I’m in the middle of teaching my first solo course. It’s a survey of American history — U.S. history since 1877 — that falls within my major field of study. The class is 100-level and the vast majority are non-history majors taking it for required general education credits (I have 2 history majors out of 48 student). You can check out my syllabus here.
Because it’s my first time going-it-alone in the classroom, I’ve been able to experiment with a few ideas and test out my teaching philosophy. I took 3 years of education coursework when I was an undergraduate (I had 2 classes & student teaching away from being certified), so I have a lot of ideas in the bank. Added to this reserve are ideas I’ve picked along the way from my various advisors and by interacting with different people (such as the Hybrid Pedagogy folks).
Part of what has characterized my approach so far is the notion of dialogue between student and instructor, what I call “learning together.” It has been essential so far, precisely because I’m learning how to teach while they are learning about history. We’re both learning. But even if I wasn’t new to all of this, it’s something I really believe in.
Part of starting this dialogue was the first quiz I gave them at the end of week 3. To that point they hadn’t received any sort of grading or evaluation. I knew a few of them were nervous about it. So on that Friday I gave them a 4 question, 10 point quiz. The first two questions were multiple choice and the second two short answer. I admitted to them that the short answer were a big broad and might be difficult to answer in a brief amount of time.
After 15-20 minutes or working I stopped them. I told them that we were going to grade them together, that we were going to have a conversation about what the right answers were, about my expectation. After all, one of the hardest part about college is learning and adapting to the expectations of a new instructor. Likewise, one of the trickiest things about being a new teacher is knowing what they’re taking away from my lectures. I see many of them furiously taking notes during class, but I never know what they’re writing and think is important.
Some would say it’s not their job to know what’s important. They’re not the experts. This is partially true. I trust students to pick up on repeated ideas and themes. If I keep coming back to a certain idea or belabor a point, they can tell it’s important. This trust isn’t something you want to let go unchecked for too long though. Some will only write down what’s on your Powerpoint slides. Treating the first quiz as a conversation starter to seek mutual understanding of each other is a good first step.
We started with the multiple choice was easy, but to lessen the pressure I guaranteed them 1 point for answering and 2 for a correct answer. Maybe I’m just soft, but I wanted them to feel safe. I didn’t want them to worry about failing. The real discussion began with the sort answer. Many were unsure what to write or how to approach thematic questions. The first question asked them it give examples of how the railroad industry was entangled in economic, social, political life during the Gilded Age. The second dealt with changing attitudes towards racial minorities in the late 19th century (African America, American Indians, and immigrant groups). The short answers were worth 3 points each. To grade them, I asked that they underline any of the points they made that we talked about during our discussion. Three underlines equals full credit.
The conversation was the important part for me. It allowed to me to assess what they knew, their ability to connect ideas across time, and to better explain how I think about history. Most of them did very well. They tended to grade themselves a bit harsher than I would. I adjusted their grades after reading their responses but promised only to raise them. They ended up with an average over 90%.
This may seem like spoon-feeding or pandering. I may sound like I’m being too easy. Maybe I am. My belief is that all evaluation should be two-way a dialogue between the instructor and the student. I want all of my students to have the best chance at being successful. Evaluating students should be a clear and open process. The better they understand that process and have a stake in it, the more likely it is that they will do well. Having this open dialogue and discussion is part of creating that mutual understanding. It helps break down assumptions and works to eliminate biases across disciplines. For most of my students this will be their only history class. They’re not used to writing essays or approaching questions that don’t have absolute answers.
Next week is our first exam. We’re having an in-class study session the day before and I prepared a study guide with a few sample essay questions, an overview of the format, and a few recommendations on how to studying. The dialogue is continuing. They’re also helping shape the exam. Each student is writing 2 multiple choice questions. The assignment to write 2 multiple choice questions counts for quiz grade. I joked with them that it’s because I’m lazy, but that’s not really true. The idea behind it is that it forces them to study by looking over their notes, reading the textbook, and deciding what’s important. Reading their questions indicates to me both what they think is important but also how well they understand the information (individually and collectively). Some questions are poorly written and confuse a few ideas. It’s helpful for me to know this ahead of time and correct it in the study session as well as when I teach those concepts in the future.
This is not a perfect process. Perhaps I am being a bit generous with my dolling out of points. The quiz grade is only 15% of the total grade, so inflating it a little bit won’t hurt, I’m just hoping to make the class democratic and student centered. So far I think that I’m doing that and I’m seeing pretty solid results. I’ll know more next week.