Pedagogy Proposal on Threshold Concepts

[UPDATE: Paper posted here]

I’ve become more drawn to the pedagogy sections of the academic conferences I’ve attended in the past few years, especially the American Academy of Religion. This year, for the first time, I’ve decide to dip my toe into this new field of inquiry by proposing a paper for the Western Regional Conference of the AAR, submitting to the Pedagogy of Religious Studies Unit.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed ruminating on the role of threshold knowledge in teaching, a concept that was first introduced to me through my training for the Writing Program at UCSB and largely by the (then) head of the department Linda Adler-Kassner. Her views convinced me of the importance of threshold concepts and their application in classroom environments.

Buoyed by the success of my recent summer course I was hoping to reflect further on how it can be developed thought this conference proposal. The theme this year was “kindness,” something that I felt I could incorporate into my proposal since I used morality and non-violence as threshold concepts in my course.

My proposal is posted below:

Rebuilding Religion: Threshold Knowledge and Its Value to Asian Survey Courses

How can we teach religious studies and yet deconstruct its central focus, religion? Is this possible in a survey course where theory is often overshadowed by content? The paper will examine how students can be granted agency and creative freedom through designing a survey course with the directed goal of rebuilding a definition of religion based solely on concepts developed through the study of non-Western traditions. This critical process is supported by the introduction of “threshold concepts,” defined by Jan Meyer and Ray Land as ideas crucial for the epistemological participation in academic disciplines. Threshold knowledge, conceived on the metaphor of passing through a portal, that is derived from these concepts is considered transformative and oftentimes irreversible.

Using a course I taught in the past year as a case study, I will explore how analyzing and evaluating common scholarly definitions of religion acts as a springboard for engaged student inquiry. By highlighting Western biases in these definitions, students are asked to reconstruct, through sound argumentation, a definition of religion with the new “raw materials” gathered from non-Western traditions.

Moreover, threshold concepts anchor student’s analysis and comparative endeavors by acting as lenses through which they can critically interrogate the course materials. For example, by foregrounding ideas that frequently remain underdeveloped or implicit, such as material culture, soteriology, and myth, as well as less-commonly covered concepts such as metaphor and humor, and framing them as threshold concepts, students are asked to think about how these ideas may –or may not – constitute the “core dimensions” of religion. I will end with a rumination on “kindness” as a valuable threshold concept for religious studies, aspects of which were introduced to my students through the ideas of morality and non-violence.


Asian Religious Traditions: Course Evaluation and Overview

Student grades are in and its time to evaluate on my survey course for Asian religious traditions. These blog posts began as a project for the Summer Training Institute for Associates, but ended up becoming a valuable tool for me to reflect on numerous aspects of my course (all of the hyperlinks here link to my original blog posts).

The Good: The biggest issue I wanted to address from the last time I taught this course was to provide students with a better framework for creative comparisons between traditions. I also wanted these comparative lenses to form the basis of a writing assignment which asked them to analyze, evaluate, and ultimately to creatively engage the material.

This issue was addressed through a careful progression of assignments. Daily readings were combined with podcasts on selected “threshold concepts” of which students had to write about daily. Daily lectures, classroom activities, and various lecture materials all reinforced the basic content and asked the students to challenge their assumptions about what constitutes a “religion.” Regular, low-stakes assessment was done through online quizzes (which saved time in class and some time on grading).

The final writing assignment was divided into stages as well. For the final product I wanted the students to craft and defend a definition of “religion” solely based on the traditions we covered in class. They were required to draft a partial argument for the midterm exam, which was peer-reviewed and given audio commentary by myself.

Syllabus Cover.pngAsian Religious Traditions Syllabus [Romaskiewicz Summer 2017]

Overall, I was pleased with the “chances” I took with podcasts, threshold concepts, and online quizzes. I also feel several students stepped up to the final writing project and crafted creative and sometimes challenging definitions of religion from the Asian tradition perspective.

The Bad: Student participation attrition was evident by the last few classes, making me reconsider the practice of cold-calling. I received positive feedback on the group activities, which certainly expanded participation by several students, thus I will continue to expand on these (as long as I can make them central to class content or progress the dialogue I wish to maintain). Overall I am still looking for techniques to maintain engagement throughout the term.

