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Resources for Innovation in Graduate Classes

I have very little experience in teaching graduate classes. Maybe my inexperience breeds anxiety about teaching them. When I teach my undergrad classes, I feel very little anxiety, even when I’m less prepared than I intend. Grad classes are the exact opposite. I could prepare for hundreds of hours for a grad class and I’m still terrified when I walk in the door, every single class period.

This coming fall, I’m teaching my second graduate class. This one has a topical theme (antebellum military history) but also has a methods flair (digital methods, but of course). I have never been good at leading discussion, so I was planning to really work on that skill this semester. But I think the discussion model is also partially the root of my anxiety, because not only am I not good at it, I’m not fully convinced that it’s the right approach.

The efficacy of discussion seems even more relevant now that this is an online class. I’ve talked to a number of graduate students about what worked for them in the pivot to online, as well as a number of faculty, and I got mixed responses. In my department, anyway, all the graduate instructors I talked to did synchronous class meetings; none tried any asynchronous elements. The faculty seemed to think the synchronous meetings went well and they thought the students liked them; the students I talked to had less rosy feedback, though none absolutely hated them.

This online opportunity strikes me as a moment ripe for some innovation in the way we teach (or, I should say, I teach) graduate classes. Our default is to try to duplicate the in-person approach on Zoom, but what if this were not the best approach even in person?

In all the graduate syllabi I surveyed to glean wisdom from, discussion was prioritized, and in some cases there was no evidence that any other method was used at all. And I’m not here to denigrate discussion. I do think it’s important to have an exchange of ideas and to evaluate a work in a free-flowing spontaneous way. But to be honest, I’ve taken a lot of grad classes, and I can count on one hand the number of times I had a discussion in a class that was so meaningful that I acted on it later.

Moreover, I think discussion can often silence or minimize voices that should be heard. There was one guy in several of my grad classes who had done a lot of theoretical reading before he came to the program, and he needed to let everyone know that he had. So even if he was not speaking (though he spoke A LOT), it was very intimidating to speak after him, and almost impossible to actually talk to him about what he had said because either (a) I had no idea what he was talking about, or (b) HE had no idea what he was talking about, or (c) both. In particular, female students have been conditioned to take a back seat to someone like that, when it’s almost certain that our perspectives would have been more interesting and generative than his.

So, how do we (and again, as they say in the churches I grew up in, I’m really preaching to myself here) achieve the goals we’re aiming for if discussion is stagnant or ineffective? Or, perhaps, how do we supplement discussion with other activities that can enhance the times when we do use traditional discussion?

As is my custom, I asked about this on Twitter, and here are some of the responses I got. Some of them deal with how to make discussion more effective; others offer alternatives to the discussion model. Pretty much all of these ideas came from more than one person so I haven’t credited anyone individually. I’ve tried to roughly categorize them, but it’s an inexact science.

You’ll also notice there aren’t a lot of ideas here. I got some great ideas for assignments but very few about in-class activities that aren’t discussion. These are also pretty humanities-centric, and even more specifically history-centric. Sorry. I follow historians on Twitter. 🙂

Framing discussion differently
  • Assign shorter readings to be read in concert with each other instead of the “book a week” model. Then the discussion centers on connections between historians’ work, and students may have more varied opinions about how the works coalesce or diverge.
  • Mind mapping. I’ll confess that the one time I tried mind mapping it was a train wreck of epic proportions. I’d love to hear examples of how it can work well.
  • Do a think-pair-share or a modified think-pair-share. Your discussion doesn’t have to be the full class all the time. Have small groups discuss and then report back to the main class. (This would be possible with Zoom breakout rooms, etc. for a virtual session.)
  • More meta-level: I read Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s book Generous Thinking recently, and one of the things that struck me from the book is her discussion of how students aren’t good at discussion because they’ve been trained to think adversarially about the readings. They jump straight to critique without actually understanding or engaging the argument of the reading, and as a result they underplay the ways in which scholarship builds on and enhances other scholarship. So I think laying some ground rules for discussion that starts with summary is a good way to reframe discussion as an actual exchange of ideas rather than a roast or takedown. Also, as my old orchestra teacher used to say, “Throw roses first, and then onions,” which seems like a pretty good principle for discussion and feedback of any kind.
  • Y’all already know I’m an aficionado of Slack, which is excellent for async discussion. Interestingly, no one mentioned any other forms of async discussion.
Alternative assignments
  • Ask students to develop (and deliver to their colleagues?) a mini-lecture for undergraduates based on the reading. This type of presentation helps them distill the main principles instead of jumping straight to critique or jargon-filled diatribes.
  • Ask students to evaluate and annotate a primary-source text for a critical edition or something similar. I think this is cool; I’m not sure how it works in class, exactly, and I also don’t remember a single instance of working in class on a primary source from my graduate-school career. This isn’t to say that you can’t do that, only that this seems to be another area where there’s been a failure of imagination, perhaps?

