First Semester Assessment


The project entitled "Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age" at its core was envisaged as returning the craft of history to the survey course through an emphasis on students working directly with historical documents. With the explosion of historical documents available online in machine-readable form, the opportunity existed for students, no matter where they were geographically located, being able to work with materials once available only in major research libraries. Primary emphasis in this project was placed on activities that were student centered and taught cognitive skills appropriate for the analysis of a wide variety of primary materials. The execution of these goals was to be achieved by students working together in groups of three to develop an essay analyzing and evaluating the materials. A major emphasis was placed on providing the widest possible range of historical documents. Materials were grouped together to address basic issues related to constructing the historical record and to expand student exposure to specific historical problems.

The project evolved through two basic stages. The first step involved searching and evaluating the documents available on-line and writing extended reviews of those that were thought to be most useful for use in undergraduate courses. In the beginning, it was assumed that there would be gaps in the online materials that would have to be filled by placing unavailable materials on a dedicated web site. This assumption proved to be false. Although there may be a few areas not as well covered as might be desired (Native-American creation myths are a good example), the number of machine-readable documents available electronically is staggering. Thus, there was no need to provide new materials.

The second phase of the project involved developing document modules for students to use in conjunction with the course. The basic approach was to develop modules that either expanded important issues only lightly touched on in lectures or the textbook or develop materials fundamental to understanding specific historical developments. In all cases, an attempt was made to provide a wide variety of historical materials so that students were required to apply a variety of cognitive skills. In all cases, the focus was on projects that taught cognitive skills rather than just the acquiring of factual information. The original plan was to develop five projects, but the decision to have students turn in rough drafts of their reports and to have an in-class discussion of the materials meant the number had to be reduced to four for the first semester.

At the end of the semester students were surveyed to evaluate their experiences in using the materials.


Although each module developed for the U.S. survey course has its own specific objectives, the following list is a summary of these diverse objectives addressed by the course Web Modules. Some were stressed in all the modules and a few were introduced in a limited way.

  • Engage students in the analysis of primary historical documents.
  • Assist students in developing analytical skills necessary to interpret and understand primary and secondary materials.
  • Teach students to distinguish between primary and secondary sources.
  • Introduce students to a wide variety of historical sources.
  • Expose students to documents in the fields of political, economic, social, and intellectual history.
  • Teach students to read visual documents such as maps and photographs.
  • Present important historical topics in greater depth.
  • Teach students to understand and evaluate document bias.
  • Give student the opportunity to understand the use of evidence in developing historical generalizations.
  • Gradually allow students more freedom to choose their topics and develop their own analysis.

Web Module Assignment Structure

Work associated with the Web Modules largely replaced the course discussion sections that had previously been devoted to discussing secondary materials in a course reader during the last class each week. Students in the class were divided into Web Module Analysis Groups of three students. Each group was responsible for developing a rough draft and a final report. A two-week period was devoted to each module. The Web Module was posted on the course web site and a paper copy was distributed in class along with a list of the email addresses of all members of the class. The first class was devoted to discussion of the project and students going to the computer lab to begin their work on the project. The instructor was present in the lab to support, answer questions, and point out key issue or problems. At the end of the first week each group submitted their rough drafts and the class period was devoted to discussing the documents. Greatly facilitating this discussion was the ability to download and project the Web Module materials on a large screen in the front of the class. The rough drafts were returned with comments and suggestions the next class period. At the end of the two-week period the final reports were turned in and graded by the instructor. During the time that the students were engaged in their projects, they were encouraged to communicate via email with the members of their group and with the instructor if necessary. Students were also encouraged to go beyond the questions raised in the module and see if they could develop any new insights.

Assessment of Structure

The greatest problem with the structure of the exercise was dictated by the nature of the institution. The University of Wisconsin - Washington County is a commuter campus with no residential students. Most student work about 40 hours a week and tend to spend very little time outside of class on campus. Thus, it is difficult for them to get together to work in groups. There is no complete solution to this problem, but by being flexible and allowing students to reconfigure groups to create acceptable meeting times can go a long way toward addressing the problem. At mid-semester students were surveyed to see if they wanted to change groups and adjustments were made at that time. The vast majority, however, decided to stay with their original groups. One unforeseen consequence of randomly grouping the students was that they had the opportunity to meet others in the class. This helped break down the student social isolation that is so often a problem on a commuter campus. It is the instructor's belief that this contributed to stronger sense of class unity and a greater willingness to discuss the materials in class.

