Second 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envisaged as returning the craft of history to the survey course through an emphasis on students working directly with historical documents. With the explosion of historical documents available online in machine-readable form, the opportunity existed for students, no matter where they were geographically located, being able to work with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 A major emphasis was placed on providing the widest possible range of historical documents.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. A conscious 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 the acquiring of factual information. Because of the experienced gained in developing the first semester Web Modules four modules were developed for the class. Students also were required to turn in rough drafts of their reports and provision was made for in-class discussion of the materials.

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


Although each module developed for the second half of the United States 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 historical quantitative analysis *
  • 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.
  • Teach students to critically evaluate the presentation of historical materials on the World Wide Web. *
  • 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.

* Added for the second semester

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 issues 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

Work during the first semester revealed that the greatest problem with the structure was dictated by the nature of the institution. The University of Wisconsin - Washington County is a commuter campus with no residential students. Most students 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 goes a long way toward addressing this 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 (over 90%), however, decided to stay with their original groups. The discovery, during the first semester, that one of the consequences of randomly grouping the students was that they had the opportunity to meet others in the class continued during the second semester. For students who had taken the first half of the survey, a conscious attempt was made to group them with new students. This meant that they met new classmates and could bring their experience to the new group. This mentoring was valuable in dissipating some of the minor mechanical problems experienced in the previous semester and made it easier to establish expectations. The whole class was up to speed much quicker than they had been during the previous semester. The second semester saw the same strong sense of class unity and a greater willingness to discuss the materials in class that had been observed during the first semester.

Adopting the use of a rough draft and allowing time for discussion during the second semester produced the same positive results that had characterized the previous semester. Students had little difficulty with the very first module. Discussion of the materials was very lively and the level of analysis seemed to be much higher from the beginning. This was no doubt partly the function of having a core of students experienced with the kinds of projects they were engaged in. Because the instructor could anticipate some of the problems the second time around, work on the projects seem to go much smoother. A growing student willingness to use email also provided the opportunity to do more direct teaching of the skills required to carry out the projects.

As in the first semester, the revised structure provided an opportunity to teach analytical skills. Students seemed 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 continuing 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, did seem to feel that those not doing the work should not be given credit. Students 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. The student complaint that the modules work should count for more of the course grade was corrected by assigning the Web Module/quiz grade greater credit.

Access to the campus computer system remains a major problem and continues to dictate 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 that can be accessed on campus, but not off-campus. 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. By the beginning of the next term, student access to the course Web Site may be solved by linking the history courseware to a password protected site. This situation was not a major problem, but the easier it is for student to access the material, the more likely they are to spend more time doing the work.

The problem of the structure of the computer labs remains and only will be solved through a building program. 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. No printers were burnout this semester because they were turned off when the whole class was in the lab. In the future, these problems 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 in configured to better serve pedagogical needs.

As will be shown later, the students seemed to enjoy the projects. During the semester all but two or three groups failed to turn in their Web Module assignments on time. During the semester, with about 100 students enrolled in the course, in one section again no students dropped the course and in the other section only four dropped the course. In previous years, a 10%-15% drop rate would be the norm. Although the Web Modules may not have been the only reason for these remarkable results, 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 about the class. 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 Two

Web Module # 1: Web Module #1-- Lynch Law and Segregation

Assessment of Web Module # 1

One of the major themes of the second semester of the United States History survey is the struggle for civil rights. When teaching this part of American history it always has been difficult to include the multitude of voices engaged in the ongoing debate over civil rights. Another, often neglected, issue is the role violence played in race relations. This module is designed to introduce students to these topics. In working with the documents students are introduced to the debate within the African-American leadership over the best way to secure civil liberties for all Americans. Students must compare arguments and decide what divided these leaders and what united them. The lynch law text is a collection of news reports, taken from the "Atlanta Journal," of a number of lynchings that took place in Georgia in 1899 along with the report of a former police officer who was hired to determine the accuracy of the accounts. Published by Wells-Barnett as an anti-lynching document, the materials paint a vivid picture of the way extra-legal mobs were used to maintain the system of race relations in the South. It also clearly reveals the way that the media manipulated public opinion and helped create a society charged with fear and hatred.

Besides introducing students to the issue of historical argument and the need to understand what the documents say before you begin to explore their meaning, the documents introduce the need to determine primary and secondary information. By being active participants (the newspaper charted a train so people could witness a lynching), the newspaper goes beyond reporting events. The police officer report contains factual information, but draws secondary conclusions based on that material. Thus, students must make distinctions between primary and secondary information. All of the documents clearly contain biased information.