The moral of the story

There’s not much here. That’s the moral. We can do better. I can do better. The “class discussion leads to historiographical essay or research paper” model is dated, and it leads students down a very narrow skills path that almost definitely won’t align with the skills they need to have as a professional non-academic historian. So we need to change.

Perhaps we start by asking, what are we trying to teach our graduate students? are we doing job training? are we teaching them a richer mode of understanding? what do we want them to be able to do not just the day after they leave the class, but in a year, or a decade?

Are we also missing some opportunities by hitching our wagons to the synchronous model? Seminar classes do seem to lend themselves to synchronous interaction, but what if that was only a piece of what we did? My class is listed as synchronous, and part of it will be, but I’m planning to incorporate both synchronous and asynchronous pieces. How can we use this online moment to make changes to our approach that will benefit not just the online courses we’re teaching now but also the in-person courses we will, we hope, return to someday?

I am wrestling with these questions as I design my course for the fall. Stay tuned for my own plans, once I’ve figured them out.

What do you think? Do you have other in-class activities that work well for a graduate seminar? How do you make discussion more equitable or effective?

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Tools for Asynchronous Discussion

In the fall, I’m teaching both my undergrad and grad class online (thankfully, GMU and the history department made this an easy and non-controversial choice, despite GMU’s plans to offer in-person classes). So I’m on the hunt for ways to enhance my asynchronous discussions. This post isn’t about what I’ve decided to do, but rather about all the options I’ve found. I’d love feedback on any of them, whether they’ve worked for you or not worked, or more options I haven’t yet listed.

One of the things I wrestle with every semester is asking students to register for or create logins for web platforms. I do it, but I sometimes feel uncomfortable about it and the students occasionally express discomfort as well. So perhaps with any of these tools, picking one or at most two to use in any given class is better than opening up the discussion to a very wide range of different types of discussion for the sake of more varied learning experiences.

Discussion Boards

  • Most LMSes have some sort of discussion board built in. GMU uses Blackboard, and there’s a discussion forum option there. I’ve used these before, but never as an actual discussion forum. I’m sure Canvas or what-have-you also has this.
  • Basecamp: I used Basecamp last semester to help keep myself and students organized in a large class project. It wasn’t a resounding success, but Basecamp does have a discussion board and chat-room function that could be useful if you wanted to build your whole class in Basecamp. (I’d imagine Trello, or any project management software like this, also has those features.)

Blogs with Comments

  • Blackboard also has a “blog” feature, which allows for internal blogging within the LMS. I’ve never used it and I never will, but it’s there.
  • WordPress course sites:
    • You could have one WordPress site for your whole class, where everyone writes blog posts and then others comment on them. (Examples of students blogging all on one site here and here; I know that I have been in classes where I was supposed to comment on other students’ work but at the moment I can’t find any examples.)
    • You could have individual WordPress sites for each member of your class, which is how I do things in HIST390; however, I’ve never made it a requirement for students to comment on other students’ work. This seems like a good idea except that I have no idea how I’d keep track of it.
    • [edit to add] A combo pack! Individual student blogs that aggregate to the main course blog, using the FeedWordPress plugin (thanks for the tip, Anelise Hanson Shrout!)
  • Tumblr: I’ve never used Tumblr at all, but I could see it having some value in the blog space.

