture up all of the third category of student who may sadly already be too far behind. The goal can be met when professors rethink those crucial first two years of college. Instead of waiting for the good old days of classes full of college-ready students, we should learn to love the almost, nearly, could-be college-ready students we are with.

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