Over the past few years I have been gradually flipping this course by putting a few mini-lectures (one for each 2-3 week module) online. In addition, students are reading and commenting on most of the assigned readings through an extension to the Learning Management System (LMS). This extension, called Perusall, tracks student comments on the assigned readings and assigns a grade, based on criteria that I publish in the LMS. Students can view their scores, and improve their comments as their time permits.
These practices have allowed me to focus more time in the classroom on the interpretation of the primary source readings. The interpretation of primary sources is not a simple matter. It requires fairly advanced literacy in addition to some familiarity with the context around the sources. Therefore, I often review the assigned readings in class, after students have had a chance to review and comment on them online. Although the overview videos that I provide give some context for the interpretation of Perusall readings, I frequently provide more of that context in class with some lecturing. Eventually I might expand the number of overview videos to provide more context, but my first step would be to review them in order to improve their effectiveness rather than increase the number.
With this flipped classroom, class time typically consists of some lecture and quite a bit of discussion focused on the readings. The discussions tend to concentrate on the course goals and module objectives. For example, I ask about the historical context surrounding the production of Aristophanes’ plays or Tacitus’ writings in order to encourage them to read a historical text with attention to the conditions that inspired the authors to produce those texts. We discuss the authors’ purposes, biases, and perspectives in order to uncover defining features of the cultures that they lived in.
A significant variation in this approach occurs when I teach the course with recitation sections. This approach means that much of the discussion, which I had used to break up lectures, is more concentrated in the recitation sections led by TAs. Therefore, in the course’s iteration with recitations, my contact time with students is limited to two 50-minute lecture classes per week. Although I still ask a few questions, often combined with clicker questions, my involvement in the discussions is more limited when we have recitations because students discuss the readings primarily in the recitation sections. Nevertheless, I include clicker questions and a few discussion questions during my lectures. These interludes last only 3-5 minutes before the lecture commences again. I try to have at least two and no more than five of these interludes in a 50-minute class.
I have been collecting data through a service (called VIP) provided by ASSETT, which monitors more precisely what I am doing with students. Three times per semester they have a trained observer come into my class. The observers note every two minutes what I am doing according to a series of rubrics that they have. They also record students’ actions or responses. I hope to collect this data over several semesters and compare it to work in other courses in related fields. I also hope to examine any significant changes in my behavior and student responses as they relate to my activities in class.
I have found that flipping a class is an ongoing process that requires continuous tweaking. In the Spring of 2019, for example, I was able to revert to the more flipped version of the course that did not have recitation sections. In that class I spent more class time with students examining the texts. I found this work to be more enjoyable than simply lecturing. My impression is that it is also more enjoyable for many of the students because they have an opportunity to express their understanding of the texts. However, I have not found that so far it corresponds to an increase in student attendance or success. Consequently, I am still focusing on how to increase attendance and success.
The progression of activities or assignments that students have outside of class in any particular module is as follows: low-stakes video-quiz, Perusall readings/assignments, module quiz, and periodically a paper (for 2 out of the six modules). I will describe each of these outside-of-class activities in more detail.
Each of the six modules in the course starts with a video-quiz. These video-quizzes consist of 4-5 questions and one or two reflective pauses inserted into a screencast video that lasts approximately 5-7 minutes. The students are allowed to take these video-quizzes as many times as they want. I count their last score. Most, but not all, students receive 100% on these simple quizzes that reinforce main points covered in each module. Collectively, the six video-quizzes count for 1/30th of the course grade. Their primary purpose is to provide essential background information (historical context) necessary to interpret complicated and obscure texts. However, a secondary purpose is to give students a sense of support and fairness by providing an assignment that they can easily do well on.
I encourage students to focus their reading and studying on the primary sources assigned in the class. These primary sources are from the historical epoch that we are covering in each module. For example, for the Ancient Near East, we read parts of the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Genesis 4: Cain and Abel) and part of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Although I recommend a textbook to provide historical context and material needed to analyze the primary sources, the great majority of the questions that I ask on quizzes, papers, and on the final exam deal directly with the primary source readings. The objectives related to this approach reflect the History Department's learning objectives, originally defined in the Fall of 2018 and more recently refined. Essentially, the essence of these objectives is to encourage students to reconstruct the thoughts, values, and beliefs of the authors of these ancient writings in order to consider how various influences (social structure, political organization, religious beliefs) manifested in their writings.