In the initial plans for the structure of the course no time was designated for discussion or rough drafts. The plan envisaged that the groups would do their project and turn in the results. Student difficulty with the very first module dictated that a greater emphasis had to be placed on teaching analytical skills. It also was obvious that students needed more time when working in a group. Before the first module was completed, provisions for discussion of the materials and the turning in of a rough draft were incorporated in the course structure. One result of this change was that there were very few students who seemed not to understand what was expected and, in the vast majority of cases, the final product reflected better understanding of the materials and resulted in a polished report.

From the instructor's point of view, the revised structure provided an opportunity to teach analytical skills. Students seemed more willing to seek help and the projects turned into cooperative, rather than competitive, ventures. Students before and after regular class hours were discussing the project and using the module materials to raise questions in class about the lecture topics. One small, but important, issue was the problem of students not carrying their weight. Students were asked only to put the name of those who had actually worked on the report on the final document. The number of cases was very small and the students, although reluctant, came to feel that those not doing the work should not be given credit. Students at first also were worried about having their grade partly dependent on the work of others. This problem was partially solved by combining individual quiz grades on secondary materials assigned for the course with the Web Module grades so that one half of the combined grade was individually determined by the student's work.

Access to the campus computer system also presented a major problem and dictated what materials could be used in the Web Modules. The campus computing system for the foreseeable future will not be accessible to students from off campus. With students spending so little time on campus the materials had to be accessible from their home computers. Thus, only materials that were available via the Internet could be used in the Web Module exercises. In a few cases, non-copyrighted materials, which had been edited by the instructor, were posted on the course web site. In all cases, however, students could access the longer versions of these documents online from their home computers. Distributing a paper copy of the Web Module with the appropriate URLs helped reduce student anxiety over being able to access the assigned documents. This situation was not a major problem, but it did mean that some interesting documents not available online could not be used in the exercises.

An unanticipated problem was the structure of the computer labs. Although the classrooms are wired to the Internet and are equipped to facilitate class work, the same cannot be said about the computer labs. Most labs are configured for individual projects and not for groups working together. Long rows of computer stations and small monitors make group work difficult. The students did the best they could under the circumstances, but because of this problem there was a tendency for the students to print out the materials so everyone could have a copy. In the first session this resulted in burning out a printer and in the next sessions the new printer was turned off while the whole class was working in the lab. In the future, this problem will be addressed by creating a new smart classroom designed for group work. This lab will cluster workstations of three recessed computers so that students can face each other, each having their own computer, and being able to talk across a flat surface. Thus, one of the outcomes of this project was the need to rethink how technology is configured to better serve pedagogical needs.

As will be shown later, the students seemed to enjoy the projects. During the first semester all Web Module assignments were turned in on time. In 27 years of teaching this had never happened before on any assignment. During the first semester, with about 80 students enrolled in the course, in one section no students dropped the course and in the other section only two dropped the course. In previous years, a 10%-15% drop rate would be the norm. Although the new Web Modules may not have been the only reason for this remarkable result, it is evident that a very good, cooperative spirit emerged during the semester and that this had a positive influence on student activities and attitudes. There was obviously something going on that engaged the students and energized the course. Individual problems with some of the materials need to be addressed, but in the main the student responses were very favorable.

Individual Web Module Assignments, Semester One

Assessment of Web Module #1

The first Web Module was designed to give students more background on the Columbian Exchange than was provided by the textbook and the lecture that focused mainly on North America. It utilizes well-known documents to introduce students to the major problems in analyzing historical materials. In this module students are introduced to the idea of historical motive (Religious and Economic in this case). They also read three Spanish documents illustrating the changing nature of Spanish Conquest motives and providing insight into the character of the Spanish conquerors. The inquisition document gives students a view of how Europeans were treated in New Spain and the nature of Spanish rule. The Las Casas document questions this rule from a Spanish perspective. Last, the materials introduce the students to the idea that the indigenous people's view of events differed from that of the Spanish. In discussing these documents, emphasis was placed on the variety of voices and the way that they address issues of interest to historians. This helps introduce the notion of document bias. The very open-ended questions were designed to guide the students through all these documents and get them to develop evidence for their interpretations.