Chat-like Discussion

  • Slack: I’ve used Slack a lot in classes and I like it. A downside to Slack is that it’s better for quick discussions; once you’ve moved on from a discussion, it’s hard to go back.
  • Discord: I’ve never personally used Discord, but for some purposes, it might be useful. I’ve heard people say it’s better than Slack but I don’t know if I believe them. 🙂 Discord is likely to be more familiar to some students than, say, Slack, because it is used by gamers. It looks and feels very similar.
  • Twitter: Many people say they use Twitter for chat or discussion. This has to be done with a lot of care, as it’s very public, but it could be done well if students are willing to engage on Twitter.

Annotations

  • [edit to add] Hypothesis: A tool to annotate web texts; you can use it with a web extension or possibly in your LMS, if your institution has that capability. Students can respond to others’ annotations. (h/t Daniel Hutchinson)
  • Google Docs: I used Google Docs last year, providing the students with a transcript of my podcast lecture and then they had to add comments with sources or documents they found that addressed points in the lecture.

Other

  • Flipgrid: This is a more personal way of doing discussion, with incorporation of video and graphics. I don’t know anyone who has already used it, but I know someone who is thinking about trying it.
  • TikTok: I’ve seen some pretty hilarious TikToks on historical themes that really show some historical understanding. It seems like a fun and approachable way of letting students reflect, and students tend to respond to these sorts of things.
  • Instagram: Do people use Instagram? I don’t know. But I could envision, in the right class, some interesting discussion being able to take place using Instagram.

Thoughts about all these

One of the other things I wrestle with constantly, particularly in the space that I teach is this: is my goal to teach students using new (to them) technology that’s well-suited for our questions and aims, or is it to show them how they can adapt and expand their use of technologies they already use? In other words, is it better for them to use WordPress, which they might need later in a job, or for them to use TikTok, which they already use, more effectively? This holds true for discussion as well. Do I want them to learn a new tool that is very well-suited for discussion (though tbh I don’t know if any of the ones listed above qualify for that), or do I want them to learn how to deform the tools they already know as a way of expanding their horizons that way?

I don’t know.

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Revisiting Contract Grading

This past semester I tried contract grading for the first time. The class was a collaborative project, and I wanted grades to be less important than getting the collaboration done. I followed the lead of Ryan Cordell and designed parameters for grade contracts that the students could revisit halfway through the semester if they wanted to change their contracted grade.

I made a few changes from the other contract grading systems I’ve seen. Most prominently, I asked the students to add things to their contracts at the midpoint. I did this because the first part of the class was the “history” part and the second half was the collaborative podcast project. So I wanted them to write into their contracts the things they were going to do for the podcast.

I would not call this experiment in contract grading an unqualified success. I had a hard time keeping track of things (which is 75% on me because I’m not that great at keeping up with small things in classes), but more importantly I didn’t give the students options for meaningful penalties for breaking their contract terms. In the first half of the semester, I asked them to attend a certain number of classes in order to meet the terms of a grade. (I have changed my mind about this particular tenet of the grade contract anyway and it won’t be appearing in future iterations.) They each wrote in a penalty for missing classes, but it was impossible for me to know whether they assessed themselves the penalties or not. I know some didn’t. I need some way to know that students who don’t fulfill the things they’re supposed to actually do assess their own penalties, and that those penalties help them learn rather than just arbitrarily punish or humiliate.

But the main issue with contract grading in this class is that the entire class dynamic radically changed after the pivot to online. I stripped out the attendance policy. The students had a very hard time getting motivated, and I couldn’t bring myself to use a grade as a cudgel to get them to do what they were “supposed” to do. Instead, I resorted to pestering them and taking on a lot of work myself in order to get our project finished. Again, as I’ve said in a hundred places, I’m so proud of the work we did accomplish. But it could have been so much better.

That said, I’m not sad that grades were completely on the back burner for the semester. I firmly believe that the students produced better work than they would have if they had been motivated by point-based grades instead of a simple desire to do well.

HIST390

Where contract grading absolutely succeeded turned out to be in my large class, HIST390, which had 46 students. I didn’t start out doing contract grading in that class, because it’s really big for that kind of thing. Contract grading feels very individualized, and I just couldn’t see how it would work in a bigger class.

But during the two weeks we were planning for the move to online, I realized that contract grading was going to give the class the flexibility it so desperately needed. One of the things I’ve always hated about 390 was the grading. It always felt awful to take points off of assignments and then just move on. But I couldn’t think of a better way.