Perhaps the biggest remaining issue (which I have not discussed here previously) is that of selecting effective readings. There is no introductory textbook to Eastern/Asian religions that I find effective for the direction I want to take my class. I used the fourth edition of World Religion: Eastern Traditions edited by Oxtoby, Amore, and Hussain (2014), but find it does no go into the depth I would like and covers much terrain that I cannot fit into my course (UCSB terms are only ten weeks long). To supplement the textbook I use the primary sources compiled by the prestigious Columbia anthologies Sources of Indian Traditions, Sources of Chinese Traditions, and Sources of Japanese Traditions. I am selective in choosing what my students read since these anthologies are fairly expansive. I have come to find that being more selective is the key to active student engagement.

Overall, I will continue to look for readings that cover the range of topics I find important and to continue to seeks avenues of active student engagement.

I now transition into teaching composition and rhetoric, and will continue to update this blog on these ventures.

Final Writing Project

My summer course fulfills the UCSB writing requirement for undergraduates, thus I knew my class would be writing intensive. I conceived of the final writing project as following a progression of “staging and scaffolding.”

My final project required students to develop their own definition of religion based solely on the Asian religious traditions we covered in class (it is presented as a challenge to the understanding of “religion” as based on monotheistic Western traditions which emphasize “belief” and “holy books”). This would require students to engage higher levels of thinking with the material (including analysis, evaluation, and creation), far beyond just memorizing foreign terms and names. It also required them to construct a written argument. Both of these goals require staged assignments, and my course was developed with these outcomes in mind.

There were three basic stages building up to the final writing project.

  1. Daily Reflections: In addition to my N-O-O assignments, students had to write and post daily informal reflections on concepts that they could use for the foundation of their definition. The concepts, which I called “threshold concepts,” were introduced through short podcasts, and each student had to locate where these concepts were found in that day’s reading assignment. They were also asked to reflect on where these concepts may have been illustrated in other materials as well, thus creating a network of comparisons. These were informal low-stakes writing tasks which focused more on critical thinking and idea development than formal writing structure. These daily ideas formed the beginnings of an argument for how a religion might be defined. Students also had to opportunity to read the posts of other students, thus increasing the cross-pollination of ideas.
  2. Idea-Generating Writing Project (Mid-term Exam Essay): For the midterm essay I had students take a definition of religion we looked at or created during our first class and either defend it or critique it according the the material we had covered thus far (we had covered “Hinduism,” Jainism, and Buddhism – or the Indian cultural sphere). They had to employ one or more threshold concepts as the basis for their argument. This was envisioned as a conceptional rough draft for their final project which required them to create their own definition. They had to bring in a copy of their paper for peer review and I provided audio commentary on what they turned in. I required this to be a formal academic essay, and gave insight into the construction of the thesis statements, the use of evidence, and organization of ideas. While some of the content would vary, these concerns would carry over into the final project.
  3. Final Writing Project (Final Exam Essay): This essay was the culmination of student efforts to understand and create useful comparisons among the rage of Asian religious traditions we covered. I made the essay due a few days after our in-class final exam so they could spend time referring to class and teacher commentary and to incorporate the East Asian material we had covered since the midterm. To make sure they remained on pace I required them to draft a definition of religion and post it to our course website a little more than a week before the paper was due.

Peter Romaskiewicz.pngFinal Paper Prompt

Online Quizzes: Recap

I want to quickly review my use of online quizzes this summer, returning to a post I started here. As I noted, I use “low-stakes retrieval practices,” i.e. quizzes, regularly in my courses so students can assess their efforts and make any micro-adjustments to their study habits they deem necessary. Instead of diverting time in class to taking quizzes I decided to have students take quizzes at home online as part of their homework. Here are some quick thoughts.

