OK. So, the topic for today is not actually about reviewing a textbook, although that is what I am doing right now. For those of you not in the academic business, we are often approached to review textbooks and materials, and I am reviewing one right now. In doing so, they often have you write up something about your own approach to teaching, and I thought this was a good opportunity to share what I wrote with everyone else. So, my apologies to the textbook company that put the questions together for using them here, but here is what they asked about my own teaching and what I had to say about it:
What are the main goals of your course? What should students understand and retain after taking the course?
My course is about teaching my students the skills that they need to be successful in college, using the field of American history as the background material for that purpose. I focus on three primary skills in my course: critical reading, critical thinking, and critical writing, and I use the course material to emphasize and further the development of those skills. I use a lot of primary source documents, as well as a department writing assignment that has the students use historical evidence to relate an aspect of the past to the modern day.
I also emphasize the idea of what I call the “American mythology,” the simplistic history that students are often taught in their K-12 education, and especially in K-8 education. There is an element of Lies My Teacher Told Mein my course, where I show them how what they have been taught in the past is not the full truth or sometimes even the truth at all.
From this, I hope that my students will come out of the course with a better understanding of the world and their place in it. I hope they will have an appreciation of what history can tell us about who we are and where we came from. I also want them to be successful students from this point forward, as I am typically teaching first-semester college students, many of who are first generation or nontraditional students. I shape the course in such a way as to emphasize the skills they will need both in my course and in future courses and help them to gain or improve those skills in my course.
Your Course Today
Are you currently emphasizing any new topics, themes, or skills in this course that you were not covering or emphasizing in the past few years? If so, what are they?
Most of what I am doing now is different than what I was doing 5-6 years ago. I teach online and hybrid, and I use the flipped classroom model for my hybrid courses. I do not lecture in the traditional sense, and I have largely abandoned the idea of teaching the narrative of what happened in my courses. Instead, I am emphasizing what I said above, mainly in the use of the history that we do cover in teaching them broader skills that will make them better students and more informed citizens.
My hybrid course takes a largely case-study approach to history, using the method of a deep dive in to a few topics to illustrate the broader trends of American history. As well, I helped design and devise our common writing assignment in the department, with its emphasis on using historical evidence to make an argument and in relating the past to the present. I have turned my hybrid teaching from a traditional lecture class with traditional assessments into an active learning classroom that works to engage the students with historical skills, many of them aligned with the AHA’s Tuning Project.
My online course is more in development in its changeover to this new mindset. I have spent years getting the hybrid course together, and It is the turn of the online course now. I am also going to be moving it away from the narrative lecture and into a more case-study approach. I am also introducing things like the Crash Course Digital Literacy material into the course, both to help the students in their own lives and to provide them with a questioning framework for understanding history and its evidence. I am also going to be including more interaction, especially with more self-assessments and inter-group cooperation.
What are your teaching challenges and your students’ learning challenges in this course?
The biggest challenge remains the lack of the skills that I am trying to teach. As I stated above, the students at my community college are heavily nontraditional and first generation. We have our share of the traditional studnets just out of high school as well, but, at an open-enrollment institution, even those students often come to us because we are relatively inexpensive and close. Even the traditional students often lack college-level skills, which is one reason why I have been transforming my courses. I got tired of sitting and complaining each year that my students could not do the work and blaming them for it and decided that it was time I started working toward helping them with the skills gap. The gaps that I see are:
- Lack of understanding/ability to read a college-level textbook
- This is because they often have never had to do it before and have not been taught how to do it. Seeing my own children go through in high school (I have one in high school and two entering college right now), I know that reading is a small part of the overall curriculum these days, as my kids rarely have had reading assigned outside of class and are not provided with any textbooks to bring home at all. So, for many, my own requirements that they read and understand a college textbook or primary sources more generally simply is a skill they have had little practice at.
- Poor understanding of how to think critically in an age of multiple-choice tests
- The increasing reliance on multiple-choice assessments here in Texas means that most of my students have an understanding of history and academics in general as a curriculum of memorization for the text. There is not as much emphasis on the higher thinking and reasoning skills, especially in the non-AP classes. When presented with history as a field of study without concrete answers and where the questioning of sources, interpretations, and understandings comes out as a key aspect, they have a lot of trouble with it.
- Lack of effective study skills and academic skills
- Again, to use my own children as an example, I rarely have seen them ever study outside of school for anything, and my twins entering college now (one coming out of AP in high school and one who pursued the International Baccalaureate plan) seldom did homework, even in relatively rigorous high school course work. The students I generally see have little idea of how to do homework, how to plan out an academic semester to get work done on time, how to study for a test, how to write a paper, and just in general how to navigate a college environment.