The final part of the Web Module asked students to interpret historical maps. The four maps all clearly reveal how European views of the world changed during the first 100 years of the Colombian Exchange and how maps can reflect more than just the contours of the earth's surface. This was an opportunity to teach students to read visual materials and to dramatically introduce the concept of historical change.

In practice, this Web Module proved challenging and, in some cases, frustrating. The language of the documents required that students read carefully and come to grips with the character and style of a world they had never approached before. The length of the assignment put many off, but as they began to work with the materials and following a class discussion of several of the documents they began to draw more and more out. A breakthrough of sorts came with the discussion of the Las Casas document when they were asked to read what he was saying and then ask why was he mad at the Spanish authorities. Once students had discovered, using internal evidence, that he was a religious leader they began to see that conquest and murder were depriving him of souls to save. Helping students draw inferences based on internal evidence was a lesson in how historians, by asking the right questions, can draw more out a document than might be immediately evident. This was a case where being able to project the document on a big screen allowed all the students to read and discuss the document at the same time. While the rough drafts were somewhat superficial and tentative, the final reports in most cases revealed that they had gone back to the documents with a clearer view of what they might learn. Some students were led beyond the module to look up the biography of some of the document authors.

The map part of the module proved to be the easiest part of the assignment. The vast majority of the students noted how Europe was shrinking and were surprised to find how much of the outline of the world's continents were know by the end of the Sixteenth Century. It was a wonderful introduction to historical egocentrism and how perceptions change over time. When this module is revised for use again, the maps will be the first part of the assignment. This should give students a little confidence before reviewing the other materials. Another modification might cut back on the discovery documents and add something on the epidemiological impact of the Colombian Exchange.

This module was a learning experience for both students and instructor. Students came away with an understanding of how historians approach documents and the fact that even maps can reveal things about the past besides the fact that our view of the world changes over time and reflect cultural assumptions. The module was a bit overwhelming for the students and it was obvious that more attention had to be given to systematically teaching the skills necessary for carrying out historical analysis. This led directly to the incorporation into the class structure of a rough draft and time devoted to discussion of the documents. The fundamental lesson was that students, with proper encouragement and guiding them to the right questions, could master historical documents and enrich their understanding of the past. It was also a lesson in remaining flexible.

Assessment of Module#2

The second Web Module was designed to introduce students to one of three important aspects of colonial life and again work directly with documents. By restricting the number of documents each group evaluated it was hoped that the students would analyze the documents in greater depth. Religion was central to the spiritual and community life of New England. This part of the Web Module was designed to acquaint students with this relationship and also with the problem of how social relationships and religion changed over the course of a century in the American colonies. The commerce and labor component was designed to introduce students to the theory behind the growth of merchant Capitalism and to two of the labor systems (indentured servitude and slavery) associated with that development. The third part focused on fundamental government documents and the colonial notion of what constituted political power, their ideas about the relationship between the church and state, and what rights citizenship conferred on individuals. All three of these components provide a foundation for understanding colonial America and at the same time anticipate the key issues such as American Independence (was it a revolution?), slavery, and the economic development of the United States.

To a certain degree this module was a little too limited. Students again were not totally happy. Those students who worked on the two sermons found them interesting but difficult to read. Some, believing that religious views change very little, were surprised to see how the focus of Puritanism changed during the course of a century. Because the religion documents were not dated (an error that will be corrected) some students made an interesting mistake. Because the Edward's Sermon contains a tone that many associate with fundamentalist religious groups some assumed that it was the oldest sermon and that the Winthrop Sermon with its moderate tone was the more modern of the two. This was a case of mistaken identity, but a wonderful lesson in not projecting the present into the past. Because the tone differed so much between the two sermons, students were forced to go beyond the surface to discover the two differing models of society and religion. This did prove to be a good introduction to how historians gage change by comparing and contrasting documents.

The commerce and labor documents were a little easier for students to understand. The Mun document establishes the mercantile view of colonies, but few students made the connection between these views and the growing conflict between England and her North American Colonies. The Mittenberger document reinforced some of the class discussion of indentured servitude and provided an opportunity learn about the shared experience of a large number of early settlers. The document on the middle passage highlights the terrifying introduction to the slave system and the influence of race on labor patterns in a vivid way. Most students were moved by these documents.

