Publication Date

January 1, 1989

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning, Undergraduate Education


  • World

I have taught the required history survey course for twenty-five years with mixed results. During this time, both its content and the background of the students to whom it was offered have changed markedly.

The greatest difficulties I encounter are too much material (hence the need to skim superficially over the surface); inadequate textbooks overloaded with trivial, pedantic information; a mechanical approach to studying often learned in high school; and the consequent boredom of most students who have no personal interest in history.

In 1986–87, I participated in a Cognitive Skills Project at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University. The discussions in a weekly faculty seminar and released time helped me review the problems of teaching a broad historical survey at an institution where largely minority and/or foreign-born students are vocationally oriented and ill-prepared for college.

Before restructuring the world civilizations course, I redefined my purpose as developing students’ ability to read, discuss, and write about the past, stressing communications skills, and deemphasizing the accumulation of factual data for the sake of the students.

Abandoning a rigidly chronological approach, I used as an organizing principle the theory that civilizations develop in stages and that most societies evolve in a similar fashion. The class, I decided, would first look at prehistoric society. Then, even though civilizations did not begin simultaneously everywhere, students would read about the origins of two or three different civilizations and compare the historical process at work. The same treatment would be given to other major stages of pre-modern world history: urbanization; development of religions or world views; empire building; invasion and assimilation of outsiders; recovery and stabilization; and first steps toward a world civilization. Which civilization would be discussed at any stage would depend on its ability to illustrate the characteristics of the period and provide a model for comparison.

Finding a textbook amenable to such treatment was difficult. Since the Cognitive Skills Project students came out of our remedial program, I chose the short text, The Human Venture: The Great Enterprise: A World History to 1500, by Anthony Esler, that had a socioeconomic rather than a political-philosophical approach. I also selected two issues of National Geographic in order to expose students to longer discussions of specific topics.

Looking for an approach that would develop students’ ability to think critically about historical material, I decided to focus on explaining changes rather than specific events or figures. Students would be introduced to the idea that all societies are made up of social, economic, cultural, political, and religious institutions. In all class discussions and written assignments students would be expected to use institutions to describe past civilizations, trace social evolution and change through institutional change, and compare societies by their institutions. Institutions then would provide the basis for students to use for interpreting stages of development, (for example, by comparing political structures; by explaining the direction that change takes [such as through the use of technological innovations]; and by attributing significance to past events in terms of institutional impact).

Cognitive skills to be developed during the semester were: to become aware of how we know history; to ask what sources are available for each stage of civilization; and to see how societies develop different perspectives, depending on both their past and such external conditions as geography, climate, and resources. I hoped that by the end of the semester students would be able to criticize other observers’ (historians) theories about how and why a society developed by taking a look at their methods, evidence, and assumptions.

On the first day of my classes, I usually had detailed study guides, listing questions to be discussed and techniques to be developed. This time I decided to distribute only a brief overview of the semester’s work and a list of due dates for written assignments. I would develop separate study guides for each unit building on class experience. Students’ grades would be based on essays, tests composed of essay questions and identifications, and group participation.

Because a few students generally dominate discussions and many do not profit from lectures, I decided occasionally to use collaborative learning techniques. For each stage in the evolution of civilizations, the entire class would study and discuss one “master” civilization, one about which the most is known or in which they had the most interest. Then for one or two sessions, the class would divide into several groups, each of which would read about another civilization at the same stage. During the class the groups would discuss their reading among themselves, and the instructor would circulate among them to answer questions and participate in discussions. Then each group would summarize its findings for the class; all students would be expected to know this information.

In the fall of 1986 I implemented these ideas in two very different classes: one small day section that met one hour three times a week in which fourteen of the seventeen students were enrolled in our remedial program; the other a once-weekly two and a half hour night section with thirty-three students who ranged from outstanding to apathetic to unprepared. When possible, both classes were given identical assignments.

To start, I gave students an issue of National Geographic, 168, 1985, devoted largely to prehistoric man. Unlike most in this journal, the articles, “The Search for Our Ancestors,” by Kenneth Weaner, Jay Maternes, and David L. Brill and “Homo Erectus Unearthed,” by Richard Leakey, Alan Walker, and David Brill, used many technical terms that remedial students could not follow. I therefore required them to read only the boxed feature sections, illustrations, charts and captions, although I recommended reading the complete articles.

Several of the day students were Pentecostals who refused to consider the concept of human evolution. Since my purpose was to teach about nonwritten sources of history, I left the issue of biological evolution to their anthropology class and presented a slide lecture on how archaeologists uncover and interpret information about prehistoric man. In this lecture I briefly surveyed what we learn from various types of artifacts. Then I showed slides of work scenes and findings from an art historical dig in which I had participated. Students were fascinated by the idea that we learn directly from physical evidence and need not take someone else’s word; they asked many questions and throughout the semester remained aware of the issues of sources and interpretation of evidence.

I did not assign primary sources in the first part of the semester; stilted language or excessive length precludes using such material as Gilgamesh, Egyptian inscriptions, or Greek tragedies. Late in the course I gave the students Henry VI of England’s description of Joan of Arc’s trial and asked them to compare it with the textbook account. Their self-confidence increased when they found that not only could they discover contradictions, but they could figure out why King Henry, although an eye witness, was an unreliable source.

High among my goals was the desire to train students to view societies institutionally and use institutions to compare civilizations. Early in the semester they wrote in class a description of a civilization based on its institutions, and for their first paper compared two civilizations. All students who successfully completed the course understood the institutional approach.

