Published: Aug. 15, 2014

Inga CalvinCU Boulder Anthropology instructor Inga Calvin engages first year students with the research tool Zotero in Anthropology 1190, Origins of Civilization.  She participated in the ASSETT Teaching with Technology Seminar.

ANTH 1190 Origins of Civilization Upgrade

I decided to focus on improving my course, ANTH 1190 Origins of Ancient Civilizations, taught to ±20 freshman as part of the Residential Academic Program at Baker/Cheyenne-Arapahoe during Spring of 2014. I have taught the course for at least five years and continue to try to make it more engaging for the students — with what I believe to be only limited success.

Origins of Ancient Civilization is a class that fulfills the historical context component of the College of Arts and Sciences core curriculum. During Spring 2014, I taught Origins to 20 freshmen enrolled in the Baker Residential Academic Program based in the Cheyenne-Arapahoe dorm. Because the course fulfills a requirement, most of students in the class are not Anthropology majors and this will be their only encounter with the field while at CU. The class surveys the ways humans have survived and thrived in different parts of the world through an analysis of their archaeologically-recovered material remains. The course examines the societal transformation of humans from foragers to farmers and the different types of social and economic complexities that characterize various civilizations throughout history.

This semester, I began by asking myself what it was I wanted to my students to get out of the course; what did I want them to learn – rather than just memorize. After reading Barr and Tagg (1995-From Teaching to Learning), I realized that I have relied on the "sage on a stage" model employed by my professors. I also recognized that the existing strategy of assigning grades based on three short-answer and fill-in-the blank tests, only serves to reinforce the rote, normative-answer model of education. If I wanted to stimulate curiosity and excitement, the status quo wasn't making it.

I divided my goals into two parts, the first of which I believed would result in the students learning the material and achieving better grades. By improving the basic materials covered in the class, I believed it would be possible to pose more in-depth questions and allow the students to engage more deeply with cross-cultural questions.

Practical — quantifiable goals

  1. to know the terms & definitions used by anthropologists and archaeologists
  2. to be able to extract data from scholarly articles to make a 20-minute oral presentation and written outline

Theoretical — heuristic goals:

  1. to approach the past as well as living culture with curiosity
  2. to comprehend that the objects recovered by archaeologists represent activities done and beliefs held by humans in a specific environmental and cultural context
  3. to understand that historical-archaeological interpretations are made through the cultural filter of the individual doing the research (conscious or unconscious ethnocentrism)
  4.  to identify similarities & differences between environments and societies to make cross-cultural comparisons

Strategies employed in previous semesters

Because of the broad nature of the course, I decided in 2013 to replace a single required-reading textbook with what I hoped were more interesting academic articles related to the various topics. I posted the articles on D2L. I also posted a list of terms for each academic section. I asked the students to print out the terms as a spelling aid for their notes and, if I did not cover a term, to ask me about the definition.

To give the students a sense of ownership of at least one archaeological site or culture and to invite them to engage more directly with the material, I assigned students to work in pairs to produce a 20-minute presentation on an aspect of civilization or an archaeological site not covered in class. Each pair was also to write an in-depth outline that summarized the points covered in their presentation and cited at least three academic sources that they had used in their research. The students were given specific instructions as to the type of format to be used and a summary of how their work would be graded (this, along with a summary of the Society for American Archaeology citation format was also posted to D2Learn). To provide further guidance, I posted one of my lectures and the outline that I used in class.

Results of previous strategies

Although the majority of students began the semester by downloading or reading the articles online, by mid-semester few students were consulting D2L. There was a flurry of downloading just before the first test but, thereafter, the only students who visited the website were those who were also consistently achieving a 95% or higher on the tests.