Of the three parts to the assignment probably the political part was the least liked even though it directly speaks to the current nature of our political process. The documents, although highlighting both important political issues and revealing the nature of colonial government, did not seem to engage the students as much as the other documents. Great care is needed to discuss these charters and get students to ask what the provisions mean in terms of power and the nature of the state. Most students saw that the two documents reflect very different societies and that there was a growing concern for individual rights although the rights of women, indenture servants, and slaves were restricted severely in the documents. In the future, greater care will be given to framing the analysis of these documents so that the student analysis focuses on specific issues.

Assessment of Module #3

The main goal of this Web Module was to force students to take a closer look documents key to understanding the political formation of the United States. The exercises are designed to have students analyze some of the key aspects of these most important documents. Overall, this module is designed to allow students greater latitude in analyzing primary historical documents. While most are familiar with the Declaration's philosophical basis for rebellion, few bother to look at the other parts of the document that reveal many of the issues dividing Englishmen on both sides of the Atlantic. The exercises associated with the Constitution are designed to have students take a closer look at the governmental powers conferred by that document on a particular branch of the Federal Government. Students are also introduced to the Federalist Papers and the contemporary justification for those powers. This Web Module takes advantage of the computers ability to do a rapid search of the Papers to look at the arguments presented for granting specific powers to a particular branch of government. The extra credit component was included to point out that songs can be historical documents and that the Loyalists had a different view of the War for Independence.

This turned out to be a difficult assignment. The Loyalist songs proved to be the most popular part of the exercise. Students readily grasped the tone and content of the songs to determine the sources of Loyalist values and their attitude toward the Patriot cause. Slightly less successful was the analysis of the Declaration. Students generally identified the philosophical basis for rebellion and some even noted the influence of John Locke. The list of grievances presented a problem. Some were obvious, but others appeared to be very obscure. It had been anticipated that some students might research the reasons why some of the more obscure grievances were included in the document, but few ventured beyond the document. One problem was that the course text does not focus on many of the political issues dividing the colonies and the mother country. In the future, greater attention needs to be paid to providing a broader historical context.

The most difficult part of the Web Module involved working with the Constitution. The unfamiliarity with the body of the document was rather appalling. Most students were familiar with some of the amendments, but few knew much about the basic powers conferred on the Federal Government. Moreover, students found it difficult to determine what powers were granted to the branch of government they were analyzing. Even more difficult was trying to master the arguments put forth in the Federalist Papers. There is no doubt that this was a difficult assignment and the exercise needs to be reconfigured to overcome the problems students had in mastering the materials.

One change should involve developing a better idea of what is meant by power and a way to conceptualize the document that goes beyond the trite balance-of-power model. Investigation of the document should begin by determining what branch of government has the most power and why that branch does not dominate. This focus should also be tied to a clearer understanding of the colonist's political experience and how that shaped the final document. One obvious shortcoming was the absence of an opposition voice to counter the Federalist point of view. There are anti-Federalist documents online, but generally they are associated with modern political agendas that would only further confuse students. Another way this module could be improved is to key the exercise to the issues, such as state rights, which dominate the political arena down to the Civil War. The module could also be used to have students develop what they see as the model for a good political economy that emerges from the Constitution.

This is always a hard part of the United States survey to teach. Often times little attention is paid to political developments until the political realignment that leads to the Civil War. This module represents an attempt to build a foundation for the discussion of political change in the nation's early history. Web Module # 3 represents a step in the right direction, but one that requires refinement.

Assessment of Module #4

Web Module # 4 was designed to do three things. First, the module seeks to expand student understanding of slavery and the campaign to end it. Secondly, the module introduces students to an interesting mix of historical documents. These include primary written materials on the nature of the slave system, oral histories, and photographic evidence. Third, the exercise was designed to allow students to choose what materials will best support their analysis. Imbedded in the exercise is the necessity of explaining the differences between contemporary materials and the historical memory of participants. In most cases, the Works Progress Administration oral accounts by former slaves present a contrast with the accounts of Frederick Douglass and the materials included in Slavery as it Is. At its most general level this Web Module allows students the opportunity to utilize the cognitive skills develop in the previous three Web Modules

The Frederick Douglass' autobiography is often used in survey courses, but the speech used in the exercise is a very nice summery of this former slave's attitude about the nation's response to the institution of slavery. Most textbooks refer to Slavery as it Is, but few students ever read this remarkable antislavery tract. This online version allows students the opportunity to quickly and efficiently search the contents of this book. The oral histories and photographs present yet another way to analyze and interpret the historical record. In most cases, the memory of former slaves about slavery is less harsh than the record contained in the pre-Civil War documents. The photographs contain a conflicting visual record of slavery that force students to use the written materials to evaluate this visual record.