Previously I assigned online discussions embedded in the LMS in order to encourage students to develop their thoughts related to the primary source readings. I have replaced those assignments with Perusall readings, which allow students more direct contact with the text when they are interpreting and discussing it. In addition, in semesters when I have Teaching Assistants working in recitations, the students engage in more detailed discussions of the sources in their recitation sections. When I teach the class without recitations, I embed those discussions directly into the lecture time.
In each module I provide a study guide that contains many of the questions that we cover for that module. These questions typically involve some interpretation. They are often “why” or sometimes “how” questions. The purpose is to encourage students to interpret small parts of the readings based on their understanding of the historical conditions surrounding the document’s production. We address these questions in the in-class discussions. These discussions also involve key terms included on the module study guide. Those key terms will appear on the final exam. In a sense the module study guides provide a dispersed approach to studying for the final exam, which includes a subset of the study guide questions.
Following the overview video-quiz, the Perusall readings, and the in-class discussions, I assign a short (20 questions in 20 minutes) online quiz of multiple-choice questions. The purpose of the quiz is to help students push the main points related to the material into longer term memory by practicing recall, as described in Peter C. Brown’s Make it Stick. I provide students with study guides for all the module quizzes on the first day of class. On the quiz day, which is always the same day of the week for all of the modules, I then pull questions out of a larger test-bank of about 30 questions. This approach helps to minimize the possibility of cheating as does the time constraint: the students have 20 minutes to answer 20 questions, thereby reducing the time available for looking up answers. I tell them that the purpose of the quiz is to help them prepare for the final. That point is validated by the fact that I cull questions from the module study guides and place them on the final exam study guide. I drop their two lowest quiz scores; I count their four best scores out of 6, one for each module in the course. These quizzes differ from the video-quizzes in that they can only take them one time, and they each count for 1/30th of the grade, with the total of all these module quizzes counting for 13.333% of the course grade. The average grade on these quizzes tends to be between 75 and 80. If it is lower, as sometimes happens, I curve the quiz to a 75 median score. Finally, as the semester progresses, I reintroduce questions from previous quizzes so that students are encouraged to review the study guides from previous modules before taking the quiz.
The papers are the most influential part of a student’s grade. They are due at the end of the second and fourth modules. Currently I assign two 750-word papers in a semester. I encourage students to write in clear, concise prose by highlighting the development of concise writing skills as one of the course’s primary learning objectives; I reinforce the connection to that objective in the listing of course assignments. Both papers that I assign in the course are to be 750 words, maximum. I highly encourage students to take advantage of the writing center, which they can do either on campus or online. I provide these students with a grading rubric and a link to the History Department paper writing guidelines. I weight the first paper much lower than the second paper so that students have an opportunity to adjust their writing to this objective. Typically the first paper is worth 13.33% and the second paper is worth 23.33% of the course grade.
I evaluate student performance on these paper assignments according to three criteria, outlined in the rubric: 1) command of the assigned material, 2) structure of their thoughts, and 3) writing mechanics. In the command of the material, I insist that they use the assigned readings to answer the prompt in the paper. I explain that the reason for this approach is so that we all use the same evidence. I provide a few copies of the assigned readings on reserve at the Norlin Library Circulation desk so that students do not have to buy the books; however, several of the books are also available used for under $10. As far as the structure of their essay goes, I ask for a thesis statement, a title, topic sentences for each paragraph, the use of the introduction to provide historical context for the thesis, and a conclusion that addresses the historical implications of the thesis. I encourage students to take an outline of their thoughts on the essay to the Writing Center in order to obtain expert help with structuring their thoughts. Finally, I evaluate the papers according to a variety of smaller items that I call “writing mechanics:” grammar, punctuation, spelling, correct possessives, page numbers, proper citations, etc… I explain that the appearance of their paper as a professionally crafted piece of work reflects the care and attention that they have invested in the completion of the assignment.
