Letting Go of Content

Much to my two survey classes’ delight, I have now, in week three, mastered their names.  I have only tripped over the podium twice and have only one chalk incident to report.  It is the beginning of a banner year!

I spent some of time on the blog last year puzzling how to ensure my students were getting enough content while having them really interact with texts and historical methods.  After much internal debate this summer, I decided to do two radical things this semester (these may not be radical to you):

  1. I gave up my daily lecture schedule in favor of weekly themes
  2. I gave up requiring a text book

I know that many professors have never had a daily lecture schedule because they preferred to be able to adjust topics and readings as the semester progressed.  I have never been that professor.  A set lecture schedule made my students happy—a fact that is a blessing to a young professor who needs good evaluations.  It also kept me from veering off on tangents too often as I learned to navigate the survey course.  Unfortunately, it also kept me from being very responsive to student interests and tended to prevent the course from having obvious connections from day to day.

So, this semester I’ve put in weekly themes and reading assignments and then I give them more specific instructions on what to read for the next class.  I’ve already noticed that I am spending more time with student questions and we are having a more fluid conversation, but I am also clearly giving up on content that I used to be able to breeze through.  My two sections of the survey have spent time on different parts of the readings and I’m now trying to decide whether to give them two different exams.

Part of my exam problem is that I am no longer requiring my students to read a textbook.  I’m listing chapters of The American Yawp that they can read for background information but I’m not making that reading mandatory.  I’ve dealt with fewer questions about tiny (and relatively insignificant for the class) details from the textbook and with more broad questions and thoughtful interpretations of primary sources (again, yay!) but I’m again looking at my exam and wondering how best to evaluate students on their retention.

I did put into place two checks on what content they are processing; I have them alternate taking a reading quiz and practicing making historical arguments in a weekly assignment.  By using these graded assignments, I can assess which parts of class they were most engaged with and where I need to spend more time.

I also have students turn in questions that they have about the readings.  These have been so exciting to read.  Students ask great questions and I am able to spend more time on the answers to those questions.  Yet, the niggling fear that they are missing exposure to important facts, people, and ideas persists.

How do you balance content with a desire to engage students in historical methods and questions? Are you assigning a textbook? Do you do daily readings?

2 thoughts on “Letting Go of Content

  1. I like this idea of a weekly theme. I transferred to a new school this year and there are some rather top-down requirements from my department heads that I abhore. I think they cover things the way you used to. As far as exams, if I could have it my way, it’d just be a couple primary and maybe a secondary source and have students construct some kind of an argument or validation for something that happened and assess their ability to do that. I wouldn’t have any multiple choice stuff or if I did it would be very limited like who was president during WWI or which amendment gave women the right to vote or these very large things. I often can’t remember what I did the previous day with students without some serious thought and I am teaching the class (though I teach more than one topic), and with students going to math, science, health, history, PE, english, and then their sports or band or whatever extracurricular activity, I just can’t expect them to remember a lot of “trivia” when they are being told a bunch of information for 6 hours of their day and none of it connects.

  2. Could you talk a little more about the writing assignment that you use? Your direction very much resembles my path. Mine is an adaptation of lendol Calder’s. The writing that I have received is stronger after the change, but I am not yet satisfied with the my writing assignments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *