Developing teaching strategies for overcoming the bottlenecks

Once the interviews began revealing bottlenecks to learning in our courses and the steps that are needed to get past them, we could move on to steps 3, 4, and 6 in the “decoding the disciplines” process, i.e. modeling operations for students, giving them an opportunity to practice and get feedback, and assessing students ability to perform specific operations at the end of the process. In the 2006-2007 school year we worked with faculty and graduate students in six history courses to devise new strategies for helping students to overcome specific bottlenecks.

We constructed classroom exercises, assignments, and presentations targeted at particular operations, as well as assessment plans to determine how successful we were at imparting these skills to undergraduates.

Picture of blackboard

With funding from the Spencer and Teagle Foundations, we have begun to perfect these strategies and develop new ways to teach some of the operations intrinsic to the discipline.

In the course of the 2008-2009 academic year, seven history faculty designed interventions in nine classes, ranging in size from small seminars to 100+ person classes.  Six of these projects treated aspects of decoding primary sources. All of these projects, among other goals, sought to teach students how to evaluate individual primary sources as objects worthy of study in their own right--not just as transparent containers of information.

In all cases, students were asked to deploy the sources in some way. Two of the instructors worked on helping students to compare multiple, sometimes contradictory, sources and deploy them effectively, either in conversation with each other or with secondary sources and lecture material.

One of the instructors worked to sensitize students to the impact of medium on primary sources and to explore the ways differences of medium shaped the message.

Two instructors worked on getting students to set primary sources into a larger historical context, in one case to help students understand what historians mean by the term “significance” when they apply it to primary sources, and in the other to get them to understand what primary sources shed light on larger historical issues and therefore would be good evidence to interpret.

One instructor worked on a particular aspect of the “sourcing heuristic,” (Wineburg 2001) the audience for primary sources, and the interpretive moves that use a source to find out about the audience and use what is known about the audience to interpret the source.

Two faculty members in three classes worked with students on written argument.  One focused on getting students to deploy sufficient evidence appropriately in support of their arguments; he has pursued his project in two different classes. The other worked on getting students to recognize arguments in articles they read, to see how individual arguments are related within a given academic discourse, and to find their own position within that discourse.