This introduction to the social and intellectual history of race relations had a profound impact on the students. Some of the students realized that confronting lynch law brutality in their own nation's past presented problems similar to Germans confronting the Holocaust. They were shocked to find that lynch law was not the activities of undisciplined mobs gone wild, but were premeditated violence directed at maintaining the segregation system. The role of the press in promoting this violence was also disturbing for many students. By having the students do the lynch law part of the Web Module first, they were better able to put the Washington-Du Bois debate in context even though these documents presented most students with a real challenge in understanding the text. In this case, the class discussion seemed to open up the documents and contribute to their analysis.

Based on the previous semesters experience, this Web Module, as well as the others developed for this course, contain a lengthy introduction and identifies all the actors. Background information, however, was kept to a minimum in the hope that it would stimulate students to explore the historical context in greater depth. Some groups did seek other materials, but in the main most were content with what was contained in the Web Module. In the future, greater emphasis needs to be placed on encouraging students to move beyond the specifics of the exercise. This module seemed to provide a very good introduction to the main issues associated with the analysis of historical documents. An added bonus was that the subject matter was both compelling and disturbing. It forced students to confront the current implications of historical issues in a thoughtful and often troubling way.

Web Module # 2: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Assessment of Web Module # 2

This Web Module was designed to enhance student understanding of the problems workers faced as a result of the last transformation of the American economy. It also linked a current political debate over universities connections with the use of third-world sweatshops to manufacture apparel to its historical roots. This was a wonderful opportunity to connect a current debate with its historical past and at the same time work with both primary and secondary materials. Included in the Web Module was the need for students to read and analyze visual materials and to evaluate oral memories of this great tragedy. The link between the present and the past was made a little more vivid by the fact that the last survivor of the fire had died a few days before the students began the project.

The Web Module takes advantage of a very nice web site created by the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at Cornell University. The site was created to answer the most common questions raised by high school students about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. It integrates primary documents, secondary materials, visual evidence, and oral history. There is also raw data contained in a list of victims and their home address if known. In this exercise students were given wide latitude in determining what evidence was most useful in understanding causes, events, and results of this historic event. They were asked to evaluate bias and determine if there was any information lacking at the site that might have assisted their analysis. In short, they were being asked to evaluate the site itself. A new activity, introduced in this module, was to have students try to imagine how middle class Americans might have responded the news reports and investigation after the fire. The lesson here was to try to get students to let the record speak in its own historical context.

Again, the topic seemed to generate student interest. They liked having to review different materials. Most were appalled by the working conditions and the attitudes of the sweatshop owners and managers. The eyewitness newspaper account had a very strong influence on how they evaluated the rest of the materials. Most clearly distinguished between the primary and secondary sources, but few saw the way that bias was built into the photographs. The oral recordings were difficult to hear so most students ignored them. Probably the easiest materials to detect a bias in were the collection of political cartoons. The discussion of the materials took an interesting turn when the students began relating some of the attitudes and values reflected in the documents to their own work experience. Some were troubled by what they saw as a labor bias in the site, but others thought that these students really didn't want to personally confront the exploitation of poor-immigrant women. This presented a nice opening into a discussion of the role of women in the growth of organized labor and the problem of power generally in labor-management relations that had been discussed in a lecture.

A few groups made a real attempt to put themselves back in time to try and understand how middle class Americans might react to the news and investigations. A few were very impressive in trying to come to terms with the fact that middle class morality would be shocked by the conditions, but that they would also understand that as a group they benefited from the economic changes that produced these conditions. The exercise did drive home the point that government action was reluctant and not the result of over zealous bureaucrats seeking to run business. This was a good exercise in weighing evidence and trying to understand the actor's points of view. Although some groups did identify gaps in the record, it was obvious that many of the students had not yet grasped what it is that historians look for in seeking to understand past events. This is probably something that should be addressed in the discussion session.

Web Module # 3: State Violence in the Twentieth Century; Genocide, Democide, and the Holocaust

Assessment of Web Module #3

The Web Module was designed to accomplish two general goals. One of the most tragic issues that serve as a backdrop to all of Twentieth Century history is that of state violence. Most students know there was a World War I and II and most have some understanding of the Holocaust, but beyond that they have little understanding of the role violence has played in shaping the history of this century. This is a difficult topic to integrate into a survey course so this is an opportunity to expand student understanding of this significant aspect of the century's history. The second goal was to introduce students to quantitative historical analysis. This Web Module makes use of the web site created by a former professor of Political Science Dr. R.J. Rummel. Professor Rummel has collected data on all Twentieth Century state violence in order to validate his grand thesis that repression breeds mass killing and democracy restrains the use of violence. The opening part of the exercise is devoted to trying to understand the terminology of mass violence and how these terms influence the historical study of state violence. The second part of the exercise asks students to try and find meaning in the numbers. The last part of the exercise allows students latitude in selecting web sites and selecting primary documents to assist them in researching their chosen topic. More than the previous Web Modules developed, this module makes use of the power the World Wide Web to search a wide variety of sources and topics.

