Should We Continue to Assign “Term Papers” in University?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about teaching and learning recently (in between finishing a new book with Jen Nelles and a really cool new paper on political donations with Chris Cochrane: more on these projects once they are closer to completion!).

Last year, a colleague in my department noted that a student could technically complete a BA in political science at WLU without ever having to write a lengthy research paper. This colleague had gone through all of our syllabi and found that very few of us assigned term papers in our courses anymore. This led to some discussion about the need for students to write at least one major term paper during their studies at WLU (or ideally, one major term paper per year).

In my view, the death of the term paper may not be such a bad thing and it seems others agree:
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There is no question that the skills involved in writing a term paper are valuable and should be taught and fostered among our students, but I’m not so sure that the traditional term paper is the way to do it!

In my view, many of the learning outcomes associated with the traditional term paper (e.g. research skills, comprehension and evaluation, critical thinking, and writing) can be better achieved by:

a) shorter, and more frequent writing assignments; and

b) assignments that better mimic what they might do in the real world (e.g. policy briefs; ministerial briefings, summaries of literature or events etc).

I know some of my colleagues engage in scaffolding, which provides students with the same benefits as (a): frequent practice and feedback.  But I’m not sure there’s a ton of value of having students write traditional research/term papers on “should Canada reform its electoral system”, unless such papers are aligned with (b).

I guess much of my skepticism comes from trying to pay more attention to the importance of learning objectives/outcomes and the empirical evidence on learning.  As someone who received absolutely no training and teaching, I’m slowly starting to see the need for reforming my courses and teaching!



Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

So reads the title of a new book I just finished reading.  It was written by two psychology professors and a novelist.  In essence, it draws upon the empirical literature (mostly experimentally-based studies) on learning to describe how we learn and how instructors/trainers can best facilitate effective learning.

So what are the key messages? There are three main ones:

1. “Effortful learning” is more effective than “easy learning”.  Forget highlighting and rereading the textbook or your notes.  These strategies give the illusion of effective learning and mastery but empirical studies show that these strategies tend to produce short-term gains.  Instead, “retrieval practice” is more effective for generating meaningful and long-term learning.  By retrieval practice, the authors mean “self-quizzing”. This means reading a portion of the textbook chapter and immediately self-testing without looking at the textbook.  Self-quizzing is more effortful than rereading and highlighting and the empirical research suggests that the latter strategy is more effective than the former.
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2. “Space out your retrieval practice.” Don’t cram. “It’s a common but mistaken belief that you can burn something into memory through sheer repetition. Lots of practice works, but only if it’s spaced.”

3. “Interleave the study of different problem types”.  The example they give is baseball players.  It is more effective for batters to see a random mix of fastballs, changeups, and curveballs as opposed to seeing 15 fastballs, then 15 changeups, and then 15 curveballs. “Blocked practice – that is, mastering all of one type of problem before progressing to practice another type – feels (and looks) like you’re getting better mastery as you go, whereas interrupting the study of one type to practice a different type feels disruptive and counterproductive.” Yet “mixing up problem types and specimens improves your ability to discriminate between types, identify the unifying characteristics within a type, and improves your success in a later test or in real-world settings.”

Other effective strategies for learning include elaboration (e.g. “relating the material to what you already know, explaining it to somebody else in your own words, or explaining how it relates to your life outside of class), generation (e.g. “an attempt to answer a question or solve a problem before being shown the answer or solution”), reflection (e.g. take “a few minutes to review what you have learned), calibration (e.g. “using an objective instrument to clear away illusions and adjust your judgment to better reflect reality”), and mnemonic devices (e.g. memory devices to remember new information).

If these observations accurately reflect the science of how we learn effectively, what does that mean for us as course instructors at the university level (well, at least us political science profs)?

First. I think it means we need to teach or at least inform students about these aspects of learning so they can adopt the right strategies.

It means we need to move away somewhat from the traditional format of weekly readings and lectures, mid term test, final exam, and research essay, towards a structure that embraces low stakes, frequent and cumulative testing. We also need to include more writing opportunities in which students engage more frequently in cumulative elaboration, reflection, and generation.

In my second year courses, I’ve already started to do some of these things with more frequent writing assignments as well as weekly online quizzes based on the readings. I also use and automated response system like learning catalytics (and this year, top hat monocle) to quiz students about lecture material during class, in real-time. But none of my quizzes are cumulative and so perhaps I need to make that adjustment.

Anyway, the book offers a lot of useful advice and insight and is very readable to boot! My one complaint is that at times, they don’t practice what they preach.  It would have been nice, for instance, if they had put some sample retrieval questions at the end of each chapter to help me practice! However, they did interleave and space out their teaching, which was consistent with their argument.  I guess I needed to be more vigilant with the self-quizzing part!

