On Thursday I wrote about a comment I’ve received from many students over the years that spoke to their declining expectations from history classes and the need to rethink what we’re doing to make history courses more appealing, more fun, while remaining rigorous and true to our discipline.
I set myself the task of thinking about assignments I’ve given where the students really caught fire. Two examples I’d offer are the family history I require of my Western Civ students and a web-based scavenger hunt I assigned to students in my Historical Methods course. You can read about the family history assignment by following the link I’ve provided. The scavenger hunt went like this:
I teach Historical Methods in a computer classroom. When we arrived in class one day, I had posted ten images to the class blog, all of them unidentified, all associated in some way with our topic (1989 in Eastern Europe), and all of them renamed files so that the students couldn’t just Google the file names. Then I told the 18 students in the room that before the end of class, they had to be able to correctly describe what was happening in each one of the photographs. If they were unsuccessful, there would be some sort of penalty (unnamed because I hadn’t decided on one yet).
Their first response was to all sit at their computers and start trying to figure out what the images were. They wasted close to half an hour this way before someone said, “Hey, we should divide these up.” That led to more concentrated activity and, within another 30 minutes or so, they had correctly identified five of the 10 images. Then those whose images had been identified started pairing up or tripling up with others. Pretty soon, three more images had been identified through this group effort. Finally, the class split up and worked for another 30 minutes or so to identify the last two, just barely managing to get them all identified before the end of class.
This assignment had two goals–to help them bring together all of the web-based research skills we’d been working on that semester and to let them figure out on their own that historians often have to collaborate if they are going to get anywhere with a research project. Just to make sure they got both of these lessons, I spent the last five minutes of class driving them home in some summary remarks.
On the way out of class they were still energized about having sleuthed out those last two images. That evening I received several emails from students saying how much they’d enjoyed the exercise. And the collaborations that started in class that day carried over for the rest of the semester.
What made this assignment work? First off, it was a challenge and a challenge with a ticking clock. They liked the pressure. Second, it was difficult. The images I chose were intentionally obscure and I had not discussed anything in class up to that point that might provide obvious clues. They liked the difficulty. Third, it had obvious value. They could see how the work they were doing would bear on the research they were doing for their 15 page papers due in about six weeks. If they could figure out these obscure images, then they could certainly find answers to other questions they were confronting. And finally, they liked working together. For all students moan and groan about group work, they actually do enjoy it–so long as their grade does not depend on the work of someone in their group.
My course Lying About the Past is based largely on the lessons I’ve learned in assignments like this one. The course incorporates many of the characteristics of this type of assignment and already the students are clearly enjoying themselves and are doing good work. I am also teaching a field studies course this summer–Becoming Warsaw–that will take 15 students down to the Northern Neck of Virginia for two weeks of field research where they get to act like real historians (and go canoeing, swimming, fishing, eat crabs, fight off mosquitos, etc.). This too will be a rigorous course, but one that trys to make history fun again. We’ll see how they like it.