Publication Date

April 1, 2009

During the past decade, our history department of 10 full-time faculty and approximately 180 majors has expanded its course offerings and devised innovative programs. This expansion led us to reexamine the department’s mission within a liberal arts college of 3,000 students. Our faculty agreed that we wanted graduating seniors to have a conceptual understanding of historical work—analyzing primary sources, weighing evidence, debating historical interpretations—but we had no culminating course in place with which to measure both student and departmental success. As a result, the department voted to implement a senior capstone course for all history majors beginning with the class of 2007. The following is an examination of how the introduction of a capstone course led to a comprehensive restructuring of our curriculum.

Some colleagues had taught capstone courses at other colleges, but implementing a capstone course from scratch was new to all of us. Anticipating challenges, we decided to do a dry run by offering the capstone as an elective the year before it became a required course for all majors. Although this was a self-selecting group of students, the dry run proved very beneficial. It became clear that students had to begin research from the first day of the semester; there was little time for assignments tangential to the major research project. Student evaluations revealed that few students felt adequately prepared to identify and analyze a large collection of primary source material. An encouraging sign, however, was that most students viewed the completion of the course as a particularly rewarding experience.

In its first year as a requirement, we made adjustments to the capstone course based on this feedback. Faculty directing the capstone met with students the semester prior to the course to get them thinking about topics. We also focused the first few weeks of the capstone more directly on techniques for researching, identifying, and evaluating primary sources. Yet as much as the course was being refined, we were surprised to discover that few of our students were equipped with the analytical skills to produce an advanced research paper, and too many students lacked strong writing skills. This led the department as a whole to reexamine our courses with an eye toward preparation for the capstone.

After two semesters of experience, we made some preliminary changes to the curriculum and our advisement process. Our first initiative was to institute a formal sophomore review. At Siena College, all students have an academic adviser. Our proposal was to ask all advisers in the history department to sit down with their advisees in the second semester of their sophomore year to review a portfolio of their written assignments in history. We asked students how they thought they had progressed based on their professors’ comments and offered additional help to students who needed it. We were surprised to learn that most students did not keep the papers that professors returned to them and so paid little attention to advice for improvement. Our insistence that students maintain a portfolio of all their papers and work to improve their skills based on comments from professors will, we hope, help to create a culture of skills development in the history department. The sophomore review also allowed the adviser to offer students advice on where to get additional help elsewhere in the college: Academic Advising, the Office for Learning Disabilities, the Writing and Tutoring Center, and the counselor’s office, for example.

Our next initiative was to introduce an entry and exit assessment to the capstone course. The entry assessment asked students to bring three written assignments to a meeting with their capstone instructor of record—their first history paper, their worst history paper, and their best history paper. Students were asked to provide a two-page analysis of their strong and weak points and an assessment of their improvement while at Siena. Students are only too aware of their strengths and weaknesses; this exercise raises instructor awareness of student needs and has helped shape a constructive relationship as student and professor work together on the capstone project. Students complete an exit assessment after they have completed their capstone paper that assesses the capstone course and their entire Siena College career. From such assessments, we are learning about students’ perspectives on the courses and assignments that helped them develop their skills and also getting suggestions from them for curricular improvement.

Such additional assessment tools have created changes in the history department’s curriculum and pedagogy far beyond our expectations. We have begun to reorient the courses we offer and the way we teach them. First of all, we have changed the course we call the Proseminar. Designed to teach methods and historiography to history majors, it was originally aimed at first-year students and sophomores as an introduction to the discipline of history. Listening to the seniors, however, we found that many of them never fully grasped the topics taught in the Proseminar so early in their careers. Further, trying to research and write a lengthy paper in one semester was more than some students could handle, and our attempts to get them to address the historiography of their topics went unheeded, simply for lack of time. The Proseminar will now be offered to juniors, and will allow them to begin the research for the topic they will write about in the capstone. Now as they enter the capstone, they will come with their heads full of methodology and a notebook full of solid secondary and primary sources.

The second change we made was to fill the students’ toolkit before they tackled a senior thesis, not during that process. Experience with the capstone showed that many students had little familiarity with writing a sophisticated bibliography, had little formal work analyzing primary sources, and lacked other basic aspects of the historian’s craft. As a department, we have re-examined the survey courses we teach, and now each of the required survey courses (e.g. U.S. History I and II and World History I and II) has a skill-based assignment embedded within it that all the faculty members include: an annotated bibliography, a formal book review, a primary source analysis, and the analysis of a journal article. In short, our course offerings, our pedagogy, and our advising have all changed, and improved, thanks to our experience teaching the capstone. We thought that requiring our majors to write a long paper based on primary sources would sharpen their skills; it has sharpened ours as well.

—Wendy Pojmann, Bruce Eelman, Barbara Reeves-Ellington, and Scott Taylor are faculty members in the history department of Siena College, in Loudonville, New York.

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