The Nature of Political Advising to Prime Ministers in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK

Authors: Anna Lennox Esselment, Jennifer Lees-Marshment & Alex Marland

Published June 2014 in Commonwealth & Comparative Politics.

Abstract: Political advisors to heads of government occupy such a privileged sphere of influence that their role is a source of consternation among democratic idealists. Interviews with advisors to prime ministers of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK inform a small body of comparative literature about political advising in the Commonwealth. The authors find that first ministers consider input from many advisors and therefore the counsel of any one advisor is of limited impact. Further research is needed to understand the extent to which these agents project the power of the executive office and make decisions on the principal’s behalf.

Tie end to economic restrictions in Gaza to a demilitarized Hamas

Published July 29, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Despite their obvious limitations and vulnerabilities, the one power the Palestinians have over the Israelis is the ability to embarrass them.

The wildly disproportionate civilian casualty rates have become the new media metric for evaluating military conflicts, except that here the public relations winner is the side with the greater losses. Just as we have seen with media election campaign coverage being overtaken by public opinion polls, the ability to put a number on the action seems to transcend any other analytical approach to covering the confrontation, such as underlying motivations, tactics and strategies.

The lopsided fatality figures coming out of the Israeli-Hamas confrontation in Gaza should be no surprise to anyone who can recall the data from previous conflicts in 2009 and 2012. The inescapable supposition is that Hamas undertook their rocketing campaign in full anticipation of enormous civilian casualties on their own side.

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Should You Go to University?

Ken Coates and Bill Morrison have a new book out called, What to Consider if You’re Considering University: New Rules for Education and Employment.

The main argument of this book is that university isn’t for everyone. Instead, students need to think more carefully about what is the best post-secondary option given their interests, goals, and aptitudes.

To help students make their decision, at least with respect to university, they suggest considering the following questions (which I’ve taken from a Waterloo Record article): Continue reading

  • Do you read high quality fiction, other than what you had to read in English class? (Books with zombies in them don’t count as “high quality.”)
  • Do you read newspapers (online is fine), magazines like The EconomistMaclean’s and The Walrus, and high quality non-fiction books like those written by Malcolm Gladwell?
  • Do you watch foreign films, art films, public television and documentaries?
  • Do you get excited or troubled about world affairs? Do you seek out information about climate change, conflict in the Middle East, the economic rise of China or developments in stem cell technology?
  • Do you like learning? Do you enjoy museums, art galleries, lectures and discussions that embrace the world of ideas? Are you interested in outer space, the evolution of species, and other scientific topics?

Coates, who was in town on Thursday, calls this a “curiosity test.” Your responses “tell us almost everything we need to know about you,” the book says. If you answered yes to most of these questions, you’re curious and enjoy reading. You will likely enjoy university, do well, and find your way.”

So how would I score right now on this test?

1) I don’t really read high quality fiction, whatever that is.  I do read science fiction though.

2) I do read newspapers and high quality non-fiction, but much of that is for work.

3) I have, but don’t really watch any of those things. At least not very often.

4) Yes. Definitely. Not excited, but more like curious about why they happen or what they mean.

5) Yes, I do like learning.

So I guess university is for me!

But what would my answers have been when I was in high school? I’m not 100% sure, but I think:

1) Again, no.  But I did read lots of science fiction.

2) Yes, but I mainly read the comics and the sports section.  I did skim the front page and I did read Maclean’s religiously for a while . However, that was because my dad used to work for Maclean’s and he would bring home copies for me.

3) Definitely not.

4) Not really. I did pay attention to Canadian politics but did I seek out information? Not really.

5) I’m pretty sure I would have said no at the time. I guess I did have some interest in museums in that I liked the “old civilizations” stuff (mainly as a result of historical board games and computer games).

How about you?

Rationality in short supply in Israeli-Hamas conflict

Published July 17, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

There perhaps has been no more fitting a metaphor over the years for the Palestinian resistance movement in general, and Hamas in particular, than the shahid, the suicide bomber.

While the tactics of suicide belts and bombing buses have been stymied by Israeli intelligence, and particularly the barrier separating West Bank Arabs from Israelis, the Hamas strategy has deviated little. Motivated by people who think the path to eternal paradise is dying in the pursuit of killing Israelis, they continue to follow the increasingly futile approach of placing Palestinians at risk in order to accomplish jihadist goals. Unable to achieve their goals by killing Israelis, they are now threatening to kill themselves.

Westerners who have difficulty fathoming this thinking are rightly appalled by the absurdly disproportionate casualties in Gaza and Israel from the seemingly endless barrage of rockets and missiles launched by the two sides. However, this is a part of the world where xenophobia and an obsession with lost honour prevail, and where compromise is derided.