This Web Module seemed to have overwhelmed the students because it required them to do more work before they build their essay than had previous exercises. Most groups were able to understand the problem with terminology. They were surprised at how recently the term Holocaust came into use and how that term influences historical analysis. Most students were shocked and troubled by discovering that the Holocaust was not the century's greatest mass killing. The number of other similar events and the total number of deaths is staggering. During the discussion of the materials it was the numbers and the ubiquitous nature of mass killings that appeared most troubling. This lead to a good discussion of motives and in turn there were links made to the current problems in the Balkans and Africa. An obvious problem is that the numbers are so great that it is difficult to comprehend them.

If there was any real problem with this exercise it was probably that the students were not very comfortable being on their own. They had a difficult time deciding what subject to work on or had difficulty with the fact that some web sites they accessed carry a heavy political message. One pleasing result was the fact that very few had a problem distinguishing between primary and secondary sources. They also handled the numbers well and were generally good at detecting biases. The materials, however, do require a structured discussion. It is a difficult and large topic to incorporate into a survey course, but it is not a topic that is dismissed easily.

Web Module # 4: Post World War II America: Exploring the Culture and Politics of the United States 1945-1980

Assessment of Web Module # 4

This Web Module was designed to be a surrogate final exam on the web-based exercises. Few restrictions were placed on the topics assigned and the groups were allowed to develop their own projects. In advance, it was anticipated that some students might pick topics of limited historical significance or doggedly pursue a topic that had only superficial materials. A good example is Woodstock. Students interested in pop culture all have heard of that event. The problem with the topic is that the web sites all worship the event and provide very few documents. In the main, they perpetrate the myths and fail to place the event in its historical context. The next time this exercise is used greater control must be maintained regarding the scope of the topics. Woodstock, for example, should be researched in the larger context of the influence of popular music among the baby boomers.

Some of the topics students looked at in depth, such as Watergate, McCarthyism, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, all produced very solid results. Students demonstrated that they had command of the technology and could find appropriate websites. Most reports clearly distinguished between primary and secondary sources and could detect biases within the documents. As the comments on the student survey indicate many students like the freedom to pursue there own historical interests. The biggest complaint was that the exercise was time consuming in that they had to surf and evaluate a lot of sites before finding those that proved most valuable. Part of the problem was with the search engines, that even though they continue to improve, which tend to be overly inclusive rather than selective. This, however, was also a good lesson in learning to use these tools more selectively and efficiently.

Some groups also chose topic that were too large to handle within the assignment's framework. A good example was Vietnam. Some wanted to do the whole conflict. Few seemed to know that the conflict stretched back over a decade before direct American military intervention. Other groups were stunned to discover the amount of materials available on the World Wide Web. Working with the students, however, set them off on a realistic path. Some of the final reports were very good and in the main seemed to reflect a solid engagement with the historical materials. In the future, because the exercise was so open-ended, greater care will have to be taken in working with the students from the very beginning in selecting topics. This should involve a discussion the day the assignment starts of how to develop a research topic. Despite the amount of work and the problems encountered, this module proved to be the most popular exercise.

Student Assessment if the Web Module Assignments

At the end of the semester a Student Web Module Survey was conducted in both classes. The survey was the same one used at the end of the first semester so the results are comparable.

Student Web Module Survey

(N = 92) 1. I think the web modules were a valuable educational experience.
a) Strongly agree (33%)
b) Mostly agree (50%)
c) Neutral (12%)
d) Mostly disagree ( 1%)
e) Strongly disagree ( 0%)

2. The module topics enhanced my understanding of historical materials.
a) Strongly agree (35%)
b) Mostly agree (51%)
c) Neutral ( 8%)
d) Mostly disagree ( 0%)
e) Strongly disagree ( 0%)

3. Working on the web modules gave me a clearer idea of what historians do.
a) Strongly agree (29%)
b) Mostly agree (47%)
c) Neutral (17%)
d) Mostly disagree ( 4%)
e) Strongly disagree ( 0%)

4. I liked being able to do a rough draft of our report.
a) Strongly agree (78%)
b) Mostly agree ( 9%)
c) Neutral ( 7%)
d) Mostly disagree ( 1%)
e) Strongly disagree ( 0%)

5. I like discussing the documents before developing the final report.
a) Strongly agree (62%)
b) Mostly agree (25%)
c) Neutral ( 5%)
d) Mostly disagree ( 2%)
e) Strongly disagree ( 1%)

6. Working in a group was a positive experience.
a) Strongly agree (27%)
b) Mostly agree (34%)
c) Neutral (20%)
d) Mostly disagree ( 5%)
e) Strongly disagree ( 8%)

Most liked Web Module (N = 64)
Lynch Law and Segregation (23%)
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (26%)
State Violence in the 20th Century ( 7%) Post World War II America (43%)

Least liked Web Module (N = 44)
Lynch Law and Segregation (25%)
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (20%)
State Violence in the 20th Century (25%)
Post World War II America (29%)

(Note: Percentage totals do not always equal 100 because some students did not answer some of the questions.)

