Building a Better History Course … Part Two: Some Research

I’ve spent the better part of the past two days finally concentrating on a question I’ve been thinking about off and on for almost a year—well, actually, ever since I started teaching: how do I design and deliver an effective university history course? While casual readers might think this a strange question—I can imagine someone asking, “Don’t you just tell them what happened?”—it’s actually a serious problem for those of us teaching survey courses, especially (I would argue) in history. As I argued in my first post on this topic, there are essentially two parts to the problem: 1) the past keeps expanding, and 2) I use a big survey textbook, which forces me to try to cover and unrealistic amount of historical ground and doesn’t actually make for as many interesting lectures or discussions as I would like. (This may or may not be a charitable way to put it, but my students would be better judges of that.)

Now I’m following trails on the Internet, through Google searches, blogs and websites, and popping into the electronic databases to find some articles that deal with teaching historical survey courses, and I’ve found enough useful links that I think it’s worth posting some of them.

One of the first places I went was back to an NPR interview a great grad school friend of mine posted on her Facebook page. That carried me on to Jonathan Rees, a history professor at Colorado State University in Pueblo, a labour historian who ditched his textbook in order to teach more interactively and then later decided to “kill his textbook” too! Rees’s blog, “More or Less Bunk,” included some interesting posts about why history surveys aren’t working and reminding me of the really innovative work being done by Lendol Calder of Augustana College in Illinois, whom I had the great pleasure of meeting at a Conference on Faith and History a few years ago in Oklahoma. Rees also blogged about an article in the Journal of American History, by Joel M. Sipress and David J. Voelker, called, “The End of the History Survey Course: The Rise and Fall of the Coverage Model.

Rees also linked to that really intriguing RSA Animates video on Changing Educational Paradigms, which sharply critiques the industrial model of education.

Bringing the conversation back to history teaching, another thoughtful blogger Rees connected me with was John Fea, whose blog, “The Way of Improvement Leads Home,” is named after his award-winning intellectual biography of an eighteenth-century American farmer and would-be man of letters. Fea also blogs regularly on the death of the coverage model of teaching historical survey courses.

As an aside, Fea also contributed to and co-edited the important new book Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010). For more on Confessing History, check out Chris Gehrz’s reflections at “The Pietist Schoolman”.

Let’s return to Lendol Calder, who has made the most important contribution to thinking about teaching history survey courses in the last decade or (likely) more. Calder, a historian of American consumer credit, has received several grants from the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Education Trust, and the US Department of Education to study undergraduate teaching and history teaching in particular. For starters, Calder wrote a great piece called “Looking for Learning in the History Survey,” in which he points out that “mentioning” something in class doesn’t mean that students “learned it.” From there, he challenges the “coverage model” of teaching history survey courses. Instead, Calder advocates “uncoverage,” which he describes as “a deliberate attempt to lay bare for students the central assumptions, forms of inquiry, and cognitive habits that transform data into knowledge for practitioners of our discipline.” (Here he is drawing on educational theorist Grant Wiggins.)

For an introduction to Calder and his thinking, check out this short Intervarsity Fellowship video in which he calls for a rediscovery of moral meaning in history. Comparing teaching history to showing a teenager how to drive a stick-shift car, Calder argues that the many “complicated intellectual moves that are required to make sense of the past” do not come naturally to students and need to be specifically taught. Learning must lead, he argues, to application—making connections between history and contemporary life.

InterVarsity Alum: Dr. Lendol Calder on “Uncoverage” from InterVarsity twentyonehundred on Vimeo.

In putting “uncoverage” into practice, Calder developed an American history survey course in which he assigned students two competing narratives of modern American history, then led students into the process of comparing conflicting interpretations of US history. As a pathway into these readings, Calder had students begin by writing their own versions of specific events in US history, based on primary sources he assigned. The course seemed to give students an increased ability across a range of historical cognitive skills: constructing good questions, making supportable inferences, etc. These Calder actually measured through special “think aloud” exercises in which students talked their way through an analysis of a primary source new to them.