While we were out for our extended spring break, I decided that maximum flexibility and maximum compassion were my new mantras. What that looked like in my syllabus is multiple chances for each assignment, and the ability to drop assignments as a student needed to. Enter contract grading. I set up a system whereby students contracted to do several small projects and the final project for an A, one small project and the final project for a B, and just the final project for a C (with a few other minor stipulations).

I also scrapped the points system and instituted a completion system. A student got credit for having done an assignment once I (or my TAs) was happy with it; if it didn’t meet the standard, I sent the student feedback and they resubmitted. Because no students had to do ALL the projects in order to get an A, students were given the opportunity to skip projects that they might struggle with, which I think cut down on the number of redos we asked for.

We even did this on the final project. Maybe 10 out of 46 students had to do one resubmission; none had to do more than one. Only one student didn’t turn in a final project.

The general quality of the projects was much better this year than in semesters past. I attribute this to two things: I gave clearer instructions and tutorials this semester than in semesters past (thanks, online learning), and the reduced grade pressure gave students freedom to be more adventurous and more creative. Some students really, really shined.

In the students’ reflections about the semester, the grade contract system came up frequently. Students wrote that this system felt compassionate and flexible, and many students wrote that they really enjoyed doing the projects because of the low point stakes.

From my point of view, I felt much less pressure to be constantly hounding students or worrying about when they were going to turn stuff in. I gave them deadlines but made it clear that those deadlines were soft because, without points, the system wouldn’t break if the grades didn’t get “recorded” in a timely fashion. Grading was also a LOT more fun when I just had to give feedback without figuring out how many points a mistake or misunderstanding was going to cost a student.

So, will I do grade contracts again in HIST390? Absolutely yes. My system will be slightly more rigorous in the fall when we are online from the beginning, but the basic tenets of flexibility and compassion will be the same. The students learned better, I felt better, what’s not to like? I’ll be incorporating more discussion and analysis-based requirements, but I’ll again give students the option to make the grade that works for them.

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Podcasting in Class

I asked on Twitter yesterday if those who used podcast creation as part of their classes would share their materials or, even better, their podcasts. I got some pretty cool stuff. So here’s a roundup, possibly incomplete (the threads kind of got away from me a few times). If I’ve missed something you suggested, or if you have additions to/amendments, please let me know!

Podcast Examples

Here are some of the podcasts that were created during the course of a semester, by students.

Podcast Methods

Here are some of the rubrics/instructional materials about podcasting. (I received a few others that aren’t available on the web, so I am not posting them.)

Additional resources

Here are some additional resources that people mentioned for teaching with podcasts.

  • YouTube tutorial for Audacity
  • Programming Historian tutorial for Audacity
  • NPR guide to podcasts for students
  • Jessica Abel, Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio (New York: Broadway Books, 2015).
  • John McMahon, “Producing Political Knowledge: Students as Podcasters in the Political Science Classroom,” Journal of Political Science Education 0, no. 0 (July 16, 2019): 1–10, https://doi.org/10.1080/15512169.2019.1640121. (unfortunately paywalled)
  • Hannah Hethmon, Your Museum Needs a Podcast: A Step-By-Step Guide to Podcasting on a Budget for Museums, History Organizations, and Cultural Nonprofits (2018). (The author has also generously offered to Skype into any class that reads this book–that’s no small offer! She’s on Twitter @hannah_rfh.)
  • Jim McGrath, Podcasts and Public History, History@Work

Resources for Use in a Podcast

This is a list of things that you might want to incorporate into your podcast, such as sound effects, etc.

Resources for Creating or Hosting a Podcast on the Web

None of these resources is outright free, but many have very limited free plans.

  • Soundtrap, for collaborative podcast creation
  • Podbean, hosting service
  • Libsyn, no free plan but the old standby host for many successful podcasts
  • Descript, an online editor and transcription creator
  • Buzzsprout, hosting service with some other bells and whistles
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Student Communication: Pedagogy Musing #2

My self-maintained list of failings as a teacher is quite long. But I’d like to think that communicating with students outside of class is not on that list. I do everything in my power to make sure my students have ready access to me at all times. And yet it often feels like I’m not connecting with students who really need some help.