- Poor writing skills
- The students I see have trouble creating an argument/thesis, understanding evidence as it applies to a paper, using evidence to support an argument, drafting and editing a paper, and effectively using citations and a Works Cited. I cannot rely on my students gaining those skills through our English classes, as there is no requirement they take English before my class, and so I have to create assignments that help them with this process.
Notice what I have not said here, which is that I do not have any problem with their knowledge of historical facts and figures. While they often do not know very much that is not in the very broad canon of US history, my approach allows them to gain what they need along the way, as the teaching of the skills along the way are based upon using the knowledge that is necessary to succeed. In an era of smartphones, the memorization of history is no longer a necessity, and the broader skills will allow them to understand the history much more than just knowing what happened in the traditional narrative. As well, a focus on understanding the American mythology as it is generally taught will make them more critical thinkers in evaluating evidence and using it to prove an argument.
The second full day (third overall day) at the conference (Texas Distance Learning Association) started early for me. To beat traffic, I got here quite early. There was no scheduled breakfast, but, luckily, there were some basic muffins and drinks, so that carton of yogurt hours earlier got a supplement before the session started. I have taken advantage of the quiet time of getting here early to clear some stuff out of my inbox and do some general grading for my classes, so it was not a waste of time by any means. Today looks like a fuller schedule of sessions than yesterday, and more of them appear to be directly focused on the teaching side of things. So I am hoping for some good content today.
Roundtable: Instructional Design: Solutions and Resources
A general discussion and networking opportunity – no focused guidance but an open-ended discussion
First major question raised – standardization vs. instructor freedom in design
TXDLA putting together a MOOC on teaching people how to teach online. Also proposing a certification track for instructional design. Question also about do they need their own certifications or should they be a repository of what is out there and worthwhile.
One of the things discussed was the question of instructional design when most of us who teach were never actually taught how to teach. We are experts in our subject, but we are not taught how to put together things like student learning outcomes, cross-course competencies, and the like.
Another funny thing, of course, is that I’m in the room with instructional designers who are talking about the struggles they have with faculty and such, and as I just noted, we don’t actually have instructional designer at all. So, it ends up being a funny conversation because people are talking about having instructional designers and how to make it a priority for instructors to get instruction on how to teach, especially to teach online, as we simply do not have it.
Assessments that Rock
Presenter – Sheree Webb – Instructional Designer – Tyler Junior College
OK. It has not started yet, but here’s a good sign – there’s a history assessment up on the screen before we get started. This might be directly relevant in the best way.
The question of what our students actually retain out of our classes – assessments chosen well give you the best ability to choose what students retain. Since they are so focused on what is on the test, giving them assessments that aim at what you want them to get out of the course makes it more likely they will retain that information.
The question of the assessment not matching the learning outcomes. The example given were the traditional history multiple choice tests that are so incredibly poor at focusing the students on what they should learn. Who cares if they can recall random facts in history. Recall (or as I call it in my class, memorize, regurgitate, and forget) questions are poor assessments of student success. Are we really so poor in teaching history that what we want the students to be able to do out of the class is recall random irrelevant facts or do we want them to be able to do higher-level learning? I just get so frustrated at the way history is taught, like multiple choice exams matter. That we should care whether they can recall the facts has always seemed to me to be a base level of teaching history. Of course, the argument on the other side is that you have to understand the facts to be bale to make the connections. But, I just wonder if any of us really believe that the students completing a multiple-choice exam actually shows that they do understand that material, or have they just memorized and forgotten?
Assessment level – you want to give frequent assessments – Frequent assessments keep students engaged in the course and help them gauge how they are doing. Recommendation – at least one formative assessment a week. Formative means – quizzes, short essays, debates, discussion forums, short case studies, reflection questions, questions or problems with the answers posted. Keep they engaged on a regular basis and have them be assessing their progress as they go along.
Authentic Assessment – Real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of essential knowledge and skills. Could be – performing a task, real-life situations, construction/application, student-centered, and direct evidence. This doesn’t mean you can’t do traditional assessment – selecting a response, contrived, recall/recognition, teacher-centered, and indirect evidence. You need a combination of the two, but you need to have authentic assessment, which is often left out.
You Have Me at Hello
Presenter – Dr. Wendy Conaway – Ashford University – Assistant Professor
This one is intended to discuss the introduction forum in online classes and how it can increase student engagement. This may not go well, as there seems to be technical issues in getting going here. This has happened more often than not in my sessions here, as everyone seems to be having some sort of problem getting the provided computers to do what they are supposed to do.
I wonder at what point you give up on a session? Is there a 15-minute rule on a 50-minute session?
Discussing first impressions – how we connect with students throughout the course. We represent us, the course in general, and for students who are in a course with us the first time, it can shape how they feel about the whole college. We represent all of the courses if we are the first ones that we encounter. It also can give you the benefit of the doubt with the students later in the semester.
