Designing Modules: Part Two

As promised, this is Part Two of a “blog-post-by-request” on turning your research (interests) into a module. Part One gave an overview of some general issues you will need to think about when you first come to design a module based on, or inspired by, your research. In this post I’ll talk about some of the specifics of module design. As always, I’m happy to share my own work, so if you’d like to see copies of my module booklets then just get in touch.

Last time we addressed a number of important considerations: rather than turning your PhD or post-doc research project into a module, what specific aspects of your research could form the back bone or foundation of a module on the broader research topic? At what stage in their degree are your potential students? And how would your module fit within the broader degree programme? Once you have these figured out, you can begin to work through the specifics of a module: how it will be taught; what topics will be covered; how those topics fit together; what reading to assign; and designing assessments. The most important thing to bear in mind when working through each of these is this: your module is not really about you; it’s about your students. Even though your own research has inspired the module, the purpose of teaching is to facilitate the learning and development of your students. Your research can, of course, help with this, and it is important that you are passionate about and motivated by the subject matter of your module. But the structure of your module, the assignments you set, and the readings you assign, are about helping your students to understand an issue or topic that they previously did not understand, and helping them to do things that they could not previously do. So, really, “research-driven teaching” is actually “research-driven, student-focused teaching”. This may sound obvious, but I’m sure we have all taken modules during our own degrees, or know colleagues currently teaching, who seem to have missed that memo, and approach teaching as an opportunity to show-boat, to view their students as unpaid research-assistants, or who give little thought to their reading lists, lectures, and assignments. To help you avoid becoming one of those teachers, I suggest keeping the following questions in the front of your mind when designing your module:

  • What do you want the students to know and to be able to do by the time they have finished your module? What is the transformation that you want your students to undergo? In other words, what are the learning objectives of your module?
  • What foundations will your students likely have – in terms of subject knowledge and skills – that they can build upon when taking your module?

Let’s start with learning objectives as they are arguably the most important part of any module. You can think about potential learning objectives as falling into two broad categories: relating to the subject matter, and relating to skills. Once you have these figured out you can use them to help you structure the module and design the assessments. In terms of learning objectives relating to the subject matter, what is it about the topic of the module that you want to teach your students? What do they not know right now that you hope they will know by the time they have finished your module? Here are the subject-related learning objectives for my Refugees and IR module and for my Contemporary Political Theory module:

The diligent student completing the requirements of this module should be able to:

  • Understand and evaluate the main political, legal and theoretical approaches to the refugee problem;
  • Understand the evolution of the refugee problem and international refugee regime;
  • Assess the implications of existing institutions, regimes, and policies in refugee protection for a wide variety of actors, including refugees, the stateless and IDPs, individual citizens, states, and international organisations;

The diligent student completing the requirements of this module should be able to:

  • Demonstrate understanding of the main arguments and approaches of key 20th and 21st century political thinkers;
  • Link the approaches of these thinkers to the contestation of dominant assumptions about politics and social life;
  • Demonstrate understanding of the historical context in which the ideas of these thinkers emerged, and be able to identify their relevance for contemporary politics.

There are a couple of things that I want to highlight here. First, each objective gives the students an idea of the subject matter of the module: this is what I want you to learn about. And second, each learning objective begins with or contains an active verb: demonstrate, understand, link, assess, and so on. This not only signals to students that everything they will encounter and engage with during the module fits together as a coherent whole, but also that they won’t be passive recipients of ‘knowledge’ but should be able to do something with what they learn. This links with skills-related learning objectives. The skills-related learning objectives are the same across both of my modules, but, as we will see below, there are multiple ways of achieving this shared learning objective:

Articulate reasoned and factually supported arguments both orally and in writing.

My modules are for third and fourth year undergraduates. As such, they already have a grounding in research and writing, and have written a number of essays in their first two years. However, these are skills that they will need to continue developing, both to prepare them for constructing and completing a research dissertation, but also looking beyond graduation to transferable skills that will help them in whatever careers they decide to embark upon. What the skills-related learning objectives of your module will be will be influenced significantly by the degree programme that your module will be a part of. Science modules, for example, will likely include a longer list of skills-related learning objectives.

Once you have an idea of the subject- and skills-related learning objectives you can start to think about how best to help your students achieve them. There will be multiple parts to this process, including:

  • What format will teaching and learning take in your module?
  • How will you structure the subject-matter of the module?
  • What readings will you assign?
  • What assessments will you use?

Let’s address each of these in turn.

Teaching and Learning Format

How will you actually teach your module? Where, and in what format, will your students learn? These can seem like very big questions when you first start thinking about your own module. So a helpful place to start might be to see how teaching and learning usually takes place in your department/school. This may be a model that you want to replicate. It may be a model that you want to change. You should, ideally, be able to explain – even if only to yourself – why you make the choice that you do, and this should, ideally, be student-focused and related to the learning objectives of the module.

In my case, the most common teaching and learning format in IR in my School is the lecture-tutorial format. Usually a one-hour lecture and one-hour small group tutorial per week. This is the format that I use for my third year Refugees and IR module. A lecture is a useful format for setting the scene for the topic of the week, flagging up key terms/issues/debates, and posing concrete questions to guide them through the reading I want them to do prior to tutorial. One week later, when they’ve had time to engage with their readings, we meet in smaller groups to discuss what we’ve read, guided by the questions I posed during the lecture. Hopefully you can see how this relates to the learning objectives: the lecture, tutorial, and required reading help the student to develop the subject-specific knowledge outlined in the subject-related learning objectives. The tutorial helps them to develop their oral argumentation skills highlighted in the skills-specific learning objective. But, this format may not necessarily be the best for every module. In my fourth year Contemporary Political Theory class, there are no lectures at all. Instead, I use an extended-seminar format: essentially a two-hour discussion tutorial. This still supports the skills-related learning objective of articulating reasoned and factually supported arguments, but I also felt that it was more conducive to achieving the subject-related learning objectives than to have a one-hour lecture followed by a one-hour tutorial. In order to achieve the subject-related learning objectives I felt it would be more useful to spend more time working through the ideas of key political thinkers together in a small group setting, and one hour is not really enough time to do that.

So, you need to think about both the subject- and skills-related learning objectives to help you figure out what the most effective teaching and learning format will be for your module.

Structuring the Module:

Now that you have an idea of what teaching format(s) you will use for your module, guided by the learning objectives, you can think about how you want to structure the subject matter of the module. This is where you can bring your research interests much more clearly into focus. Let’s say you are utilising a lecture-tutorial format, and the module runs for one semester/term, and each semester/term is 10 weeks long. This gives you 10 weeks-worth of lectures and tutorials with which to help your students achieve the learning objectives (sticking with the subject-specific ones at this stage). So how will you use those 10 weeks?

Returning to my Refugees and IR module, I have my foundational research interests underpinning the module as a whole: the idea of “the refugee problem” – what kind of problem is it and how have we tried to solve it? And the importance of historical understanding – where did the refugee problem come from? From there, I developed a module description:

This module introduces some of the complex issues surrounding refugees and forced migration in global politics today, and focuses in particular on the evolution of the refugee problem throughout the 20th century, and the new issues facing refugees, practitioners, and scholars at the beginning of the 21st century. While oriented toward the role that refugees and the refugee problem play in International Relations, the module is inter-disciplinary in nature, drawing on historical, legal, sociological, anthropological, and philosophical works and debates.

[…]

The primary goal of the module is for students to gain critical awareness of the role and nature of the refugee problem – as a legal, political, and moral problem – in global politics. Students will gain an understanding of the history of the refugee problem, the practical functions and workings of the UN refugee system, the asylum process in the EU, and of emerging issues in refugee research.

And I developed a set of learning objectives:

  • Understand and evaluate the main political, legal, and theoretical approaches to the refugee problem;
  • Understand the evolution of the refugee problem and international refugee regime;
  • Assess the implications of existing institutions, regimes and policies in refugee protection for a wide variety of actors including refugees, the stateless and IDPs, individual citizens, states, and international organisations.

From there I developed a 10-week lecture and tutorial schedule that addresses the research interests underpinning the module, and which will help the students to achieve the subject-related learning objectives:

Week 1: Introduction – The Refugee Problem and the Refugee Regime
Week 2: Borders, States and Citizens – Refugees and the Logic of Sovereignty

Part One: Problems and Regimes
Week 3: 1920-1951 – The Birth of the Problem and the League of Nations
Week 4: 1951-1989 – The Cold War and Refugee Protection
Week 5: 1989-Present – The End of Asylum?

