Publication Date

December 16, 2019

Perspectives Section


Introductory college history courses must address a critical, if sometimes conflicting, set of priorities. We want to introduce majors to the work of the discipline and prepare them for upper-level work. At the same time, we hope to instill specific lessons and skills in a mostly general education audience of nonmajors, most of whom are taking their first and (despite our best efforts) last college-level history course. And, of course, we also have historical content to cover. That’s a lot for a single semester, and all the more so because students arrive in our classrooms with varying skill levels. Some have worked extensively with primary sources in high school, but others can’t define the term. Some have been introduced to historiography and the concept of history as a conversation and debate, and others think they’re going to spend fifteen weeks memorizing names, dates, and places. How can we get all of these students on the same page, ready for the work they will do, and still have time to explore conversations about the past?

Online modules do not replace our work in the classroom but rather serve as a springboard for and supplement to it.

Online modules do not replace our work in the classroom but rather serve as a springboard for and supplement to it. Joseph M. Adelman.

In the Framingham State University history department, we have become converts to the use of online modules to introduce and reinforce historical thinking and writing skills. With funding and support from the university’s Center for Academic Success and Achievement, we worked in collaboration with one another and our university’s Education Technology Office to create a set of online modules that reside on the university’s learning management system (such as Blackboard or Canvas). Each module comprises a 20- to 30-minute presentation, narrated by one of us, with an accompanying slideshow. A brief multiple-choice quiz accompanies each module, which faculty can choose to use to assess student engagement with the modules and to further discussion of history skills. These modules have helped us make great strides in bringing students up to speed on how to do work in history courses and have also helped us create a unified message as a department. They do not replace our work in the classroom but rather serve as a springboard for and supplement to it.

The six modules cover a variety of vital historical thinking and writing skills:

  • Introduction to History: What Is It, Why Study It, and How to Succeed in Class
  • How to Read a Primary Source
  • Understanding Secondary Sources
  • Writing an Effective History Paper
  • Writing about History . . . in Your Own Words: or, “What Is Plagiarism and How to Avoid It”
  • Citing Sources Using the Chicago Manual of Style

In developing these new online modules, a single faculty member took the lead to draft a script and slideshow for each module, and then we (the authors, plus our colleague Bridgette Sheridan) worked together to revise and refine them all. This stage provided one of the unexpected benefits of the project. We learned a considerable amount about our colleagues’ pedagogy and terminology, and our discussions have helped us align and improve our collective presentation of these concepts, both in the modules and in our classrooms.

The modules have helped us make great strides in bringing students up to speed on how to do work in history courses and have helped us create a unified message as a department.

For several years, our department tried teaching similar lessons during in-person sessions, but both students and faculty struggled to fit these workshops into their busy schedules. Additionally, scheduling sessions for the start of the “spring” semester in New England often led to snow-related headaches. Placing these workshops online offered numerous advantages over the in-person iterations. First and foremost, it’s now much easier for students to complete the workshops, especially at a campus with a large number of students who commute, work, or have other commitments off campus. The completion rate increased significantly compared to an earlier in-person version of the workshops (from 65–75% to 80–90%). Even better, students have found the online modules more helpful than their predecessors did the live workshops. In end-of-semester surveys, they report much higher satisfaction with the modules and report that the modules clearly connect to course materials. The modules also provide much better service to our online students, a significant number of whom rarely, if ever, come to campus and for whom an in-person workshop was simply a nonstarter.

The flexibility offered by online modules also makes them more useful and relevant for students. Faculty members can choose which modules to include in each course and introduce skills at a point appropriate to their course syllabus. Some of us, for example, begin our introductory courses with more primary sources and introduce secondary sources at mid-semester. Some emphasize writing assignments to a greater degree. We have variable policies about which citation style students should employ. Now we can place a module at the point where it makes the most sense, rather than introducing everything to students all at once regardless of how an individual course operates. And we can use only those modules relevant to the course—most of us, in fact, do not assign all six in any one course. Because the modules are always available, students can also return to relevant presentations when they need to. For example, students seem to do repeat work with the modules on writing papers and on citation (each averages over two views per student), and we as faculty are able to refer students to modules that might help them individually.

We expected or hoped for those results, but the modules have also worked in unanticipated ways. Though we designed them for an audience of students taking their first-ever history course, many of us make the modules available as an option in upper-level courses for majors, and those students also report using modules at a high rate for skills reinforcement (again, the Chicago Manual presentation is very popular). We can also reinforce very specific points during upper-level classes by queueing short clips during class sessions for discussion or elaboration, without requiring that they watch the whole thing again. In this way, we reinforce that we expect students to build upon and revisit these concepts across their college careers—and that all history faculty are in agreement. To our delight, the modules have also proven helpful in enabling transfer students, those returning from a leave of absence, and others who have been away from history coursework for some time to reengage with the discipline and its practices.

Collaboration has been an especially helpful part of the process because it prompted us to have focused conversations about pedagogy and skills.

Based on our experience, we’d encourage other departments to explore the creation of online modules to address common skills. Collaboration has been an especially helpful part of the process because it prompted us to have focused conversations about pedagogy and skills. It also helped us standardize our language and the language in the modules to prepare our majors and other students for additional coursework. For departments that choose to pursue similar modules, we have found that they are most effective with specific direct tie-ins and follow-ups in class sessions. Among our faculty, typical tie-ins include reviewing the results of assessment quizzes with students during class, rewatching clips for skills that have proven difficult for a group of students to master, and referencing one or more modules in an assignment prompt.

We’ve also learned about several limitations of this model. In the first version of the modules, the software application did not permit as much interactive learning as we would like. Recent changes to the software now permit us to embed questions within the videos. We are now exploring this option in the hope that it will encourage students to be more attentive to the tutorials themselves. Through the fall 2018 semester, only about half of students watched the modules all the way through (though that includes the upper-level students who were more likely to drop in for refreshers). An interactive module would be considerably more useful by engaging students in what they are learning and assessing their progress as they go along. And of course, doing these modules does not eliminate the need for in-class work to review and reinforce these lessons.

That said, we encourage faculty in other departments to consider using brief, skills-based online workshops for introductory courses and as a supplemental resource for upper-division courses. The workshops serve as a way to bring students up to a basic level of proficiency, regardless of their high school history experience. For larger departments, and especially those with significant turnover in instructors, these modules offer the opportunity to provide a consistent language among faculty, as well as creating meaningful collaboration and a recalibration of department objectives. Having that common set of terms and thinking can help an onboarding faculty member catch up quickly with the norms and expectations of the department. And the collaborative process has value on its own. This work has greatly enriched the conversations in our department about teaching introductory courses in a variety of ways beyond these modules.

Sarah Mulhall Adelman, Joseph M. Adelman, Lori Gemeiner Bihler, Maria Alessandra Bollettino, and Stefan Papaioannou are associate professors of history at Framingham State University, whose areas of research are family and childhood in the United States, early American politics and communication, Jewish immigration, war and slavery in the Atlantic world, and the early twentieth-century Balkans, respectively.

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