June 6th, 2012

Winning Article of the Scholarly Work on Teaching and Learning Award Takes on “Content Coverage”


Each year Magna Publications sponsors an award recognizing an outstanding piece of scholarly work on teaching and learning. Authors received the award and its $1,000 stipend at the 9th annual Teaching Professor Conference this past weekend in Washington, D.C.

The winning article for this year’s Maryellen Weimer Scholarly Work on Teaching and Learning Award is well worth reading. It addresses the issue of content coverage—specifically content coverage in introductory history survey courses. Despite its focus on this particular course, many of the issues raised are relevant in any discipline that seeks to introduce students to a field of study via an introductory level course. If you teach one of these courses or care about the ones offered at your institution, let me see if I can entice you further with some highlights from the article.

Objections are raised to what authors call the “coverage model” which “casts the professor (and his or her chosen texts) in the role of historical authority, with students assigned the task of absorbing and reproducing expert knowledge.” (p. 1050) The authors, along with other reformers, are arguing that what students need to learn is how to think like historians, not a body of historical knowledge.

It’s a history article and so it includes some history. In this case, it’s a rundown of critiques of the coverage model starting with an American Historical Association document from 1898. From then until now the coverage model has been challenged, primarily because it ineffectively remediates what students don’t know but should know as responsible citizens. “Proponents of the coverage model have good intentions, but over the past century their preferred pedagogy has come up short again and again. If we truly wish our students to engage in critical thinking and discussion about the past, it is not enough to ask them to simply consume our expert knowledge.” (p. 1066)

According to the authors, current reformers are largely unaware that their critique of the coverage model has this history (which seems a bit ironic) and although they articulately critique the coverage model, they have been less forthcoming about alternatives. If the introductory course doesn’t survey the field, then what goals should the course accomplish? I can’t think of a discipline where this wouldn’t be a worthy discussion.

The authors propose that “argument must become the organizing principle of the course.” (p. 1064) They explain their rationale. “Present-day reformers insist that facts do not and cannot come first. The widespread embrace of the facts-first assumption within the discipline of history helps explain why, despite a century of drilling content into the minds of high school and college students, so many such students remain woefully ignorant of the knowledge that historians deem necessary for effective citizenship.” (p. 1063)

In their argument-based courses students learn history by dealing with significant historical questions—specifically, the ones about which historians disagree. Students would consider the rival positions, to take a side and use historical evidence to argue for it. “The shift from coverage to argument thus does not mean the elimination of content from the introductory course or relegating such pedagogical tools as textbooks and lectures to the dustbin. … It does, however, require us to dispense with the notion that content mastery is an end in itself and instead to view historical content as the subject matter about which our students will learn to argue in discipline-specific ways.” (p. 1064)

Typically, introductory courses are the one encounter students have with our disciplines. As these authors point out, students’ understanding of history (in this case) as a discipline and as a way of thinking about things will be shaped by the learning experiences they have in this course. I worry that most of these required survey courses are not good introductions to large and important fields of study. Students leave these courses wondering why they had to take them and glad they don’t have to take another.

In most fields, it has been a long time since these introductory, required courses have been looked at critically and in light of alternatives. This article can be the springboard needed to start that discussion in your department and at your institution.

Reference: Sipress, J. M. and Voelker, D. J. (2011). The end of the history survey course: The rise and fall of the coverage model. Journal of American History, 97 (4), 1050-1066.

