Historiography: Historians and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

Andrew Nurse

In the Fall of 2017, I had the good fortune to attend a regional workshop and conference on post-secondary teaching and learning, or as it now increasingly called: the scholarship of teaching and learning in higher education (STLHE). For me, the highlight of my weekend was watching a fawn walk in front of my car — seemingly without a care in the world – as I left Mount Saint Vincent University for lunch and some reflection. However, James Lang, the keynote speaker, was a close second. His talk was organized around a series of suggestions that were intended to make for more effective university-level teaching. His thinking was empirically grounded and focused on steps that could be taken with a minimum of fuss. It was also mercifully free of the buzzwords (like “learning styles”) that, to my mind, have done more to muddy the waters in discussions about university-level teaching than anything else. The rest of the conference was good too. It was lively, participants were enthusiastic and generous, and the sense of common mission – taking steps to improve university-level teaching – was palpable. I left wanting more. Perhaps, the fawn was a good omen.

Fawn in a parking lot.
The good omen fawn. Photograph by author.

Later, as I drove home, I began to think about who had attended the conference. A broad range of disciplines were represented: literary critics, biologists, mathematicians, chemists, business professionals, kinesiologists, and a long list of others. Cognitive scientists and teaching centre staff were over represented, but as I thought about, that made sense. This was their gig. What struck me, as I thought about it, was that there were few historians in the room, at least in the sessions I attended. Why was this?  

It is not, as sessions at the CHA, this series of blog posts, or even Active History itself illustrate, that historians are uninterested in the university classroom. Quite the opposite In fact, the debate that has periodically polarized this generation of historians is over what is being taught and what is being learnt. Moreover, as Daniel Ross’s recent post illustrates, historians have not been slow to adopt new techniques, materials, ideals, and media to the university history classroom. Said differently, the historical discipline is not populated with fuzzy old recalcitrant educators being pulled against their will into the future of teaching and learning. Perhaps, it is precisely the regular ongoing engagement with teaching and learning that is part of the historical discipline that explains why historians have, in Canada at least, not been key contributors to the scholarship of teaching and learning. In their own discipline, historians are addressing issues of teaching and learning all the time. Yet, the distinction remained. Even historians and history educators don’t seem to run in the same circles. Few academic historians, for instance, (and mea culpa!) seem to attend the Historical Thinking Summer Institutes.

What I’d like to do in this piece is to argue that the scholarship of teaching and learning has something to offer historians as university-level instructors and, equally importantly, something to which historians can and should contribute. The STLHE will not revolutionize the university-level teaching of history. Our students will not all suddenly start producing A-level work. But, as James Lang suggests, it can contribute a series of small changes that enhance what we do in the classroom.

“Classroom Practices”: Historians and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

A lecture hall with wooden chairs
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

To begin, I’d like to focus a bit more about what the STLHE is and provide some resources, that I hope will be useful. I’ll also try to suggest how historians can and should contribute to the broader conversation of STLHE.  I am not an expert on the STLHE, but from what I can tell it is more than a bit of a broad grab bag. On its highest level it represents an effort to bring greater intentionality, evidence-based practice, and professionalism to teaching and learning. Put differently, the STLHE logics like this: we have a bunch of research from educators, cognitive psychologists, and others that clearly relates to post-secondary education. Why don’t we make use of this research? If we have studies that point to more effective ways to organize class time or more effective study habits or better testing strategies (better in the sense of contributing to learning objectives), why neglect these? This is the type of STLHE that interests me: what can I do, as an instructor, to improve my students educational experience and performance. What strategies can I use to help students learn more?

However, this is not all there is to the STLHE.  The STLHE addresses a broad range of topics, from teaching specific concepts to student motivations to problem-centered learning, among others. In short, the STLHE is an interdisciplinary field but one which simultaneously bears specific focus. Professional writing in the STLHE is affected by the disciplines that make the most sustained contributions. The role of professional educators and cognitive psychology, for example, is evident from even a quick review of its leading periodicals and that was my experience, too. Participants in the sessions I attended came from a variety of disciplines, but folks who taught skill-oriented courses (communications, reading, remedial science or math), along with staff from teaching centres, seemed over-represented.  Said differently, much of the discussion was valuable but also needed to modified for the university-level history classroom.

