Introductory textbooks in most college disciplines tend to become thicker over time as new topics are steadily added while old topics remain. Classes designed to “cover” all of these topics necessarily sacrifice depth of coverage. In this episode, Dr. David Voelker joins us to examine how some faculty are changing their focus from “coverage” to providing students with an opportunity to actively engage in the discipline and uncover its power to help explain their world.
David is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. He is also the Co-Director of the Wisconsin Teaching Fellows and Scholars Program and the co-author with Joel Sipress of “The End of the History Survey Course: The Rise and Fall of the Coverage Model,” which was published in the Journal of American History in March 2011.
- Voelker, D. J. (2008). Assessing student understanding in introductory courses: A sample strategy. The History Teacher, 41(4), 505-518
- Sipress, J. M., & Voelker, D. J. (2009). From learning history to doing history. Exploring signature pedagogies: Approaches to teaching disciplinary habits of mind, 19-35.
- Sipress, J. M., & Voelker, D. J. (2011). The end of the history survey course: The rise and fall of the coverage model. The Journal of American History, 97(4), 1050-1066.
- Voelker, D. J., & Armstrong, A. (2013). Designing a question-driven US history course. OAH Magazine of History, 27(3), 19-24.
- Wiggins, G., Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Ascd.
- Gordon Wood – Author and History Professor
- Gary Nash – American historian
- Angela Bauer – Professor and Chair of Biology at High Point University
- Ryan Martin – Psychology Professor and Associate Dean of Recruitment, Outreach, and Communications at University of Wisconsin at Green Bay
- Bain, K. (2011). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press.
- 61. A Motivational Syllabus. Tea for Teaching podcast (with Christine Harrington)
- Christine Harrington – Associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at New Jersey City University and the author of Dynamic Lecturing
- Lendol Calder – Professor of History at Augustana College
- University of Wisconsin’s Teaching Fellows and Scholars Program
- UW Faculty College
- Spring Conference on Teaching and Learning
- Regan Gurung – Professor of Human Development and Psychology at UW Green Bay
- Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
- Gurung, R. A., Chick, N. L., & Haynie, A. (2009). Exploring signature pedagogies: Approaches to teaching disciplinary habits of mind. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
- Ciccone, A. A. (2012). Exploring more signature pedagogies: Approaches to teaching disciplinary habits of mind. Stylus Publishing, LLC..
- Gurung, R. A., & Voelker, D. J. (Eds. Gurung, R. A., & Landrum, R. E. (2013). Assessment and the scholarship of teaching and learning..). (2017). Big Picture Pedagogy: Finding Interdisciplinary Solutions to Common Learning Problems: New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Number 151. John Wiley & Sons.
- 54. SOTL. Tea for Teaching podcast
- International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
- American Historical Association
- Tuning Project
John: Introductory textbooks in most college disciplines tend to become thicker over time as new topics are steadily added while old topics remain. Classes designed to “cover” all of these topics necessarily sacrifice depth of coverage. In this episode, we examine how some faculty are changing their focus from “coverage” to providing students with an opportunity to actively engage in the discipline and uncover its power to help explain their world.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Today our guest is Dr. David J. Voelker, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. He is also the Co-Director of the Wisconsin Teaching Fellows and Scholars Program. He is the co-author with Joel Sipress of “The End of the History Survey Course: The Rise and Fall of the Coverage Model,” which was published in the Journal of American History in March 2011. Welcome, David.
David: It’s nice to join you.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are…
John:…are you drinking tea?
David: Oh of course, always. Yes. I’m having a Moroccan Mint Green tea.
Rebecca: So you’re a tea drinker so you can come anytime. [LAUGHTER]
John: I’m drinking Black Raspberry Green tea.
David: Oh that sounds nice.
Rebecca: And I have Bombay Chai today.
John: We’ve invited you here primarily to talk about your work on redesigning the introductory history course. Could you tell us a little bit about the problems that you observed in the traditional approach to teaching the survey course?
