Teaching Thursday: Facts and History

It has become popular to challenge the idea that teaching “factual information” in undergraduate history courses has value. After all, facts are easily collected from the so-called internets or a good textbook and remembering fragments of historical knowledge is far less useful than knowing how to construct a compelling argument. Moreover, compelling arguments in history require that a student or scholar deploy “facts” in an effective, consistent, and accurate way. So training a student to make an argument will inevitably result in imparting an appreciation of factual knowledge.

The only problem is that, in practice, the processes of organizing, memorizing, and deploying factual information successfully are not separate but deeply related. An active historical mind (if such a thing exists) will inevitably be littered with assorted factoids which have almost no context, but the majority of “factual” organization that a historian knows depend either on its place within a narrative of events or its place within an argument in historiography. I remember, for example, the date of Justin I death because it also marks the date of Justinian’s ascension to the throne as solo emperor (527). So my understanding of the historical narrative provides me with a context for remembering a particular date. In other cases, I remember a fact based on its utility in a historical argument. For example, I recall the dates associated with “Theodosian type column capitals” not because I know the narrative for the development of architectural sculpture in the Late Roman East, but because I needed to know the date of that type of capital to make an argument for the date of a particular building.

In any event, defining how we remember things is artificial to some extent as we invariably use multiple conscious and unconscious techniques to lodge particular facts in our memory. The issue is that some factual framework is necessary to produce historical narratives or argument. Part of the challenge of teaching the 100 level (that is introductory, undergraduate level) is convincing students to internalize some historical facts at level sufficient that they can deploy this information to support a particular position. Over the past 5 years I’ve tried almost every technique to do this. I’ve allowed students to bring notes to tests, I’ve converted tests to paper and let them work on them with an open book, and, finally, for my online class I require a weekly quiz. The weekly quizzes were multiple choice, and I designed them to familiarize students with the most basic narrative details of the class and to model particular maneuvers in historical argument. The former involved the most basic names and dates type questions and the latter involved more complex questions that required students to select the best facts to support a particular position. These questions, then, ask students to recall facts central to the narrative that I offer in class or to particular historical arguments that we construct over the course of the semester.

The quizzes were pretty rough on the students. The average grade on the quiz was around 7 out of 10. This not only tended to discourage the students – mostly non-majors – but also pushed the class average toward the lower end of the C range. More importantly, the quiz scores tended to be lower than the interpretative work where students were successfully deploying factual information to support particular arguments. So this semester, I made a change and let the students take the quizzes up to 3 times.  Each quiz is 10 questions, but draws upon a question bank of between 20 and 30 questions. When a student retakes the quiz,  around half the questions are likely to be different.

The result of this new approach to the quiz component of the class was remarkable. The average for quizzes jumped to over 9 out of 10 and the students appear to have better command over the factual information as well. It was a pretty easy solution to my quiz problem. Time will tell whether it will produce a greater degree of comfort with the so-called facts of historical analysis.

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