Assessing What They Know (Maybe I’m not so young anymore)

This is my fifth year as an instructor of record for the survey course and my, gulp, ninth year involved in teaching the survey in some way.  And, I’m struggling to separate my current students’ answers from all the other answers I’ve read over the years.  I find myself a little frustrated that they STILL DON’T GET IT!

It’s a revelation of sorts.  I’m getting older.  They aren’t.  Of course they are going to repeat the same bits of misinformation and show the same shallow understanding of history.  Of course I’ll have to unpack the American Revolution for them and read yet again that the Stamp Act was so unfair.  That isn’t their fault.  And, it isn’t mine.

It has been useful for me this semester to get a sense of what they know and what they think before class begins.  On this blog, and as a discipline, we have moved towards a more active, flipped, classroom. But, we aren’t always as good at flipping our own scripts and syllabi. The longer I teach, the harder it is for me to remember that my narrative is new to them and that they are also allowed (and maybe should be encouraged to) insert themselves into my narrative. What they find interesting, what stories they know, whose stories they want to know.

So, I’ve been collecting strategies to let me glimpse ahead of time what my students are walking into class knowing and thinking about. Not only is this a good reminder to me that they haven’t heard this stuff before, it is also a nice way to adapt my activities and lectures to their interests. I have a couple of requirements for these activities; they have to be short, if graded they have to be very low stakes, and they have encourage students to practice making arguments. This is certainly not a comprehensive list and I welcome additions.

  1. The Question Card. I have students take an index card when they walk into class and write down one question they had about the reading. I read through them while they assess a primary source or secondary quote and then address any concerns or repeated questions. It also lets me direct class towards things they find interesting.
  2. Weekly Questions. This semester I’m having students submit their reading questions on moodle. They are getting used to asking questions of the reading regularly and I have more time to adapt my class to their needs.
  3. Where Do We Go From Here? Sometimes I ask my students to anticipate what content the next class will cover. It’s a fascinating exercise that shows what they don’t know about the narrative of American history.
  4. Connect the Dots. I’ve also taken five minutes of class time to have students connect three events, people, or ideas we have recently talked about. For example, tea, taxes, and the American Revolution. Once they identify how we can connect these class terms, I’ll add something from the next class. In this case, the Constitution. Seeing what students assume or infer can help me identify their weaknesses and assumptions and hopefully prevent my own.

How do you incorporate student interests and needs into the survey?

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