Part Two: Dynamics of Forced Migration
Week 7: Refugees in the Global South – Humanitarian Governance
Week 8: Refugees in the Global North – Security and Asylum

Part Three: Emerging Issues in Refugee Research
Week 9: Climate Change and Environmental Refugees
Week 10: Refugee Protest – Rights, Borders and Citizenship Revisited.

You’ll see that I have broken the 10 weeks into distinct sections: the first two weeks address some foundational issues. Categorising and defining forced migrants, the basics of the international refugee regime and the scope of contemporary population displacement are addressed in week 1. Week 2 then addresses important theoretical and conceptual issues regarding the refugee problem. Weeks 3 through 5 focus on developing the students’ understanding of the history and development of the refugee problem and refugee regime from its beginnings in 1920 until today – a bird’s eye view if you like. Weeks 7 and 8 then look in much more detail at how the refugee problem plays out today in the global south and the global north. Weeks 9 and 10 then address important emerging issues that researchers of forced migration are focusing on, one of which is a particular interest of mine: refugee protest movements. This week in particular brings us full circle by revisiting the theoretical and conceptual foundations in week 2. Within each part of the module, each week builds on the one before, but all the parts also work together to paint a more complete picture of the scope and nature of the refugee problem in global politics. In broad terms, this structure addresses each of the learning objectives, matches the module description, and enables me to bring my own research into the classroom. But with the module structure you are still painting in rather broad brush strokes, and you’ll need a much finer brush in order to really help your students achieve the learning objectives. The content, structure, and format of your lectures will be central to this task, but I will leave that for another time.

Building Reading Lists:

Now that you know what the focus of each week will be, you need to think about what readings you will set for your students. This is much more difficult than it may at first appear, as there are a number of things to bear in mind. In the arts, humanities, and social sciences, particularly in the UK, students will spend much more of their time on their reading each week than they will face to face with you and their peers in the classroom. As such, the readings that you set will play a vital role in facilitating (or not) their understanding of the subject matter, and their achievement of the skills-related learning objectives. I find it helpful to see my reading lists as the key leg of a tripod: lecture-reading-tutorial. Each of these legs has their own unique purpose, but all three are necessary and support each other. The lecture is introductory and foundational. The purpose is to introduce the students to the topic for that week, clarify key terms, flag up important events and issues, and so on. The tutorial is a space for the students to engage with each other and test and develop their understanding of the topic. The readings supplement, but do not repeat, the lecture, and form the basis of tutorial discussion. As such, the readings should address key issues addressed in the lecture but be thought-provoking in order to take the students beyond this initial, basic, understanding.

In order to develop effective reading lists, you need to think about what the purpose – or learning objectives – of each particular week (each key step) in your module is. For example, in Week 9 of my Refugees and IR module we examine an emerging issue in refugee studies: climate change and environmental refugees. But what specifically do I want my students to understand about this topic? And which readings could I assign that would facilitate this understanding? You may have noticed the term “environmental refugee” being used a lot in the media, usually accompanied by some very startling predictions: 250 million climate change refugees by 2050… But what do we mean when we use the term “environmental refugee”? How do we know when someone is displaced by “the environment”? Would such people fit in the existing framework of the refugee regime? If not, should we reform it? What can examining these questions teach us about the nature of forced migration today, and the refugee regime itself?  Essentially, what I want my students to think about is: how useful is this (increasingly common) term, really? And what can it teach us about the refugee problem today? With these questions in mind I can select key readings that each in their own way address some or all of these questions.

Assessments:

The final key component of designing a module will be how you assess your students. As with everything else in this post, the learning objectives of your module will be central to making this decision. A useful place to start when trying to think this through could be, as with deciding how to structure your teaching, what the common modes of assessment are on your programme, and deciding whether to adopt them, or change them. In my case, the standard mode of assessment in third and fourth year on the IR degree is 50% coursework, 50% exam. The exams are essay-based, rather than short answer or multiple choice, last 3 hours, and usually involve students answering 3 questions. Coursework is usually one long research essay of up to 5,000 words, or two shorter essays of 2,500 words each. Some modules ask students to develop their own essay questions in consultation with the lecturer; others provide a list of essay questions for the students to choose from.

The assessments that I use differ across both of the modules that I designed. I’ll outline the assessment for each one, before explaining why I designed the assessments in this way.