In my view,  this is a bit of a shame because, I think, historians have something to offer to the STLHE ,and they have, I might be so bold as to say, been offering it for some time, just in another guise.  The STLHE is not about separating good instructors from bad ones. Indeed, to attempt to make it about some sort of ranking of instructors or their techniques does a deep disservice to its goals. Let me be clear about this: the STLHE does not provide supporting scholarship that can be used to, say, justify denying tenure to anyone on the basis of poor teaching. It is about providing means through which post-secondary instructors can make their own work more effective. Here, historians teaching in universities could make two contributions.  

First, we bring an historical perspective to the subject. The fact that the evidence suggests that certain classroom strategies or tactics can work better than others needs to be placed in a temporal perspective. Historians have seen, researched, and written about, the history of educational reform. Historians have written extensively about the changing roles and dynamics of higher education. Conceptions of effective teaching relate to their context and depends on how one thinks about other social objectives. What supposedly new ideas are actually not all that new? Where did seemingly new educational ideas come from? How are they connected to cultural, gender, political, and economic processes? In this regards, James Cairns’ fascinating new book, The Myth of the Age of Entitlement, provides important context when it comes to looking squarely at neoliberal post-secondary policies and their effects on higher education and its goals. In showing how changes to teaching can be linked to broader historical processes – in ways that both challenge and reaffirm neoliberalism – historians can contribute a different kind of voice to the STLHE.   

Second, and again like Daniel Ross’s piece suggests, historians can contribute case studies to the literature. One might hope, in fact, that this series will stimulate more case study contributions. What have we tried that has worked? What has not? How have we measured that work? What excites our students? What does not? What skills are we trying to built in the classroom? What habits of mind do we seek to promote? What ethics do we strive to inculcate? How do we encourage students to think about issues from a temporal perspective the includes a range of contributing causal factors? How could we historicize our own context?  

The need to address racialized and racializing dynamics of colonialism, for instance, and to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations might serve as cases in point. Both orders of contributions I think historians can make to the STLHE involve a different set of educational objectives for higher education than were overtly being addressed even a few years ago. They involve different educational strategies, different voices, and different perspectives. This is something that is, from what I can tell, not on the agenda of the STLHE and it would be an important contribution of historians were to put it there.  

“Ditch the Highlighter”: What the Research Suggests about Teaching and Learning in Higher Education

Lego storm trooper holding a paintbrush next to an easel.
Photo by Daniel Cheung on Unsplash

The question remains: how can we — how should we — teach history at the university level? This question has been the subject of a great deal of discussion. The perspective that I’m trying to introduce here is influenced by the scholarship of teaching and learning in higher education (STLHE). If the STLHE is about evidence-based changes that can make for more effective university-based teaching, what are changes that historians can make? James Lang’s Small Teaching is an easy and accessible guide. His blog and periodic column in The Chronicle of Higher Education provide a set of nicely-organized suggestions that can point university instructors toward STLHE-informed educational strategies. These suggestions are not a series of tips per se, or even best practices, but what Lang calls “classroom practices,” or ways in which we can reorganize classroom time and pedagogy guided by research into teaching and learning. Following some of Lang’s work, let me suggest three small changes to classroom practice that seem to make a difference in learning. You might already have implemented these changes, or some variant of them. If this is the case … good! I hope I can provide some positive reinforcement.

First, the according to Lang, the STLHE  suggests that we should make better use of the first few minutes of a class. I’ve tried a whole series of different ways of starting class, from what I had hoped were stirring — nay, arresting — opening words, to due date reminders, announcements about co-curricular activities, admonitions or congratulations about test or paper scores, to explanations of assignments. Lang thinks we don’t make good use of the beginning of class time, particularly in the age of social media, when students come to class already distracted by the gadgets in their hands. I’m not certain any of my ways of starting class are bad, but the research we have suggests that a more effective way to begin class is to get students thinking right away. Begin with what a colleague of mine calls “orienting questions” and don’t just use those questions as an outline. Have students take a few minutes to work in, say, pairs or small groups to answer them.

This practice has several merits. It allows students to begin thinking about the material or issues that will be addressed in that class and gives the instructor a rough overview of the state of knowledge, giving us a better chance of pitching, say, a lecture at the right level. Obviously we already come to class with lectures prepared, but some subtle adjustments are always needed — no two lectures are ever exactly alike. More importantly, it allows students to activate any knowledge they already have and build on (or challenge) it, or connect it to material they may have previously learnt. Regardless, it begins of process of making a class — a lecture, a lecture/discussion, a seminar —  about thinking, addressing issues, and fitting things together, rather than simply dropping a knowledge bomb. At this point you are already ahead of the game.

