Michael Witgen has now taught the History of the American West for two semesters using his online interactive syllabus to structure the class as a combined discussion and lecture. He has observed an increase in student engagement and responsibility compared to classes he taught using the standard lecture model. The electronic syllabus, which includes links to primary and secondary sources and discussion questions, helps students better prepare for class as they develop analytical skills. The focus on primary sources encourages students to think like historians and juxtapose multiple documents to consider biases in order to interpret an event or understand a common ideology.
This format has been working well but we continue to make changes to further encourage class participation. First of all, in addition to class discussion, we added several short quizzes to force students to take more responsibility for the work. Next semester, Michael plans to add student feedback and grading to his system. The students are required to write three response papers during the semester. For one of these papers, Michael plans to provide a rubric and instruct students on how to give feedback and grade another student’s work. This will help students understand the necessary components of a good response paper and it will broaden their engagement with their peers. Furthermore, we plan to add a discussion section to our site that will foster student dialogue outside of the classroom. While the learning objects and online syllabus have helped increase participation and changed the ways students are learning about the material, we think these additional changes will maximize the potential of this class structure to engage students, increase participation, and provide them with skills that will be useful outside of the discipline of history.
Since this format had been successful in the History of the American West, we are now creating an electronic syllabus for Michael’s American Indian History class. Again, many of our learning objects are accessible through the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and various historical societies’ collections. There are additional learning objects to select from, such as the “Indians of the Midwest” through the Newberry Library and we look forward to working with new material.
Beyond our work on the course syllabus, we have shared our online syllabus at the meeting of the Society of Early Americanists, in Savannah, Georgia in early March. One of the graduate students on the History team presented the syllabus in a roundtable called “Using New Stuff to Think about Old Stuff: Teaching with Digital Archives.” The different presentations highlighted the importance of engaging students through digital archives, as we are doing with the History of the American West class. The discussion following the presentations underscored the need for institutional support—financial, but also connecting with people in different disciplines and in technical support departments—to successfully replicate the technologies we have used for this class.