Publication Date

November 1, 2015

AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning, Undergraduate Education


Teaching Methods

“My parents won’t pay for a history degree, so now I’m in engineering.” This is the kind of statement I have been hearing from students more frequently over the last couple of years, and it has changed the way I design and teach my history courses. Historians avow that we teach “critical thinking skills,” but these are often vaguely defined. So how do I present, enact, and finally measure critical thinking as a skill? The AHA Tuning project has been working to address this issue, articulating the skills history courses teach and explaining the specific tasks associated with them. Still, humanities disciplines have been lampooned in the media, primarily by politicians who no longer want to use government money to subsidize humanities majors. As Time magazine reported in 2013, North Carolina governor Patrick McCrory said, “If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine. Go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.” History courses do, in fact, teach invaluable skills that can be employed in any number of fields in the workforce, but we as professors must do a better job of making this explicit to our students, to the community outside university walls, and even to ourselves when we are designing courses. One way we can do this is by identifying, modeling, and practicing these skills in the classroom, and by showing our students how the skills they are developing can be useful in the marketplace.

Piecing It Together

The jigsaw technique was originally developed to teach communications skills, but it also promotes critical thinking. Team members help one another take apart a problem. Then teams are reshuffled into mixed groups, where group members teach everyone else what they learned. No information about limits on reusing this item have been recorded.

The jigsaw technique was originally developed to teach communications skills, but it also promotes critical thinking. Team members help one another take apart a problem. Then teams are reshuffled into mixed groups, where group members teach everyone else what they learned.

The jigsaw technique is one of my favorite tools for setting up situations in which students can actively practice critical thinking skills. In the traditional jigsaw model, the instructor divides a daily assignment into smaller parts, placing students into small groups that each complete one aspect of the assignment. Students then shuffle groups, creating a new group in which an “expert” on each respective part of the assignment leads a discussion. The students thus teach their group, collaborating on all parts of the assignment.1

Two specific skills my history courses address are contextualizing primary sources with detail and using that information as evidence in a larger historical argument. To practice these skills in class, students participate in the jigsaw with my own twist: instead of the professor creating the topics, questions, or assignments based on the course material, students must identify the key themes. They come to class with what they see as the most important quote or passage from the reading, the course theme it is connected to, and one or two prepared discussion questions. I divide the students’ questions into groups according to theme (such as gender or economics), then the students develop responses to one another’s analytical questions. In their group’s response, they must choose at least two key passages or examples from their sources as evidence to support their larger argument, as well as an example from a different primary source that we have encountered. They then shuffle groups, explaining to their next cluster what their previous group had argued. There is no “assignment” to complete or puzzle over together; it is simply a way for me to carefully structure a productive discussion and allow students to practice valuable skills: identifying and contextualizing key information, using evidence to construct arguments, and organizing and conveying information. I see these skills listed on job advertisements in a variety of fields, and my students understand that we are intentionally honing those skills in part to increase their employability.

Solving “Modern Mary”

In my upper-division course on the history and traditions surrounding the Virgin Mary, students consider textual and visual representations of Mary in various periods and cultures. After reading an article on contemporary Marian pilgrimages, one student submitted the question “What is modernity? The authors say that Mary is both reacting against and working with modernity. How does she do this?” This question led students to look more closely at how the authors implicitly defined modernity, and they collectively highlighted a few sentences from the article as evidence of what the authors might mean. They also looked up descriptions of “modernity” themselves, discovering firsthand the slipperiness of scholarly categories. This brief process not only helped them hone their research and analytical reading skills, it also helped them learn how to delve deeper into the course material and make meaning from it. When one of the students began explaining her home group’s response to her “teaching” group, the students began to build on the original argument, making connections between the examples in the article and other examples they had come across in class. They drew on a variety of genres, noting that several examples of “premodern” Marian devotions we covered had “modern” qualities, according to the authors’ definition, and concluded that many of the rituals and ceremonies they were unfamiliar with were quite sophisticated and complex in the way they negotiated power. I could have explained these points in a lecture or even led them there through a close reading during a whole-group discussion, but using the jigsaw activity made up of their own questions and arguments provided the key information and allowed them to practice the skills of identifying, analyzing, and communicating that information on their own.

After the discussion, I often ask the students to complete self and peer evaluations of the arguments constructed that day, allowing them to identify and evaluate the skills we addressed. We ask specific questions (for example, what sources or genres did you choose today and why? What main course theme did you address? Were the connections sound? Could you identify an original argument?), and these help them scrutinize their ability to analyze texts and other primary sources critically and empathetically while addressing issues of genre, content, perspective, and purpose. Dealing with content focused on cultures, societies, and human behavior requires the ability to identify key information, analyze events and ideas from several perspectives, and organize and present ideas effectively. By making these tasks explicit, talking through these skills together, and receiving immediate evaluations from their peers and myself, my students are prepared to compose a more extensive written assignment or exam that calls for an appreciation of the complexity and diversity of situations, events, and past mentalities.

Because teaching makes us better, more active learners, many of my students chose to focus their larger writing assignment on the topic they had taught during the jigsaw. Some students were resistant to the jigsaw structure. “I would rather just listen to a lecture and she could just tell us what we need to know,” one wrote on an evaluation. But most students appreciated a course structure that placed them at the center. One student last quarter admitted, “At first I didn’t like discussing my questions in front of the group, but when we talked about other people’s questions I actually learned how ask better ones.” One engineering major excitedly explained that after memorizing formulas for his other classes, it was a treat to actually come up with connections of his own. At the end of my last course, when I asked the students if they felt they had become more analytical readers, one proudly answered in the affirmative, explaining that she no longer had to go through the process and “group-work” anymore, because the connections and themes started “coming to her” as she read. Thus, when we make our skills-based expectations explicit, focus on clearly defined tasks, and set up situations in which students can actually practice them, students develop some autonomy. This way, when they leave the lecture halls and enter the workforce, they will be able to name, transfer, and apply these critical skills.

Engaging students in our course content will drive them to reflect on history and culture, while the skills they learn will provide the fluency and confidence needed to participate in these sophisticated discussions. As we plan courses, our thinking about the course goals in terms of both content and skills can make a huge difference in our effectiveness.

The liberal arts, once the cornerstone of the American university, are now often thought of as easy compared with STEM courses. Being explicit about the skills we are teaching and creating assessments that clearly measure them can restore some of that prestige.2 It is up to us to explain to our students and to the public what we are doing and why history courses really will prepare a student for a variety of careers. By building marketable competencies through active classrooms and assessments that align with skills, I am taking the occupational concerns of my students (and their parents) seriously, all the while contributing to the effort of demonstrating the vital importance of the humanities—one engineering major at a time.


1. For a longer explanation of the jigsaw method, see “Jigsaw Strategy,” Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, Penn State University,

2. For more information on constructively aligning skills with assessments, see John Biggs, Teaching for Quality Learning at University (Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press, 1999).

Lauren Horn Griffin is a PhD candidate and instructor in the religious studies department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She can be reached at

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