by Emily Hamilton, History
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2010
Any course that aims to survey the history of science across all cultures and through a time span from the dawn of civilization to Isaac Newton necessarily covers a lot of material. As the GSI for the history department course “Science From Antiquity through Newton,” I was not surprised when the students were overwhelmed. The majority of the students in my section were underclassmen, and many were new to campus — and college — that semester. I quickly realized that my job as GSI would need to balance an organized presentation of course material with guidance as these students navigated their way through a style of learning that differed radically from most of their high school academic experiences.
Throughout the semester, students arrived prepared and enthusiastic to discuss course readings and lecture material. These twice-weekly meetings allowed students to approach new topics in discrete chunks, and I was often impressed with the level of comprehension the students demonstrated. I was not altogether prepared, though, for the general attitude of the students as we began to approach the midterm exam. Suddenly, the same students who displayed sophisticated analysis in section expressed intimidation by the sheer quantity of information they were responsible for. The discrete chunks of material that posed no problem to the students were overwhelming in aggregate. I saw the midterm representing to them an external force that surely would contain unexpected questions and unending requests for minutiae. The students began feeling powerless in their own comprehension.
I realized that instead of considering the midterm an affront, the students needed to reconsider it as it was originally intended: a tool for measuring learning. I broke the students into small groups and asked them first to adopt the role of the course instructor. If they were to design a midterm to test learning, what would be included? The students immediately recognized that there would be a section on identifying terms. I asked each group to spend five minutes compiling a list of all of the terms they could come up with that address an important course topic. I then put the groups’ suggestions on the board, and marked duplicates occurring in multiple lists. I asked students to suggest which terms were unlikely to be on the exam and explain why. Slowly, students began to see that certain terms bore less importance to the course material. After about ten minutes the class accepted around two dozen terms that they deemed very likely to appear on an exam.
This exercise was repeated with essay questions. Students were asked to write four potential essay questions that they thought might be like those created by the professor. After constructing these questions, the groups shared their questions and discussed which were most likely to appear on the exam. As a homework assignment students were asked to choose eight terms to identify and to write full responses to two of the essay questions.
Students discussed their answers during the following section meeting and submitted their responses to me for comments. I was impressed not only with the overall quality of the work, but also with the change in attitude that the students demonstrated. Instead of being overwhelmed, the students displayed confidence. They were prepared to sit for the midterm exam, and even enthusiastic to see if their predictions would be reflected on the actual exam. As it turned out many of the identifications were included on the exam, and all of the essay questions were in some way related to those chosen by the students. In the section meeting following the exam, the students expressed great excitement and were generally satisfied with their answers. Their scores were higher than the class average and, more importantly, students asked for time to prepare in similar ways for the final exam. By removing the unexpected from the exam — by showing the students that they had the tools to identify and predict the sorts of questions they would be asked — I found the students were both more prepared and more confident. This exercise proved highly successful, and it is one I have adopted in many other courses.