  • JPalermo

    This view of historians as brain-dead positivists is what we've been hearing for years, ironically, first from post-structuralists and post-modernists who believed that our "narratives" were no better than fiction and could be deconstructed at will by any good Comp Lit student, and now, apparently by people criticizing the "coverage" model (whatever that means). First — where do I begin? — academic freedom allows our venerable members of the professoriate to teach courses in a variety of ways, and you'll find great variety in the teaching of U.S. history survey courses. Second, (and I find this most ironic of all), it was American Historians who really fired off the first shots (in the 1960s and 1970s) in studying what everyone in academia takes for granted today: Issues of RACE, CLASS, and GENDER. Now, if we are just a bunch of "coverage" model positivists where did social history come from? How were African Americans, Women, Workers, Latinos and other subaltern groups incorporated into our Grand "Coverage" Narrative in the first place? And doesn't the introduction of concepts of RACE, CLASS, ETHNICITY, GENDER, absolutely require that something other than "coverage" has been going on? The article sites an artifact from 1898? Well, guess what? Back then we had a white male power narrative — in fact, academic historians openly discriminated against hiring blacks, women, even Jews in their departments and the historical narrative focused on “great men” doing “great things,” i.e. those in power — please read Andrew Delbanco's book: College: What is Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton 2012). I don’t know what straw man this study sites about what’s going on inside history survey courses, but it’s identical to the one post-structuralists used to flog back in the 1990s. Please give us more credit than that. It’s a fundamentally flawed (and prejudiced) view of the teaching of history. And besides, shouldn’t students learn things a bit chronologically in any case? Like women not being able to vote until 1920? Or child labor not made illegal in a court supported way until 1938? Or the lynchings that were rampant in the early 20th century all the way to the Emmett Till killing in 1956? Or a million other examples? Give me a break.

    • Lendol Calder

      Mr Palermo, a couple of questions. First, did you read the article you have such strong opinions about? Second, what evidence can you show for "a great variety in the teaching of US history survey courses" and why does your evidence trump that examined by Dan Cohen in his March 2005 JAH article on this question, which reported a depressing uniformity in how the survey is taught? Third, could you explain why you believe that research breakthroughs such as the new social history constitute evidence that survey teachers are up to speed on breakthroughs in the study of teaching and learning? I take it you disagree with the following claim by David Pace in the October 2004 AHR: "Our visions of historical actors have become much more complicated without this new complexity being reflected broadly in our knowledge about teaching and learning. Historians whose study of the past involves complex notions of the construction of self and other and of the relationship between knowledge and power often revert to a crude and naïve empiricism when they enter the realm of teaching, and this mismatch makes the inconsistencies between our knowledge about history and our knowledge about teaching history much more problematic than they were in earlier generations."

  • TBMichael

    I'm guessing that teaching someone how to "think like a historian" is much easier than making them responsible for a certain body of knowledge, including historian processes and historian practices. It's hard to "think like a historian" if you don't know all the things a historian knows, or at least have some idea of the mental discipline required to actually remember things and place them in your own context (much less the context devised by others).

    We have to be careful when "reform" starts sounding like "surrender". Our students (and our constituents) deserve better than surrender.

    • JPalermo

      I couldn't agree more TB — historians have been under attack at many institutions from people (such as the above article written by someone with a Ph.D. in "speech communication") who clearly do not understand the pedagogical, heuristic, or intellectual foundations of modern historical teaching — somehow they've got us pegged as if this is 1952 not 2012. I suggest these people sit down with a copy of E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (1963) and then email us for further readings after that before they make globalizing, totalizing claims about what's going on in the classroom as far as the teaching of the U.S. history survey is concerned.

      • Bill Goffe

        Here's a similar article by a historian: Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey http://www.iub.edu/~tchsotl/part3/calder%20uncove… .

        I might add that physicists have done a lot of theoretical and empirical work on getting students to think more like experts and they report some success at this by teaching with non-lecture methods. My favorite article outlining this is "Why Not Try a Scientific Approach to Science Education?"
        http://www.cwsei.ubc.ca/resources/files/Wieman-Ch… . Note that the author is both a Nobel Laureate and U.S. Professor of the Year (given for teaching). He's currently Deputy Science Adviser to the President.

  • Melissa

    As the original poster said, don't take this too personally being specifically aimed at history (her blog, not the original article). I teach introductory astronomy for non-major students at a public university. The intro class is a survey class, and the topics cover the entire universe (and its history, ha ha). Talk about having a lot of facts to cover! Traditionally an astronomy class like this is a lot of factual information dumped on the students, with possibly some gravity and light processes thrown in. But just like as was mentioned in the history class, students don't retain this information. It's not made interesting or relevant to them, although the pretty pictures make it more pleasant than some similar classes. I've struggled constantly to organize my class to focus on processes and evidence rather than facts, but it is a struggle. Students leaving the class being able to name Jupiter's moons is pretty useless, but students leaving the class having some idea of how scientists (specifically astronomers) use evidence to figure things out about the universe IS useful. I agree with the original poster that probably all disciplines have the issue of too much fact-covering and not enough understanding.

