In a couple of earlier posts (1) (2) I described a project I’ve been a consultant to that is examining best practices in the teaching of introductory college courses. We held our final meeting on Monday during which we reviewed the 15 top syllabi (out of something like 115) to determine what elements of “best practices” in the teaching of European history they exemplified.
The final reviewers came from institutions across the spectrum of type–PhD granting, MA granting, liberal arts and community college–and our task was not a simple one. And, as I said in my earlier post on this final group of syllabi, the courses we were charged with reviewing were quite the range of type–those with only 12 students to those with more than 250 students.
I’ve already ranted about the fact that exactly none of the syllabi we were looking at had any sort of technology component other than simply using the Internet to provide access to a primary source here or there. it may be that digital resources were hidden behind a WebCT/Blackboard password, but if so, there was no mention in any of these syllabi of the use of digital resources, except a couple that issued dire warnings about the problems students might encounter online.
Our review panel talked about this lacuna quite a bit and agreed that at a minimum all of the syllabi should have included exercises that are designed to teach students how to use digital resources effectively and that it would be even better if they included the use of exemplary digital history projects. But this was, in the end, whining on our part, because we had to work with what we were given.
The lack of thinking about how to teach students to use digital resources does make me wonder what my colleagues around the history circuit are thinking? I don’t know a single person who would write into their syllabus something like this: “The University library contains many books and articles that use questionable sources or are written by people with uncertain qualifications. Before entering the library, students should be very wary about using materials they find there as they prepare their essays.”
Here are the equivalent warnings from several syllabi I found online in a quick search with our Syllabus Finder (none were part of the study I’m discussing):
Be careful about internet sources. For example, Wikipedia is not a reliable source.
In my experience you will find internet sources to be of only limited use in this paper; don’t plan on using internet resources exclusively or even extensively. There are exceptions, of course, and a few useful sites are listed below. But beware; there are many uncritical and worthless sites out there.
Although the internet provides some great resources for scholarly research, it’s also much more unreliable than a good research library. Beware of relying on internet sources that are not scholarly publications such as peer-reviewed journal articles.
To our students, these warnings I’ve just listed and the warning about the university library that I made up sound no different. Telling them to not use the Internet for research is akin to my professors in the 1970s telling me to avoid Alderman Library if at all possible.
The other interesting thing that came out of our discussion of “best practices” was the speed with which all of the reviewers punted on the issue of content–what was or was not taught in the course–to focus on the teaching methods and the habits of mind the instructor was seeking to promote in his/her students. This willingness to allow historians to teach whatever we think ought to be taught under the course number we’re using is one of long standing. Just yesterday I read the inaugural lecture delivered by Warren W. Lewis when he assumed his chair of history at Queen’s College (Belfast) in 1975. In this lecture, titled “Undergraduate History”, Lewis argued that it was really only appropriate for historians to discuss the methods of historical learning and teaching among their colleagues–that the content decisions were to be left to the individual professor (page 5 if you want to look it up).
What did my committee of reviewer colleagues decide was best practices in teaching and habits of mind? We tended to focus much more on interactivity, two-way communication, collaborative learning opportunties (even in large classes–study groups anyone?), as well as the old standards of continuity and change over time, helping students understand that the past is both foreign and contested terrain, and the ability to evaluate evidence found in both primary and secondary sources.
I’ll be very interested to read the final report that emerges from this project, particularly to see if those in chemistry, physics, world history, american history, and other disciplinary specialties felt the same way about these issues as those of us teaching European history.