Ellen Aiken

Sewall Residential Academic Program

Course Context:

I teach small, seminar-style classes in history and the American West (an interdisciplinary course).

What Did You Do?
Target of improvement:
I created a pre-course assessment exercise aimed at getting students to question and challenge assumptions about why we should study history. The aspect of student learning I wanted to improve was the ability think analytically, including the ability to recognize claims, evidence, and arguments. I also wanted to raise student awareness of their own thinking and learning processes. I often ask students the question “Why study history” and get platitudes in response. After our discussions in January as part of the FTEP Institute, I decided to modify one of the meta-cognitive techniques that Randy introduced with the end goal of working through the platitudes with which people often respond to this question. My goal was to get the students to come up with some real (for them) and relevant (for them) reasons to study history and thus to be more engaged and invested in the class from the first day. One of the ideas that struck me in our FTEP Institute discussions was the value of having students assess their own learning. The exercise I came up with seemed to fulfill that goal.

What I did:
I had students provide commentary on the responses their classmates gave to the question “Why study history.” I set the exercise up as a round robin with no names attached to responses.

Round 1: Writer #1 answered the question “Why study history” and passed her/his paper 3 around the table 3 places to the right.

Round 2: Writer #2 provided evidence that supported the claim writer #1 made and passed the paper several places to the right.

Round 3: Writer #3 provided commentary on the response of writers #1 and #2 and passed the paper on.

Round 4: Writer #4 looked at the ideas on the paper and chose one to counter. This writer also had to provide evidence to support that counterclaim or argument.

After the round robin, we discussed the responses class members had to the original question and the commentary that students wrote on each others’ responses. I collected and kept the round robin papers for analysis.

This exercise was a departure from my usual first-week-of-class pattern of imparting information to students about the discipline and the course from the top down. The pedagogy I wanted to explore was getting students to generate their own questions and ideas.

What Happened?
What difference did it make?

This exercise achieved the desired results in that:

Students did indeed think more critically about why we study history; commenting on or countering each others’ ideas led them to challenge and debunk platitudes on their own, in their own terms, based on the assumptions they themselves brought to the study of history.

The exercise also got them to engage in a dialogue based on concrete ideas and observations they generated. The pattern of dialogue and engagement persisted over the course of the semester. I think that beginning the class with such a dialogue is a short cut to creating a tone of open-minded inquiry and engagement.

When we discussed their responses at the end of the exercise, the class had generated several threshold concepts on their own, e.g.:



o We don’t always (or ever) learn from our mistakes, i.e. history is not necessarily progressive.
o The study of history is not an exercise in consensus building; studying and interpreting history can be divisive.
o Knowledge of our ancestors can tell us who we are not, as well as who we are.

This exercise gave me a sense of what students thought about studying history coming into the course. I was surprised and pleased with the quality and complexity of thought reflected with each successive writer. For the first round students tended to write something quite general, but as other students commented on the first statement, class members began to take each idea more seriously and comments became more specific and thoughtful. In discussing the exercise as a class, students could see that progression.

How did feedback help make adjustments mid-course?
I did not do a formal mid-course assessment. However, I did a second assessment activity at the beginning of the semester that allowed me to assess student learning re: analytical thinking skills as the course went along. I required students to generate and categorize discussion questions using Bloom’s Taxonomy (all three of the Sewall faculty who attended the FTEP Institute implemented this exercise in some way).

I simplified the taxonomy before I presented it to students. Even so, we had to work through this exercise a couple of times before the students got the hang of it. This exercise was useful as an assessment tool in that it became clear that first-year students have a hard time thinking in abstract terms and recognizing different kinds of thinking, i.e. recognizing what analysis is.

I had students generate a range of questions about the reading and then we categorized the questions as a class. We then took some of the comprehension questions and reformulated them into analytical questions. After the whole class engaged in this exercise together, I assigned each student a day to start off class discussion. The discussion leader for the day had to devise a set of discussion questions for that day’s reading.

For each discussion day, I put the discussion leader’s questions on the board and asked the other students to identify the category of the questions. Then as a class we shaped the question toward analysis (if necessary). The students were OK with this, i.e. they didn’t seem threatened by the process of having other members of the class modify their questions. It seemed that categorizing questions according to Bloom’s Taxonomy kept students from thinking of questions as good-bad and focused attention on different types of questions and their different uses. In any case, categorizing questions served as a useful assessment tool throughout the semester and we kept returning to the exercise again and again. By the end of the semester, there was marked improvement in students’ abilities to identify an analytical question when they saw one.

What did you learn?

I learned how useful it is to get students to generate their own questions; they become much more engaged in the learning process.
Once they’re engaged, you can use meta-cognitive methods so that teaching become a process of leading students to see/understand something on their own.
I also learned that setting a tone of shared inquiry at the beginning of the semester can have a huge effect on how students approach the course for the rest of the semester.

Plans for sharing with colleagues:

Sewall Residential Academic Program participants in the FTEP Institute have agreed to start a teaching seminar series (attendance voluntary) so that we can begin a program-wide discussion on how best to engage first-year students and assess their learning. The three of us who have attended this Institute will have an opportunity to share what we have learned, but more importantly we will establish a regular forum for everyone to begin discussing effective pedagogies.


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