Back to Basics

Back to Basics

I had a brief moment of panic yesterday when I realized how few weeks of the summer were left.  I’m teaching a new course this fall – Race, Sex, and Empire: North America before 1750 – and I’ve spent almost all summer immersed in wonderful new literature on that subject.  But yesterday I couldn’t read another page, I was so mentally occupied by the question of how to turn the things I was reading into active learning opportunities for my students.

Flixelpics David at Flickr’s Creative Commons

So I went back to basics.  I drew up a table with space for every class period through to the end of term, and I started working backwards from the exam period.  It might seem counter-intuitive to begin with the end, but I needed to know what I wanted the students to take away from the class before I could determine how to get them there.

My department has three very clear learning goals.  Students in our classes should be able to:

  • Analyze primary sources
  • Formulate an argument using evidence
  • Contextualize knowledge/truth claims

That gave me some focus.  But I had to think about what else I wanted them to know and do.  I came up with a list:

  • Think about history as a human creation (there is no god of history decanting ideas onto the page)
  • Practice oral communication skills
  • Improve writing skills
  • Better understand the contest over Native North American land and resources in the Age of Empire
  • Assess the perspective of the creators of books, articles, primary sources, websites, and other media
  • Assess the context in which books, articles, primary sources, websites, and other media were produced
  • Assess the truth contained in books, articles, primary sources, websites, and other media
  • Decide if evidence is trustworthy
  • Use trustworthy evidence to support positions in papers and conversation
  • Utilize oral, written, and kinetic forms of learning, and appreciate the value of each

Some of these items were about the way I wanted to teach, and the content I wanted to deliver.  But my focus on having students make clear arguments based on credible evidence meant I needed a final assignment that would demonstrate their learning in those areas.  I nixed the idea of group projects because, in this instance, collaborative learning was not one of my goals.  I don’t like to give exams, preferring to give my students a longer time period to think about their responses than that available during finals.  I ultimately decided that my students would write a final paper of 6-8 pages, giving them the opportunity to express themselves in a medium-sized format, in which they would make a historical argument about some aspect of history, drawn from the course.

me teaching
Taken by Peter Bailley at Knox College

If that was my end goal, I had to get my students there.  That meant not only teaching them history, but teaching them writing.  I set aside the last day of class for them to work on draft papers, and part of the class before that to work on their introductions and thesis statements.  If I wanted them to be good at writing papers by term’s end, I needed to give them an opportunity to practice that craft, so a first paper, earlier in the course was necessary.  I looked up when midterm grades would be due, counted back a week (to give me time to grade their work before that deadline) and set the due date for paper one.  Just as with their final paper, I set aside time in the classes leading up to the deadline to work on drafts.

What other assessment would I use?

One of my favorite forms of assessment is to give students a primary source they’ve never seen and have them analyze that source, drawing on their knowledge about how to approach primary material and contextualized material from course readings and discussion.  At the 200-level, I’ve usually done these kinds of quizzes four times in our ten week term, so I distributed four quizzes evenly throughout the course, and preserved time for students to work on their papers besides.

Map of world, 1432
Andrew Biaco, The World, 1482. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons; original located at British Library, London.

If I wanted students to be able to analyze primary sources, I was going to have to teach them how to do it.  That meant looking at the beginning of the course and thinking about the primary sources I would have us examine as a class, making sure I was providing enough practice for students to be well prepared by the time quiz one rolled around.  I picked out some maps, gathered together some written sources, and soon the first few days of class had taken shape.

That’s where I’m at right now, beginning to fill in content around this scaffolding of skills.  Once the general shape of the content is in place, I’ll start asking myself how to construct the best active learning environment I can, class by class.  Lesson plans are, as yet, at least a week away, but the panic I felt yesterday is gone.

Life lesson: don’t believe Julie Andrews.  The end of a class is a very good place to start.



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