Readers of this blog know that I’ve been teaching History 101: Western Civilization to about 150 students in a Scale-Up style classroom this semester. I had great hopes of revamping this class in a massive way, but decided close to the start of the semester to make a few little changes than a substantial re-imagining.
These small changes focused on improving how I implemented three main areas. All these changes have improved student engagement in the material and the quality of student product. It’s too soon to say that they are entirely successful (or will continue to be successful in future versions of the class), but it’s been a good start.
The goal of this course is to have students write a textbook. They do this in 15 groups of 9 students (or so) and each group is responsible for three chapters. Each chapter is researched, outlined, and written by the students over a 3 week period. The course meets once a week at night in a Scale-Up room room. Each student has a different textbook that they share with the group as a reference work. They are also directed to online primary sources and allowed to use online resources to supplement their texts.
1. More is more. When I taught this course in the past, I had a tendency to ease into chapter writing phase which began the final 9 weeks of the semester (3 chapters written over 3 weeks each). The first six weeks tended to emphasize basic team building to get the students familiar with the classroom, a basic introduction to historical methods, and some short assignments designed mainly to get the students writing and thinking.
This year, I ramped up my expectations for the first part of the class, and assigned three individual writing assignments (300-500 word essay) that constituted 30% of the grade for the course. The tables could work together to prepare the assignment by doing research together, outlining a paper, and even constructing a thesis, but the papers themselves had to come from each student.
Each paper focused on a kind of history – political and military, social and economic, and cultural and religious history – and that introduced students to the ways that historians divide up the past and helps them understand these approaches when they write their chapters.
While I’m not sure that the students have a stronger grasp of these various kinds of history, I do think that making more work due at the start of the semester builds expectations for the course more clearly and engages the students in the work of writing history from the first weeks of the semester.
2. Fast feedback. One of the disadvantages of a one-day-per-week class is that it is hard to maintain an ambitious writing schedule and provide the students with quick feedback on their work. I was lucky this semester to have a few GTAs who were willing to do read papers very quickly during class time and provide a list of key issues with the papers before the end of the 2.5 hour class. This gave us a chance to provide immediate feedback to long form writing assignments.
Fast feedback has often been limited to the use of clickers in the classroom or other rapid response type devices or applications which allow for instantaneous feedback on questions asked during class time. The downside these devices is that they usually limit student responses to short answers or multiple-guess kinds of queries. I’ve found that giving students quick feedback on longer, written work this semester has produced much improved results.
3. Go fast to go slow. The reason why rapid responses to student written work has produced improved results is that it has allowed us to keep the pace of work high in the class. I know that I’ve celebrated techniques associated with slow learning (and other forms of the slow movement) on this blog, but, with the Scale-Up room pace is everything. The space of the room is incredibly distracting to students, lectures are impossible, and it’s all I can do to keep the students settled and quiet for 10 minutes quizzes at the start of the class.
In this environment, variables in attention span, work speed, and comprehension make it vital to keep the class moving. To do this, I’ve increasingly broken down the work of writing (and writing history, in particular) into smaller parts which take less time to understand and practice. Focusing on specific aspects of historical work – from writing a single sentence thesis, to constructing an outline with primary source evidence and specific historical details, to learning when and how to cite formally – allows students to grasp and work through various parts of historical writing process without being overwhelmed.
These opportunities for attention to detail – even if they involve only 10 minutes of sustained attention per class – provide a chance for students to focus attention on many aspects of the writing process that often get overlooked when students are confronted by the complexity of even short writing assignments.
As I introduced these little changes, I’ve thought a bit more carefully about what I want to accomplish in my History 101 class. In fact, I’m participating in a faculty reading seminar on a book about assessment. At UND (and I assume elsewhere) we’re often confronted with the idea that the actual goal of the class (i.e. writing a textbook) is somehow separate from what we hope the students learn (i.e. a learning outcome). This division allows us to separate grading the assignment (the actual goal) from assessing student learning (the real goal). History (and I’m sure other fields as well) has seen this division as a bit of a challenge. After all, our discipline has long valued the production of historical knowledge more than the process itself. Our methodology is underdeveloped and we lack much in the way of an ethical, practical, or even philosophical foundation. As disciplinary practice confronts the ironic view of the modern academy (i.e. teaching history is really teaching something else – citizenship, critical thinking, reading and writing, et c.) we are constantly pushed to figure out what our discipline REALLY does and to assess that. I find that more confounding than helpful. After all, one thing that historians are good at is recognizing good history.