  1. Practice Syllabus Quiz: Not too many students are familiar with taking quizzes at home, nor was I familiar with the mechanics of making them. I decided to give my students a syllabus quiz after the first day of class, making sure they understood the requirements of the course as well as trying to troubleshoot any issues that may arise when the real quizzes start. As enticement, I offered minimal extra credit for completing the quiz with 100%.
  2. Multiple Choice (MC) Only: Clearly, this will depend on an individual instructor’s educational goals, but I shifted from the norms of my paper quizzes. I would often add a few short answer questions to the end of in-class quizzes, but found that grading these online took a bit too much time. Clicking, loading, scrolling, typing, and saving took far longer than flipping a page. After including short answer questions to my first online quiz I decided to make all subsequent online quizzes just multiple choice so everything could be graded automatically. If this was not a time-condensed summer class I may have kept the short answers, but I looking to save some time overall with online quizzes.
  3. Open-Book/Timed: Honestly, I just don’t trust anyone to not use their notes or book when taking a quiz at home, so I just decided to make them open-book. To offset this a little, I made all the quizzes timed meaning that students would not be able to casually get 100% on every test just by flipping through their notes or my slides. I told them they need to study before starting the quiz. I gave them just over 1 minute per multiple choice question.
  4. MC Strategy I: Crafting good multiple choice questions can be a skill in itself, especially ones that test higher-level thinking (application, analysis, evaluation) as opposed just memory (recognition and recall).  The first question below is an example of simple recognition and the correct response (“B”) would (or should) be found word-for-word in students’ notes.Screen Shot 2017-09-16 at 11.57.40.pngThe second question combines recognition with application, asking the students to apply their knowledge (in this case, to real world examples). In addition to testing higher-level thinking, the correct answer could not be found word-for-word in students’ notes.Screen Shot 2017-09-16 at 11.57.48.png Because the main focus of my quizzes is to test simple recognition and recall (midterms and finals are different), I mix in only a handful of MC questions to test higher-level thinking. Yet, it is possible in some cases to transform lower-level cognitive MC questions into higher-level ones.
  5. MC Strategy II: While generally not regarded as a good strategy for crafting MC questions, I’ve found that using some “exception” questions also requires to students to know (recognize) more about a concept. Screen Shot 2017-09-16 at 13.00.18.png
  6. Testing Recall: Another method I did not employ this summer is to use “fill in the blank” questions that are automatically graded.

Overall, I will continue to develop my use of online quizzes. For me, the benefits of saving valuable class time and automatic grading offset the issues of limiting (or avoiding) short answer questions. 

“Educational Podcasts” for Class

As I wrote about previously, this summer I realized I wanted to use a set of “threshold concepts” as tools to allow my students to compare religious traditions. This posed a specific problem. I needed to inform my students about these concepts in an effective and condensed fashion which still hit upon several important aspects. After eliminating encyclopedia entries and Wikipedia entries, I decided I would write short introductions – I called them “briefs” – to each of the concepts and then audio record them. Funny enough, it was only in conversation with my students that I realized they referred to the briefs as “podcasts.” Ha! (After reading some on the subject, scholarly literature tends to refer to projects like these as “complementary podcasts.”)

Originally, my idea was much grander. I wanted to make short videos for each concept. As is customary, I was spending the summer teaching for the Woodenfish program and I wanted to use the backdrop of the Buddhist monastery for my recorded conversations. This quickly was abandoned when teaching duties piled on and I was simply too exhausted to scout filming locations, write scripts, and film the twenty briefings I wanted to cover.

When I returned home and began preparing for my class in earnest I decided to simply do audio recordings and I think this worked out for the best. I certainly fumbled through the first through scripts. I was unsure of the conventions for the genre. I was lucky enough to naturally stumble upon a few guidelines that are recommended for doing education podcasts.

Time Length: This is perhaps the most crucial aspect. I did not want to impose too much information on my students, I wanted to give them just enough basic facts that they could immediately begin applying the concept to the readings and then develop a better understanding of it through their own investigation. The first threshold concept I scripted and recorded was “material culture,” and it ended up being four minutes and twenty seconds long. I had not set a time limit, this was just naturally how long it took me to write and then say the things I though needed to be introduced. Overall, my shortest podcast was just less than 3 minutes and my longest was just over 5 minutes. One study (by Cheung On Tam) tabulated this chart for student preferred podcast lengths:

Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 12.35.43.png

Clearly, going over the 5 minute mark was not problematic, though much of what I’ve read suggests keeping the length to about 10 minutes, if not even shorter at 6-8 minutes. Clearly, script writing ability will determine if listeners pay attention for longer.

Tone: I knew immediately from my extensive use of audio commentary on papers that I wanted the tone to be informal, but still driven by information. In the first few recordings I captured many of my “verbal ticks” (“so now…,” “right”), and even though these were weeded out in later recordings as I became comfortable with the format, I never just plainly read my script. I wanted those verbal cues which suggest conversation.