In many ways this was the most successful of all the modules developed for the first semester of the course. It required that students evaluate a diverse historical record and reconcile evidence that did not neatly fit together. They are introduced to two famous and influential antislavery documents and to the visual images and personal memories of the slave system. Because of its variety materials and the structure of the exercises, students had to weigh the evidence and were more likely to bring evidence to their analysis of the slave system. Some of the best reports submitted during the semester came from this exercise. Students appeared to be more engaged in the topic and the discussion of the materials was the most animated of all those associated with the Web Module exercise.

Student Assessment of the Web Module Assignments

At the end of the semester a student Web Module Survey was conducted in both sections of the first semester of the American History course. The following are the results of that survey:

Students were asked to respond to six specific questions and to indicate which were the most and least popular Web Modules. The following is a tabulation of that data.

Student Web Module Survey
(N = 75)

1. I think the web modules were a valuable educational experience.
a) Strongly agree (26%)
b) Mostly agree (62%)
c) Neutral (9%)
d) Mostly disagree (1%)
e) Strongly disagree (0%)

2. The module topic enhanced my understanding of historical materials.
a) Strongly agree (37%)
b) Mostly agree (49%)
c) Neutral (12%)
d) Mostly disagree ( 1%)
e) Strongly disagree ( 0%)

3. Working on the web modules gave a clearer idea of what historians do.
a) Strongly agree (34%)
b) Mostly agree (37%)
c) Neutral (25%)
d) Mostly disagree ( 1%)
e) Strongly disagree ( 0%)

4. I liked being able to do a rough draft of our report.
a) Strongly agree (73%)
b) Mostly agree (13%)
c) Neutral ( 8%)
d) Mostly disagree ( 2%)
e) Strongly disagree ( 1%)

5. I liked discussing the documents before developing the final report.
a) Strongly agree (66%)
b) Mostly agree (24%)
c) Neutral (12%)
d) Mostly disagree ( 1%)
e) Strongly disagree ( 0%)

6. Working in a group was a positive experience.
a) Strongly agree (40%)
b) Mostly agree (25%)
c) Neutral (21%)
d) Mostly disagree ( 6%)
e) Strongly disagree ( 6%)

Most liked Module: (N = 63)
Columbian Exchange ( 7%)
Colonial Life (11%)
Founding Documents (11%)
Slavery (69%)

Least liked Module: (N = 43)
Columbian Exchange (47%)
Colonial Life ( 4%)
Founding Documents (32%)
Slavery (14%)

Analysis of Data

The clearest generalization that can be drawn from this survey is that the vast majority students had a positive response to the structure and experience of doing the modules. Over eighty percent of the students were positive about the module's educational value, enhancing their understanding of historical materials, doing a rough draft, and discussing the materials in class. Close behind were the seventy-one percent of students who thought the exercises gave them a better idea about what historians do. The least favored aspect of the exercise, which was anticipated, was having to work in groups. Twelve percent found group work less than a positive experience and another twenty-one percent were neutral. Nevertheless, sixty-five percent of the students enjoyed working in groups.

The popularity of the modules was a little bit of a surprise. Impressionistic evidence and the degree of effort put forth by students indicated that the slavery module was the most interesting. This impression is supported by the data. The overwhelming support (69%) for this module may have been influenced a little bit by the fact that it was the last assigned module. What is a little surprising is that the Colonial Life and Founding Document modules were the second, although distant, favored modules.