The presentation and outline segment of the class encountered a number of issues, largely related to unfamiliarity with the academic standards required at the university rather than high school. The issues can be summarized as follows:

  1. students spend insufficient time researching topic
    • need to learn to organize materials
    • need to learn how to manage resources from multiple sources
  2. students don't identify "scholarly" sources
    • find academic journals boring
    • don't know how to identify salient points
    • feel reluctant to use library
  3. students do not like listening to others' presentations
    • have difficulties in understanding what is important
    • have difficulty paying attention when presenters read their PowerPoints
  4. present a superficial or normative review of material
    • do not frame presentation in terms of why topic is interesting or worthy of study
    • understanding how does this research or site relate to what was covered in class

Rationale for trying to integrate new technologies

Those students who entered CU with a high degree of academic motivation, a sound foundation of what constitutes scholarly research and the ability to follow directions used the materials provided on D2L and did well in my class. My goal was to snag a portion of that other 80% who might find themselves motivated if they could get excited by the material.

  • Phase 1:
    • To try to engage more students with the materials presented by their peers, I considered replacing the formal 20-minute PowerPoint component of the class with something more interactive like VoiceThread. The individuals doing the research could post their information and an over-the-web dialogue could be established with other members of the class.
    • To assess whether everyone in the class had access to the requisite technology, I conducted an in-class survey that revealed that although all the students had access to a computer with camera technology, many were resistant to learning a new computer program that they never anticipated using again. I had to agree that this was not the best use of their time and continued with the 20-minute oral presentation format previously employed.
  • Phase 2:
    • Experience had indicated that students spend an insufficient amount of time engaged in research and often floundered when seeking scholarly resources for their outlines and presentations. As part of the Teaching with Technology Seminar, Caroline Sinkinson suggested that the students might benefit from acquiring and learning about Zotero, a free annotation software available from Mozilla Firefox. I had to admit the computer program had much to recommend it:
  1. The students could work independently to acquire academic sources, as well as share this information electronically with their project partner. They could download PDFs directly from the library into Zotero and make annotations or highlight specific text for use in their outline or presentation.
  2. They could "share" their work on Zotero with me. Thus, I could check that they were progressing in a timely fashion and make suggestions regarding sources without the need for them to schedule an appointment with me.
  3. They would learn a computer program that could be used throughout their career at CU, during which they will write a number of papers in fields that prefer particular citation formats; Zotero would allow them to modify their citations to conform to the requisite styles easily.

I made an appointment with Juliann Couture, Interdisciplinary Social Sciences Librarian at Norlin Library, to introduce the class to the features of Zotero. Before our field-trip to the library, I had all the students bring their laptops to class so that we could upload Zotero.

  • Problem 1:
    • Although everyone had a laptop, several of the computers encountered challenges in acquiring Zotero. Of the 20 laptops, one was almost 10 years old and incredibly slow, one was owned by an exchange student and all the commands were in Norwegian, some students had the latest Windows 8 operating system that they didn't know how to use, while others were using Macs that I couldn't help them with. But, 45-minutes of class-time later, the computers were loaded with Zotero and ready to go to the library.
  • Problem 2:
    • On the day we arrived in the library, the University was having problems with its servers and our connection to the web was intermittent. Much of the next hour was spent by the students trying to acquire a wireless signal and nothing was learned about either how to use the program, how to establish "shared" files or even how to use the Norlin library to acquire articles.
    • In short, my efforts at integrating Zotero into Origins of Ancient Civilization during Spring 2014 were a failure. I did provide the students with a link to Zotero's screencast tutorials (; however, based on their comments and my later analysis of the students' outlines, no one followed up on learning anything about Zotero.
  • Phase 3:
    • For the first time, I required that all student outlines be posted to the Dropbox on D2Learn. Although I was unfamiliar with this technology, the students seemed to have no problems uploading their work. I was successful in applying the Originality Check feature and quite impressed at how well it worked (except for those partners who submitted the same outline individually — in which case it reported 100% plagiarism). I liked that there was a digital record of when each pair of students submitted their work — it was easy to identify those who waited until after the deadline to post their outline. I also REALLY appreciated that the program did not modify formatting regardless of what word processing program the students had used.
  • Phase 4:
    • After the oral presentations (and using the sample kindly provided by Bianca Williams), I gave the students a series of questions to be answered via Dropbox on D2L. I asked them to give each presentation a percentage grade (I assured them I would not share this information with other members of the class). I asked them to identify the best and worst presentations and explain why they felt that way. The survey also solicited their opinion of the readings. This section included questions on whether the readings were relevant to the material covered in class.

