(Originally published on the nmc.org website February-September 2013)

In the Spring Semester of 2013 I embarked on an experiment to see if I could teach a government class based on the principles that I have been advocating:

  1. Create opportunities for collaboration and teamwork among the students
  2. Allow the students to explore the material for themselves
  3. Create an iterative, yet cumulative, format that allowed students to be creative, to take risks, fail without “failing” and build on that for later success in class
  4. Gamify the course to create positive incentives for the students to push themselves
  5. Focus on skills mastery rather than content mastery

This series of four blogs under the broad rubric of “Unbound” chronicle that experience and analyze the outcomes.


Unbound: The Role of Textbooks in the New Media Environment

Unbound: Observations on the Structure of the Class

As you may recall from my column in January, I launched a radical redesign of my American Government class this semester. I always start out the semester with a certain spirit of optimism, but I felt it was important in this case to talk about what worked and what didn’t work as I tried to leverage New Media to reshape how I teach.

I structured this class with five goals in mind:

  1. Create opportunities for collaboration and teamwork among the students
  2. Allow the students to explore the material for themselves
  3. Create an iterative, yet cumulative, format that allowed students to be creative, to take risks, fail without “failing” and build on that for later success in class
  4. Gamify the course to create positive incentives for the students to push themselves
  5. Focus on skills mastery rather than content mastery


In this installment, I’ll focus on my pursuits to meet the first three objectives. In addressing the first goal, my aim was to create incentives for my students to prepare for the kind of collaboration that they are likely to encounter in the professional world. Very few things in the real world effectively reflect the individualism of what we ask them to do in class. With the interconnectedness of social technology, this is becoming even more pronounced. Therefore, with the exception of the final portfolio, I randomly assigned students to groups. I reshuffled those groups four times over the course of the semester.

So, how well did this work? Getting students to work effectively in groups has been one of my greatest struggles. There is a lot of data to suggest that peer learning is one of the most effective teaching methods. My own experience validates this. I had a class once (in a mythical fairy land – no really) that spontaneously formed study groups and pulled each other along. As a group, they made higher grades than any class I’ve ever taught, before or since.

This was a spontaneous result of the chemistry of the class. I have never been able to make this happen. More often, typical groupwork can be summed up with this graphic from Endless Origami.

To evaluate group work, I used ballots and self-evaluation techniques. However, students tended to inflate everyone’s grades, giving even the biggest slacker full points. This was not a good way to figure out who was pulling their weight in the group. So, in classic economic fashion (I am a social scientist after all), I introduced scarcity into the equation. I limited the number of points that any individual could give out to less than the number of other group members. It turns out that my students would have made excellent communists. Their response was to aggregate the points the group had as a whole and distribute them equally throughout the group.

Considering the self-avowed conservatism of most of my students, I think this sheds an interesting light on the relative value that they place on educational incentives. Grades are so disconnected from financial goals that they assume little or no value in the minds of most students. I could be reading too much into this considering the small sample size (and I’ve had other classes that behaved quite differently), but it’s a point worth considering.

The students’ unwillingness to give each other meaningful evaluations didn’t stop them from complaining about the efforts of the other members of their group who did not pull their own weight, making it extremely hard to evaluate the internal workings of a particular group. As a consequence most of the learning here was of a soft variety. It consisted mainly of counseling students about how to handle these kinds of situations based on my own experiences.

Regrettably, the group work scenarios did not inspire students through their shared sense of purpose or the competitive incentives I’d laid out to explore educationally. In other words, I once again failed to recreate the effect of the class that pulled itself along collectively.

The second major departure in the class structure I implemented was to eliminate the requirement for a standard textbook. Instead, I gave them information frameworks such as my class notes and Wikipedia and then encouraged them to explore more widely. My goal was to give them open-ended information with a basic structure to allow them to follow their creative impulses.