Instruction Forum – a place to create social presence – creating a persona and creating a connection between you and the students.
Introduction forums promotes a sense of community – opportunity to share and learn about each other. People here require their students to respond to others – getting to know them. I can’t imagine doing this. I have eliminated mandatory responses in my classes, and I certainly would not include it here.
Introduction forums help student engagement – it helps to alleviate anxiety and can be motivating to participate. Helps with student retention as well, keeping the students in the course.
I am going to break here for lunch and go ahead and post this one up for the first half of the conference. I will post the second half at the end of the day.
This week was my first experiment in something different in my classes. I have had discussion days before, so that was not the real difference here. What was different is that I had a day designed purely to explore a single topic in great detail with the students doing all of the preparation work outside of class and coming in simply to discuss that issue. In this case, I set up the material for the discussion by covering the three main tendrils of history that led into the topic — immigration, unionization, and Progressivism. Each of those had been covered in lecture in the days before this class, and so each student should have had a general idea of the historical context in which the incident took place.
In designing my “In-Class Activity” day, I had gone on the web to look at what resources were out there, as I wanted to give the students something that they would not access in a normal class. I did not want a traditional discussion where you have the students go out and read some primary sources and then come back and talk about them. I wanted something different, something that would engage the students in a different way, and yet accomplish the very goals that I always try to reach, having them connect the historical events to the modern age. As well, I wanted them to be confronted with an event that happened to people like them but 100 years earlier so that they could relate to them. Traditional “great man” history does not speak to them in many ways, but getting down to average Americans working hard just to get by speaks well to students, especially the non-traditional ones you find in a community college setting who have been out and worked in the real world.
What I had the students do was go out to the PBS website and watch the American Experience program on The Triangle Fire of 1911. They also were to access a couple of the other resources there, including an introductory essay, biographies of some of the participants, and a few informative pictures in a slideshow. The combination of that material was what they had to do before class, and it was open and available from the first day of class. To get into class on the day of the discussion, the students were required to bring a 1-2 page response to the material. I did not guide them in what they were to write specifically, but left it open to them as far as what they wrote.
It was an experiment in something new, and I really had no idea how it would go. Would they do the work ahead of time? Well, about 80-85% of the students who showed up brought a 1-2 page response. I did not let the rest stay in the class and told them to leave with a 0 for the day. Of those who had a response, I would estimate that about 10-15% of them really didn’t do much of the assigned work. On the other end, about 10-15% went well beyond the required viewings and did their own research. And, another 10-15% couldn’t get all of the resources to work for one reason or another. Of those, a gratifying few did go out and research on their own to find the information. One even told me that the same video was on Netflix streaming, which tells me I should check next time to offer that as a place for students to check.
The next question is, would they engage the material and have something to say about it? I say it was an unmitigated success in this regard. I began the discussion with the most general question possible, “What did you think about the video?” In both of the discussions I’ve had so far, people stopped having a response to that question after about 30 minutes. So, we had 30 minutes of discussion, with me saying quite little except for guiding who would speak next, on just a response to the video. I took notes during that time and did the rest of the discussion off of the topics that they brought up the most. We easily filled the rest of the class period (75 minutes total) with no problems and very few gaps where nobody had anything to say. Of course, some of that is because they were being graded on the discussion, but they really were responding well to the material and had a lot to say at all parts of the discussion. In both classes, I have the feeling that we could have filled much more time if we had it, but that we really did dissect the issues at the time well, while also relating the experiences from that time to the modern day well. I also get the feeling from the responses that I heard that they will remember this event and the discussion we had about it much longer than they probably will the individual things that I lecture on each day.
What do I take away from this? I consider it an overwhelming success on a thing that I wasn’t sure would work. The response was excellent, and students did the work ahead of time, which was something I was very worried about. But why did it work so well? I think some of it has to do with the form of media. There’s something about watching a documentary, especially when you can watch it on your own time rather than being forced to sit there in class and watch it that can be quite engaging. This was a very well done one, which does help as well. Also, it is not “traditional” history. One of the first responses I got, before I even really started the discussion was that almost all of the students had no knowledge of the incident before. They had never heard of it, but they were interested in it. The subject reflects on topics that are relevant in the lives of people who would be at a community college, in that it is primarily about working-age people, mostly women, who are struggling in a system that seems set up against them. The students brought up personal experiences a number of times as they attempted to relate what they had seen there to their own lives, and I did not have to guide them to do this. In fact, I like that word guide, as I felt much more like I was just a guide in the discussion then that I was a leader of the discussion.
I have one more section that will do the discussion tomorrow, and I hope it goes just as well. It’s days and assignments like this that energize me as a teacher and keep me going as an educator.
Two articles were delivered into my email yesterday on the state of the field of history. So, I thought I would write about them, having gone through the dissertation process myself (without completing it) and teaching history now. I certainly have my own opinions, and I’m sure that will come through here.