Conventions: The conventions for my podcast briefs took me a while to figure out, and they are still in flux. Ideally, I like to start off with a leading question, historical anecdote, or even a joke (well, only once – I started my brief on “humor” with a joke). When I’m less inspired, I’ll start off with a definition, especially for terms with clear Greek roots (soteriology, ontology, epistemology). For the basic content I would always try to segment the concept in some fashion, providing “different looks” so students could more effectively see the concept in culturally diverse religions. For example, I described bloodless and blood sacrifices for the concept of sacrifice, and elaborated on the here/now, here/then, there/now, and there/then models of utopia. Sometimes I would just give several broad examples. I would also try to end the podcast with some verbal clue (“in closing,” “I leave on this,” etc.) and restate the most important points or types of questions I would want the students to ask of the readings with the threshold concept in mind.

Transcriptions: Originally I just posted the audio recording to our course website, but then later started posting my script as well. I had already done the work, so there was no additional work.

Technology: I recorded everything on my iPhone, no special equipment. I was honestly surprised how crisp the recordings turned out (no hissing, background noise).

Outcome: After soliciting feedback from my students several said they enjoyed the podcasts. About halfway through the term I switched to uploading just my scripts because a non-native speaker in my class complained about needing to re-listen several times to the recordings. (I would quiz students on the content of the podcast, so note taking was necessary.) I was unsure if this was a widespread problem and students were simply afraid to notify me. After asking about this switch, however, a handful of students noted they would prefer to go back to the audio recordings, which was a peasant surprise. From that point onward I tried to provide both the audio and script.

It was only afterwards that I realized the trove of literature on the effectiveness of podcasts. I am already thinking about ways to incorporate podcasts into my writing course this fall term.

Intro to Religions & Threshold Concepts

This summer I decided to try something slightly different for my survey course on Asian religious traditions. I wanted a way to bridge the diverse religious traditions I planned on covering. In other words, I wanted a way for students to more easily and creatively engage in the act – and art – of comparison.

I decided to use a set of “threshold concepts” to function as lenses for comparison. I described “threshold concepts” in my syllabus, along with how I wanted them to be used and which terms I selected. Here is the relevant excerpt from my syllabus:

Screen Shot 2017-09-13 at 21.22.02.png

There were plenty of comparative terms that did not make the cut, including: deity, monism, human nature, millenarianism, sacred/spiritual, and cosmogony/cosmology.

My basic criteria for selection was, admittedly, biased. But generally, the terms needed to serve several functions. First, they needed to be potentially useful for a definition of religion. The main writing projects for my students were oriented around critiquing and creating such a definition. Second, I needed to be able to clearly exemplify the term in the content of that day’s assigned reading and lecture. For example, we discussed material culture on the day we examined the Indus Valley Civilization, which is re-constituted solely through archaeological and art historical remains. Asceticism was discussed in the context of the śramaṇa movements in ancient India, epistemology was introduced to talk about the early Buddhist approach to the Dharma, metaphor was used to understand the explanations of the Dao in the Daode jing, and so forth. Sometimes I selected a term because I thought it could highlight a different way of thinking about religions (see non-violence, immortality, humor).

The immediate problem I encountered was trying to figure out how to introduce these concepts effectively without spending too much time on them. I first thought about simply using Wikipedia entries, but then settled on selecting entries from the widely used Encyclopedia of Religion. The entries here were too long, however, and many times too complex for what I was looking for. Oftentimes the entries placed too much of an emphasis on Western religious traditions, which I didn’t want confusing (or even “tainting”) my students.

Ultimately, I decided I would make short audio recordings, hitting the points I thought were most effective and illustrative of the traditions we were covering. I based many of my ideas on the entries in the Encyclopedia of Religion and provided the pdf’s to my students who wanted further clarification. I didn’t want students to do more (and potentially needless) reading and was hoping to provide them with another mode of learning. These recordings, shunning all modesty, worked perfectly. Students listened to the recordings (which I called “briefs”) and located where the concept was illustrated in that day’s reading. They were then expected to write about their ideas in daily reading posts.

I will do another post on creating the “podcasts” later. Ultimately I found the threshold concepts worked well in helping to organize student thoughts and gave them a solid framework for crafting a definition of “religion.” I recently asked my student to select two potential threshold concepts they would highlight for their definitions, and the tally was as follows:

  • Soteriology x7
  • Community x6
  • Mysticism x5
  • Material culture x5
  • Morality x4 (=ethics)
  • Ritual x3
  • Epistemology x2
  • Myth
  • Ontology
  • Scripture (=textualism)
  • Metaphor

Clearly not every “threshold concept” was equally valuable in this assignment (though we had not yet discussed paradise, nature, or humor when the students posted their ideas), but I am quite happy with the variety. I am also happy some students decided to wrestle with tricky terms like epistemology and ontology, or even ideas that often get overlooked in religious studies, such as material culture or metaphor.

