Rebuilding a Course Around Prior Knowledge

Of the many different courses I teach, the one I’ve made the fewest changes in over the past decade is my survey of modern Eastern Europe. Every other course I teach has been reconfigured in various ways as a result of my research into the scholarship of teaching and learning, but for some reason, I’ve never gotten around to altering this course. I’m ashamed to say that when I taught it last semester, it was really not that much different from the way I taught it for the first time way back in 1999.

I could offer various excuses for why that course seems so similar to its original incarnation, but really the only reason is inertia. I’ve rewritten four other courses and have created five others from scratch in the past six or seven years and because my East European survey worked reasonably well, it was last in line for renovation.

The good news for future students is that I’ve taught it that way for the last time.

Like all upper division survey courses, HIST 312 poses a particular set of challenges. Because we have no meaningful prerequisites in our department (except for the Senior Seminar, that requires students to pass Historical Methods), students can show up in my class having taken no history courses at the college level. And even if they had, the coverage of the region we used to call Eastern Europe is so thin in other courses, it is as though they had never taken another course anyway. That means I always spent a fair amount of time explaining just where we are talking about, who the people are who live there, and so on, before we get to the real meat and potatoes of the semester.

And then there is the fact that this course spans a century and eight countries (and then five more once Yugoslavia breaks up), it’s a pretty complex story.

To help students make sense of that complexity, over the years I’ve narrowed the focus of the course substantially, following Randy Bass’s advice to me many years ago: “The less you teach, the more they learn.” We focus on three main themes across all this complexity and by the end of the semester, most of the students seem to have a pretty good grasp of the main points I wanted to make. Or at least they reiterated those points to me on exams and final papers. And it’s worth noting that they like the course. I just got my end of semester evaluations from last semester and the students in that class rated it a 5.0 on a 5 point scale, while rating my teaching 4.94.

What I don’t know is whether they actually learned anything.

This semester I’m part of a reading group that is working its way through How Learning Works and this past week we discussed the research on how students’ prior knowledge influences their thinking about whatever they encounter in their courses. This chapter reminded me a lot of an essay by Sam Wineburg on how the film Forrest Gump has played such a large role in students’ learning about the Viet Nam wars. Drawing on the work of cognitive psychologists and their own research, Ambrose et al and Wineburg come to the same conclusion, namely, that it is really, really difficult for students (or us) to let go of prior knowledge, no matter how idiosyncratically acquired, when trying to make sense of the past (or any other intellectual problem).

The research they describe seems pretty compelling to me, especially because much of it comes from lab studies rather than water cooler anecdotes about student learning. Because it’s so compelling, I’ve decided to rewrite my course around the notion of working from my students’ prior knowledge. Getting from where they are when they walk in the room on the first day of the semester and where I want them to be at the final exam is the challenge that will animate me throughout the term.

My plan right now (and it’s a tentative plan because I won’t teach the course again for a couple of semesters) is to begin the semester with three short in class writing assignments on the three big questions/themes that run through the course. I want to  know where my students are with those three before I try to teach them anything. Once I know where they are, then I can rejigger my plans for the semester to meet them where they are rather than where I might like them to be. And then as we complete various segments of the course I’ll have them repeat this exercise so I can see whether they are, as I hope, building some sort of sequential understanding the material. By the end of the semester I ought to be able track progress in learning (at least I hope I will), which is an altogether different thing than hoping to see evidence of the correct answer compromise.

One thought on “Rebuilding a Course Around Prior Knowledge

  1. Liz

    As as tragic example of prior knowledge, or lack thereof: I took a Cold War class last Spring, and on the first day of class, when the professor said what “USSR” stood for, 98% of the students wrote the full name in their notebooks.

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