What’s Been Lost in History (As a note, I got this off of some place that allows me to read the full article. You have to have a subscription to read it on the Chronicle’s site.)
This is a fairly common-sense recounting of the problems with the job market for people pursuing a Ph.D. in history. He notes that the typical history department prepares students for a single profession, that of being a professor in a tenure-track job, doing research and a bit of teaching as necessary. If you do not aspire to that, the current state of history graduate education is not designed for you. While I did not go through the program looking for a nonacademic job, as this article focuses on, I still was an outsider, as I quickly discovered that I was much more interested in teaching than research. In fact, I spent 5 1/2 years in a Ph.D. program trying to convince myself that I could do enough of the research side of things to get through with the Ph.D. and hopefully get a teaching job somewhere. In the end, I left with a good amount of teaching experience, so I am thankful for that, but the emphasis on producing researchers was undoubtedly the only acceptable focus in my experience, just as this article discusses. As he says, “I do not have solid evidence on this point, but I think the notion of academe as the only suitable outcome of doctoral education is a myth generated by the highly untypical period from the mid-1950s to about 1970. My sense is that the historical profession (and the human sciences generally) became much narrower and more academic in the decades after World War II.” I think it is stuck in a rut, just as I’ve been talking about with other aspects of teaching in this blog so far. Why do we get taught this way in doctoral programs, because that’s the way they were taught. We even talked about the comprehensive exams as an archaic hazing ritual, done because that’s what our professors had to do.
His solution is to make the history degree more of a “pre-professional degree” than just one that leads to an academic research career. Acknowledge that many people who go into history will get a law degree or a museum placement or (like me) a teaching job. He advocates linking up history with “public affairs, business administration, international relations, social work, and journalism” as well, which would strengthen historical thinking and reasoning across the professions. Make it into something that people have more options with. When I left my undergraduate institution with a degree in history, I never got any real guidance on what I could do outside of going to grad school. Nobody ever talked about other options, and I went to grad school largely because I really didn’t know what else to do. There were no real connections to other fields, outside of one class that was only tangentially connected to the history department that looked at public history. I also got an internship at a museum in the summer before my senior year, but it also never really led to anything. All paths pointed to grad school, with no real alternatives given. So, there I went. And there was a very focused program with little ideas outside of research.
As he says, “Doctoral training in history as it developed in the 19th century included a commitment to civic life and leadership; in the first half of the 20th century, history was at the core of civic professionalism, partly because the social sciences generally were then historicist.” I will go even further to say that it is not just doctoral history, but history at all levels. This is something that I have been struggling with here in this blog because it has to do with the relevance of the subject that I teach directly. Is history just the memorization of facts at the undergraduate level or the research of some minutia that somebody else hasn’t found yet at the graduate level? I hope that it is more than that, and I like the civic aspects and the preparation for other careers that are discussed as alternatives in this article.
I guess that the more I look back on it, the more disappointed I am in my undergraduate and graduate education in preparing me for what I am actually doing now. Perhaps that means I was not suited to do history as I did, but I love teaching it, and I’m not sure how else I could have gone through the process without getting the teaching experience ahead of time to be able to get the job I did get. It just seems somewhat hollow when I look back on it. One of my friends in grad school said it best — everything he wanted to do in history you could do without a Ph.D., while everything you did to get a Ph.D. in history was not anything he wanted to do. Yet, idealistic people keep going in, with the hope that they will be the ones to buck the system. Hopefully one of them succeeds, but for now, I will try to do my best from a lower rung in the academic ladder.
Coming out of the American Historical Association (I should probably join this again at some point) is apparently a new effort to define what it means to get a history degree at the “associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral” levels. Right now, there is no definition of that at all, and each institution’s degree is fundamentally different from each other one (I might even argue that each student’s experience in each program is fundamentally different). Of course, at my community college, you can’t even get an associate degree in history at all, so that’s a fascinating concept in and of itself. And, most importantly, this effort will not be about what is taught (the specifics), but about the competencies that one would expect to come out of a degree in history. In other words, this is another in the line of the assessment push now. It will be interesting to see how this turns out. Is it going to be a hollow change that ends up not meaning much, or will it provide some legitimacy and direction, much as was discussed in the previous article.
I don’t know that anything that I saw here will fundamentally change what I’m doing in the classroom, and it was interesting to see that the competencies here were basically the exact things that I already try to emphasize. But some commonalities would be good, especially if you could combine what was in this article with the previous one. I do think it would be even more valuable at the higher levels, as the graduate level is often even more amorphous. Some structure and variety in instructional ideas and techniques could have the potential to bring about changes. I guess I’m less optimistic there, but you would hope that things would change at some point to open up a field that is so singularly focused.