U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Seminaring the Lecture Course

As followers of the blog know, I’m teaching US Intellectual History (1865 to the present) for the first time next semester. This is my first “lecture” course. I have taught seminar courses on historical methodology several times and I taught a unique hybrid of a course last year on South Africa, which incorporated films and special speakers.

I was chatting with our Director of Undergraduate Studies about the course yesterday and he encouraged me to seminar the lecture (in my words). He said its fine to go with my instincts to lead discussion, develop creative group activities, and in general work with, rather than against, the shorter attention spans of our current students. He said I wasn’t to feel like I needed to get up and lecture twice a week, or even once a week, for the whole 75 minutes. I was already planning to have a day of discussion devoted to the primary sources, but also planning to spend at least part of the week lecturing. I enjoy lecturing and I think I am an engaging lecturer (part of my acting background). I think students also enjoy the passiveness of lecture–some learn from it and others do not. That said, I was inspired and relieved that the DUS said I could treat a 40 person lecture more like a seminar.

What ideas do you all have to keep students engaged and learning in lecture courses? Some of the things I have thought about are as follows:

–Having students submit weekly reading responses
–Having students peer critique each other’s weekly reading responses.
–Lead discussion based on weekly reading responses
–Have students research the background of individual authors
–Have students develop the discussion questions for the week
–Each day, pull two students’ names out of the hat to ask the discussion questions for the day (from my friend and colleague Sophie Roberts)
–Throw up a quote from the reading on the powerpoint to start off the discussion
–Encourage students to make connections between readings by putting together groups where one person is responsible for each reading.
–Essays instead of content exams
–Group presentations

I know there are many more, but it’s back to grading for me!

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lauren,

    First, I’m surprised to hear that your DUS is getting this down and dirty in relation to your methodology. But perhaps you queried, and hence received the advice?

    40 students is definitely on, nay over, the edge where I’d want to lecture more to reduce my work. And since you feel you’re good at lecturing, I think you should follow that. Fostering discussion and grading (or even scanning) lots of papers may engage the short attention spans of students, but it creates lots of tedious accounting work for you.

    Otherwise, all of your ideas for engaging the students more are solid. Any one could work—so long as the students “buy in” and you’re totally confident in presenting it.

    I favor exercises that force “historical thinking.” I want students to connect primary documents to each other, as well as to whatever “spinal text” (i.e. secondary source/s) you use. The “Five Cs” are always a nice baseline for getting students to think historically.

    – TL

  2. “Seminaring”? Really? I am not convinced that is a cromulent word, nor that it will embiggen even the smallest of your students.

  3. I indeed queried. I’m always looking for feedback to improve my teaching and research. I asked him to look over my syllabus and offer suggestions.

    I’m curious–what are the “Five C’s?”

    I like the idea of incorporating a lot of discussion into my lectures–that works better when students have read. Perhaps it would be better to do surprise reading quizzes rather than weekly reading responses.

  4. Lauren,

    Your list of strategies looks good save one, group presentations. I have always hated group work and there is some recent research that shows it is ineffective as a tool for learning.

    On the plus side, you get fewer actual things to grade by cutting a 40 person class into 8 groups, and it can be argued that the quality of work might even be better as stronger students balance weaker ones. It can also be argued that some if not most of your students will go out into the working world and have to work on group projects so there may be a benefit for them to have this experience. But…

    Once in groups students tend to split up the work based on preexisting strengths (ie; the best writer does the writing, the best researcher does the research, etc.) so students rarely learn anything new or improve on their weaknesses. Additionally, the best students tend to take over and become de facto project managers because of their fear that they will be penalized for the shortcomings of the weaker students, so that the final project might be representative of the work of only a few people.

    I realize this may sound like I have an axe to grind and in reality I do. I never liked group work as a student, my best students have been almost universally opposed to group work in their other classes and have taken the time to express this to me (even though we do not do group work in my classes).

    Best of luck in your course.

    -Bryn Upton

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