by Edith Replogle Sheffer, History
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2002
Learning combines three levels of engagement: absorbing details, understanding significances, and generating interpretations. Achieving a successful balance between these elements is difficult, especially in an introductory course such as History 5, where students come in with such varying levels of prior coursework and experience. In our weekly GSI meetings, we often brainstormed as to how best to convey the course’s diverse program of learning. We lamented that whatever approach we selected meant compromising at least one component of learning — whether failing to cover the basics of “what happened,” neglecting the “big picture,” or not stimulating personal contributions to the material. Faced with these trade-offs, I usually rotated and combined activities each week (debates, timelines, group work, structured discussion) which complemented the course’s assorted material.
In preparing for the two-hour section on the French Revolution, however, I wanted to provide a more unified approach. I decided to do a class conceptual map not only to present this decisive event in its chronological and ideological totality, but to convey some of its excitement and creative energy as well. I printed out around 50 index cards of key events (e.g., Tennis Court Oath and its description) and excerpts from speeches, songs, and pamphlets (e.g., Robespierre on terror), and handed them out so that students received 2-3 each. I distributed piles of arrows, blank paper, and colored markers, and announced we would construct our diagram of the Revolution on the table. Following a rough chronological order, we built the map one index card at a time. A student would read their card aloud; the group then discussed its significance and debated where to place it. As we went on, the students increasingly made the activity their own, adding arrows to show interrelationships between the cards and devising organizational labels (such as “economic causes” or “cultural representations”).
The conceptual map was quite a hit. Participation and enthusiasm was greater than usual, the level of discussion was quite high, and my two sections each came up with different and inventive schemas. The map was repeatedly cited on both my midterm and final section evaluations as a semester highlight, appealing alike to the shy and the boisterous, to the beginners and the advanced, and to those who preferred structure and those who preferred free-wheeling debate.
In fact, this semester’s History 5 (Spring 2002) adopted the conceptual map for its unit on the French Revolution. Using my index cards, all six GSIs did the map in their sections; some reported it was their most successful and fun activity. While the map is thus valuable for discussion, I have discovered it to be helpful for teaching writing as well. This semester, I am instructing a thesis course (History 101) and have encouraged the students to draw conceptual maps to complement their outlines as a non-linear, non-threatening way to organize and clarify a mass of material. Not only have these maps helped me understand and refine their outlines, but the students report that the mapping process was instrumental in their brainstorming and uncovering new linkages. Thus, the conceptual map is a flexible and valuable tool for incorporating the various components of learning into one coherent and enjoyable activity.