Tag Archives: learning

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.

Dude. That’s my seat.

Anyone who has taught at a college or university has experienced the follow scenario countless times: Students come to class on day one and choose their seats. Students sit in those exact same seats for the rest of the semester, even if moving (say, to be with members of a work group) would be more practical or to their advantage in some way.

Just because I am a disruptor at heart, but also because I want them to think about why they are sitting in the same seats over and over and over, I sometimes force my students to sit in a different place. If you really want to have fun in a seminar, arrive early on week four or five and grab someone else’s seat, then watch the discombob-ulation that follows as students enter the room and try to figure out where to sit in the new circumstances.

For years I’ve wondered why students cling so tenaciously to the seat they chose on day one. Now I know. Last night I was doing a teaching observation for a colleague who was teaching about behavioral economics and what the findings from this sub-discipline can teach us about the economic choices people make. It turns out that the behavioralists have a name and an explanation for my students’ behavior–status quo bias.

Now that I know the answer to this question that has puzzled me for years, I’m going to have to go read the book my colleague assigned for last night’s class (Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational) to see what other insights I can glean that will help me understand my students choices when it comes to learning.

Be Careful What You Wish For

I remember the first time I heard that the history department where I was working on my PhD was going to offer an introductory course called “World History.” Several of us in the TA office had a good chuckle over that one…After all it was hard enough to teach the first or second half of Western Civ/US History. How could anyone offer a course that included the entire world? As I remember, we scoffed at the notion and, well pleased with ourselves, concluded that was World History doomed to fail.

One more example of why historians shouldn’t predict the future…

And, irony of ironies, starting August 16 I will take over as Director of George Mason’s Global Affairs program–a multi-disciplinary program with 650 BA students and 25 MA students in a new graduate program. I’ve been running the MA program since it’s inception last year and have enjoyed it immensely, but am more than a little nervous about taking over our College’s fourth largest undergraduate major.

Why, you might ask? For one thing, I’m going to run a very large undergraduate program with no faculty. Such is the nature of multi-disciplinary studies in America. With no faculty, it will be difficult to plan a consistent curriculum for our students. For another, I’m not sure how one assesses the results of learning in a multi-disciplinary context. Regular readers of this blog know that learning is at the top of my list of concerns when it comes to our students and the curriculum they are following. I can already foresee a new reading list growing in front of me.

So if you have any good suggestions for books, articles, or whatever that will help me make sense of how to assess learning in a multi-disciplinary undergraduate program, please suggest them in the comment field below. I need all the help I can get…