From the President

Discussion and Debate: What Works in Undergraduate Teaching

Mary Beth Norton | Jan 1, 2018

Mary Beth NortonMy first presidential column is a contribution to this month’s examination of undergraduate teaching techniques; I applaud the innovative ideas our colleagues present in this issue. Throughout my career, I have primarily taught undergraduates, both in my first teaching job at the University of Connecticut and then at Cornell University (although I “inherited” my first graduate student in the fall of 1971, when I moved to Cornell). Our department’s graduate program has always been quite small, and I have trained relatively few graduate students. On the other hand, I have taught many undergraduates in both lecture courses and seminars.

I have become particularly fond of teaching the seminars that our department aims at freshmen or sophomores, especially those who are or intend to become history majors. The goal is to introduce students to analyzing primary sources and to writing short (10- to 12-page) research papers, in part to prepare them for the more demanding seminar we require for graduation, for which they need to write a longer (25- to 30-page) research paper based on primary materials. Over the years, I have steadily decreased the amount of reading and increased the amount of writing in my lower-division seminars.

It is one thing when a professor complains that a concept is unclear. It is another when students convey the same message to their peers.

In fact, I now structure the syllabus in such a way that the students spend the last month of the semester writing and rewriting their papers—and reading one another’s drafts and exchanging critiques among themselves. It is one thing when a professor complains that a concept or a sentence is unclear. It is entirely another when students convey the same message to their fellow writers. I read and critique all the drafts too, and I require students to share their critiques with me, so I can assess how seriously everyone took the assignment. I devote two classes to meetings in which they discuss their drafts in small groups. It helps that I state on the syllabus that the quality of their comments on others’ papers will factor into their grade for course participation, which counts for half the credit in the class; the other half is composed of their own papers. This method has greatly improved the quality of the papers I receive at the end of the semester. (A colleague who adopted essentially the same syllabus for her seminar in a very different field last year reported that it had the same effect for her as well.) In the fall 2017 iteration of this seminar, I asked the students at the last class to reflect on what they had learned, in addition to the factual content of their papers. One student blurted out that she now realized how “awful” were the papers she had turned in for grades in other history courses. Another student chimed in, “Revise, revise!” and I smiled to see a key lesson learned.

As for lecture courses, I have discovered that there is nothing like a good debate to stimulate student engagement and learning. But what to debate? Not hot-button issues that solely or primarily draw on students’ preconceived notions about historical values or events, but rather topics framed in a way that leads them to develop their own interpretations of primary or secondary sources.

I state on the syllabus that the quality of students’ comments on others’ papers will factor into their grade for course participation.

I have used debates in two ways, but I always structure them in the same manner. I ask the students a question at the beginning of the class and tell them there will be a debate. (Sometimes I warn them in advance that the class will begin with that question, so they can think about their response.) Everyone has to answer; I go around the room systematically eliciting a statement from each. Students can say they agree with someone else; they do not have to give different replies. But I record all answers on the blackboard, sometimes requesting clarification, with checks for additions to the same response. I vary the amount of time I spend on this phase, depending on the size of the class, aiming for 10 or 15 minutes to put all the options on the board if it is a standard 50-minute class.

After all students are on record, I call for discussion of the various options, asking students to defend their answers, some of which usually contradict other responses. After another 10 or 15 minutes, I call for a vote by show of hands. In this round, students vote for three options, so they don’t vote only for the ideas they originally proposed. I erase the lowest vote-getters from the board and call for another round of discussions. Those with surviving answers now try to recruit those whose responses have disappeared or try to persuade others to change their minds. Again, after 10 or 15 minutes, I call for a vote. This time, students can vote for two answers. The debate proceeds in the same manner, with a reduction to only one vote each, until just two options are left, at which point students become quite heated and specific in their support for one or the other. By the end of the class there is a “winner,” and the students have surprised themselves with how much they collectively know about the subject in question.

Not every topic lends itself to this sort of approach, but when there is no obvious “right” response, it works well. Currently, I co-teach a course on the history of exploration, and in that context questions that foster debate relate to explorers’ assumptions and mistakes.

After a debate, the students have surprised themselves with how much they know about the subject.

For example, the students read Peter Mancall’s book about Henry Hudson,Fatal Journey. I ask them: what was Hudson’s fatal mistake? Their answers, all drawn from Mancall’s account, have included hoarding food; deciding to winter in Hudson’s Bay rather than returning to England; demoting a key crewman; behaving too autocratically or, conversely, failing to control his men adequately; favoring certain crew members; and seeking the Northwest Passage too single-mindedly. I don’t care how these debates end (and they tend to end differently in every class). The crucial idea is for the students to gain better knowledge of the material and to develop skills in assessing evidence as well as learning to argue in support of their positions.

I have used the same debate idea in a different context as well—as a final wrap-up discussion in a course. I ask the students in advance to come to class prepared to answer this question: what was the single most important event or development covered in the course this semester, and why? I then run a debate as described above. This technique helps students review for the final exam in classes as diverse as American women’s history and the American Revolution. The students are surprised by how much they have learned during the semester. And again, there is no “right” answer; sometimes they surprise me by how the vote turns out. Once a visiting father sat in on such a class and at the end came up to tell me how impressed he was with the students’ knowledge of the subject. I was too.

Mary Beth Norton is president of the AHA.

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