Refugees and IR (3rd year): 50/50 (coursework/exam)
Coursework:
– 2,000 word Convention Exercise (15%)
– 4,000 word Research Essay – students can choose from a list of questions (Sem 1), or develop their own question in consultation with me (Sem 2). (35%)
Exam:
– 3-hours, 3-questions: compulsory question, plus choice of 2 questions from list of 6.

Contemporary Political Theory (4th year): 100% coursework
Coursework:
– 400-word weekly Reading Reflections (10%)
– 2,500 word Reflective Essay based on one of three films screened during the module (30%)
– 3-page Essay Plan (5%)
– 5,000 word Research Essay – students to develop their own essay question in consultation with me. (55%)

You’ll see that the Refugees and IR coursework maps on more clearly to the usual assessment breakdown on the programme. The exam is included in order to assess their understanding of the module as a whole, rather than of one specific part of the module. If you are going to use an exam for the same purpose, then you need to spend time working on exam questions that achieve this objective: your questions will need to be specific enough to provide a focus for their answers, but broad enough to allow them to make connections across topics to demonstrate their understanding of the module as a whole. This can take some time to do, but “discuss”, “evaluate” and “to what extent” types of questions can be useful here.

My Contemporary Political Theory module, on the other hand, has no exam. This is because an exam would not be the most effective way of achieving the learning objectives of the module: this module is less about trying to achieve a broad overview of a problem or field, and more about engaging with complex ideas and reflecting on how the students’ own views about contemporary issues of race, class, gender, power, and so on, change as a result of this engagement. I did not think that an exam was conducive to facilitating this transformation in the students, and thought that this could better be facilitated through different kinds of coursework.

The coursework for the Refugee module utilises a research essay of 4,000 words, a standard mode of assessment, but allows the students to develop their own essay question if they choose to, in consultation with me, depending on which semester the module is running. If the module runs in Semester 1, then there is a set list of essay questions to choose from. This is because the students are fresh out of second year, where the longest essay they wrote was 2,000 words. Doubling the word limit is a challenge in and of itself – in terms of research and writing. If the module runs in Semester 2, however, they can choose to develop their own essay question. This is to reflect the fact that they will have had practice writing longer essays, but are preparing to enter the final year of their degree when they will have to develop a research dissertation on a topic of their own choosing. As such, helping them to formulate their own question will help to prepare them for crafting their dissertation projects: what makes an effective (and manageable) research question?

They also have to do a slightly different assignment: a Convention Exercise of 2,000 words. This is an essay based on primary source analysis: they need to compare and contrast the strengths and weaknesses of the 1951 Refugee Convention with one of three other refugee protection documents – the 1933 League of Nations Refugee Convention, the 1969 Organisation of African Unity Refugee Convention, or the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on refugees. This exercise is directly linked to the subject-related learning objectives of the module, specifically, to understanding legal approaches to the refugee problem, and to assess the implications of existing protection practices (which are themselves rooted in international and regional legal documents). It also helps the students develop additional research and writing skills by getting them to engage in interpreting and analysing international legal documents, and using secondary research to help them do this. International Refugee Law is central to understanding the refugee problem today, but I want the students to understand that international law is the result of political and ethical debates and compromises, and that the application of international law is always at the same time an interpretation of international law. Such interpretation is not immune from wider political and ethical questions. As such, I want them to interpret and evaluate these documents for themselves. What do they think are the key strengths and weaknesses of each document, and why?

There is also a research essay in the Contemporary Political Theory module, and the students develop their own research questions in consultation with me. The Research Essay Plan is part of this development, and I provide written and oral feedback on their ideas as we work together to formulate an effective and manageable question. It is graded because the central university curriculum approval committee insisted that I grade it – I had wanted it to be a formative assessment. You win some, you lose some!