Calder’s website outlines his approach. His course on US History Since World War II is divided into ten topics (for the ten weeks of the course). He begins each section with some piece of film, teaching students how to “read” or analyse what they’re watching. Students write a short review of the film. After the film screening comes a history workshop, a class which students cannot come to unless they’ve written a short argument paper (the workshop assignment) based on a couple of primary sources they’ve been given to read (there are some variations to these assignments, but they invariably revolve around responding to primary sources). In the history workshop students look at other primary source material and discuss/debate with Calder and classmates, stirring up questions about the subject of that section of the course and given them ideas for their reading assignment to follow. Discussion and debate dominate. After the workshop, the students have to read from the two histories of the post-war era that Calder assigns for the course. The third class session in each section of the course is a lecture/discussion class, which begins with a short quiz (5 minutes) on the readings—this is designed to test whether students are reading for the main ideas. Calder then lectures and/or leads a discussion to clarify questions, suggest interpretations, and most importantly, draw our moral meaning from the history. The course concludes with a final paper worth 25 percent of the final grade (over half the grade comes from the various film reviews and workshop assignments). Basically, they have to defend which of the two narratives they would choose for their fellow Americans to read, and why. It’s a very intelligent concluding assignment.

Overall, Calder’s “uncoverage” method reminds me of the workings of a mechanical clock—very elegant, everything interconnected and contributing to the overarching purpose, but a lot of moving parts. I wonder how it would work it a medium-sized survey class of 100 students, which is the size of my introductory survey. I also wonder how it would work in a world history course, where there’s less “base knowledge” to draw on, wider swaths of context to be established, and fewer coherent narratives to offer students. Still, there’s lots here to draw on, and to link with other ideas I think work well now (primary source presentations, for example).

As I’ve investigated the idea of ditching the survey textbook (which I’ve already committed to do) and considered Lendol Calder’s “uncoverage” model of teaching, I’ve collected a series of interesting looking articles, some of which I’ve read. Let’s call it the start to a bibliography relating to teaching the history survey course. I would be grateful for any recommendations I could add to this list. Over time, I will develop this into a bibliography posted on a separate blog page.

Calder, Lendol. “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey.” Journal Of American History 92, no. 4 (March 2006): 1358-1370. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 15, 2012).

Susannah McGowen, et al. “Ways of Seeing: Evidence and Learning in the History Classroom.” Journal Of American History 92, no. 4 (March 2006): 1371-1402. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 15, 2012).

Estes, Todd. “Constructing the Syllabus: Devising a Framework for Helping Students Learn to Think Like Historians.” History Teacher 40, no. 2 (February 2007): 183-201. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 15, 2012).

Harris, Lauren McArthur, and Robert B. Bain. “Pedagogical Content Knowledge for World History Teachers: What is It? How Might Prospective Teachers Develop It?.” Social Studies 102, no. 1 (January 2011): 9-17. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 15, 2012).

Stephen O’Hara, et al. “Romancing the Capstone: National Trends, Local Practice, and Student Motivation in the History Curriculum.” Journal Of American History 98, no. 4 (January 2012): 1095-1113. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 15, 2012).

Martin, Daisy. “Using Core Historical Thinking Concepts in an Elementary History Methods Course.” History Teacher 45, no. 4 (August 2012): 581-602. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 15, 2012). This article on preparing elementary and middle school teachers of history and social science discusses the need to develop an understanding of “history as an interpretive discipline” and “to move towards a vision of history that put historical thinking front and center.”  In the end, the those teaching future history teachers want them to learn various “aspects of historical thinking (multiple stories, historical context, fact versus fiction, and the claim-evidence connection).”

Ruswick, Brent J. “Teaching Historical Skills through JSTOR: An Online Research Project for Survey Courses.” History Teacher 44, no. 2 (February 2011): 285-296. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 15, 2012). Ruswick explains how he uses article reviews in his history survey courses  and stresses the importance of “learning how to use evidence to make historical arguments and to evaluate the historical arguments made by others.” It’s a good model for how to engage students in historical thinking and includes practical advice on the details of implementing the assignment and an appendix with guidelines for students.

Sipress, Joel M., and David J. Voelker. “The End of the History Survey Course: The Rise and Fall of the Coverage Model.” Journal of American History 97, no. 4 (March 1, 2011): 1050–1066.

van Hover, Stephanie, David Hicks, and Stephen Cotton. “Can You Make ‘Historiography’ Sound More Friendly?”: Towards the Construction of a Reliable and Validated History Teaching Observation Instrument.” History Teacher 45, no. 4 (August 2012): 603-612. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 15, 2012).

Westhoff, Laura M. “Historiographic Mapping: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the Methods Course.” Journal Of American History 98, no. 4 (January 2012): 1114-1126. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 15, 2012).

Wineburg, Sam. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Temple University Press, 2001. Wineburg … and then models his view of historical thinking in a multimedia presentation on the 1775 Battle of Lexington. (

Wineburg, Sam. “Crazy for History.” Journal Of American History 90, no. 4 (March 2004): 1401-1414. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 15, 2012).

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