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Random Stuff: Co-authorship and Compulsory Voting

There’s a new book from Cambridge University Press written by two political theorists who argue with each other about the merits of Compulsory Voting.  Looks like a great book for teaching!

There’s also a new study (hat tip kids prefer cheese) that looks at how people perceive art that is produced collaboratively or by one artist. Info below:

Rosanna Smith & George Newman
Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, forthcoming

Abstract: The present studies investigate whether people perceive the same work of art to be of lower quality if they learn that it was a collaborative work (resulting from the efforts of multiple artists) versus the work of a single artist. Study 1 finds that indeed, as the number of authors increases, the perceived quality of an artwork decreases. Study 2 finds that this effect occurs because people tend to assess quality in terms of the effort put forth by each author, rather than the total amount of effort required to create the work. Study 3 further demonstrates that this bias toward single authors appears to be driven by people’s beliefs, rather than by any inherent differences between individual versus collaborative work. These results broaden our understanding of how perceptions of effort drive evaluative judgments, and are consistent with a more general notion that art is not evaluated as a static entity, but rather as an endpoint in a “creative performance.

I think the study (well, at least based on the abstract!) is interesting but also relevant for academia.  Typically, co-authorship is discounted.  People seem to think that somehow, co-authorship automatically involves less work than single-authored publications.  I can say definitely that it’s not true! I also think that co-authorship has one powerful advantage that single-authorship does not.  You are stuck with some heavily invested in the project, and who will therefore spend lots of time thinking about and discussing the project with you! In single authored work, colleagues will help as much as they can, but won’t do as much as a co-author would and so single-authored studies have to rely heavier on solitary thinking, and peer review/conferences


Barriers to Calling 9-1-1 during Overdose Emergencies in a Canadian Context

AuthorsKayla M. Follett, Anthony Piscitelli, Michael Parkinson, and Felix Munger

Published July 2014 in Critical Social Work.

Abstract: Research has shown there are notable barriers to calling 9-1-1 during accidental overdose emergencies. Overdose is a significant health and social justice concern, yet Canadian researchers have not explored the existence or prevalence of these systemic obstacles. The current case study examines the barriers to calling 9-1-1 that people face in Southern Ontario when confronted with accidental overdose incidents. The locality of this study is particularly suitable as Wellington County, that is, Waterloo Region and Guelph are socio-demographically similar to Ontario and Canada. Barriers were assessed by surveying individuals that have or currently use drugs (n=291) and are clients of local methadone clinics or outreach services. Data were explored using frequency tables and then compared using crosstabulations. The findings of this case study suggest there are multiple barriers to calling 9-1-1 during accidental drug overdoses. Similar to previous studies, the most common barriers cited were fear of being arrested (53%), breaching probation or parole (30%), and fear of losing custody of children (24%). Lowering the barriers to calling 9-1-1 may help to forge the path necessary to improved health care and access to resources. Ultimately, and most importantly, lives may be saved.

Do “Audience Response Systems” (e.g. clickers) Produce Better Learning Outcomes?

The answer, according to a new study, is basically no.

Main findings are:

  • Students like clickers. They feel that it helps them pay greater attention in class.
  • Student attendance is also facilitated by clickers.
  • But does it impact learning outcomes? On the metric of “test scores” the answer is no.

All of these findings confirm what I’ve found anecdotally from my classes.  High attendance? Check. Students like them because it helps them pay attention during a three hour night class? Check.

But does it have an effect on test score? I don’t know.  I’ve never really compared.


So, I did a quick and extremely rough comparison between the 2011 and 2013 final grades (not test scores) for my second year intro to Canadian politics course.  It’s nowhere near a perfect comparison, I realize, because some of the content and assignments/final exams are different.  Also, I can’t control for variations in my tone and delivery, the classrooms, timeslots etc. In other words, there’s a lot noise in this comparison. And so I know I should stop here and abandon any hopes of comparison and analysis, but what the heck?! This is a blog so:

2011 had no audience response system. 2013 did. Roughly, what do we see?

In 2011, I had 104 students.  Class average was a C (65.86%). Standard deviation was 15.34%. Median was C+ (68.85%).

In 2013, I had 105 students. Class average was a C+ (68.5%). Standard deviation was 12.1%. Median was B- (70%).

Overall, not much of a difference. (Anyone want to run a t-test for me?!)

But, if we value class attendance and student satisfaction, then maybe test scores shouldn’t be the only factor in deciding whether we should use audience response systems. Or maybe, we might see results differ on other evaluation tools beyond test score.

We need more research on teaching methods and technologies and their effects on learning outcomes.