Additionally having students write down their answers seems to help, and this is the second point I want to make. The STLHE suggests that there are way of improving factual recall. At Mount Allison, we used to have long discussions about whether we were teaching ‘facts” or “critical thinking.” If you pause to think about for a bit, this is actually more than a bit of an artificial distinction. I agree with Tom Peace: we should not pretend that a straightforward narrative built around supposed “great men” — and recalling facts about their lives —  is somehow Canadian history. Much less do I like those polls that periodically pop up in the newspapers telling us that Canadians don’t really know their history because they can’t name a certain Prime Minister or a World War I battle. This is more akin to trivial pursuit than it is university-level history education.

On the other hand, the ability to recall factual information is important because this information is the precondition of critical thinking, analysis, and challenging or confirming different perspectives on the past. Knowing precisely when an important event occurred may not be important in and of itself but it can be important for a discussion of the processes that led to that event, say Confederation, the progress of suffrage, or the various facets of colonialism and marginalization that produced the long-term subjugation of Original Peoples. These are examples, the point is that knowing these “facts” helps us fashion narratives and analysis. They provide the basis upon which we might, say, question the triumphant narratives of Canada that surrounded us during Canada 150.

Most students don’t like trying to recall facts — most, in my experience, dismiss it as a form of education — and there is a good reason for that. Most of us are really bad at it because we go about doing it the wrong way. We try to recall facts in isolation as a parade of names and dates that are of supposed significance by themselves. Moreover, as James Lang has noted, common student study strategies — highlighting texts and re-reading textbooks — are really ineffective ways to promote recall. More effective methods put those facts in context. Self-testing — that is making up ways of testing yourself that allow for knowledge recall — is one method that can be successful, but rewriting notes, mind-mapping (to provide connections between facts, events, people, and processes), and content review are also useful tactics.  As many of us can attest, cramming does little to promote long-term knowledge or help make the types of connections out of which critical thinking and analysis emerge. Encouraging material review, or even making time for it in class, can facilitate the types of learning — the interaction of fact and process and persons — that we want to promote in our classrooms.

To my third point: we must make better use of the last few minutes of class time.  This is a particular weakness of mine: I run long and, consequently, the last few minutes of my classes are often rushed affairs. If I have the big-class lecture that semester (something which is far from ideal but which is also a reality of the contemporary university), it tends to be even more so, as I strive to “cover” material and “keep on track.” This may not be a very good use of time.  My students, at least, don’t seem to think so. I can tell because they start to shuffle in their seats, close their laptops, glance less furtively at their iPhones, or begin to chat about something other than class material to the person sitting next to them. Instead of trying to hold their attention even as it wanes, a more effective approach is to get students thinking again. Lang suggests the “minute paper” as one way to close out the class and, in one of his columns, explains it like this: “The minute paper comes in many variations, but the simplest one involves wrapping up the formal class period a few minutes early and posing two questions to your students:

  • What was the most important thing you learned today
  • What questions still remain in our mind?”

This encourages students to recall material, translate into their own words, reflect on what they have learnt and still need to learn, and make judgements about what was discussed.

I am acutely aware that the practices I am suggesting add more work to what we do in the classroom, even if I have billed them as small changes. In the modern university, we need to know that the burden of added work falls unevenly across classroom instructors. Faculty who are sessional instructors or on limited term contracts already often have more work than they can handle as they navigate the precarious employment market of the neoliberal university. Asking them to make further changes, to add work, to become more intentional begs more than a few questions about ethics and compensation so I want to state this point clearly: I am not trying to make more work for people who are already underpaid. Indeed, ideally, the opposite development might happen. If we think about the need for more intentional design with regard to classroom practices, the time taken to develop these should be part of the compensation of precariously employed instructors. If it is not, well, then as institutions we are not really making a commitment to more effective teaching. And, that would be a real shame because the STLHE is at a point where we can, I think, start to have this conversation.

Additional STLHE Resources:


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Beyond The Lecture: Innovations in Teaching Canadian History Copyright © 2019 by Andrea Eidinger and Krista McCracken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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