Introducing: Scavenging the Survey

All across university campuses, conversations about how to best teach the U.S. or other types of surveys continue. Particularly with the rapidly developing world of online education and MOOCs, universities struggle to maintain relevance and competitiveness. Competitiveness in the humanities means being able to demonstrate how a liberal arts education can help students better navigate an information-saturated landscape through skill development and critical thinking.

With factual information at our fingertips (even if some of it may be flawed), how can the history survey continue to be of use to students? Anyone can find out when, where, and how the railroad strikes of 1877 took place, or even engage with Malcolm X’s speeches–they can even find many of them online, something I was not able to do even in my graduate level study.

While teaching my own surveys, I have decided that among the most important offerings of face-to-face education is the ability to collaborate and the requirement that students think, write, and communicate on their feet. Spontaneous and informed conversation builds communication skills — if students learn how to think on their feet, articulate their views based on reading and research, and can do so effectively and efficiently, isn’t that a pretty good marker of an educated person? Better yet, if they can learn, research, converse, then collaborate and produce an intelligent, researched product, they have a record of success on which to build.

With these goals in mind, I brainstormed the concept of Scavenging the Survey. In this version of the US survey (1877-present), students will experience a “flipped” classroom in a new way. They will read the textbook and complete content-based quizzes outside of class so that they are familiar with the context (or they can re-familiarize themselves). Class time then builds upon the benefits of face-to-face learning. Each week, working in groups, I assign students a scavenger hunt-like task that builds a particular historical skill. The hunt asks them to digest the material they read, coming to a consensus as a group about what interested them, sparked debate, or seemed the most significant.

For example, a weekly task could ask them to find three primary sources related to the events that most intrigued them that week. Some other ideas include:

  • Finding a book on their chosen topic in the library and summarizing its thesis
  • Searching for an academic article and reporting the kind of results they get, along with a summary of three articles that look the most promising for future research
  • Compiling a list of reputable online sources for an event, person, or historical development
  • Build a report of how an event received coverage in contemporary newspapers, using online databases like the Historical New York Times

These are perhaps the most obvious, straightforward options, good for the first few weeks to build (or rebuild) students’ skills in historical research.

Beyond that, the course will ask students to use their knowledge of history to compile, evaluate, and interpret sources from both online and physical repositories.

For example, I envision asking students to evaluate a blog post that refers to historical events. They might review an op-ed’s invocation of past events to make a point about current political, economic, social, or cultural realities. They could even take to the streets or halls of the university, in search of a physical reminder of the past.

The scavenging would take place during the first class meeting of the week. I would embed myself with a group or two each week, or move among groups to guide and answer questions.

The second class period each week would be dedicated to writing. Each group will then produce two blog posts:

  1. A coherent recounting and analysis of their scavenger hunt findings: this is the formal reporting of their historical thinking and sources. They will need proper citations, links to sources or images, and clear analytical writing.
  2. A report on their process for the week. In other words, they would produce both historical scholarship as well as a report on their successes and failures. What searches yielded dead ends? How hard or easy was it to find sources? Did they hit dead ends, or were they overwhelmed by results? The process posts not only will keep them honest, but make students conscious of how they conduct their research and historical inquiry.

In particular, I’m looking for ways to help students develop a sense of change over time. I might assign a thematic development to each group — one group might be tasked with looking at the growth of the executive, another with cultural developments. I plan to switch up the groups at least twice during the semester, meaning the themes would also switch. Students will also be required to comment and evaluate other groups’ postings. See more on the Weekly Process here.

This is just the beginning, and I’m in search of as many ideas as I can find for when I implement this model in Fall 2013. Any thoughts? Has anyone employed this type of history detective work at the survey level?

4 thoughts on “Introducing: Scavenging the Survey

  1. Hi Katherine, this all sounds great especially to a nerdy undergrad like me. Two points though:
    1) how do you deal with the students who don’t want to talk or are too shy to talk. Group work becomes very painful when you have members not contributing. Also, students who are required to do group work outside of class time are always complaining of the deadbeat members of their group and yet the students of that group will all get the same mark, the students who do most of the work complain of it being highly unfair.
    2) i’ve done an assignment where we had to record the process of research but it had so many requirements that it was easy for anyone to lose marks because they hadn’t ticked the boxes in the right way so to speak and the actual research seemed less important than the requirements. I didn’t learn anything from the exercise. If we had had less requirements and could just record our research I would have had the time to research more and learn more.
    Anyway, I hope this helps.

  2. Hi Gillian, Thanks for the thoughts! Shy students are always a consideration, even (and maybe especially) in the “traditional” model. I think the second thought you have might figure in with the first consideration: each week it’s only one person’s job to record the process, and I don’t need a lengthy description, more a summation of how it went. This might be a good place for someone who may want to take less of a leadership role at first. They could also take a commenting role. I’m hoping that the groups can develop to where all feel comfortable taking all roles. I’m also building in a peer evaluation as part of the grading (which is also built into the Weekly Process with the commenting piece), though I’m still developing it. I’m mostly concerned about making things TOO confusing, structured — I want there to be room for creativity, but I also need to have clear expectations and procedures.

  3. Oh! I can’t wait for this. Per our discussions about it, it might be helpful to identify a list of research skills that you would expect for them to learn and then ensure that assignments are created to build upon those skills. Also, identify the variety of sources you hope for them to consult. Then see what assignments you can create that sync the two options. You want them be able to place an historical event in a larger context. You also want them to work with historic newspapers. You could have them examine 3-5 historic newspaper accounts of the same event. Maybe one local, one regional and one national paper. They need to examine not just the reporting of the even itself, but how it sits within the broader context of the full paper. Is it on the front page of the local news but buried on page 10 of the national paper? Is it front page of the regional, but not even reported locally? What else is being reported? What can they surmise about the importance of the event to the community of readership?

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