My Thoughts on the Aboriginal Title SCC Decision: Part 2

The National Post today (Wednesday July 2) printed my op ed on the impact of the recent SCC decision on Aboriginal title.  They haven’t posted a copy on the website yet and I’m not sure they will (the Canada Day holiday has played some havoc with the publishing schedule!).

So, just in case they don’t publish it online at some point, below is the raw, un-copyedited version of the op ed.  I hope my much more legally-informed and inclined colleagues (I’m looking at you guys, Macfarlane and Baker!) will tell me whether I’m right or wrong?
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Headline: A recipe for Indigenous Paralysis?

Of all of the dispute resolution mechanisms available to Indigenous peoples and the Crown in Canada, the judicial system is probably the worst of the lot.  Rarely do judicial decisions create harmony and compromise between two parties.  Instead, they frequently produce winners and losers and all of the negative feelings that come with being labeled as such.

Canadian judges have long been aware of this fact, which partly explains why it took them so long to clarify the exact nature of Aboriginal title in this country.  Previous to this decision, Canadian courts had urged Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal leaders to negotiate their disputes rather than litigate them.  This recent decision, however, dramatically changes this long-standing message from the bench, with potentially dire and unintended consequences.

One of the key mechanisms for addressing the Aboriginal land question in Canada has been the treaty process.  Although far from perfect, Aboriginal groups have been working with the Crown to negotiate comprehensive land claims agreements to facilitate economic development and empower their communities to exercise their autonomy within the broad legal framework of Canada.  Remember that the Supreme Court had previously refused to clearly spell out the nature of Aboriginal title, and so it made sense for Aboriginal groups to negotiate with the Crown.

This new decision, however, radically changes the incentives facing Indigenous people.  Now, we are likely to see Indigenous groups across Canada abandon negotiations in favour of simply asserting their title and sovereignty to all their lands.  Why bother negotiating a modern treaty, which involves giving up Aboriginal title in exchange for a mixed bag of ownership rights to a much smaller portion of Aboriginal lands, when you can exercise something akin to fee simple ownership over all of your traditional lands right away and without the time and expense of negotiating a treaty?

If Aboriginal groups choose this path, then the Crown will have to decide how to react.  Will it radically reform the treaty process to bring Aboriginal groups back to the table? Or will it seek confrontation by pushing the “compelling and substantial public purpose” angle to push development forward despite Aboriginal opposition?  Given the track record of this federal government, I think the latter strategy is more likely and Canadians should brace themselves for years of protests and confrontations.

A second unintended consequence of this decision, and one that I think is just as important as the others, is that it potentially empowers individual Indigenous citizens to hold not only the government of Canada accountable for its actions, but their Aboriginal leaders as well.  Aboriginal title now means something akin to fee simple rights, and which is collectively held by the Aboriginal community.  This also means, among other things, that Aboriginal groups may also face potentially powerful restrictions on how they can use their lands now and in the future.  According to the Supreme Court, lands held under Aboriginal title cannot be used in such a way as to threaten their future use by future generations.

What this means in practice is that even if an Aboriginal government grants its consent to a major economic development project, an individual band member could successfully sue to prevent that development from occurring on the basis that the project threatened the future use of the community’s lands.

It is also possible that band members might use this new definition of Aboriginal title to thwart other land use projects besides resource extraction, such as building casinos and even housing subdivisions. A band member might successfully argue that building a multimillion dollar casino will prevent future band members from using that particular plot of land for traditional cultural practices, like hunting and fishing.

There’s no question that this decision is a “game changer.” What’s unclear is exactly how the game has been changed and for whom.

Christopher Alcantara is an associate professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University. His latest book, Negotiating the Deal: Comprehensive Land Claims Agreements in Canada, was published last year by University of Toronto Press and was a finalist for this year’s Donald Smiley Prize.


Double Blind Peer Review: Some Thoughts for the First Timers

Double blind peer review is supposed to be the gold standard of academic research.

According to this model, authors submit manuscripts to journal or book editors who in turn send the papers to experts in the field.  These experts are supposed to evaluate the manuscripts anonymously; neither the reviewer nor the author is supposed to know the identity of each other until after publication when at the least the author is revealed.

Given how important peer review is to academic success, it’s astounding that we are rarely trained in how to actually do it!
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The results of this lack of training, quite frankly, can be very frustrating and sometimes insulting for authors, who frequently, though not always, have to find a way to satisfy a reviewer who:

  • didn’t carefully read the paper but instead briefly skimmed it and the list of references (for their name!);
  • provided little to zero comments on how to improve the paper;
  • is fundamentally opposed to your theoretical or methodological choices; and/or
  • is just plain rude and insulting of your intellectual abilities and writing capabilities (apparently, I write like a first year undergraduate, which may be true if you talk to some of my co-authors!).

