From Survey to Elective: Connecting through Learning Outcomes

What differentiates learning outcomes at the survey and elective levels in American history courses? 

This semester I taught ONLY the U.S. survey. Next semester, I’m teaching the survey, a team-taught introductory American Studies/transnational course on Nazism and American culture and politics, and an upper level elective in U.S. Economic History (History of American Capitalism). As I began planning for these, I decided I should be more deliberate in differentiating the learning outcomes at these levels. We all have a sense of what makes an elective different from a survey, although I’m not sure our students always discern the divergences. To help us piece out these differences, I’ve broken down the learning outcomes for my courses into three common areas: Skills, Content, and Qualities/Attitudes (and connections to institutional core curriculum).

Do get in touch with any thoughts, comments, additions, and ideas! These are always a work in progress, but I hope they also provide some inspiration for others in developing their courses over the winter break.


U.S. Survey, 1877-present

Skill development is hugely important to emphasize in the survey because the majority of students are not history majors. It’s important to emphasize how this course will help them down the road, as well as to connect the course’s goals to the university’s core curriculum (in other words, make sure they know why they have to take it while also trying to show them that learning history is important). At this level, learning outcomes involve basic reading skills, identifying arguments, and making connections and arguments, as well as time management. 

✴ Connect primary sources to historical context using reference material and historical arguments

✴ Evaluate historical arguments by reading scholarly work

✴ Identify arguments about and articulate changes over time

✴ Manage time and plan for deadlines efficiently and effectively with minimal supervision

Nazism and American Culture

This course, while introductory, is also interdisciplinary (and still in development). I’m co-teaching with a historian of Nazi Germany, Ben Lieberman, and our plan is to exhibit for our students how connections occur between politics and culture across national boundaries. As such, our Skill development, Content, and Qualities are a bit more blurred and overlapping. While seeing history through a transnational lens is not exactly a “skill,” it may be something that introductory students find new and will have to explicitly see exhibited and practice doing themselves.

–see history through transnational lens

–read and apply historical arguments about politics and culture

–read contemporary primary sources through the lens of history, employ historical thinking when looking at present political and cultural images

U.S. Economic History

This course is required for Secondary Education in History majors, and is also taken by Economics majors and minors, as well as students in the Business major. As such, it is not quite a straight history elective, and it is cross-listed with Economics. Yet the skill goals here are solidly grounded in historical methodologies. While the arguments that they will engage with involve economic ideas and applied terminology, the goal of the course is to see how the economy changes over time as a result of human choices and events. With that larger goal in mind, the skills needed are thus decidedly grounded in historical methodologies. They are similar to those of the survey level courses, but students will be expected to perform at a more sophisticated level and produce research papers that make use of both primary and secondary sources.

Listen to, read, analyze, apply, synthesize, and construct historical arguments:

  • Engage with scholarly lectures and readings and apply those themes to primary documents
  • Read historical arguments and assess their significance and connect thematically to lecture content, primary sources, and research material
  • Communicate effectively about readings and the analysis developed using evidence from primary sources and logical essay construction


The introductory courses focus explicit on Big Themes. Although the students will see these themes through discrete moments, individual stories, and primary documents, the goal is to get them to engage with big picture thinking about historical events, and to be able to learn about events and compile facts on their own in future courses. At this level, the heavy lifting is often getting students to understand that college level history is not just about the memorization of detail, but about using that detail to construct arguments and see historical change as not inevitable. But content is important. Students should know stuff—and to do good analysis, they HAVE to know stuff.

U.S. Survey, 1877-present

✴ America’s changing role in global affairs

✴ The evolution of politics, the presidency, and the state

✴ Cultural identity and change

✴ Economic growth and crisis and the changing experiences of work, exchange, technology, and consumption

Nazism and American Culture

Course Themes:

–longstanding interplay between German and American culture, politics, economy

–legacy of the idea and images of Fascism and Nazism in political language across national borders

–historically constructed image of Hitler and Nazism, use of that image in political speech

U.S. Economic History

Content in this course involves economic ideas, events, policy, and social and labor movements. Electives allow us as instructors to tell more detailed stories, and to go into policy intricacies more explicitly than at the survey level, naturally, but the course outcomes must also reflect how those details come together and relate to one another across the course. The main goal is to have students connect those details in smart ways across time to see specific evolutions in economic connections, policy developments, and social and political outcomes.

Engage dynamically with America’s economic history:

  • Consider questions related to economic developments, how Americans experienced those developments, and the way that the nation was shaped by economic activity
  • Explore the meaning of entrepreneurship, consumption, and political economy across eras of American history, and consider the way that these activities have shaped the geography and environment of the nation
  • Define and apply ideas related to the development of capitalism and its relationship to statecraft and citizenship

Qualities and Attitudes, Curricular Goals

The attitudes, the fuzzy realm of “historical thinking” and the connection of these courses to the curricular goals of the institution are the subject of this last category. Because electives are rarely part of a university’s core curriculum, the quality/attitude goals are thus more discipline-specific. In our Nazism course, we are still honing what these qualities and attitudes might be — perhaps it is the transnational thinking piece, or perhaps it is more related to current events, understanding the reasons behind the resurgence of a modern, transnational alt right, for lack of a better term. Perhaps this is the area in which I could be more explicit in differentiating the goals at survey and elective levels. What do you all think?

U.S. Survey, 1877-present


✴ Consider how Americans have interacted with laws and government institutions from the local to national levels

✴ Evaluate the connection and contradictions among democracy, citizenship, and cultural pluralism

✴ Consider the relationship between domestic affairs and international relations

✴ Apply historically derived definitions of liberalism and conservatism

Nazism and American Culture


U.S. Economic History

Think historically:

  • Put yourself in the shoes of past Americans and the economic and political decisions they faced (historical empathy)
  • Develop your ability to think with complexity about how circumstances change over time
  • Apply historical information to evaluate the current economic, political, and policy landscape that will shape your professional and personal life

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