November 9th, 2010

When Faculty and Student Expectations Collide



“It is a story replicated in many history classrooms during the semester. Students have once again done poorly on an assignment or exam. Their essays are the sites of massive, undifferentiated data dumps. They have paraphrased primary sources instead of analyzing them, ignored argumentation, confused past and present, and failed completely to grasp the ‘otherness’ of a different era.” (p. 1211)

Although this particular story may be unique to history, a story very much like it unfolds in the classrooms of many disciplines. What’s the problem?

“These sorts of poor performance often result from a mismatch between what college history teachers expect of their students and what those students imagine their task to be.” (p. 1121) Mismatches between teacher and student expectations are also not unique to history. They occur because faculty were highly successful students in these disciplines. They learned to be “historians” easily, with a certain naturalness—what historians (also physicists, anthropologists, engineers, the list could be very long) do, they did almost automatically. “As a result, professors often do not model for their students some of the basic—and most essential—steps in historical analysis.” (p. 1121)

The authors (three historians and one educational developer) of these insightful comments decided that the mismatches between teachers and students might be worth exploring. They might learn important things about their students but, more important, they might identify instructional strategies and approaches effective at breaking through these bottlenecks. They started with the bottlenecks and a goal of understanding them as explicitly and concretely as possible. They conducted 17 90-minute, videotaped interviews with history faculty. They asked faculty to identify and talk about the bottlenecks—those places in their courses where students had trouble grasping basic concepts or successfully completing assigned work. Then they ask each faculty member what needed to happen for students to get through these obstacles to learning.

The article describes bottlenecks that faculty named and offers concrete examples for addressing each. Some of what faculty listed included not correctly understanding the nature of history as a discipline, including historical analysis; not being able to draw evidence from primary, secondary, and textbooks sources; and not recognizing or being able to produce arguments.

Despite the value of what they learned from these interviews, these faculty researchers needed to know if the perceptions of faculty could be confirmed by evidence collected from students. They surveyed 842 students enrolled in a variety of different history courses and in classes at different levels and of different sizes. They asked students what they thought professional historians did, they asked them to identify the best way to prepare for history exams, and, finally, they tested their ability to read and answer history exam questions.

“What we found confirmed the experiences of the professors and brought new perspectives from which to understand our classroom audience.” (p. 1217) For example, only 38 percent of the students surveyed thought the basic task of professional historians was to develop interpretations (what researchers considered the right answer). Thirty percent thought historians evaluated the ideas and decisions of earlier eras. Encouragingly, the more history courses taken, the more likely it was that students answered this question correctly. As for the best ways to study for a history exam? Forty-eight percent selected memorizing (an answer the researchers considered wrong).

“The faculty interviews and student surveys would have been of little importance had they not led to attempts to increase the learning of history in our classrooms.” (p. 1219) A group of faculty and graduate students “set out to teach explicitly the historical skills defined in the interviews and to assess what difference this instruction made in student understanding. They focused on skills ranging from note taking and historical argumentation to the ability to deal productively with emotionally charged subjects.” (p. 1219) Specific approaches and assignment details are included in the article.

Reference: Diaz, A., Middendorf, J., Pace, D., and Shopkow, L. (2008). The history learning project: A department “decodes” its students. The Journal of American History, 94 (4), 1221-1224.

Excerpted from “Exploring ‘Bottlenecks’ to Learning.” The Teaching Professor, 23.6 (2009): 4.

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