Assessment of Data

The student survey results mirror the results of the survey conducted at the end of the first semester of the U.S. Survey. Over eighty percent of the students were positive about the educational value, enhancing their understanding of historical materials, doing a rough draft, and discussing the materials in class. Just over three quarters of the class believed they had a clearer idea of what historians do. The least favored aspect of the exercise was working together in groups. Thirteen percent did not like it and another twenty percent were neutral. On the other hand, sixty percent of the students were positive about working in groups.

The popularity of the specific modules was a little more balanced at the end of the second semester than it had been at the end of the first. The Post World War II module was the most popular. Student comments indicate that there was a greater interest in modern history and that they enjoyed the freedom to develop their own projects. On the other side, this module, although by a small amount, was also the least liked module. The Lynch Law and Segregation and the Triangle Fire modules were each liked and disliked by about a quarter of the students. In fact, it is difficult to see a clear winner in the least liked category. Working with numbers as required in the State Violence module is obviously less liked than the other academic skills required to do the exercises. This module, however, was profoundly disturbing and forced students to face some unpleasant facts about their fellow citizens of the world and the actions of their own country. This may account for is lack of popularity.

If a balance in the popularity of the exercises is a desirable goal, than the second semester modules come closer to achieving that result than did those employed in the first semester. Besides the problems noted in the assessment of individual Web Modules, the survey reveals that better preparation for doing quantitative historical analysis is required before students begin the State Violence module. The overwhelming result, however, is that the students are very positive about the exercises. Because the proportion of credit given for the Web Module work was adjusted upward there were no student complaints about that aspect of the exercises. Student continued to turn their work in on time and seemed to enjoy the course. One student when asked what should be done to change the exercises responded that you shouldn't fix something that isn't broken.

General Evaluation

General evaluation of the second semester's web modules must parallel the results of the materials used during the first semester. The student response was every bit as positive as was their evaluation the first semester. Because the modules were designed to more systematically introduce students the cognitive skills needed to complete the assignments and the instructor had a clearer idea of what problems might be encountered, the learning process proceeded on a more level path. The interaction between instructor and students was better. Having students in the course who have mastered the first semester materials greatly reduced the number of misunderstandings about expectations. These experienced students also help reduce the learning curve for students who were new to the survey course.

The guiding principle, for the first semester's modules, to keep the exercises simple and direct was followed during the development of the second semester modules. There was, however, a little better mix of materials. During the second semester there also was a clearer focus on evaluating the skills employed in completing the exercises, but without ignoring the content of the student work. If there is a real weakness with the modules, it is the fact that full use of the computer's ability to layer materials and connect to other materials was not utilized in these modules. In the future, brief biographies, background information, and links to relevant materials will be added to the exercise. One change with the second semester's materials was the development of more detailed introductions to the exercises. Students seemed to appreciate the added information and were less likely to make unwarranted assumptions about the materials. The Web Modules also were not specifically linked to the secondary materials assigned for the course except in the last module where students generally did research on issues suggested by their textbook. This was probably a mistake. In the future, modules will provide greater educational impact when they are linked to other course materials without being unduly repetitious. This will require both revision of the current modules and the development of some new ones.

The second semester more fully exploited the great variety of historical materials available on the World Wide Web and a number of sites that connect to other materials. Topics, only lightly covered in the course before, were explored by students in greater depth. The modules on Lynch Law and Democide had a profound influence on student understanding of the past and some of the most disturbing aspects of the history of the last one hundred years. The discussion of these topics revealed a growing student insight into the historical issues and produced some very good reports. They clearly forced students to think like historians. The first three Web Modules allowed the instructor to cover issues that may only have been partly understood by students and are not adequately covered in document collections. The last module allowed students to develop their own document collection for analysis. This is an activity that would be extremely difficult to do on a campus with limit historical resources. In short, students were introduced to the work of historians in a realistic and positive way.

As during the first semester, the Web Modules refocused a good portion of the course from what historians know about the past to how historians work to recover the past. Students became active participants in the process of evaluating and understanding their own history. This was a shift that the students seemed to enjoy. Because of the structure of the course students got to know each other and seemed to have a greater willingness to listen to each other's views. In the final analysis, the exercises gave them a greater stake in their own education. Again, these exercises assisted students in understanding the difference between being a high school student and being a college scholar. All the cognitive skills acquired or honed in these exercises are applicable to other academic work and will benefit students in becoming lifetime learners. By moving the development of these skills to the center of the introductory survey course, students from the very beginning of their college education will be better prepared to survive the remainder of their undergraduate education.