I found the results this survey extremely valuable. I had hoped to use the Quiz or Survey feature of D2L but ran out of time at the end of the semester and was reduced to writing the questions on the board.

I summarized the results of the survey to the class without being specific as to which presentations were being critiqued. I found it interesting that although the students universally disliked excessive text or numerous bullet points on slides, they nonetheless employed them in their own presentations. In-class discussion elicited that the majority of students did not know about the Presenter Feature of PowerPoint and had included so much text because they were afraid they would forget the information. There also seemed to be an aversion to the concept of using notecards.

Switching my computer to duplicate mode, I reviewed some of the alignment and auto-formatting features of PowerPoint to the class. Strangely, although they had been using this technology since 7th Grade, many of the students were unaware of these shortcuts. I intend to find a screencast that will summarize these features and make the link available to future students before they give their presentations.

  1. The students stated that they would like in-class discussions or quizzes based on the readings and terms — something I find difficult to reconcile with the fact that they do not access the materials. Nonetheless, since my policy of deriving 10% of the test from the reading has not proven sufficient incentive, I'll try their suggestions next year. Having witnessed a successful review session that employed a computerized Jeopardy game, I plan to initiate informal "games" or oral quizzes (with edible rewards) throughout the semester, to test whether students are familiar with the anthropological terms discussed in class and readings on D2L. These low-stakes activities will also allow me to identify materials that I need to cover more closely.
  2. I also propose to develop timed quizzes on D2L to assess the students' familiarity with the reading using the model employed by quantitative tests like the SAT. The results of these small quizzes would factor into the students' grades. After all students had taken the quiz, I could post the correct answers to be used as part of the study guide for the mid-terms and final.
  3. In spite of the technical difficulties encountered during Spring 2014, I still believe introducing the students to Zotero during their freshman year will provide them a valuable research tool. This summer, I plan to learn more about Zotero so that I will feel more confident in sharing it with the students. I also intend to experiment uploading the program using both the Mac and Windows formats (any foreign students with alien keyboards will have to go to OIT for tech support, as this is clearly beyond my expertise).I intend to work with the Norlin Library staff to more clearly define how I anticipate the students to use Zotero. It may be possible to do some type of work-around during our fieldtrip to the library, should we encounter similar internet difficulties. I also would like to set up a few exercises for the students that will allow them to experiment with using the program before they need to draft their outlines. The use of Zotero will result, at a minimum, in correctly formatted citations. My ability to monitor the pace of students' research should result in a more in-depth analyses. I will also be able to identify non-scholarly sources and more promptly guide the students in finding alternate sources. This monitoring will require more of my time, but I'm confident will result in better analysis by the students.
  4. In the future, I intend to integrate more role-playing into the classroom experience as means of stimulating curiosity and introspection regarding the information covered. Small groups of students will be assigned to imagine themselves in a particular time and place covered by either the reading or class notes and asked to perform a task (e.g., Stonehenge, ca. 2400 BC, erect the Bluestones). Having tried this exercise during Spring 2014, I found the students interested in participating and innovative in their solutions to environmental and technological limitations. As a theoretical form of experimental archaeology, the students engaged more directly with the material. Asking them how they would confirm their solutions archaeologically stimulated classroom discussion. Weeks later, when the students took their mid-term, everyone performed well on questions related to this topic.
  5. Earlier in the semester, I plan to conduct a more-detailed, anonymous on-line survey of the students' response to the class on D2L. I learned a great deal from the comments shared this semester. The students' suggestions were surprisingly thoughtful and direct; I learned far more from the digital responses than I have in previous years from asking the same questions on paper versions of D2L.

Although I was depressed by my "failure" with Zotero, the students did not hold me responsible for the technical difficulties. And, although no one seems to have used Zotero while writing their outlines, they were made aware that there was a free citation management tool that they might use in the future. Perhaps, in the future, when their writing and research assignments become more elaborate, they will remember that there are resources through the CU Library that can help them.

As part of this seminar, I believe I have learned a significant lesson — to step away from the podium and let the students take a more active role in the classroom. Like my students, I have been introduced to a number of possible alternative strategies for communicating about ancient civilizations; I just need to check them out.