I also wanted students to look behind authors’ words to their intentions, and I devised two exercises in which students would identify and criticize interpretations. For the first of these exercises, I summarized four theories about the fall of the Roman Empire, trying to avoid editorial comment and insure that the different theses were clear. After discussing the theories in class, I assigned an essay in which students were to select the most plausible one and justify their choice, based on evidence from their text.

Most students successfully completed the Roman Empire assignment. The more able ones grasped the difference between a descriptive statement and an interpretive one, a skill that we had practiced in class by analyzing whether quotations cited in the text were fact or opinion. As long as the differences between interpretations were obvious, students were able to criticize weak ones on the basis of the author’s assumptions, methods, or internal contradictions. Writing an essay in which they looked for assumptions and evidence and exercised their own judgement signaled to the students that these were skills they were expected to master.

I was, however, dissatisfied with the Roman Empire assignment because the theories were “predigested” and the weaknesses rather obvious. Consequently, I devised a more difficult exercise. Students were given an issue of National Geographic which described several scientists’ efforts to trace Christopher Columbus’ exact route. Joseph Judge and James L. Stanfield, “The Island of Landfall,” and Luis Marden “Tracking Columbus Across the Atlantic,” National Geographic 170 (1986). In class we discussed the role played by such disciplines as geography, archeology, and marine sciences in historical investigations. Students were assigned a paper in which they discussed whether Columbus’ route merited study and how scientists attempt to resolve such a controversy. Then they were given a short critique of the National Geographic Study, “Columbus was Here. Or was He?,” by Mark Cherrington, Expedition News: Quarterly Earthwatch Report (November 1986), and for their final exam were asked to explain which conclusion they accepted, that of the National Geographic or its critics. I advised them that this problem resembles the Roman Empire exercise in that they had to select among alternative interpretations on the basis of evidence from their readings. Most students expended considerable effort in understanding the National Geographic theory and thus had a vested interest in it. Some believed themselves incapable of judging the critique because it lacked supporting details, but a few looked carefully at the arguments raised by the critics and evaluated them according to clearly defined criteria.

Students in the two sections responded differently. The day students followed the skill-development scheme more readily, expressed enthusiasm, and attended regularly. All fifteen day students who completed the course performed satisfactorily; there was one “earned” failure among the night students.

I found the emphasis on writing and communication skills to be worthwhile, as was the decision to deemphasize the accumulation of historical facts. The students’ ability to communicate about history improved markedly, and several developed an interest in the subject. By the end of the semester, frequent writing assignments had accustomed students to describing civilizations and institutional terms. Thinking clearly and writing coherently are connected and, because I also teach English composition, I used the same techniques and standards for criticizing these papers as for English assignments. By the end of the semester most students were able to write credible descriptive, comparative, and critical essays.

The collaborative learning technique was less successful, however. The day students could not complete their work in one hour. Some groups failed to work together; members frequently were unprepared and used the time allotted for discussion to read the assignment. Because students failed to take their colleagues seriously, they neither paid careful attention to the reports nor asked questions.

Collaborative learning worked fairly well in the night section, where groups could meet for a longer period and all could present their reports in the same session. Perhaps maturity and increased responsibility were additional reasons why the night students worked together more successfully. In small groups, they asked questions and raised issues that they hesitated to bring up before the entire class. In their papers, some compared the information given in reports to the civilizations that had served as models.

On the whole, I believe that small groups cannot effectively impart information to the rest of the class. But because small group discussions discourage dependence on articulate students and encourage broad participation, they should be used for discussing interpretations and controversial points.

The text presented a final problem. Its brevity did not compensate for its subtlety. The author’s literary allusions confused and frustrated students whose native language was not English. Occasionally I assigned chapters from another text by Edward McNall Burns, Philip Lee Ralph, Robert E. Lerner, and Standish Meacham, World Civilizations: Their History and Their Culture (1986) which, although considerably longer, students understood better and willingly read.

In the spring of 1987, I taught a modified version of this course to a larger day section of twenty-nine students. Of the innovations adopted in the fall, I retained the emphasis on writing and interpreting skills and the requirement that students write two or three essays at home (that semester, a comparison between two civilizations, and a Roman Empire and a Chacoa Indian exercise). I assigned short accounts of recent scientific explorations illustrating how discoveries affect our understanding of the past. Another text that focuses on social and institutional history and falls within our students’ linguistic abilities was used. John P. McKay, Bennett D. Hill and John Buckler, A History of World Societies I to 1715. Finally, the exercise on the Roman Empire was rewritten to make it more sophisticated and students were required to view a museum exhibit on Southwestern American Indians to develop their own interpretation of a civilization that was not discussed in class.

I have continued to experiment with this format, even though the spring 1987 changes solved some problems. For example, I have changed the order of the written assignments to postpone looking at historical interpretations until the end of the semester. The Roman Empire is a “natural” for such an exercise, but it is better to wait until students are equipped to handle such a difficult task. On the basis of this ongoing experiment, I believe that the overall goal of merging cognitive and historical skills is a realistic one, worthy of further development.

Ruth F. Necheles-Jansyn is a professor of history at Long Island University (Brooklyn Campus). Having earned her PhD from the University of Chicago, she has taught for 27 years. Most of her publications discuss the career of the revolutionary French cleric, the Abbe Gregoire; she pursues archeology as a hobby.