Thoughts on Teaching History in a Scale Up Classroom (Part VII)

This week we returned the midterm exams and embarked on the second part of our three part experiment in teaching History 101: Western Civilization I in the Scale-Up Classroom at the University of North Dakota. The goal of the class is to introduce the students to historical analysis by dividing the class into groups and having each group contribute a chapter to a Western Civilization textbook. If the Scale-up room involved “flipping the classroom”, my history course complemented that by “flipping the textbook.”

1. Looking Back. The midterm exam was a challenge for me. First, since I’ve been teaching online for the last few years and do not assign a midterm or any “closed book” assessment it took a minute to adjust my expectations to an in class assessment. Next, I have general taught my course as content focused meaning that the midterm evaluated the students’  grasp of a focused body of material from the first half of class. In my Scale Up class each group is working on a different chronological period making the midterm an exercise in method rather than material.

In other words, this class upset my expectations for what a solid 100-level history exam should be. In the past, I could expect a basic mastery of material, but with this exam, I had to accept that my students were still novice potters producing rough and ill-shaped bowls. Unlike the more limited, skill-based exercises that we conducted week-to-week (e.g. built a timeline of primary sources or prepare a list of significant institutions and individuals for your chapter), the test asked the students to integrate these smaller skill sets into a larger historical argument. The results were, predictably, uneven and will likely only make sense in the context of the final project where we can determine whether the students improved their ability to craft pots over the course of the semester. 

Most students clearly understood that there should be a relationship between the models that we use to understand the past and a body of historical evidence, but making this leap from lining up models and evidence side-by-side and reflecting on the tension between evidence and interpretation is probably something that will develop only over the course of the semester.

2. Looking Ahead or Clamoring for Contracts. As the students process their test grades (which were just a bit better than average for a 100 level history course) and look ahead to the final project, you can feel the tension rise in the room. Students who had been committed collaborators with their less engaged peers have begun to worry that with the midterm complete, the next major assignment depends almost entirely upon their collaboration with classmates. While this is a real world experience (working with academic collaborators can often be a frustrated process!), students also need some reassurance that they don’t end up carrying the more lackluster efforts of weaker students to the detriment of their grade.

As a result, I am going to institute a contract for each chapter produced by the table of nine students. The goal of the contract is for students to negotiate the intricacies of actually working together to write the first chapter draft which which is due the week after spring break. To do this, they will work up an outline that will serve as the basis for a contract. The contract will involve word counts, a due date, and an author. A preliminary draft will be compiled and edited during class the Tuesday after spring break. Students will receive grades based on their contributions and the overall structure of the chapter keeping with our practice of interleaving individual and group grades.  

3. Driven to Distraction. The past month has seen the gradual creep of distraction into the classroom. Some of this is my fault. For example, yesterday I asked all 18 groups to present a 2 minute elevator pitch for their chapters. While 2 minutes is not too much to ask even the most distracted undergraduate to focus, 2 x 18 (almost 40 minutes) of listening to one another present material pushed the class too far and led to a growing distracted din. In the future, I’ll only ask half the tables to present on any given day and will group tables with related topics together and ask them to present on the progress of their larger projects.

The other form distraction comes from having laptop computers on each table. Last night I observed students watching some kind of ice hockeying contest (who knew the that NHL still existed… I almost felt guilty telling them to stop watching) and the game cast of the Minnesota v. Indiana college basketball game. What made this particularly annoying was the most distracted also tended to underperform. 

I had a chat with a colleague the other night about dealing with the distracted and distracting students. Generally, I have a laissez-faire attitude toward student behavior and figured that students will largely self police and some small doses of public humiliation (i.e. calling a student out for admitting to watch the NHL at all…) sucked the air out of the transgressive thrill of being obviously distracted before a major insurrection could break out. I think that I have the situation under control, but only time will tell.

For more on my adventures in the Scale Up classroom, go here.

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