I use a lot of different means to make myself available to my students. Each of them has its own merits and demerits.

Office hours

The traditional method of student communication is office hours. They’re required by the university, but I’d hold them anyway. In the past, both here at GMU and in the past, I viewed office hours as a time for me to get stuff done, and I spent most of the time hoping that no one would show up. This semester, I made a conscious choice to not endure office hours but rather encourage them. One-on-one conversations aren’t my preferred mode of communication, but office hours aren’t about me.

So this semester I’ve tried to be more deliberate about how I do office hours. I’ve always had the policy that I prefer students to sign up for an appointment, and I kept that policy this semester, but I tried to shift my thinking about appointments from “If there aren’t any appointments today then I get the day off” to “These appointments help keep the meetings on track so both the student and I have a sense of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

I’ve also tried to explicitly communicate throughout the semester that office hours are for talking about anything that is even tangentially related to the course, whether that’s grades, personal situations that are affecting coursework, or steps to take after the class is over, or anything else. This new strategy has paid off several times, where I’ve had meaningful conversations with students who needed to just talk through things. I’ve also tried to ask broader questions when they come than just “what problem can we solve right now?” and spend some time on how they’re doing overall this semester or in this class.

Everyone says things like “if you’re getting a bad grade in this class, come see me.” I say that too. But this semester I tried something new in my undergraduate class: after the midterm, where some students did not do as well as they hoped, I offered them a chance to make up a few points on the midterm. The catch was that I wouldn’t tell them how to get those points back unless they came to see me in my office. The allure of a few points back was enough to attract some students who hadn’t been engaged up to that point, and several of those students have since come back to ask questions about other things. So getting them to come just one time helped them to see that it wasn’t quite so scary. (This class has 42 students; it’s not the kind of class where I’d make an office visit mandatory.)

Nevertheless, only a small percentage of my undergraduate students have come to office hours. My graduate students are less reticent, but they have more experience navigating the academic system and they have more complicated problems. So I don’t think I’m reaching all my students where they are just by having office hours.

Email

Email is another somewhat traditional method of communicating with students outside of class. I rarely use email when communicating with students, though. First of all, it appears to be the case that many students don’t check their email with regularity (a mind-boggling concept to me!), so an email isn’t any more likely to reach a student than just making an announcement in class.

I also don’t really like email. It’s at that awkward place where formality and protocol are a barrier to both effective and respectful dialogue. I definitely don’t like getting emails like “Hey Abby!” from students (I’ve never received one of those from a GMU student), but I also don’t want a student to be so concerned with whether they should address me as “Dr. Mullen” or “Professor Mullen” that they never reach out. (And this paralysis HAS occurred with a GMU student.) I struggle enough with forms of address myself that I totally get why students do.

Email is also a very awkward way to have a conversation. Emails like “I wasn’t in class; what did I miss?” can rarely be adequately addressed without multiple emails from both parties. Emails like “I don’t understand this problem” almost never can. But email threads are so painful.

So email doesn’t feel like the best way to have real out-of-class interactions with students either.

Slack

I use Slack every day to talk to the Tropy team. I like it for its hybridity between email and text messaging, and I also like it that (set up right) it can be somewhat asynchronous. So, following the example of some colleagues, I set up Slack teams for each of my classes.

This is far and away MY preferred method of communication. I like it because I can be available to students at times when they’re more likely to actually be doing their work. I also like it because I can share links/show things fairly easily (screenshots are my best friend).

However, Slack has its disadvantages. It does tether me to my students in ways that could get problematic. I don’t think it has done so yet, but I have to be cautious about when I answer Slack messages. I tell students at the beginning of the semester that I will answer Slack questions as soon as is reasonable for me to do so, but in the evenings and weekends, I reserve the right to not be instantly available. I have gotten Slack messages time-stamped 2:00am; I did not answer those instantly. But I did answer them the next time I saw them, the next morning.

Slack is also new and intimidating for some students. In my mind, Slack is a much better text alternative to the more common group-communication tool many students are used to, the group text. But some students have a hard time following how the channels and tagging work.

