Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Narrowing and tweaking topics: two strategies

Time to resurrect this instruction blog. You know the drill: time got away from us, we got busy actually doing the instruction, you have time to do it or write about it. Ok, now that we have that out of the way, let's get down to business.

Selecting and narrowing (or focusing) topics is one of those tricky skills for students. They often think that this is the easy part, but more and more I see students really struggle to accomplish this task.

In many of our upper-level classes, our institution uses construction of a research question to help students narrow a topic. But if you haven't done it before, research questions can be a tough concept to grasp.

I started bringing concept maps back into my teaching in the last year. But I realized once I attempted it in a few classes that concept maps are only really helpful when the student has a good grasp of the topic. This isn't usually true in many intro level classes. They haven't done the research yet, so they know very little about their topic, or they end up with really generic concept maps.

What do you do with students who know little about their topic? Or have instructor assigned topics? Or just picked a topic out of the textbook? I tried a technique using everyone's favorite question words. I had students write at least 2 questions that started with each of the 5 W's & an H. Even if they don't know much, it forces them to approach the topic from a few different angles. After doing this once, I adapted the directions to allow for questions that didn't start with the question word, but answered it. For example, "Who reads?" is not a terribly helpful question, but "Do men or women read more?" gets at the same Who question without actually starting with the word.

What I really liked about this activity was that the Why and How questions can quite easily be turned into research questions. Those get at the connecting of ideas instead of just reporting back findings. In the class I did both these activities with the whole class. Afterwards I had each student pick a topic to put on a piece of paper, crumple it up and throw it to the front of the room. Then I had them pick up one, uncrumple it and then add 2 items to it. If they knew the topic well, add 2 spokes of the concept map. If they were less familiar, add two "question word questions." Then crumple it back up and throw it back to the front. The next round was the same, only they could build off of what the previous person had written too. We did this 3 times. By the end, they had a fairly complex concept map or quite a few questions to build off.

I don't always get that much time with students that early in the process so I created this infographic to work into my LibGuides for other classes. I'm excited to see how it goes.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Politics round up

Happy Election Day!! Or as I like to call it in Iowa, happy election campaigns reprieve day! As a former politics major, this day was always important to me. Being informed and being active in our own government is something I try to advocate for in all of my classes.

Today's post is going to look a bit different than my typical ones. I'm going to do a round up of some of my favorite government and political resources and tools. Knowing most of my students don't come in with much background in politics, government or civics, my favorites balance content with context.


  • iCivics.org--iCivics is a non-profit started by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Conner to teach students about the political process, usually through games. It covers drafting bills, the Supreme Court arguments, the Bill of Rights, immigration, the race to the White House and more. Free accounts are easy to create and the games are both informative and fun to play. Teaching resources are also available.
  • Constitution Center--If you can get to the Constitution Center in Philadelphia, go! It's amazing. In the meantime, check out the interactive Constitution on their website. Their educational resources are located here. They also have a goldmine of Constitution Day activities.
  • Our Documents--An actual government site that hosts great quality scans of 100 milestone documents important to American history. They also have text transcripts for each document. 
  • DocsTeach--Aimed more at history teachers, this site can also be useful when trying to find primary documents on political topics. It looks at how to engage students in historical documents.


  • OpenCongress--A non-partisan website that bring together information about bills in Congress and Congress members. It provides funding and spending data as well.
  • GovTrack--Another non-partisan site that provides summaries of bills, tracks the likelihood of passage as well as provides rationale for why it may or may not succeed. Sometimes a little slow to update, the overall content makes up for that delay.
  • Congress.gov--The legislative process videos cover the entire process and rational of how a bill becomes a law. Not quite as entertaining as "SchoolHouse Rock," it does a decent job of covering the content.
  • Countable--Summarizes both sides of popular bills in Congress. It doesn't have search function if you're looking for a particular bill.

Supreme Court:

  • ScotusBlog--SCOTUSblog does the best, accessible and easily readable coverage of Supreme Court cases I have seen. They not only link to all the relevant court documents for each case, but they include their own coverage like argument previews and recaps, as well as opinion recaps explaining the future implications of the decision. While many SCOTUS websites have a legalese tone, SCOTUSblog has an entire staff position dedicated to writing "In Plain English" articles for their site, breaking down important cases without all the legal jargon. Coverage goes back to 2007.
  • Oyez--This site provides links to the Supreme Court audio in a much easier to find format than the Supreme Court website itself.
  • CourtListener--This allows users to search ALL of the federal courts opinions and cases in one box. This is particularly helpful when trying to find the opinion of a case before it hits the Supreme Court. The highest state court decisions are also available.