Of course, there are also many reviewers out there who provide very helpful comments and thoughtful reviews/rejections. But occasionally, one of the reviewers will commit one or more of the above sins, plus be four months overdue in submitting their review!

Having received and done many peer reviews over the last decade, I’ve started to develop a number of guidelines in writing my referee reports.  I try to review these guidelines before and after I complete a review.  For those who are just starting the peer review game as a referee, here are some tips or helpful advice to consider.

  1. Accountability and transparency is important!  If you know who the author is, or have a pretty good idea, let the editor know immediately before doing the review.  Discuss your ability to write a fair and relatively unbiased referee report and then leave it to the editor to decide whether you should complete the review.
  2. Read the manuscript at least twice! The first time through should be to simply understand and make sense of the argument, rather than to evaluate it.  Try to figure out exactly what the author is saying and how s/he says it.  Reserve judgment on the author’s theoretical, methodological, and analytical choices until the second read through.  During your second read through, carefully analyze the appropriateness of these choices, including the logic behind them and the integration of these choices given the research question.  Don’t “dump and run” or “snipe from the bushes” as one of my old UofT profs use to say.
  3. During this second reading, check your theoretical and methodological biases at the door!  If you hate political economy, don’t immediately reject a paper for using this framework (indeed, my paper on territorial devolution and my book on treaties both had to deal with reviewers who were extremely hostile mainly on the basis of my chosen theoretical framework, rather than how it was applied or whether alternatives were more appropriate).  Instead, consider how far the author’s framework or methodology takes them in terms of answering the question.  Consider whether there are plausible theoretical alternatives, given the evidence presented. Consider the nature of the evidence presented, given what currently exists out there in literature or elsewhere.  But don’t reject out of hand because you hate constructivism or whatever. Evaluate from within or take a pass on reviewing the paper.  Or, state your biases upfront to the editor and to the author (see Tip #1 above!)
  4. Provide a thorough list of suggestions, both major and minor.  Rejections should be accompanied by thoughtful and helpful comments about how to improve the paper for resubmission elsewhere. Accepts should say why the paper should be published.  Frequently editors have to deal with split decisions (e.g. one review says accept; the other says reject) and so giving a strong set of reasons for why the paper should be published could push the editor towards acceptance.  Sometimes, during revise and resubmits, I will actually comment on some of the other reviews if I think the author should not take some suggestions very seriously, which again can help editors make more informed decisions.
  5. Provide caveats to your review! I try to preface different sets of comments by saying which ones are really crucial and which ones the authors should consider but do not have to address.  I also try to tell authors that I don’t think they have to address all of my comments, but I think they should address some and tell me why the others do not need to be addressed. As reviewers, we sometimes forget that these aren’t our papers and so we end up trying to co-author them. Instead, I think our role is to provide advice, recognize that authors will disagree with us, and provide space for that give and take, as long as a certain scholarly bar is met.
  6. Provide even more caveats to your review! Sometimes I’ll be asked to review something that isn’t quite in my wheelhouse.  Given the frequency in which journal editors complain about reviewer fatigue, I almost always accept reviewer invitations even on papers that I really don’t have any really expertise in. In those situations, I always inform the editors and authors about the nature and extent of my expertise (sometimes none!) and that my comments should be read in that light.  Again, accountability and transparency are important!
  7. Be Nice! I remember once writing a really nasty review of a paper that was terrible on all fronts, and really shouldn’t have been sent out for review.  I’m talking grammatical errors, typos, spelling mistakes, referencing errors, and bad scholarship.  The paper got me in a really bad mood and the tone of the review reflected that fact.  The minute after I hit “submit”, I immediately regretted the tone of the review.  Having been on the receiving end of those reviews from time to time, I’ve come to appreciate how important it is to be, well, nice!  There’s nothing wrong with being critical; it’s part of the job.  However, the delivery is just as important as the content.  Indeed, authors are more likely to incorporate constructive criticism and reject nasty slagging.
  8. Finally, my biggest pet peeve is how long the review process takes.  There’s no one else to blame but ourselves! I’ve waited anywhere between 6 to 18 months at times for referee reports, which is outrageous.  I think four weeks is a reasonable expectation to find 5 or 6 hours to properly review a journal article.  Six weeks is also reasonable for book manuscripts.  Try to prioritize writing reviews please!  Authors appreciate quick turnaround times, especially because actual publication can take a long time, but so can finding a home for the paper.  So let’s help each other out and let’s all get to that “review pile” today!

Any other tips/observations? Provide them in the comment section!

Iraq could be headed toward a three-way partition

Published June 26, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Probably the only positive implication of the rapid expansion of Sunni Jihadist territorial gains in western Iraq is that it provides an opportunity for everyone to be correct in casting responsibility for the mess on somebody else.