  • Bill

    You make a good point, Melissa, when you say "too much" fact-covering. Why must it be all-or-nothing? Certainly the application of facts in a problem-solving mode is a good way to get students to learn those facts, but with no oprevious factual background whatever, it would be very difficult for students to tackle any problem.
    As History teachers we try above all to get students to MAKE CONNECTIONS between the facts that they are learning; none of us believe that students can or should learn each specific fact in a vacuum. The inquiry, problem-solving model is a good way to have students make such connections, but there are others. Basic compare-and-contrast models and cause-and-effect chains are also good ways to get students to assemble facts into logical structures. Memorizing a specific location on a map by knowing WHAT HAPPENED at that location is another connection-making device. All long-term memory is built upon such connections.

  • In the _Journal of American History_ article discussed in this post, Joel Sipress and I do not criticize historians as "brain-dead positivists," nor do we knock over a "straw man" version of the survey course as JPalermo suggests (without having read the article). In fact, we acknowledge that the survey course has come a long way in recent decades, in part because of the rise of social history, women's history, and other bodies of scholarship focused on race, class, and gender. We argue, however, that both historical evidence and pedagogical research suggest that the college-level, general-education introductory history course could accomplish more real learning if we turn our attention away from transmitting expert knowledge (including not only simple facts but also more complex concepts) via the coverage model and instead designed the introductory history class to initiate students into historical argumentation as a disciplined way of thinking. To rethink the introductory course in this fashion is not at all to "surrender" (TBMichael) — in many ways it raises the standards. An argument-based course asks students to engage in authentic historical debates, and to do so they must be able to draw on evidence from primary and secondary sources, which means really grappling with the facts and concepts noted above. This kind of course needs to be rich in content. My intro students, for example, read books by Camilla Townsend, Gordon Wood, and Chandra Manning alongside secondary articles by other scholars and dozens of primary documents. We spend much of our time in class discussing historical interpretations and evidence. I have not built the class to "cover" everything important that happened between 1500 and 1877, but I might note that I do address all of the things from the 20th century that JPalermo mentions because they are connected to important issues that we discuss in class (even though they are outside of the time period we are officially "covering"). But I don't put too much stock in teaching by mentioning. There's a heap of evidence out there about how learning works, and it's time that we reckon with what it means for how we introduce college students to the study of history.

  • JPalermo

    There's still an implicit assumption on the part of the authors that there is something called the "coverage" mode thatl is pervasive and needs reforming because students aren't learning what is "important." Again, not only do most of us teach critical thinking and the historical method in survey courses we try to convey to students that central to historical thinking is the interpretation of meaning. Joyce Appleby et al. in Telling the Truth About History (1994) do a good job outlining this idea, which is not difficult to explain to undergrads. Take a topic like World War One — how can it be "covered" without discussing colonialism, nationalism, industrialism, capitalism, militarism, imperialism, and so on? How are students even to begin to understand the meaning of the world wars in the first part of the 20th Century without some grasp of these wider concepts? But there also must be "coverage" of a few tiny events like the Atomic bombing and the German genocide, right?

  • When we describe the "coverage model," what we are trying to get at is a general way of thinking about course design that can be expressed in lots of different ways. We even write about "coverage-plus," by which we mean a fairly traditional coverage-based class plus primary documents or other substantial sources. We would say that a course adheres to the "coverage model" if the primary design goal is to cover the key events and themes of a broad swath of time (and place). The important topics that you mention, JPalermo, can be summarily "covered" in the same way that basic events are covered. Or they can be explored as subjects open to historical interpretation. I think that the traditional intro course, tasked with "covering" from the American Civil War to the present, or from the French Revolution to the present, would have trouble doing justice to colonialism, nationalism, etc., and World War I. If the instructor is using a textbook (and perhaps primary documents chosen merely to illustrate rather than interpret) and is presenting these topics, then we would say that this is "coverage." If students instead are invited into a historical discourse — asked to formulate evidence-based arguments that engage with what historians have written about WWI, albeit at a novice level — then I think Joel and I would say that the course is structured to develop historical thinking. In order to get this sort of depth, I think that some coverage has to be laid aside. But to get students to engage with the past in this way (not only in discussions but also through other exams and assignments) seems well worth the price.