In the first few weeks of the class I assign a series of short, online readings embedded into Perusall. Some of these readings are very short so that students who add into the course late can still catch up. The purpose of these readings is to demonstrate to students that historical sources require interpretation, and more specifically interpretation that refers directly to the evidence. The sources do not speak for themselves. Their meaning and significance require the application of knowledge about the historical context surrounding their composition and dissemination. In addition, many texts provide a commentary on a larger issue. For example, the story of Cain and Abel is partially about justice, both retributive and restorative. This point is not necessarily intuitive to many students, and we explore how the texts often had meaning beyond the superficial or narrative levels.
In the second, third, and fourth modules, the students read more extended works: plays by Aristophanes, two works by Tacitus (Agricola and Germania), and Beowulf. Because Beowulf is the most complicated of these works, I also assign two interpretive essays along with that reading. All of these more extended readings have fairly complete introductions to them. I emphasize the importance of reading those introductions, and they figure prominently in the module study guide, in-class discussions, and quiz. In the fifth module, I revert back to the shorter online readings so that the students can catch their breath before we begin with the longest and most difficult text to interpret: Boccaccio’s Decameron. I do not assign the entire work; instead I assign a fairly complete introduction in addition to a selection of stories translated by Wayne Rebhorn.By breaking the material into six modules with a clear focus, students gain a fairly clear vision of what they are studying during 2-3 week increments. In addition to the six module overview videos, I also assign a course overview video that reviews the organization and arrangement of the course. Generally within each module I try to work my way up Bloom’s taxonomy. I introduce the taxonomy in the course overview video and explain that we are moving from the simple recall of facts toward the higher order thinking skills of applying those facts in discussions and synthesizing and interpreting the readings and lectures in the papers and in the final exam.
In the course assignment document that I provide, I connect each assignment to the course learning objectives, which reinforce History’s departmental learning objectives. Because my colleagues have collectively arrived at these learning objectives and because I use a well-regarded paradigm for learning (Bloom’s taxonomy) for arranging the assignments within each module, I expect the assignments to be reasonably effective in promoting student learning, although room for improvement always exists. In addition, by asking students to review the study guide from two previous modules as they prepare for their module review quizzes, I am encouraging the movement of knowledge into longer term memory. This requirement to review material from previous study guides is a fairly new addition to the course. My initial impression is the review of previous modules in the quizzes is improving the final exam scores. I look forward to establishing an objective measure of that impression.
Because this is an introductory level course, I assume that students have not taken any previous history classes at the university level. Clearly, this point is not uniformly true, but my assumption going into the course is that they have been subjected to the kind of learning that requires them to memorize material from a textbook and to take a test. Because I have read several books that have questioned the utility of that approach, I try to deemphasize the memorization and recall and instead emphasize the interpretation and application of knowledge in this class by assigning frequent discussions and essays.
One example of this approach is to ask a question that has no right answer. For example, I will ask if Aristophanes’ Lysistrata demonstrated feminist sympathies on the part of the playwright. There are at least two sides to this question, and students often pick one or the other in their initial response. Sometimes I will merely ask them for specific evidence that supports their point. However, frequently I will ask them for the evidence that supports the contrary view. The purpose here is to have them develop some mental agility, to see a topic from two equally valid points of view. It is also useful for them to ground their arguments/explanations on evidence contained in the assigned readings. By encouraging them to base their opinions on evidence rather than on feelings, I am preparing them to become more thoughtful about their examination of a number of complicated issues related to class, gender, and ethnicity. These issues will continue to confront them not only at the university but also throughout their lives.
On a slightly less ambitious scale, I am also preparing those students who choose to become History majors to interpret primary sources. This learning objective is pronounced in the departmental learning objectives and culminates in the research paper that all history major are required to write in their senior seminar. By encouraging students to address the complexity and the context that are involved in the interpretation of historical documents, I hope to prepare them for not only more advanced classes but also for life itself. These skills build a more advanced type of literacy that can help in a variety of professions. In addition, these exercises often involve viewing a topic from multiple perspectives, a skill that can be useful in business, academia, and our personal lives.