Thursday, April 30, 2015

Active Learning Activities - Louisa Rice, History

In general, generalities are never all that useful. This is primarily due to the fact that the person relaying the generality usually rarely has any specific details to support the generalized statement. I’d give examples, but then I’d actually disprove my point. Dr. Louisa Rice, Department of History, tackles the issue of student-produced generalities by constructing a close-reading active learning activity that gets students to dive into specifics:

Setting: Close reading activity utilizing pod groups (11 pods with 4-6 students per pod)

Setup for the activity: The class focuses a great deal on the ability to complete a close reading of historical documents (often to "figure out" what those old words actually mean or imply). There are many of these documents in the textbook, and they are all no longer than one page. Students were assigned these 1 page documents on multiple occasions as part of their reading preparation for class; sometimes there were accompanying quiz questions, sometimes there were not. Prior to the class in which we would discuss the assigned document I scanned the page and made it into a PDF which I then posted onto the "news" section of D2L. Theoretically, then, the students had read the document and contextual information before they came into class (although some had not). They could then access a PDF version of the document at their pod when they came into class.

How the activity unfolded in the classroom: In class, I would lecture a little on the context of the document and then asked students to complete some annotations on the document as a group (we went over the Adobe annotating tools a few times in class). Usually this involved a series of questions that I put onto a PowerPoint slide (so that they could still see the questions on the large screen while they completed the work as a group on the small screen). The questions varied, depending on the source, but they all asked them to mark-up the document. For example, for work on a document by Christopher Columbus—his first reflections upon arrival in the United States, I asked them to highlight where the audience for the document was indicated, and underline places in the text where Columbus is revealing a motive in producing the document. Finally I asked them to decide as a group which of the motives revealed (denigrating the indigenous people, claiming a Christian mission, identifying riches) seemed to be the most influential or important, and to explain that importance in a sentence as a textbox on the document. In other documents I asked them to highlight important words (for example, in poem written about World War I) or to underline phrases where the meaning was unclear to them.

After the activity: Students completed the work and saved it to their group locker in D2L—so that I had a record of this (ungraded) work and also so they could return to their group commentary to study for exams. In class, I often pulled up one response on the large screen and then asked whether other groups reached similar conclusions. This normally produced a larger group discussion on what we should take-away from the document and enabled me to connect their conclusions or questions back to the larger theme or argument of the class period.

Additional comments from instructor: "Prior to the version of the activity described above, I asked students to bring the documents to class for discussion and often they did not do that. Usually our discussions were based on the "general" ideas they had discerned from the documents, not the specific details (often very relevant) of the author's writing. This way, I was actually getting them to really READ the texts closely, and I think versions of this exercise would work really well in any class where textual analysis was important."

Tip provided by: Louisa Rice
Write-up by: Jon Pumper

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