David: I started teaching history at UW-Green Bay in 2003 and I was trying to create a class that would be very engaging for students. We would look at primary documents, I would really encourage them to think critically about the materials, and so forth. But I was still doing a lot of coverage, I went through the standard list of topics that you would follow to teach American History and I had a textbook. Well, after doing that a couple of years, I had two really wonderful students in my office. These were very engaged, hardworking, curious students, and they were talking to me about an upcoming exam and I found that they were just trying to memorize the content as I had taught it. Now, they were clearly capable of so much more, and they were doing more than that. But when it came time to the hard work they were putting in to study, they saw it as a memorization exercise. And I realized, “Wow, if these are the most engaged students in the class, then something’s not going the way I want it to go,” because that’s where their attention was…on memorization. That’s when I began a long journey to rebuild the way I was teaching—or reconceived how I was teaching—the intro history course. I ended up actually developing not only a new way of teaching the course, but entirely new ways of assessing student learning. So that when students were studying, when they were really putting in the effort and so forth, they would be focusing on the things that I really wanted them to learn, which was: how to interpret a primary source, how to find the argument made by another historian, how to put all that together into historical analysis. So that’s a quick summary of how I got on the path of reworking my introductory history course.
John: I don’t think this is unique to history. I see the same thing in economics. And in general, when students come to college, they often learn somewhere along the way that memorizing lists of things is what they’re expected to be able to do in college, and what you’re addressing is a problem that we see in all of our disciplines to some extent. So what would you recommend as an alternative? How have you approached this issue, or how have you tried to resolve this?
David: Well, first I should say I was really inspired by the book Understanding by Design. And I just looked at my copy and apparently I acquired that and started reading it in 2006. So it’s been a while ago, and it’s quite marked up. But the basic premise there is, instead of starting with, “Here’s a list of all the things I want to cover,” or “Here’s a list of all the things I want students to read,” you really start with “What is it that I want students to be able to do as a result of taking this class?” Now, students taking an intro history class, I’m not going to say, “Well, I want them to be able to build a house,” or something like that. What they’re going to be able to do is think in particular ways. You know, not necessarily the kind of skills that you would be able to observe in some product other than their thought. So I really tried to develop a class that would help students develop their ability to think historically. Now I realize they’re doing that for an intro course at a beginner kind of level, but the emphasis is still on historical thinking.
Rebecca: When you’re talking about the ways that we want students to think and work, we often get frustrated as faculty when students aren’t doing that but we don’t always take the time to articulate that, so I think it’s important to highlight that as a good starting point.
David: One thing I tried to do here is… well, just to be really intentional. What is it that I want them to learn? And then I think the crux of it is to make sure that I’m actually assessing them on the things that I really want them to learn. And I would guess that the overwhelming majority of college level history instructors really do want their students to come away with the ability to think historically, or at least to have some growth in that area with the ability to know what to do with a primary source, you know, historical documents, or perhaps an artifact or something like that. So I would say our hearts are in the right place but the question is, how do we actually get there? How do we align our highest learning outcomes with the actual assessments that we’re doing? In Understanding by Design—I don’t think I mentioned the authors earlier but Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe—they really put a lot of emphasis on assessment. Now I know in higher education there are folks who are wary of assessment and they’re thinking of institutional assessment, which I would say is important, but here we’re thinking about how are you grading the students? How do you know what they’re learning? So I decided to rethink my assessment and make sure that my exams were really requiring students to do some historical thinking on the spot, also drawing on and demonstrating that they have knowledge about the history we’ve been studying. So rather than seeing if they memorize some content, and you know they can somehow show that on an objective exam, what I do is on exams, they encounter a historical claim. So a really simple one would be “Christopher Columbus discovered a new world in 1492,” and I ask them to think about that critically and to think about that the way a historian thinks about it. And I asked them to argue both for and against the statement like that. So they’re arguing, they’re not simply regurgitating information. That means they’re using evidence and, in order to use evidence, you have to have content knowledge, right? You have to have knowledge of historical context, you have to know some of the sources. And so I see all that stuff that we “cover,” so to speak, really is the raw materials that students are working with as they develop their ability to think historically.
John: You’ve mentioned using in general, a backwards design approach, and what you’ve just described is part of it, where you start with the ultimate learning objective and then you design assessments that would measure that. How do you prepare students to reach that level?
David: Well, I guess that’s another big question, right? One thing, I try to be very transparent about this. I mean it’s interesting how sometimes in higher education we’re not very transparent. And that means that I talk with students about what it means to think historically, what that looks like. I try to model that for them, of course, but I do it in a way that’s explicit. I mean, here again, I would say most history faculty across the nation model historical thinking all the time, but they may not be very explicit about what they’re doing. So I tr y to be explicit about what it means to think historically and then also to give students a chance to practice that in class. So it happens my classes are 80 minutes long and well, I’m very grateful that I’m not lecturing for 80 minutes straight. I would just find that very difficult to believe I’m engaging anybody… I’m covering stuff for 80 minutes. So, I really try to break the class session up and have students not only talking about primary documents—which is pretty common for history classes—but we also look at different perspectives from historians. Now, I don’t introduce them to the vast historiography on any topic that we’re looking at, but I do make sure that they know about at least two different perspectives on major issues of the colonization of North America, or the American Revolution, or the coming of the American Civil War. So they can see that there’s actually a debate out there, rather than assuming that, “Well, history is pretty cut and dry. Like, we know what happened, we’re just describing it.” So, I really try to introduce to them the ways in which the study of history is an ongoing dialogue among historians, that we’re always turning up new sources, and we have new ways of thinking about old sources. And so I give them examples of how historical thinking is working in the field and really ask them to wrestle with some big questions. Again, it’s at an introductory level, so they’re not going off and reading everything that Gordon Wood wrote about the American Revolution and then comparing that to Gary Nash’s interpretation or something like that, but they are getting little snippets of that sort of thing so they can really get a sense of the debate and they talk about that in class. I don’t actually hold formal debates but I’ll have small groups discussing a particular issue and then I make a sort of matrix on the whiteboard and they go up to the whiteboard and sort of vote for where they think this historian stands, and where they think a different historian stands on the issue, and then where their group is, and so they’re really playing around with those different positions. And then, of course, on the exams, they’re actually making their own individual arguments using the primary sources and the secondary sources.
Rebecca: One of the things that you said was “modeling, but making that explicit.” Could you talk a little bit about how you shift from just modeling modeling explicitly or being explicit about doing that?
David: Yeah, sure. Well, one thing I do is I have a kind of graphic that I show that I created that tries to describe in a basic way what historical thinking looks like because I do think a lot of students come in with a really simplistic understanding of history. Again, this notion that it’s pretty cut and dry, it’s a description of what happened in the past. And so I try to help them understand both, through my own comments but then through practice that, “Okay, yeah, we have descriptions about the past, but those are based on evidence that has to be interpreted.” And those descriptions, we assemble those into a narrative and built into those narratives is an actual explanation and analysis of what happened. So we’re really thinking about why things turned out the way they did, how different things are interconnected, and then finally—and maybe the most importantly—is significance. Historians are also wrestling with the significance of the past, different events, and developments. Not only the significance in a narrow historical sense like, “Okay, this event was significant because it led to another event,” but also a longer term significance, and then I think even a kind of moral significance. What can we learn from the past? How can we use the past to understand American national identity? Those sorts of questions. So we really kind of build up, there’s multiple levels of complexity there. And I try to get my students at least beginning to climb that ladder to some of those higher levels, even if they’re just doing it in a really rudimentary way. But then I hope they can really see the value of history that goes beyond just kind of rote recollection of something that happened in the past.
John: Do students sometimes resist moving into this more appropriate view of history? They’ve learned through elementary and secondary schools what history is. How do you break their expectations and get them into this more active role?
David: I’m kind of smiling, or maybe even grimacing right now, because I usually am able to win students over. I mean, there’s so much about the past that’s exciting, that’s interesting, that’s unexpected. When we start to dig deeply into some of these topics, they’re interested and they’re curious and sometimes they’re also pretty frustrated or even angry because they feel like they’ve been misled in the past. In other words, that maybe the basic information they had from high school—of course the quality of that instruction varies—but I do have a lot of students who come in who are upset. They feel like they’ve been misled. And I want to rush to add that I have many students who have had excellent teachers in the past and are already really interested in history in part for that reason. So I think there’s a lot for students to be curious about. Occasionally I do run into a student who is very resistant. Most students find that, “Hey, turns out this is a lot more interesting and engaging,” than the history they had been exposed to in the past, or it’s deepening and complicating the pretty good understanding that they already had.
Rebecca: Do you find that they’re surprised by the first assessment or exam because they have these prior expectations and then your methodology in your class is different from their past experience?
David: Well that’s something that I anticipated and so we actually have a practice exam, so to speak, very early in the semester. In fact, that example I gave a moment ago of Christopher Columbus discovered a new world and 1492 is a sort of maybe second week of class practice exam prompt. And so I have them do that outside of class and then bring it in and we essentially go over that together. They share their thoughts with their classmates, we talk it over, I give them a number of examples. So for a student who’s coming to class and whose keeping up, there aren’t really going to be any big surprises and I give them some samples of what the exams are going to look like from other classes. I used to teach a lot more modern American history and so I can easily just share some sample exams that students told me it was fine if I shared and I think that’s really helpful, especially if there’s a big change in expectations, then I think to be fair to students, you should really be clear with them about how the expectations might be different than what they’ve encountered in the past. And a lot of students actually like the assessments I’m using. I think they find them more interesting. They’re perhaps a little harder to study for in the sense that it’s a little less clear cut but they have a pretty good idea of what the major topics are and I give them some suggestions for what they should be reviewing in terms of sources. So they really come in thinking, “Well, I’m going to need to refer to least a couple of these primary documents and the perspective or argument of this historian.” We practice all that in class because again, that’s what I want them to be able to do. So I make sure that we spend a lot of class time essentially practicing the very thing that they’re going to be assessed on.
John: If someone were to come into your class, what would it typically look like? Are the students broken up into really small groups? Bigger groups? How do you have them engage with the material that way?
David: Well I typically have about 65 students in my introductory US history class. I have another class that I teach in a similar fashion that’s actually a writing e mphasis class though it’s a little smaller at 45. So an intro level class and environmental history. But in both of those classes, we will typically start out with the whole group and I make some introductory comments. Sometimes I give a brief lecture on background context. I mean, historians really do value context. This is part of how you make sense of the primary documents and so forth. So I do all of that and you would expect to see that in a history classroom, but then before too long, I’m giving the students some kind of a series of questions and they’re working with primary documents or they’re working with some short essays by historians and talking those through in their small groups and then we have various ways of reporting out. Like I said, sometimes I will send them to the board so they’re kind of recording their analysis on the whiteboard. Other times it’s just more like I’ll choose particular groups to respond and sometimes I just open it up. So, I think that’s all pretty typical except that I’m constantly going back and forth from maybe a brief lecture to small group discussions to a large group discussion. I suspect there’s more back and forth than you would typically see in a more traditional coverage oriented history classroom. Again, many instructors do use primary documents and they would have students talking about them. I think maybe where I’m going further is just that they’re going to have to write about those sources on an exam.
Rebecca: I think sometimes demonstrating that you really value a particular practice by spending so much class time on it really helps students understand how that’s a part of the discipline or a way a discipline works.
David: Yeah I think so, and many students really seem to appreciate having quite a bit of discussion time. I mean they find it productive, they have a clear task, they have something they’re working with. So at the end of the semester I do have a lot of students who say, “Wow that was so valuable to hear different perspectives.” And I think especially for first-year students, many of their classes are very large, many of their classes are lecture based, and so they don’t actually have very many opportunities to talk with other students in a meaningful way about the course material. And I realized that maybe at a small liberal arts college it would be a whole different story, but I’m at a regional comprehensive public university and I know that a lot of my students are in that kind of situation.
Rebecca: I think sometimes there’s a mismatch between the assessments that we assign and what our real objectives are…because it’s easier to assess other things than what we really want to know, and that tends to lead faculty to be resistant because of workload concerns. Can you talk a little bit about the grading and how you might manage that?
David: I have to agree with everything you’re saying there. That’s a real conundrum. The most meaningful assessments are also usually the most labor intensive and so I’ve had to be very deliberate in my case about what compromises I’m going to make. And one thing that I’ve had to do with the for and against essays, students write maybe six of these essays during the semester and they’re fairly brief. I really emphasize with the students that there’s not any room for BS in these essays. So there aren’t a lot of preliminaries and so forth, they just dive right in and make their arguments for and against. So that’s one thing that I’m doing. It’s not a formal essay because I don’t have time to go over all that extra content when I’m grading. I think the other thing that I do is most of the feedback I give on those essays I do with the whole class. So I give a kind of collective feedback where I show some examples. I actually fabricate a kind of weak response [LAUGHTER] and put that up on the screen and ask the students to assess it and then I show them a stronger response and then we talk about that. So they’re getting some examples of work that could use improvement and that’s generally a composite. I mean, I don’t ever show bad student work. But then often the strong examples…I’ve asked the students, “Hey can I share this with the class?” and we’ll take a look at that as well. So what I’m getting at here is one way I save time is a lot of the feedback I’m giving is collective feedback. If I were writing extensive comments on every one of these essays for 65 students, it just wouldn’t be feasible. I would have to do something else. So I’ve decided that’s a compromise that’s worth it.
John: When they’re looking at someone else’s work, the work that you fabricated, it’s probably a lot easier for them to recognize problems than when they try to diagnose it in their own, because they’ve taken ownership of theirs and they become committed. But when you prompt them by giving them this type of thing, it’s a whole lot easier for them to see mistakes and recognize them and perhaps avoid them in their own work.
David: Yeah, I think so, or at least that’s my hope. And, you know, they talk with their classmates about it. So they’re getting multiple perspectives on the shortcomings of a weak historical interpretation.
Rebecca: Have you or your colleagues seen a difference in the upper-level classes that build upon this like introductory class where the move has gone from coverage to uncoverage? Have they been more successful at the upper level or do you have any evidence related to that?
David: That’s a really good question and I certainly don’t have systematically collected evidence to respond to that. Now I do see a lot of these students again in upper-level classes and the students I’ve worked with before do seem well prepared to jump into deeper conversations, whether that’s using more primary documents or more extensive secondary sources. So I find that they’re well prepared for upper-level classes as far as what I’m able to observe among my own students. Now, we do still have courses that are closer to the coverage model on my campus, for sure. I mean, different colleagues of mine, they all have their own approaches. And just to be clear, I would never say my approach is the one right way to do anything. It’s something that works for me and that I think really serves the learning outcomes that are important in my discipline and in my department, but also to me. But I think there’s a lot of different ways to get to that. I guess I would say I don’t have any regrets when it comes to upper level classes. I don’t feel like, “Well, these students aren’t well prepared because we didn’t cover everything at the intro level.” I am always reminding myself, “Well, just because I’ve covered something doesn’t mean that anyone has learned it.”
Rebecca: We’ve been talking about this a lot. We have these first-year signature classes on our campus that are for first-year students that may or may not be continuing in a particular discipline but are really meant to help students integrate into our college and acting like a college student, et cetera. So they don’t have as many coverage concerns in terms of topics that we’re historically thinking about. So we’ve been talking a lot about how that frees you up a lot to really focus on some of these ways of thinking. So we’ve been having this conversation a lot, we’ve had a couple of recent podcast episodes related to that but we’ve also had these conversations on campus that have really made me, and I think some of my colleagues, think about, what is it that we really want students to learn even at the upper levels? We think about, “Oh we got to make sure we get through the whole textbook,” or whatever but really at the end of the day, I think sometimes we place value on things that we don’t actually value.
David: Well what you said really resonates for me. I’ve been teaching a first-year seminar for I think five years now and that’s actually in the Environmental Humanities where there is no canon. There is no textbook. And I’ve certainly had to build on scholarship that’s out there. I mean, I’m not just creating this out of thin air, but I didn’t have to worry about the pressure to cover some specific body of material. Nobody was counting on me to be sure to cover these 10 things. And I learned a lot from teaching in that first-year seminar context where the pressure for coverage is largely eliminated and I think it’s made me a better teacher in all of my classes. I really do believe that, because I’ve taken some of that spirit into some more traditional history courses.
John: I think this is an issue that comes up in many disciplines. I know in economics there have been discussions for years. The economics textbooks—just like history textbooks—keep getting bigger, there’s new chapters added. Since I was in the history class, there’s been a whole lot of time included, [LAUGHTER] you know, in terms of the chronological study. But more generally, in economics, there’s a lot of discussion about how difficult it is to cover all of this and how little students seem to come out learning. But there’s a trade-off when sometimes an introductory economics class is the only thing required for perhaps all upper-level courses, so there is some pressure to make sure you cover it. It’s a very active dialogue right now and there’s many attempts to reach a consensus, but I think this is happening in many disciplines, isn’t it?
David: I think so. Several years ago, I was reading some workshops on this very topic for the UW system and when I was doing that, I interviewed some colleagues in other disciplines. I talked with Angela Bauer, who’s now at High Point University in biology and I talked with my colleague Brian Martin in psychology here at UW Green Bay. And what I found was that they were really trying to go down this road in disciplines where the knowledge is more structured. As you go through you really are building on stuff that you learned earlier, maybe in more linear fashion. And in the history major, we’re looking at the history of so many different times and places that no one person can master all of that. So you don’t have quite the same expectation. But in any case, what they were doing was starting out with some big questions and this is something that Wiggins and McTighe recommend in Understanding by Design as well. So you can structure a course around big questions. And those questions should be interesting to most students who are engaging in the discipline particularly if they want to go on. And I find that really helpful. So I do that in my history courses but I think that you can do that in any discipline. Like what are the big issues here? What are the big questions in the discipline? And to answer those questions, you’re going to be using specific disciplinary ways of thinking and disciplinary tools, so you can really start to align things there. Here’s kind of the raw material you’re working with, here are the skills and other kinds of thinking tools you’re going to be using, and here’s what you need to be able to do in the end. If you can really line those things up, I think students walk away with so much more than if they are simply approaching it as, “Okay, we’re covering this, I’m going to take a test on this, and then probably I can forget most of it.”
John: Ken Bain has written about this extensively in terms of picking those big goals and developing it in What the Best College Teachers Do.
John: And we just recently had a podcast with Christine Harrington, where she talked about that in terms of building a syllabus, starting with those big questions and building your course around that. It’s a really important topic to help build student motivation and interests and tie everything together.
David: I really admire the work of both Ken Bain and Christine Harrington. Back when I got started with all of this, in addition to Understanding by Design and history, Lendol Calder was doing a lot of work in this area—and he still is today—and I think he pulled this word out of Understanding by Design, but “uncoverage.” So what can we uncover about discipline and disciplinary thinking? Because if we’re using the coverage model, yeah, we’re covering lot of things, but we’re also covering up many of the fundamental aspects of the discipline. If what you have in front of you is a history textbook, it’s written in a single authoritative voice. This is what happened, this is how it was, this is how it is. There’s something really misleading about that, because that’s not how the discipline of history really works. Where did all that knowledge come from? What are the debates? And so forth. So I really liked that idea of uncoverage and I wanted to acknowledge both Understanding by Design and Lendol Calder for sharing that concept with me. I think it’s a really helpful way of thinking about what we should be doing even in our introductory courses, or maybe especially in our introductory courses. What can we do to uncover the key concepts and ways of thinking in our disciplines?
Rebecca: When you decided to shift from a coverage model to more of an uncoverage model, did you decide to just jump in with two feet or did you take more of an iterative approach? I’m sure other faculty who are interested in this idea would like some guidance on that.
David: Well, yeah, so do as I say, not as I did. I really jumped in with two feet and maybe even got in over my head for a while. And you know, that’s something you can do from time to time. I don’t regret doing that. At the time I was a participant in the Wisconsin Teaching Fellows and Scholars Program—which I’ve now been co-director of for six years. It’s actually my final year—but back then I was just getting my feet wet in the scholarship of teaching and learning. And I believe I had a one-course reassignment that year and so I had just a little bit more time to try to implement a pretty radical makeover for my intro history class and there have been many iterations since then, including some pretty significant changes because, of course, you always learn a lot when you make big changes in a classroom. There are always things you would do differently. That said, I think you really can just choose some part of the class and really start working on getting to some of that deeper learning and assessing in new ways. You can try out new ways to assess with new ways to get students working more directly toward your learning outcomes.
Rebecca: You just mentioned the Teaching Fellows and Scholars Program at your institution. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is?
David: This is actually a UW System program so it’s statewide and it’s been around for probably 30 years, although it has evolved quite a bit ―I think by the late 90s, it was taking a turn toward the scholarship of teaching and learning—so it’s a year-long professional development opportunity for instructors in the UW system and we have many campuses here across the state and each of those campuses sends a couple of representatives to participate in this program. We have something we call Faculty College that meets every year and that’s several days, usually in late May, so kind of right after the academic year has ended. You have these really dedicated teachers going right back at it, like, “Hey, we’re going to spend almost a week working on improving teaching and learning.” So that’s actually a broader program that the Wisconsin Teaching Fellows and Scholars participate in that and that’s sort of where we launch the cohort each year. Then a little later in the summer we have a week-long summer institute and the fellows and scholars are actually designing scholarship of teaching and learning projects at that point. So they’re figuring out what kind of research questions would they like to look at in their classes, what kind of evidence of student learning are they going to gather, and so forth. Then we come back together again in January and do some troubleshooting on the project which they’ve been working on through the fall semester and they typically are gathering more data in the spring semester or more evidence to analyze. And then they actually do poster presentations in April at a statewide teaching and learning conference. So it’s a pretty substantive program. A lot of folks do end up continuing to work on their project and ultimately publishing something. It’s not necessarily a requirement, but many of the participants do go on and remain active in the scholarship of teaching and learning. For me, I think it’s really important because it provides a community in the UW system around teaching and learning, and so while you’re actually working on your projects for that year, you have some support. You have a support network to help you figure out how to handle your data analysis or how to get through the IRB process or whatever it might be. But then that community continues on afterwards and so we’ve had quite a few…thinking of three or four different books…published on the scholarship of teaching and learning where many of the participants that were in the book project came out of the Wisconsin Teaching Fellows and Scholars program so there’s the signature pedagogies book, it’s called Exploring Signature Pedagogies and then Exploring More Signature Pedagogies, two wonderful books and Regan Gurung and I recently published collection of essays on Big Picture Pedagogy, and that’s taking a kind of interdisciplinary approach to the scholarship of teaching and learning. And most of the folks in there came out of the UW system, and many of them were former teaching fellows and scholars. So it’s a really interesting program that I think really enriches what we’re doing here in Wisconsin.
John: That sounds like a wonderful program. I wish we had more of that here.
Rebecca: Yeah. Do you have a little bit of advice for people who are interested in starting in the scholarship of teaching and learning? That’s one of the things that we’ve talked about quite a bit on this podcast and anytime we can get someone to provide a little insight into getting that started…
John: In fact, Regan was on a few months back.
David: It can be intimidating to get started in the scholarship of teaching and learning, especially if you’re coming from a discipline that doesn’t normally do research on or with living people. Like, you know, for me as a historian, my research subjects are typically dead and gone. [LAUGHTER] So it’s quite different to think about doing research on my student learning or with my students and their learning. So I think it’s helpful to start small and just to try to think of the question about student learning that you can answer using methodologies that you’re already pretty familiar with. So you don’t want to tackle a project that’s going to require you to learn how to do advanced statistical analysis if you don’t have experience with that already. So I think it’s important to realize there are a lot of different ways to collect and analyze evidence of student learning and if you continue to develop as a SOTL scholar you will explore more and more of those ways of gathering and analyzing evidence. But it’s completely fine to start out with something that you’re already comfortable with and familiar with and you’re really asking a question—or you can start with a simple question about—what are my students learning in this particular area? I know there’s a struggle here, I know there’s something difficult here, and I’m going to pay some extra attention. I’m going to look at this in a more systematic way than I normally would just in the regular course of grading some papers or exams.
John: In your paper on the rise and fall of the coverage model, I think you noted that there’s a growing emphasis on the scholarship of teaching and learning within history and that seems to be resulting in a growing network of scholars who are working in this. Could you tell us just a little bit about that?
David: Sure. Let’s see, back in 2006 a group came together called the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History and I don’t know exactly what the membership or the participation in that group is but it’s a substantial group of history scholars who are really interested in promoting the scholarship of teaching and learning in history. Along with that, the American Historical Association now maybe for a decade or so has been working on something called the Tuning Project and that’s focusing on learning outcomes for history majors and that project has involved many, many people across the country in all different subfields of history thinking about what is it that we really expect and want history majors to learn and that transcends any particular content area. In other words, if you’re asking that for about history, and we’re thinking about historians coming in who are, not only United States historians, but looking at many different periods of time and in places around the world, you can’t just come up with, “Well here’s a list of twenty thousand facts [LAUGHTER] that we expect all history majors to know.” It was apparent that wasn’t going to work. And so what the Tuning Project has done, it’s allowed our discipline here in the United States to really think carefully about historical thinking and the basic skills and practices of being a historian and that at this point, it’s all very well spelled out. And history departments can then use that to improve the learning outcomes at their program level and you can take that down to the level of individual courses as well. So I think between the scholarship of teaching and learning and this assessment oriented Tuning Project, that we’ve had a real increase in interest and commitment here when it comes to thinking about what does it mean to learn history and to learn how to do history?
John: The last question we always ask is, what are you doing next?
David: I’m happy to say I have a sabbatical a year from now, just a one-semester sabbatical in the spring of 2020, and I’ve really become interested in environmental history and more broadly environmental humanities (I mentioned that earlier in terms of the first-year seminar I’ve been teaching). And my project is going to be to try to articulate a pedagogy for environmental history and environmental humanities and what I’m thinking of there is that there’s more to this field of study than the usual kind of content and skill mastery. And I think there are a lot of areas where this is true, but there seems to me to be a kind of affective component here, an emotional component, as we’re facing up to the environmental degradation and numerous environmental crises in our time. I say facing up to—sometimes we’re not facing up to those problems—and it can just be overwhelming from the standpoint of a learner—especially a young person—to really come to terms with the content that we would have to look at to the areas of environmental studies more generally. So I’m looking at contemplative pedagogies to think about one way to help students come to terms with and to deeply process what it is we’re studying when we look at problems with sustainability. For example, climate change. I’m really excited to dig into that next year.
John: Those sound like fascinating topics, and they should be fun to look at. And it’ll be an interesting challenge working with those issues, especially now.
Rebecca: Yeah it sounds really intense, but really needed.
David: Yeah, I think it is going to be necessary to grapple with those issues going forward.
John: Thank you for joining us. This has been really interesting.
Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much.
David: Oh, thank you. I really enjoyed the conversation and my tea cup is empty, I don’t know about yours but I think I’m going to have to go get another cup.
John: Yeah, mine’s empty too.
Rebecca: Yeah mine’s getting really close.
John: I don’t know if you can see it, but we have a whole table covered with tea back there in the back of the room.
David: Oh I see that now.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.
John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.