In truth, everyone is to blame, from the English and French governments that drafted the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916; to the tyrannical Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein; to the George W. Bush administration that overthrew him; to the Barack Obama administration that removed U.S. troops; to the current government of Nouri al-Maliki that has cut out non-Shia involvement; to the Iranians, Saudis and Qataris who have poured in resources to support their co-religionists at the expense of others; to the Europeans who happily ignored the problem and blamed others.

Just as there is nobody free of blame, there is no correct policy to pursue. Whatever strategy is followed is fraught with peril, will likely be unsuccessful, and will undoubtedly further antagonize various of the combatants.

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“I studied so hard for your exam and I still only got a (insert low grade here). What should I do?”

I’m sure many of us teaching at the university level have had this conversation at least once per semester!

Below are some helpful tips on what to say, based on existing research on study habits. I’ve directly quoted an excerpt of the article below (none of the advice is mine!). Continue reading

I also ordered a new book called “Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” which draws more on cognitive psychology to reveal successful strategies for teaching and learning.  Some good summer reading, hopefully!  Here’s a Chronicle of Higher Ed article on this new book.  It looks promising!

Teaching Tips

1. Find Out How the Student Has Been Studying. Possible questions include:

Did you read the assigned chapters before the test? Did you read them before you came to class, after, or just before the exam? How much time did you devote to studying for the test? Did you read these chapters once, or more than once? (This question provides a chance to review the old Law of Frequency, and to describe how repetition influences memory formation and recall.)

2. Check Attendance and Note Taking Practices. Assuming that the student attends class regularly, you might ask the following: Do you take good notes? Do you review your notes after class to correct obvious errors? Do you compare your notes with those of other students? Where do you sit in the classroom? You may also want to look at the quality of the student’s notes and suggest changes (e.g., leaving more space, use of topic headings, writing down of examples used by the instructor).

3. Suggest Healthy Behaviors. Ask how much sleep the student gets, how much they got the night before the exam, and if they are getting any exercise and eating properly. (This might provide an opportunity to review the effects of sleep on memory formation.)

4. Recommend Tutoring. If tutors are available, encourage their use. If not, ask if the student has tried studying with other students.

5. Discuss Recognition Versus Knowing. Describe the difference between going over material enough that one can “recognize” the material as very familiar and prematurely conclude that it is known and understood, and really knowing and understanding it. (You might even mention Ebbinghaus and the benefits of overlearning, or work on the “curse of knowledge” showing that students often think they know the material if the material is right there in front of them.)

6. Urge Self-Assessment. One easy strategy is to give your students access to an established and free study behavior measure (e.g., ASSIST) and have them use it to get a sense of what they are not doing (Entwistle, 2009). The ASSIST provides a profile of scores on strategies and alerts students to possible problems in their existing ways of studying (available at

7. Discuss Winning Strategies. Hattie (2009) synthesized research from over 800 meta-analyses relating to educational achievement. He then derived the effect sizes for different interventions. Intervening to improve study behaviors was a significant factor with an effect size of .59. This meta-analysis and other works on study techniques (Gurung, 2004, 2005) show that the following specific strategies are empirically proven to work and hence useful to pass on to students:

  • Schedule daily studying and homework time
  • Make lists of things to accomplish during studying
  • Put off pleasurable events until work is completed
  • Read the textbook (!!)
  • Review the class textbook/assignments before going to class
  • Create mnemonics and vivid mental images to aid learning
  • Memorize the material through repetition
  • Generate examples to apply the material
  • Record information relating to study tasks (e.g., keeping a study log)
  • Self-verbalize the steps to complete a given task
  • Use chapter review questions to self test
  • Use a study partner
  • Review the items missed on the exam, including items guessed at
  • Make an outline before writing a paper
  • Check work before handing in an assignment

8. Advise Students on what NOT to do. Previous research suggests that students take some “dangerous detours”: study techniques that may not be beneficial involving more study time at the expense of other techniques (Gurung, 2004, p. 164). Sadly, such detours could represent behaviors used by academically weaker students. Whereas the academically stronger students may not take time on behaviors such as going over chapters right after a lecture in lieu of doing so right before an exam, the weaker students may go over the chapters at both times. In support of this point, Landrum, Turrisi, and Brandel (2006) found that A and B students tended to increase their frequency of studying as the semester progressed, but they decreased the actual time spent studying per study event (p. 681). (Another testimony to the benefits of distributed vs. massed practice.) Students who are doing poorly may try to improve by doing more of the unsuccessful types of studying they have been doing, rather than trying other techniques. Key behaviors students should avoid are:

  • Spending too much time on key terms or summaries to the extent of paying less attention to other pedagogical aids (e.g., review questions)
  • Highlighting too much text (i.e., not knowing what the important information really is), thus increasing study load
  • Using chapter review questions (and their answers) as more content to study versus using them to test their own knowledge
  • “Studying with a friend” where this does not involve testing each other, taking review questions, creating examples, or reviewing notes
  • Listening to music, watching television, text messaging, or surfing the Internet while studying

9. Assess Your Own Students’ Study Behaviors. Correlate the behaviors with exam scores and identify what behaviors are associated with better scores. Share this with the students to help them modify their study behavior. For example the first author created a 35-item Study Behavior Checklist based on previous research and student interviews (Gurung et al., in press). The items assessed students’ organizational behaviors (e.g., writing down when exams, assignments, and quizzes are due, setting up a study schedule), applicationbehaviors (e.g., creating questions about the material), elaboration behaviors (e.g., paraphrasing the material, explaining it to another person), metacognitive behaviors (e.g., using the book and/or Web site for quizzes), andresource use behaviors (e.g., asking a fellow classmate to explain the material) on a scale ranging from 1 (Not at all like me) to 5 (Exactly like me). Higher exam scores were associated with:

  • Attending class, r(114) = .23, p < .05
  • Answering all questions on the study guide, r(114) = .23, p < .05.
  • Using practice exams to study, r(114) = .24, p < .05.
  • Ability to explain problems using the material, r(114) = .28, p < .01.

10. Do not expect a silver bullet. It is important to bear in mind that there are no strategies that work all of the time, for all students, in all classes. Different exams call for different strategies. It is possible that introductory psychology multiple choice exams require only basic study behaviors, whereas an upper-level essay exam will need different behaviors.

In general, instructors need to be cognizant of how much of the advice they give to students is empirically proven to work in an actual classroom rather than a controlled cognitive psychology laboratory study. Asking students to complete a study skill inventory after the first exam may provide instructors with a starting point to discussing study behaviors with students. Taking some class time to discuss the variety of study techniques,and then detailing what exactly is involved in each method, may be critical to helping students do better. We hope these suggestions prove helpful when the next student asks you how to study for your exams and that their performance improves as a result of your advice.

Teaching Canadian Politics: Sharing Ideas. A guest post by Drs. Crandall and Lewis

At this year’s CPSA Conference, Drs. Erin Crandall and J.P. Lewis organized a roundtable on: “Practices, Objectives, and Innovations in Teaching Canadian Politics.”  I really wanted to attend this session but unfortunately, I was presenting a paper at the same time!  By all accounts, however, it was an interesting session and I was sorry to miss it.

Fortunately, Dr. Crandall and Dr. Lewis agreed to write the following guest post summarizing some of the ideas and discussions that happened at that session.  Enjoy!

Teaching Canadian Politics: Sharing Ideas
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By: Erin Crandall and J.P. Lewis

Academics have many ways and opportunities to share their research: conferences, articles, books, etc. While teaching conferences do exist in Canada – the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education is holding its 34th annual conference this spring at Queen’s – and political science in the United States has a tradition of dedicating journal and conference space to teaching issues, the Canadian political science community has never engaged in ongoing outreach, networking or collaboration in teaching Canadian politics.

At a time when technology makes it so easy to connect, it seems an opportunity lost that university professors teaching similar courses often don’t have an accessible network for sharing resources. We know, for example, that every year there are more than a hundred people teaching an introductory Canadian politics course at the university level. While many of the topics covered will be the same course to course, the materials used, and their method of deployment will vary by professor. Inevitably, some parts of these courses will work better than others, and it seems in everyone’s interest that we share both our successes and our failures. This seems especially true at a time when courses are increasingly taught by sessional instructors who may be teaching a course for the first time.

With these points in mind, last month we hosted a roundtable on teaching Canadian politics at the Canadian Political Science Association’s annual conference at Brock University. The objective of the roundtable was to provide a forum for Canadian politics professors to discuss practices, objectives, and innovations in teaching, and particularly to discuss the development of an online teaching resource to share materials.

Attendance for the roundtable exceeded our expectations. About twenty people – a mix of graduate students and senior and junior faculty – came together to talk about teaching Canadian politics. People described their courses (size, content, materials, and technologies used) and some of the challenges they face in teaching. It was, we think, a great chance to share and learn.

Moving forward, we’d like to continue this conversation. Those who attended the roundtable expressed interest in developing a network to share teaching ideas and resources. Over the next few months, our plan is to start making this idea a reality. We’ll be creating a listserv to facilitate discussion, as well as an online resource that will include Canadian politics syllabi, links to online resources, and PowerPoint presentations.