I set this up on the very first day of class, by engaging the class in a discussion of creativity, the role of information and education in today’s world. I then showed them Ken Robinson’s video on education and creativity.

We then discussed how we could construct the course so that artificial boundaries, such as those imposed by a standard textbook, did not limit our creative efforts. For structure I provided my standard Study Guide, which is simply a list of questions organized by topics from the course as well the class notes, which answer those questions.

As I discovered the last time I did this, giving the students the freedom to map their own intellectual journeys is usually a recipe for them not leaving home. While I set minimum work requirements, students continued to do the minimum necessary. For instance, they would post a random articles without meaningful commentary. Many students failed to even look at the basic starting points in my notes or Wikipedia. Then they complained about a lack of structure in the course. Over the course of the semester, the situation improved, although there were some students who never understood or took advantage of the freedom to let their curiosity guide their educational path.

This issue relates to a basic dilemma I seem to face every time I deviate from the standard course structure. Students are unprepared for novelty. They have been well trained in “this is what a college course looks like.” In theory, they love the idea of freedom from their shackles but relatively few of them know what to do with their freedom once it is given to them. This is a fundamental cultural issue we all face as we try to innovate our way out of some of the contradictions of the educational system we have created. Change in this area is likely to come slowly, especially among those students who have never understood the purpose of education or their responsibilities to their own educational enterprise.

The third structural element I built into the course comes from the insights of Dan Ariely’s work in The Upside of Irrationality and his discussion of motivation. He discovered that relatively meaningless tasks discourage people even if they are incentivized with extrinsic rewards such as grades (or money).

I tried to address this issue in two ways. First, I created a point system that was completely cumulative in nature. Students could accumulate points, but they were never taken away. No assignment was graded as a ratio of achieved points/possible points. Second, I constructed the course so that the pieces would theoretically build upon one another. The weekly assignments led to the four projects and the work produced in the course contributed to the Final Portfolio assignment, which I deliberately put in a format that was both public and would persist after the course was over. I also provided incentives for going back and citing earlier student work on Google+ in later postings or presentations.

Getting students to look above the individual task effort and to take a longer view over the course of the semester has always been a challenge. I usually attempt this in some form, but this is first time I explicitly wove it into the structure of the class. I was also hoping that the relative permanence and openness of the Final Portfolio would make it more of a tangible object than something that ends up in my filing cabinet.

It was a mixed success. On the negative side, students, like in my more traditional classes, failed to use the earlier parts of the class to gain insights into the later parts of the class such as recognizing how the priorities of Congressmen tend to undermine long-term goals in foreign or economic policy. Furthermore, almost none of them cited their fellow classmates’ prior work. Even when I relaxed the rules and allowed students to go back and post in earlier topics on Google+ in order to bring up their point totals, very few of them exercised that option.

On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the effort on the Final Portfolios (web pages). On the whole, the students improved their performance as they created their individual web pages. No one did worse on this assignment than they had done previously in their presentations and Google+ postings and a significant number of them did considerably better. This is in marked contrast to the traditional finals I had given in previous iterations of the class where students did not typically raise their overall grades through that one assessment.

Overall, the structure of the course did not significantly improve learning outcomes, but it also did not harm them. The class did about as well as past classes did in terms of what they learned and retained from the class. It was my hope, however, that the strong emphasis on group work, the focus on creative exploration, and the open-ended structure of the syllabus would foster better outcomes. Although quite a few students commented that they liked the class and had more fun with it, this was not, for the most part, reflected in the quality of their work. In the future, I may build on the one clear success, the Final Portfolio/web page, to create more assignments like this.

I am still scratching my head, however, about how to incite peer learning and group work as well as how to propel students to outline their own educational journeys. In the next installment of this series, I will discuss my experience and related struggles in creating a more explicit assessment rubric with the goal of gamifying extrinsic motivators for learning.


The Grader’s Dilemma

Unbound: Teaching Questioning Instead of Answering