If I was to employ threshold concepts again in this manner I may cut some out in future iterations. But, nevertheless, I am quite pleased with how this turned out for this iteration of my survey course.

The Art of Cold Calling Students

Peter Romaskiewicz photo.JPG

Jin’e Temple 金峨寺, Ningbo, China, summer 2017. Photo Peter Romaskiewicz.

I have never cold-called students in my classes, but I am becoming more intrigued by it. I am hesitant for the reason many others likely share: I would never want to embarrass or alienate a student who is uncomfortable speaking in a group setting. Yet, I run against a persistent problem in my classrooms where only a narrow segment of students consistently share their thoughts. Simply, I am looking for a tool in my pedagogical “tool kit” to combat this problem.

My current summer class has been no exception to this rule. I also noticed this segment of students thinned throughout the term, with only about 4-5 students (out of 25) regularly participating by the end. I was happy to observe that small group work was effective in producing “new” speakers when we convened for class discussion. But I cannot plan group activities for every facet of a lesson, lecturing and asking (open-ended) questions still remains the backbone of my teaching style.

There has been some compelling research on the value of cold-calling recently. One study (by Dan Levy & Josh Bookin) shows that cold-calling actually helps to increase voluntary student responses. It appears that effective cold-calling “breaks the ice,” so to speak, giving the classroom environment a sense of inclusivity that makes students more willing to volunteer ideas. Another study (by Elise J. Dallimore, Julie H. Hertenstein & Marjorie B. Platt) shows that when cold-calling is used in conjunction with student online postings, students devote an additional hour to assigned readings. A slightly refined technique is suggest by a recent dissertation (by Brittany Carstens) which calls for teachers to gradually switch over from cold-calling to voluntary participation after student engagement increases.

Personally I am not motivated to use cold-calling as a coercive technique to ensure students do their assigned readings (I discussed my primary coercive technique elsewhere). I am interested in getting more engaged students, however. After talking with some colleagues and reading around on the internet, these are my most important takeaways about cold-calling.

  1. Prime the Students: List “public speaking” and/or related skills, as a course goal. Devote a few words to it as well at the beginning of the course.
  2. Start ’em Early: Cold-calling students has to occur on the first day of class and occur regularly thereafter. I really wanted to try cold-calling during this summer class, but decided to ease off on the idea because I was pleased with student participation early on. By the middle of the term I wanted to hear from different student voices, but also did not want to shift the learning environment so significantly halfway through the class and risk really embarrassing a student.
  3. Be Inquisitive: Be motivated by caring to hear what students have to think and say. Too easily cold-calling is conceived as simply testing students to see if they did the work. That’s setting up a rather antagonistic environment. I had one grad seminar when the teacher cold-called a student and caught him a little off guard (he did not regularly cold-call folks). The student asked, in a friendly manner, why he had be chosen. The teacher simply shrugged and said, “well, I usually enjoy your thoughts, so I thought I’d ask.” It was a natural and honest response, and I still remember it.
  4. Model Thinking-Out-Loud: Students may be intimidated to speak without well-formed thoughts. This is one reason why I think my group exercises generated several “new” participants, they were able to rehearse their ideas. Perhaps instructors can speak a little off-the-cuff to invite similar “live thinking” from students.
  5. Inviting Others: Closely related to the above point is inviting students to help others along or to fill in the blanks. Instead of moving on from a student who does not have a response, you could have him or her take a wild guess, or just invent something (as students commonly do on exams!). From a different angle, you could also invite students to critique or build upon a response.
  6. All’s Fair: To avoid bias (or always picking on the student who doesn’t pay attention) it may be reasonable to select students (truly) at random. Index cards with names are one clear option. There are several “random picker” and “random name picker” apps for phones.
  7. The Shift: Not all responses need to be cold-called. Cold-calling can be used to generate initial conversation. You can ask for volunteers after a few responses, or even switch completely over to volunteer participation once broad engagement is achieved.

To be honest, even after reading and thinking about this, I am still hesitant. Cold-calling is not a natural part of my personality nor my teaching persona, but I do want to challenge myself and try new things, even if I ultimately decide they are not well suited for me.