Nicole V. Jobin

Sewall Residential Academic Program (History)

Target of improvement/evidence
I came into this Institute with several questions about how to improve student awareness of what they are learning and how. At our meeting in January, the focus had narrowed within our team from Sewall towards the issue of analytical thinking in both discussion and writing. One of my goals, which has not always been very transparent to students, is that they learn how to ask and answer good analytical questions about the historical past. Students often struggle with assignments where they are asked to go beyond fact recall to analysis. Close reading of primary sources is often particularly difficult. The purpose of my plan for this semester was to make my goals more transparent to the students and for both I and the students to assess how the class was progressing towards meeting those goals.

What did you do?
To get a baseline of what students think about studying history as they come into my class, I began the semester with a class discussion on the following questions: What does it mean to “do” history? What are some of the techniques and methods that historians use to uncover and construct knowledge about the past? I did not record the discussion, but it gave me a general sense of student conceptions and misconceptions about the study of history as we started the semester.

To meet the goal of promoting and assessing critical thinking, one of the techniques I tried this semester was introducing students to Bloom's Taxonomy and then doing a sort of "group think aloud" using the taxonomy to discuss primary source readings. I distributed a hand-out early in the semester with a Bloom's Taxonomy pyramid and a couple of paragraphs explaining the taxonomy. A week or so later, I assigned a short primary source reading to each of the two classes I was teaching in Sewall, HIST 2543: Medieval Societies and HIST 2170: History of Christianity I. The reading for Medieval Societies was an excerpt from Beowulf and the reading for History of Christianity was an excerpt from St. Augustine's City of God. In each class on the day of the discussion, I started at the blackboard and asked students to let me know what questions the reading had raised for them. I wrote the questions brainstormed by the classes of 18-20 students on the board. After the classes seemed to have generated all the questions they were going to, I then asked them to pull out their copies of Bloom's Taxonomy and see if they could help classify the level of thinking involved in each of the questions. I hoped that first identifying the different levels of thinking and then talking about the questions would raise awareness of what would lead to good critical thinking and analysis.

What happened?
In the Medieval Societies class, this exercise seemed to work quite well. Students quickly moved through the list finding questions that functioned at the level of facts (knowledge) and comprehension. There was more difficulty in identifying questions that got at the readings in terms of application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Many students thought that evaluation was about making a judgment (often without connecting that judgment to supporting evidence). Others had difficulty with distinguishing between analysis and application. But most of the students got the concept of thinking about our thinking, and the need to move beyond a mere discussion of facts and unsupported opinions.

In History of Christianity this same exercise generated several discussion questions, but little discussion once I brought Bloom's Taxonomy up. Students understood fact based questions, but seemed to have difficulty in identifying other types of knowledge that was sought by their other questions. I attempted to redirect the discussion several times, but felt by the end of class that students were having difficulty in understanding the concepts and that thinking in these terms, with this vocabulary, was not particularly helpful to them.

In both classes, I repeated the exercise with subsequent primary source readings. Once again, the Medieval Societies class seemed to be working at developing questions that might lead to higher levels of thinking while the History of Christianity class seemed to struggle with the concepts. I attempted to model questions at the upper end of the Taxonomy, but often this did not seem to take beyond a single class or a single reading.

What difference did it make?
For those students who grasped the idea of meta-cognition, the use of Bloom's taxonomy did generate some understanding of what makes a good discussion question or question around which to focus a short piece of writing. When students later turned in assignments, those who had begun to grapple with the concepts of application and analysis did seem to pose more challenging questions for themselves or the class in the case of discussion. It also gave me a tool to point back to when discussing grades on student essays. For some students the language seemed to help their understanding of what they were being asked to demonstrate, while for others it did not. 

What did you learn?
I would definitely do this assignment again, but would perhaps work on building more follow up through the rest of the semester. The process of going through the questions on the board and doing a "group think aloud" about what kind of questions they were and how we could answer them was useful. In retrospect, however, it would have been even more useful if we spent more time modifying the questions, or attempting to use them to build more higher-level thinking questions for the discussion.  Usually I just ended up taking care of the lower-level, fact-based questions quickly, and then tried to generate some discussion around the questions that were left. Perhaps more group work encouraging the students to take the questions and modify them to use in leading discussion for the next class, for example, would have solidified the process. When students did lead discussion, it was obvious that some of them were referring to our previous discussions about the types of questions historians ask, but I need to work at further integrating this exercise throughout the semester.

I also learned that I probably approached this semester thinking about trying too many new things. I remember proposing to do a recorded think aloud assignment for each student, minute or reflection papers, and possibly use of CU learn and a threaded discussion in addition to the two techniques I discussed above. Then the reality of a busy semester hit. I think the goal of getting students more involved in their own learning as well as thinking about their own thinking process in the discipline of history was met, but there is more to develop and do in my classes in the semesters to come.

I would also like to try the technique of the Round Robin that Ellen Aiken used for the start of the semester. She used this to generate discussion about what historians do, getting at key concepts in our pedagogy and misconceptions students might have about studying history. The Round Robin also got students to pose an idea, add evidence to that idea, and then comment on the previous evidence. This process is central to what good historians do and I think it could be adapted to class discussions all throughout the semester.

What’s Next?
Our faculty at Sewall has already held one faculty meeting largely devoted to a discussion of teaching this spring. Next year we plan on having more meetings where we share successful strategies for working with our population of first year students and for dealing with more discussion in our seminar-style classes. It is an interesting challenge to be taking a first or second year course, often taught elsewhere on campus in a large lecture hall, and put that course into a setting of 18-20 students in a partially seminar style class.

Karen, Ellen and I plan on sharing what we learned from this institute as part of our faculty’s ongoing conversation about good teaching that meets the needs of our students and fits the goals of the Sewall Residential Academic Program. We may do this in a faculty meeting by presenting what we think are some of the most important ideas from the institute, as well as the examples of our experiences, good and bad, in putting these ideas to work in our classes. We have also discussed the idea of meeting on a regular basis with the Sewall faculty to share ideas periodically throughout the semester. Each of us plans on presenting at one of these monthly meetings.

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