As the semester winds down and I am grading the finals, it has been exceptionally rewarding to see how much improvement my students made this go-around in my 101 course. Teaching roughly 7000 years of history is no joke! For a community college’s introduction to history course, I try to emphasize a general knowledge of the eras that produced the modern western civilization we live in today and the skills of the historian.
It had been immediately evident in the finals I have graded so far that the improvement in working the historian’s craft was considerable–not only in reading and rating the reliability of primary sources, but also in constructing a logical argument for one’s interpretation of the sources. Reading and writing skills have improved as they have learned how to approach the material.
This semester I worked towards this goal in a couple of new ways:
- The midterm was broken into three parts and the first two of these parts were collaborative–and the grades were curved. The midterm asked them to replicate as much of the reading and writing skills as we had covered in class up to that point while also testing their knowledge of the readings and eras up to that point. (The greater emphasis on analysis followed their own collective attempts at first on the midterm.)
- I provided extra credit assignments (two) that specifically emphasized these skills after the midterm–groups that struggled the most on the midterm could thus practice the skills further in the following weeks and earn extra credit for the additional practice.
- I modeled, with the class’s help, the prioritization of reliable sources when conflicting accounts exist and constructing a basic outline for a history paper. (Extra credit assignments built directly on these in-class/homework exercises.)
These activities seemed to really help students grow in their understanding of the material. One could tank on the midterm, but still work towards a successful grade in the class if one was willing to put the work into the class and the projects with the extra credit options. It was important for me to give students the opportunity to collaboratively see how far they had come on their own and take some risks, but I did not want to punish them if they hadn’t come as far by week six as I hoped they would by finals week. (I should point out that our institution has a really early midterm.)
The major drawback was that some students were too greatly discouraged and did not see how they could climb out of the hole–none of these ever approached me about their grades or situation before quitting, though. Students who flat out failed the midterm recovered to earn grades in the 80-90% range. So, it was definitely possible to make the turn around–most of these did come and speak to me or e-mail me about their grades. I did not give anyone a free pass–each student earned their grades–though, I was far more lenient in grading the finals where grammar and syntax was concerned. (This was, in part, because of the high number of ESL students in my evening course who do not have easy access to tutoring resources on campus; and, in part, it was due to the fact that I am not handing back the finals for students to see their mistakes. Besides, at this point I was far more concerned with their historical understanding and was gratified to observe considerable improvement in organizing their essays and in writing even if they still have work to do in that area.)
Students who were sharper on the first day of class further honed their skills and understood far more about the historical process. Students who were green gained new understanding and experiences, growing in the class. It was an awesome semester and the students were a lot of fun to teach–I never dreaded going to class. Semesters like this remind me why I love teaching so much–even if I only adjunct for a couple of courses a year.