  • Lendol Calder

    David Voelker's and Joel Sipress' "The End of the History Survey" deserves its honors. The article also deserves critical responses, much more critical than the reactions so far by Palermo and Michael. I sympathize with their comments, though. I used to make similar faux-critical responses to the ideas of pedagogical reformers back when I was so focused on historical scholarship I didn't know disciplined inquiry into human cognition and post-secondary teaching and learning existed. Encountering this body of work the first time, I dismissed it as the drivel of educationists. But then I was struck by a question voiced by a scholarly hero of mine, the late Roland Marchand: "Why are historians so uncurious about student learning?" Historians will go to great lengths to master the literature on, say, race, class, and gender, but won't take 15 minutes to read a prize-winning article on teaching that promises to improve students' understanding of such things. Why the imbalance? The answer to Marchand's question isn't hard to figure out. Teaching is hard, frustrating, indeterminate work. Teachers respond to this by creating defenses that allow them to avoid confronting teaching, especially its most serious challenge, which is assuming appropriate responsibility for student learning. "I'm not responsible for learning," the harried teacher says. "I'm responsible for setting a table with intellectually rich content. If the students don't get it, that's their fault, not mine." Defense #2: "All pedagogical reform is crap." Defense #3: "If I mentioned it, that means they learned it." #4: "Teaching is a mysterious gift, a matter of individual style. What you do in your classroom and what I do in mine are the expressions of our individual choices. There is no right or wrong when it comes to style. If I try hard and mean well then I don't need to clarify and critically examine my assumptions about how people learn." Etc. I'm not accusing anyone of indulging all these defenses, though I certainly did in the early part of my career. I am calling for a more rigorous critical response to pedagogical reformers like Voelker and Sipress, which surely must begin with actually reading their stuff. If that's not too much to ask.

    as the issues raised in the article could not be more critical for the future of history and the history profession. The comments by Palermo and Michael seem I sympathize with the comments by

  • jsipress

    As a co-author of the article in question, I would encourage those who are critical to take a look. I would be very interested to hear responses to the actual piece. Speaking personally, I don't particularly identify with the post-modernist critique of the historical endeavor, which should be clear from reading the article.

    Having served on numerous search committees in my 18 years as a faculty member in History, I can confirm that the approach to the introducotry couse (regardless of specific content) remains dominated by a "coverage" approach that presumes that the primary purpose of the course is the transfer of expert knowledge from professor to student. While many within the field have struggled, with varying degrees of success, to break free from this approach, no systematic alternative has been able to topple coverage from its hegemonic position. All we are asking is that students in introductory history courses directly confront the types of questions and debates that define our discpline, that we demand that they apply their content knowledge to these questions and debates in a rigorous way, and that we help them learn how to do so.

  • Of Course

    First off, let me thank all of you for an excellent discussion here. I respect all your positions and am considering my own now. I teach English, but if I were to teach, say, history, I would think it important for students to know the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the past AND I would then bring a current situation in as comparison…to show releivance…to learn from the past.

    I think it is true that many of our supposedly educated students are woefully lacking in their knowledge of history, especially of this country's history. Of course just drilling students on dates and giving them one author's opinion as to why this or that may have happened is not enough, but I know our best history instructors don't do only that; they call for a discussion of past events, examining/speculating on causation carefully with students. I believe you get my drift at this point…. There's just so much more to being a good teacher.

    Now that I think of it, I see history as very similar to English…both deal with, and have a problem discerning between, fact and fiction…for a variety of reasons. Wallace Stevens comes to mind, "Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself." Can we ever get to the Truth? …the Reality? Does it matter? Nonetheless, there is a past!….nihilism be damned!

    Love you guys
    ; )