Based on the conversations we had at CPSA, we think there’s considerable interest in this type of collaboration and we’re excited to see how it will develop. If you weren’t able to attend the roundtable, but are interested in participating, please contact Erin Crandall and we’ll add you to our email list. This will be an ongoing project and all ideas and suggestions are welcome. J.P. Lewis will be co-chairing the Teaching and Research Skills Development session committee for next year’s CPSA conference so any teaching workshop suggestions are also encouraged.

Reviews of “Negotiating the Deal”

So the first book review (gated) of “Negotiating the Deal: Comprehensive Land Claims Agreements in Canada” was published in the June 2014 issue of Canadian Public Administration and so I was pretty excited to read it the other day.  It was written by Professor John Langford, a former federal treaty negotiator for the B.C. tables and professor in the school of public admin at University of Victoria.

Up until this week, the only formal feedback I’ve received on my book was from the various peer reviewers during the publication process, who were, quite frankly, divided on the merits of the book.  The book was also shortlisted for the Donald Smiley prize, which was a real honour, especially given the previous winners and also the jury members who served on the committee this year.  But other than that, no formal feedback (although I did receive some informal feedback from some of the interviewees and from several negotiators involved at other treaty tables in the Canadian north).
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So what does the review say? Besides the usual summary, which takes up most of the review, Prof. Langford praised the book’s first chapter for being “helpful to readers unfamiliar with the emergence of the comprehensive land claims issue …” and for “very effectively drawing attention to the imbalances of power, the hoops that Aboriginal groups are forced to go through to get into the process and the governments’ strong incentive to drag their feet if the First Nations don’t follow the government’s rule book. He [Alcantara] rightly labels the Aboriginal groups as “petitioners” in the presence comprehensive land claims process (p. 27).”

What are the weaknesses of the book? There are basically three and I think they are fair observations and critiques.

First, “the author doesn’t dwell on the pressure this [e.g. the hoops mentioned above] often places on Aboriginal groups to contract with expensive negotiators, lawyers, and consultants (financed by government loans) with a natural incentive to keep an Aboriginal group at the table and the per diems flowing.”

It’s true that I don’t spend a lot of time on these issues, though I probably should have.  The main reason why I skimmed these issues was because they have already been well-documented and analyzed by others (Nadasdy; Alfred; and Widdowson and Howard). But I probably should have done more to put this analysis into the book and indeed one of UTP’s reviewers suggested I incorporate more of Widdowson and Howard on this very point (which I did do, but not enough of I guess)

Second, “one odd aspect of this framework from an ex-government negotiator’s perspective is the treatment of the participants as “unitary actors”.” Governments are far more complex than the picture painted in the book, with departments like Justice and Finance having a powerful and competing role with INAC in interpreting negotiation mandates.

Again, Langford is right that I don’t spend enough time in the book disaggregating the role of different government departments.  Indeed, my research published in other venues has found that the departments of Justice and Finance are very powerful and are some of the most conservative departments in terms of shutting down new provisions that might challenge the status quo, especially in terms of funding regimes (gated) and legal language (ungated).  In this book, I wanted to draw attention to the important and also underappreciated role that the Indigenous groups themselves play in the negotiation process. Much of the previous literature had tended to focus on the role and flaws of the Canadian state and so my book was an attempt to remind readers that it takes two to tango, even if the one partner is far more powerful and demanding than the other.

Finally, the reviewer notes that “some readers may lose patience with the author’s claim that his realpolitik approach to this problem is not normative.  In this final chapter he clearly adopts a prescriptive position …” which entails Aboriginal groups choosing to drop out of the process, pursue alternatives, or adopt a set of strategies for completing treaties, given the opportunities and constraints created by the institutional framework. Langford suggests that the book should have advised “the federal, provincial and territorial governments to amend their negotiating strategy ….”.

Again, Langford is right. In the book, I took the perspective of the Indigenous groups only and tried to lay out the alternatives available to them in light of the fact that the treaty process was unlikely to fundamentally change anytime in the near future.  Again, I was trying to be social scientific rather than normative, although I fully realize there is always a normative undercurrent to any research.  All that we can do is try to mitigate and reduce it as much as possible. Still, perhaps I should have spent more time thinking broadly about the treaty process and how it might or could change?

Which leads me to the larger point about tenure.  All of these issues are the kinds of things I would have liked to have had more time to incorporate into the book; but the tenure process is so constrained in terms of time, and the book publishing process can take a very long time (which is mostly the result of reviewers taking more or less time to complete their reviews, among other hurdles).

The tenure process is crazy in terms of timelines, and I really do think that people are crazy to try and get tenure on the basis of a book.  You can get it done, but sometimes you have to make sacrifices to get the book out before the clock runs out first! In that sense, it makes more sense to write articles rather than deal with the regret of a book that could have been better.

Now that I have tenure, though, I have no excuse for omitting anything from my next book! (although I can at least still blame my co-author)!