It’s also true that if you’re not paying attention to the conversations, important information can pass you by as the conversation moves on to something else. And since not all students work on their projects at the same time, sometimes I end up answering the same question multiple times.

It’s hard to get full engagement from the whole class with Slack. I would prefer to make all class announcements, etc., on Slack, but I know that not all students will see those announcements. In my graduate class, I do it anyway, because I think they should be able to handle it, but if it’s something really important, I’ll send an email too. I tried to get everyone to use the Slack interface at least once during the semester—the very first day, actually, where they had to post a meme that they made to Slack. I hoped that this action would demystify the platform for the students, encouraging more interaction, but it really hasn’t.

My ideal Slack community allows students to help each other with questions and pose new and interesting questions to each other, developing a real connection to each other in this online space. I’d love for my role to not be central in our Slack teams. But the reality is that most questions and clarifications are directed at me and I answer them.

Nevertheless, I still like Slack. I like that I can answer questions in public, thus minimizing the number of times I have to answer the same question. I like being able to post new and interesting resources that I find relevant to our class discussions (esp. for my graduate students). I also like being able to have a conversation that allows me to ask lots of questions in order to get to the bottom of problems, without dozens of emails. Since tech support is a large part of my outside-class interactions with students, it’s nice to have a dynamic place to help them work through things.

What else?

Sometimes I think that I’m too available to my students. Am I giving them too many ways to get in contact with me, thus reducing the necessity for them to do creative problem-solving on their own? But then again, very often I’m asking them to do things that are completely unfamiliar to them.

My three main goals for outside-class communication with my students are (a) that they won’t be scared of me; (b) that they’ll get the help they need; and (c) that they’ll make real connections with both the material and the humans they’re interacting with in the course. For many of my students, I don’t think I accomplish any of these three.

What am I missing? How do you handle out-of-class communication?

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Pedagogy Musing #1: Backward Design

[Note 1: Today is the 8th anniversary of my mother’s death. I’ve written about her before, but it seems fitting that I should write about her again as I start my promised series of blog posts musing about pedagogy.

Note 2: This post is called “Musing” for a reason: it’s really just somewhat random thoughts about pedagogy. It’s not meant to be even remotely authoritative; I’d settle for mostly coherent.]

I first heard the term “backward design” maybe a year ago. Backward design is a system whereby you design courses by starting with the learning outcomes or course objectives, rather than the topical coverage. When I heard the term, it confused me: why is it “backwards” to start with the learning outcomes? Doesn’t everyone do that?

It turns out that my pedagogical education has had a different trajectory from many college professors. I started learning about pedagogy by working with my mom, who had a degree in elementary education and wrote elementary-school science textbooks for a living. My first professional job (starting at fourteen years old) included proofreading pre-college textbooks and eventually working with my mom to write materials for her elementary science curriculum.

As a high schooler and then a college student, I saw firsthand the process of designing a curriculum starting with the very big picture (the scope and sequence of the whole curriculum, over the course of several years), then moving to individual grade-level objectives, then objectives and content for units of study within the grade, and then finally learning outcomes for individual lessons within the units. Then, and only then, was it time to write the content, including the activities designed to achieve those learning outcomes.

So I was surprised to find out that college courses are often designed around topical coverage, not around learning. It turns out that the way I’ve been taught to think about curricula and course materials is not particularly intuitive, especially when the courses are being designed by people who have little to no training in pedagogy. Despite all that I’ve absorbed over my lifetime of living in the household of educators (my father, about whom I’ll write soon, I have no doubt, has an EdD and wrote his dissertation about Bloom’s Taxonomy), college course design still proved a challenge for me.

How the learning outcomes matter for me

This semester, I’m teaching two classes—one undergrad and one grad—that both focus on digital methodology for historians. When I was planning these courses, I started with a pencil, paper, and a lot of ideas. I wrote them all down, and then I organized them into categories. I then tried to think about all the things I’d written down, and what I was actually aiming for when I wrote them. I used those filtered ideas as the basis for my learning objectives.

Because digital history can be so many different things, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of doing fun digital stuff that has little pedagogical value. The tools with the most bells and whistles may not have the most value for understanding why that tool or method works for historical analysis. So checking all my activities against the learning outcomes is one way I keep myself from going down (too many) rabbit holes.

