Tuning the Western Civilization Survey: Teaching Historical Thinking Skills as College Survival Skills
Although an interdisciplinary program, Western Culture is the “historical” component of general education at HSC. The program ism along with the first-year writing programm a common experience for most first-year students, who usually begin the program in their first semester. Although the program specifies common expectations in terms of content (a common set of texts and themes), writing (12 pages are required for all sections) and analysis (an embedded final exam essay), it does not specify what skills, if any, should be taught.
In Fall 2014, I designed sections for the program with the Tuning Project in mind, adapting three key concepts. To encourage contextualization and historical empathy, I matched primary documents with active learning activities — organizing students to march in phalanx formations with spear and shield to give insights into our reading of The Iliad, for example. To encourage historical analysis, I rethought how I craft exam questions — for example, replacing short-answer questions with “relationship” questions that asked students in an open-ended fashion to explain the connections between two historical trends or events. Finally, I emphasized the importance of crafting historical arguments. Given the limited writing abilities of our incoming students, this took the form of emphasizing skills in analytical writing by restructuring my assignments. Instead of using two or three four-to-five page essays, I assigned a larger number of smaller writing assignments, each of which emphasized a different key technique (summarizing, paraphrasing, crafting a thesis, applying ideas from a text to a new argument, etc.). As the semester progresses, the assignments shifted to higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
“Tuning” my western civilization survey has helped me to focus how I conceive of the course. While I never emphasized content, tuning has helped me to rethink how to structure my student learning outcomes for first-year students, moving to make the course one that helps them to make the transition to college-level work. The syllabus emphasized that gaining competency with these skills was the central goal of the class, and mastering them was a key step in moving forward to more challenging work in the humanities and social sciences.
The results have been promising; I’ve enjoyed greater student engagement, with students demonstrating greater confidence and engaging assignments more strongly. (Notably, the initial and usual grumbling over paper assignments faded away quickly during the semester — students stating in evaluations that they “understood” why the assignments, which emphasized skills, were important.) The poster will both explain the techniques I used and provide multiple examples from my sections.