Response to Student Feedback
HSTY2634: American History from Columbus to Lincoln (2008)
Unit Coordinators: Dr Frances Clarke & Dr Michael McDonnell
Mike McDonnell and Frances Clarke co-taught this unit for the first time in 2008. Both had taught it separately in the past, but we felt that students would benefit from a unit that combined the perspectives of an 18th century specialist (Mike), and a 19th century specialist (Frances).
To deal with students’ enlarged workloads after the introduction of 6 credit point units, and to take advantage of our differing realms of knowledge, we amended the syllabus in several ways.
- First, we reorganized the tutorial readings around specific events, issues or historical debates, each chosen with regard to the length, relationship to lecture topics, and potential impact on students. We tried to create a set of tutorial readings that students couldn’t wait to pick up, read, and discuss this week.
- Second, we changed the nature of our assignments. Our challenge was to replace the two assignments we’d taught in the past with a single assignment that would serve students equally well in building generic skills, developing their research expertise, and teaching them how to read historical sources. We came up with a new assignment that asked students to choose a single primary source. They then had to construct their own essay topic around that source (they could either contextualise the source; look at the way different scholars approached the same souruce; or read the source itself as a form of evidence. Students first selected a source and created an essay plan, which was graded. They then completed a research essay. This assignment worked fairly well for some students, but less well for a minority, as we note below.
- We also pioneered new tutorial participation methods this semester. In order to ensure participation, we came up with two strategies. The first involved administrating half a dozen pop quizzes (created to be simple and fun for those who’d done the reading); the second involved requiring students to bring to tutorials a response to each weeks reading. In particular, we asked them to come up with a question in relation to the tutorial readings, and to explain why that question was interesting and/or important. The goal here was to create active readers, rather than passive note-takers; to have students thinking about formulating questions as they were reading. The second objective was to start tutorials with students’ own questions; to involve them by structuring the discussion around their particular interests.
We had a great group of students, who’ve provided some excellent feedback. We’ll detail the suggestions and complaints below. Before we do that, we should note that we also got a huge number of compliments, all of which are sincerely appreciated. In fact, a very healthy 91% of students who filled out the end of year evaluations said they agreed, or strongly agreed that they were satisfied overall with the quality of the unit of study.
Students complimented us on the following:
- “very well organized”
- “clear outline”
- “informative and interesting”
- lecturers were always available for consultation
- taped lectures and lecture outlines; “fantastic”
- many students loved the tutorial assignments “we had to think!” wrote one, another commenting: “weekly questions/pop quizzes really motivated me to do the readings – as painful as it was occasionally.” (we got far more positive comments about this aspect of the course than negative ones)
- “Michael and Frances are very effective communicators & very enthusiastic & approachable scholars. They made the content interesting & tutorial discussions meaningful.”
- “This has been a fantastic course!... presenting very interesting subject matter in a lively, well-structured manner. The combination of political, economic, social & cultural history has enabled a more holistic understanding of history & the preparation tutorial questions have been very useful.”
- “staff fantastic and very helpful”
- “essay was excellent in engaging learning due to large choice.”
- “the assessment is great in that it got you thinking about the essay early on. Keep the assignment the way it is.”
- “please make the submission of tutorial questions and quizzes compulsory for all history courses.” (comments of this nature far outweighed negative ones)
- website tremendously helpful “especially links”
- “tute readings relevant, interesting and inslightful.”
- “he research essay made me think outside the box to apply what I knew”
- “great great tutors/lecturers. Some of the best I’ve had.”
- “one of the best history courses I’ve taken. And I’ve been here 5 years.”
- “Frances and Mike taught this course in such an engaging way that I was even motivated to do extra reading.”
- “really enjoyable lectures covering both social and political topics.”
- “assessment focusing on a primary source BRILLIANT. I actually felt like a historian analysing a sources rather than summarising other peoples’ arguments.”
|It would "have been very helpful to have a rundown of the timeline of what we talked about" i.e. a "brief preliminary overview" (x2 people)||An excellent idea. We'll take this up next time we teach. We've already created a literal timeline, which is available on the course website (listing major events in our period). But we'll plan to go over this in the first lecture.|
|Tutorials were too big (x3 people)||We know! We're looking at this issue at departmental and school level.|
|Essay too short (x2 people)||We do appreciate students who want to do MORE work. We'd love to oblige. Unfortunately, we can't set more than 4,500 words for a 6 credit point lecture unit.
We choose to have a research essay, and a take home exam, because we want to assess both students' writing, analysis and research abilities, AND their grasp of the course content as a whole.
| Tutorial quizzes and paragraphs discouraged attendance if one hadn't done the reading. (x5 students)
||Yes, exactly. This is what they're designed to do. You shouldn't come to tutorials if you haven't done any preparation. You'll not learn much and it's unfair to other students.
| Quizzes and questions "as a way to 'make' us read the readings. This information was given in w. 2 it should be in the assessment area of the course guide." (x 5)
|| These students are right. We will certainly take this into account next semester.
We don't think we'll do pop quizzes again. But we will continue with the weekly questions; since so many students positively raved about this aspect of the tutes.
| Primary source essay was difficult picking a topic was too hard (x 9)
||We'll spend a bit more time on this in the 'online tutorial' next time around. We'll structure the tutorial around possible sources students might engage with, and possible ways they might look at particular sources. In other words, we'll try to model what we think a great primary source essay might look like.|
| Too much "gender based history" (4)
"more gender history" (2)
|Some students wanted more gender, some wanted less. Does this mean we've struck a balance? Rather than including more or less, next time, we'll try to be more clear about why what we are saying about gender matters. Because it does matter - it's impossible to understand most aspects of Victorian America without taking gender into account. But we can certainly do more to link gender analysis to "big picture" questions in the formal political politics realm.
|"More focus on significant events like the revolution"
Less social history and women and an increased focus on conflict, higher politics and the actual Revolution would be appreciated (x 2 students)
"certain topics from US history were grazed over. . .the story of the Mayflower, the Mayflower Compact, and the first thanksgiving. . . along with the specifics of the revolutionary war, such as Paul Revereâs ride and all the battles etc."
| Unfortunately, in a mere 12 weeks, it's inevitable that we'll leave out far more than we include. We weren't really aiming for comprehensive coverage; we were trying to create an interesting and revealing narrative tracing major shifts from Columbus to Lincoln (the evolution of a class structure, for instance, the democratisation of politics; or new understandings of men's and women's roles, etc). We wanted students to think about how ordinary peoples' lives had changed; as itâs often the seemingly mundane changes that give rise to the "significant events" like the Revolution.
We were up front about our focus from the start: ours is a unit focussing on the great mass of people, rather than solely on elites. Yet in dealing with social history, we consistently linked ordinary lives to "higher politics."
If students want more attention to conflict or the Revolution, we'd welcome them into our other classes (Frances' on the American Civil War, for instance, or Mike's unit on the Revolution)
|Lecturers doubling as tutorials: fantastic||We agree: it's ideal that we get to give both lectures and tutorials in this unit. We'll endeavour to retain this aspect of the course|
|"more focus on facts & info, not just our opinions" in tutorials|| 'facts and info' you can get off wikipedia. It won't make for a very interesting tute discussion. We ask students not to voice their 'opinions' but, rather, to offer interpretations of material, and to raise interpretive questions. We consider the posing of excellent questions to be as valuable as coming up with the answers!