I’m also not the best at planning out a whole semester’s worth of materials and activities in advance. I like to change things on the fly, as I see how the course is progressing. So the learning outcomes are my only guide as I adapt to changing circumstances within my courses. Sometimes I have to cut or transform a whole class plan; as long as I’m still achieving my learning outcomes for the class, I don’t feel so bad about losing that “coverage.” I also don’t feel bad about dumping assignments; the students never mind, and if something went badly for them, they probably didn’t meet the learning outcomes anyway. So I have no problem either preemptively or retroactively canceling assignments that didn’t work out as planned.

For my undergraduate course, these are the objectives:

In this course you will:
Learn the varied history of war in the antebellum United States, from the French and Indian War to the Civil War;
Create historical scholarship using varied tools and sources;
Publish historical scholarship on the web.

For the graduate class, they’re similar, but with a focus more on the field of digital history as a subfield:

Our core objectives are these:
Survey the many facets of digital history (through readings)
Create web-based digital history analysis
Practice the nuts and bolts of digital history projects from start to finish

Flexibility within parameters

I recently saw someone on Twitter arguing that learning outcomes were too restrictive and they inhibited student learning by pushing them into paths pre-defined by the teacher instead of allowing the student to guide their own learning. (If I’m mischaracterizing this thread, I apologize—it was just a quick read on Twitter and I couldn’t find it again!)

I disagree with this assessment. When students come into my classes, many of them are there because the course is required in some form or another. They don’t know enough about the course to know what they might want to know. So assuming that they can create their own objectives for whether they’ve succeeded in class feels like it’s setting them up for failure—it’s like asking them to build a house while giving them only the materials they can think of without any knowledge of how a house actually gets built.

So I think learning outcomes serve an important purpose in course design. Students who come into my courses are often skeptical, terrified, or both. Throughout the course of the semester, we work together to build confidence in both history and technology until at the end, the students can look at the learning outcomes and say “Oh yeah, I did learn something in this class!” We judge whether or not they succeed in the class based on whether the learning outcomes are met.

This system gives me a lot of flexibility. The student didn’t get the technology right the first time? That’s ok—we’re still learning, and you’ll have another chance to get it. I did a bad job of explaining something in class? No problem—we can take another run at it next week. If we don’t get to something, we don’t get to it. I worry a lot less about “coverage” when I remind myself of what the learning outcomes are.

But I’m still able to check both my students and myself to make sure we’re all working together toward the same goals. I think that’s the value of learning outcomes; they give the students parameters by which to judge their learning while giving them a chance to do more.

Challenges of teaching with learning outcomes

I believe firmly in the value of having learning outcomes. However, I still find them hard to write and sometimes hard to live by. I struggle to strike a balance between too restrictive and not restrictive enough. I try to write them so that any student who comes into my class can succeed under them, but I also want the objectives to have enough meat to be meaningful.

I also struggle with making sure I adhere to the outcomes. I do think an occasional divergence is fine, even healthy. But it’s really easy to slip back into the “I have to get through this” mindset, even in setting up course assignments and assessments. But I think that’s the key: slipping back into that mindset is the real backward design. I always want to be moving myself and my students forward. But I don’t think I’m quite there yet.

For me, the real challenge is in working within the learning outcomes I didn’t set myself. My undergraduate course fulfills the requirement for the Mason Core IT requirement. A Mason Core course comes with its own set of learning outcomes, created by the Mason Core committee. Courses that fulfill the IT requirement span the entire university, from IT 101 in the information technology program, to my course in the history department, to a music technology course in the college of visual and performing arts.

The learning outcomes set by the Mason Core committee were written with little attention to the humanities applications of technology. (This isn’t a knock on the outcomes; it’s just a fact.) As a result, where the outcomes I’ve crafted myself feel like they fit the course, there are occasions when I feel like I’m shoehorning sessions and activities into my class merely to meet the core requirements. But the benefits of having my course in the Mason Core outweigh the frustrations of trying to adhere to the IT outcomes.

So, how do you use learning outcomes in your classes? How do you keep yourself on track? How do you work with outcomes that aren’t yours by design?

Next time: Analog tools for digital methodology?