Teaching Upper-Division History Courses

I am a lecturer by nature, and will most often defend the lecture-based course over one dedicated solely to class discussion (seminars excluded, of course). I do, though, want to gauge opinion on the most effective ways to teach upper-division American history courses. I will begin teaching senior-level courses in the fall, and, although, I have a clear idea on how I want to do it, I also would be interested in hearing other opinions on what folks have found useful in their own experiences.

My courses will comprise approximately 40 students, which, in my opinion, is too many for an effective discussion. So, I envision each class period dedicated primarily to lectures, but also interspersed with questions directed at the students. For example, I am interested in pursuing a Socratic method-style of teaching in which I will lecture for a while, and then call on a student, asking pointed questions about how that day’s assigned primary source relates to the theme of the lecture. I feel that this will serve two purposes. 1) It changes the flow of the class away from me and toward the students. 2) It forces the students to come prepared, already having read the assigned material based on the possibility that they will be called upon directly to interpret the meaning of documents or secondary readings. In addition, I plan to stop a lecture to engage in an in-class primary source interpretation, and then finish the lecture once the exercise is complete.

So, I envision each class period dedicated 75 percent to lecture, and 25 percent interaction/discussion. I know that when I was an undergraduate, I really did not care what my classmates believed or thought about a given topic. Instead, I wanted to know what the professor–indeed, the expert–had to say about the topic in which s/he specialized. I have since modified this position, somewhat, now that I am at the front of the classroom. Although I hesitate to give the class free reign of a topic, I am interested in seeing how students can apply a reading or source to the ideas and positions that I put forth in lecture. Hopefully, the students will come to a different conclusion/interpretation of the source, or offer an alternative point of view than mine.

What are your thoughts? How do you balance lecture and discussion in upper-level courses, those specifically as large as mine–40 to 50 students.

3 thoughts on “Teaching Upper-Division History Courses

  1. I do that routinely in similarly sized classes and it works well. I don’t do pure Socratic; instead, I throw questions to the class as a whole. A few things – I think you do have to make it clear that class participation is part of their grade, so they feel some need to participate. I also think learning students’ names as fast as possible makes this work better – it’s not that hard in a class of this size, and the students are generally more responsive if you call on them by name. Finally, I post the questions I plan to ask about the primary source on my ppt slide, so students have more than a few seconds to think about the answers (that is, they can see the follow up questions as I ask the first one); it also helps them see what points/ideas they’re supposed to get out of the discussion.

  2. I also do this, and I think it works rather well. I lecture for about 50 minutes and expect them to discuss primary sources they’ve read before class for the remaining 40 minutes or so–this discussion is interspersed throughout the lecture, coming up as the sources come up in the narrative. I also assign students to send me questions on the sources the night before, so I can bring their questions to the group. Often, they get more traction than mine do! My courses are usualy 30-35 people, so a bit smaller, but I don’t see why this wouldn’t work in a slightly larger group. It definitely breaks things up for them, and keeps them more alert. I like the idea above, too, about posting questions on the ppt slides.

  3. So much depends on the personality of the individual group. Variety seems to be pretty key, and recognizing that different students have different learning styles, and respond to lecture or discussion or visual exercises in varying ways. Sometimes I think simply lecturing is the easy way out. I don’t know that it’s always the most effective tactic. So mixing it up as you propose is a good idea, I think.

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