On the least liked side of the survey, the Columbian Exchange and Founding Documents were the clear choices. The fact that the Columbian Exchange was the first exercises and that the structure of the exercises were still evolving may have had a negative influence on student opinion. The fact that the Founding Documents module was second was not surprising. It was a difficult exercise. Given that student success in doing the Founding Documents module was the lowest, it had been anticipated that this would be a very unpopular exercise. The slavery module, even though the most favored, also generated a fourteen percent negative vote. In the middle, generating neither a very positive, nor a very poor evaluation was the Colonial Life module.

The most desired result would have been a greater balance in the popularity of the modules. Clearly, revisions to the first two modules are in order. On the positive side is student acceptance of the use of these Web Modules as a valuable addition to their classroom activities. One remarkable result was that in one section not one assignment was turned in late and in that section, where normally about 10% would, no students dropped the course. This may have been a coincidence, but given the students positive views of the exercise it is readily apparent that these exercises helped create a more positive educational environment.

General Evaluation:

Given the very positive student response to the four Web Module, it is clear that students enjoyed the exercises and believed that it had enhanced their study of history. During the course of the semester it was also obvious that the students appreciated the fact that the skills they were developing were utilitarian and applicable beyond the study of history. Although all the topics were not equally engaging, they enjoyed the cooperative spirit that developed in the class and the fact that they were engaged in a productive activity. There can be little doubt that students had a clearer idea about how historians study the past.

With that said, there are obviously a number of improvements that can and will be made before the modules are used again. The guiding principle behind these first modules was to keep them simple and direct. As a result there was little built into modules themselves. Thus, full advantage was not taken of the ability of computers to provide layers of information. In the future, brief biographical or background information will be hyper linked to the module so that students will have available online more background information. There also needs to be more information in the introduction to the modules to provide a clear context for the documents. One shortcoming of the way the modules were used was in not using them to show students how documents were basic to the secondary material assigned for the course. The current use of the documents isolates them to a degree from the rest of the course work. In the future, there needs to be a greater integration of all course materials.

Structural changes made in the course to expand the time for working on each project and requiring a rough draft were all very positive modifications to the original plan. Expanding the time for working on the projects helped overcome some of the problems in assigning group work. The incorporation of rough drafts into the exercise help bolster student confidence and provided a closer collaboration between teacher and student. This allowed the instructor to continually emphasis the development of cognitive skills and to monitor, on a weekly basis, student development in this area. Several students asked for more detailed comments on their drafts. This request will be honored in the future. Some students thought that since the module exercise was so important and required a considerable amount of effort that the work should count for more in determining their final grade. It is likely that the proportion of the student grade determined by quizzes and the Web Modules will go from fifteen percent to twenty or twenty-five percent. Although it cannot be quantified, there remains a distinct impression that the course term papers and final exam essays, especially in the use of evidence, were of better quality this semester than they have ever been in the past.

An important question raised by this project is what did the use of machine-readable documents bring to the course that could not have been possible using more traditional materials? The answer will obviously be tentative because this is still very much a project under construction. Besides the fact that students like computers, the biggest advantage online materials give an instructor is the flexibility to tailor materials to the specific needs of the class. There is a wealth of historical materials available on the World Wide Web that is growing everyday. When a document or collection does not prove as useful as anticipated, this flexibility allows an instructor to change assignments or to create new assignments to meet emerging needs at any time during the course of the semester. Thus, materials are more directly under the control of the individual instructor. A good example of this flexibility is a student suggestion that a number of small specific projects be added to the course so that students could also individually work on web-based projects. Mini Web Modules are an attractive idea and may be tried in the future. If they fail they can be discarded or modified immediately. The freedom for instructors to exercise their imagination and creativity is one of the most attractive features of using the World Wide Web in class activities.

Last but not least, what did this project generally do for the course? One major result was that the modules refocused, at least part of the course, from what do historian know about the past to how historians know what they know. It moved the student from being the receiver of knowledge to actively seeking an understanding of how historical knowledge is built. This switch in focus was a very satisfying activity for the vast majority of the students. Developing the Web Modules and working closely with students energized the instructor. The work injected into the course a sense of dedicated scholarship and assisted in the process of moving undergraduates from being high school pupils to becoming academic scholars. This can be done without technology, but given student fascination with computers it was easier to engage undisciplined undergraduates in a very important pedagogical exercise at the very beginning of their academic career. In short, bringing the development of cognitive skills that will enhance a student's future academic performance in other disciplines to the history survey course brings that experience to the center of undergraduate education.