Way back in 1905 an august committee made up of senior members of the American Historical Association studied the freshman survey course and issued a very interesting report. Among the conclusions of the report was the belief of the committee members that general survey courses were too complex for novice learners (i.e., freshman) and should be reserved for upper division courses in which more experienced learners would be better able to grapple with the sorts of synthetic thinking that general surveys require. Freshmen should, instead, be placed in courses focused on one particular historical moment or issue–something they could wrap their minds around and use to dig in to sources.
Needless to say, we’ve ignored the recommendations of that 1905 committee. Call me crazy, but I remain convinced that we’ve flipped their recommendations on their head for one simple reason–money. History departments (and the institutions where they are located) generate lots of money by teaching large survey courses to lower division students–money they then use to pay for the smaller classes offered to juniors, seniors, and graduate students. I challenge anyone to show me evidence that teaching history to 100, 200, or even 800 students in a large lecture hall leads to more learning about the past.
But, moan, rail, and whimper as much as I might, the economics of higher education aren’t going to change in my lifetime, so we are going to keep teaching those big survey courses, and many (if not most) of the students in those courses are going to learn very little history.
Should we just give up and spit out facts in as organized a manner as we can in hopes that someone in the room learns something? Of course not. So then what’s a historian to do?
In the most recent issue of the newsletter of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History, Lendol Calder proposes organizing our teaching around six cognitive habits suitable for introductory courses: questioning, connecting, inferencing, sourcing, developing multiple perspectives, and recognizing limits to knowledge. In his brief essay in the newsletter, Lendol also points to several other ways that historians have proposed to teach thinking skills in the survey course.
I first heard Lendol present these habits of mind at a meeting several years ago and I decided to give it a try. On the first day of class I told the students in my Western Civ course that these cognitive habits would be at the heart of my evaluation of their work all semester. Of course, they had to learn the content too, but what I wanted from them was evidence that in grappling with the content they were demonstrating growth around these cognitive habits. The students appreciated knowing exactly how they would be evaluated and I found that during the semester many of them demonstrated real growth in a number of the areas–multiple perspectives being the one they struggled with the most.
Can this sort of approach be used in a survey with hundreds of students, as opposed to the smaller class (50) I was teaching? That’s hard for me to say since I’ve never taught a class larger than 50 and have never given a multiple choice examination. But I suspect that it’s quite possible to teach these sorts of thinking skills in large courses as well as small ones. And, if the experiences I’ve had with my students since then is any guide, they come to see historical thinking as having value beyond the bounds of the course.