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.