There are two slightly more unusual assessments, however, that need explaining. The first is the Weekly Reading Reflections. As I noted above, this module runs as 2-hour discussion seminars, rather than a 1-hour lecture with a 1-hour tutorial the following week. As such, students are coming into the session on the particular theorist for that week having read the book, or collection of articles, that I assigned, but without having had a lecture to give them a foundation. This is where the Reading Reflections and the virtual learning environment come in. The Reading Reflections are 400 words long, and can be written in a conversational style. They are submitted on our virtual learning environment – Moodle – where I provide a brief introduction to each theorist, and created an assignment for each week with a deadline. The 400 words have to be submitted by 5pm the day before the seminar, and must answer a specific question that I have set. At the end of the semester, the students can go back and edit their reflections before submitting 6 (out of a potential 9) to be graded. If they submit all 9 then they get to choose which 3 to leave out; if they submit 8 they can choose 2, and so on. But at least 6 must be submitted in order to receive credit for the assignment. But why do this? The question that they need to answer gives them an idea of important themes that I want them to pay attention to when reading the book or the articles, and so they are not approaching new material ‘blind’. Submitting their answers to these questions before the seminar enables me to see how they have coped with the reading prior to our discussion: if it seems that they’ve got the wrong end of the stick, or have struggled understanding a key concept, then I can make sure to spend time working through this with them during the seminar. And it is also a way to make they sure that they are reading each week, and thinking through what they are reading. But, since they are engaging with these thinkers without the aid of an introductory lecture, I want them to be able to use the notes and understanding that they gain during the seminar discussion to revisit what they originally submitted and make changes if they wish to. This gives them a greater degree of control of their assessment than they may otherwise have, and makes sure that I am assessing their understanding, rather than their best guess.

The second assessment that is a little different is the 2,500 word Reflective Essay based on a film screened during the module. Once again, this is linked to what I am trying to do with the module. Theory in general, and political theory in particular, can often seem like an abstract, ivory-tower, purely intellectual enterprise that has little if anything to do with the “real world”. But I think this does a disservice to political theory which, in my view, is all about trying to figure out how to live together in the real world; and this is anything but an abstract enterprise. So the module focuses on theorists who do not often make it onto the usual political theory reading lists, but are thinkers whose engagement with politics and political theory was prompted by their own personal experiences of some of the twentieth century’s most defining events, including two world wars, the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust, colonialism and decolonisation, the civil rights movement, and contemporary struggles for sexual and gender equality, focusing on how they tried to work through these events and their implications for (world) politics. As such I want the students to understand these thinkers as people immersed in the world and grappling with real world problems. Reflective writing, rather than the standard academic essay, seemed to me to be a potentially useful way of helping the students to make this connection. I selected three films to screen during the semester which touch on events or issues covered in the module – The Sorrow and the Pity (WW2, collaboration, and responsibility), The Battle of Algiers (colonialism, decolonisation, and the use of violence), and The Square (revolution and politics) – and asked the students to pick one of the films as inspiration for a reflective essay where they would use one or more of the theorists we had read to work through a concrete question/discomfort/puzzle that they experienced when watching the film. The purpose of the assignment wasn’t for them to “answer” their question, in the way that we expect in a regular essay. Rather, the purpose was for them to work through, in writing, where they thought the question came from, why it became a question for them (using the film and the theorist(s)), and how their own thinking has developed as a result of engaging with these theorists. This is a very different enterprise to the usual academic essay, but one that enables students to show their understanding and their development in a new and different way, free of the straight-jacket of the standard academic essay and its conventions.

Hopefully you can see how each of these assessments make sense within the context of each module.

 

This has turned into a much longer post than I had originally anticipated, and so I don’t want to go on for too much longer. But what I hope has come through in this post, is that when you are sitting down to design a module (for the first time, second time, or third time), the most important thing to bear in mind is the transformation that you want your students to undergo — in terms of their understanding of the subject and in terms of their skills. Once you have figured this out, you will find it much easier to do the rest. You can, of course, design a module from scratch which doesn’t put your students at the centre, and is instead focused on making sure that you are entertained and interested each week. But in my view the chances of producing an engaging and effective module are greatly reduced by doing it this way. Teaching is its most engaging and effective when it is informed by our own research, yes. But if you’re not going to put the student at the centre of concern, why teach at all?

This is not to say that my modules are perfect, or that if you follow this advice then you’ll produce a great module first time around. Designing a module is a multi-stage process: I have taught my Refugees and IR module 4 times now and I change it a little every time. I’ve taught my Contemporary Political Theory module once and have identified things that I want to revisit and perhaps change. This is the way it should be. We only really know if our ideas will work once we actually teach the module. And so you should be open to the possibility that some things won’t work, or won’t be as effective as you had intended. When this happens, see it as an opportunity to reflect and to make your module stronger, and not as a failure of your initial design. We, just like our students, learn by doing!

 

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