Faculty who teach large classes confront the long-existing challenge of making their lectures more engaging and meaningful. In this article, I will share some low-risk strategies to help faculty transform lectures into student-centered learning experiences for enhanced learning outcomes. These active learning strategies can be easily implemented without significant redesign of the class and without…
Merging digital technology with research-based teaching led to a successful experiment this semester. In two of my latest courses, students were asked to present their research on digital platforms which they created and designed themselves. They gathered material, processed and analyzed physical and online sources, wrote scholarly essays, and published their projects online in the form of websites.
Since the beginning of this year, I have experimented with Blended Learning and digital tools in order to enhance the learning experience of my students with the help of twenty-first century technology and to integrate digital literacy skills into our curriculum. In the past, my students made short videos, wrote blogs, created wikis, or worked on other collaborative digital projects, all of which received positive evaluations. This time, the idea to ask my students to create websites occurred to me when I found out I would have to teach three intensive courses in the month of June. It was a puzzling task to figure out how to squeeze into four weeks a course worth the same amount of credit points as its eight-week counterpart. A few years ago, in order to stimulate “study success,” the Faculty of Humanities was required to restructure their semester system into teaching blocs. Semesters are now divided according to an 8-8-4 system with two blocs of eight weeks each (seven weeks are reserved for teaching – twice two hours a week – and the last week is the examination period) followed by a doubly intensive half-bloc of four weeks. In this structure it is not easy to find a balance between scholarly depth, a broad academic perspective, and a tolerable workload for students and teachers alike. One can juggle and wiggle with the material so that the main topics will somehow fit into seven weeks, but the syllabus is indeed limited with respect to both in-depth analysis and contextualization.
The four-week courses in January and June are even more perplexing. The original idea was that in these two blocs students would do intensive research and the teachers would act as supervisors of their projects. Though this setup sounded plausible enough in theory, students often criticized these four-week subjects as “not academic,” “unnecessary,” “conceptually weak,” or “confusing.” So when I was given responsibility for not one but three of these dreaded seminars in June, my first reaction was to cringe; but once the shock was over, I decided to make the most of it and turn these dreaded four weeks into an intellectually inspiring learning experience for my students. After negotiating to teach a topic which is familiar and close to my heart (critical theory of European imperialism and colonialism), I started to think of an innovative methodology that would work well within the narrow time-frame and would combine a research-based syllabus with acquiring and improving digital skills. According to the original mandate, students were supposed to work in small groups and present their research in the form of a portfolio at the end of the course; so it seemed a good idea to ask them to document their research in digital form.
I wanted them to engage with the Web 2.0 world (which is absent from our traditionally conceived curriculum) by creating a semi-open source research platform that could be shared online and developed further. The course would thus offer students the opportunity to acquire new knowledge, help them to improve their research and writing skills, and encourage them to learn about digital tools available in the humanities. This combination of a focused research project with an open interactive platform usefully meets the time constraints of the course and, more importantly, leaves in its wake materials that serve the interests of the scholarly and pedagogical communities as well as the general public.
Although at first the idea of a digital assignment seemed very new and puzzling for many of these second-year humanities students, the new method unleashed their creativity, and they produced some wonderful websites which exceeded all my expectations. They enjoyed working on these “multimedia essays,” as one of my students called the assignment, and they all mentioned in their evaluations that it was one of the most educational and enjoyable courses they had ever encountered.
One of these courses focused on the ethics and politics of exhibiting the colonial past of the Dutch East Indies in the ethnographic museum of Amsterdam, the Tropenmuseum (Syllabus in Dutch). In the other seminar students developed four lesson plans for secondary schools about teaching Dutch colonial history. Their task was to be innovative both in their perspective and methodology: instead of presenting colonialism as a heroic epic of economic success, they were asked to sketch a nuanced story of encounter, conquest, adventure, and exploitation with all its present-day social and political ramifications (Syllabus in Dutch).
Students especially appreciated the hands-on nature of the project and the ways in which the medium shaped and inspired not just the presentation of their research but the body of knowledge they gathered during the process. They became more aware of the interactions among the textual, visual, and auditory aspects of their topic (related to the Dutch colonial past) and learned to appreciate the cultural and historical information conveyed by words, images, and sounds.
The form of the assignment triggered ideas which otherwise would have gone unnoticed: for example, one group examined the topic of gender and colonialism in the Dutch East Indies based on the garments exhibited in the Tropenmuseum. Normally they would have only read texts (mostly only secondary literature) for such a research paper; but because they were asked to explore the existing exhibits at the museum, to assess their display critically in terms of gender, and to look into alternative ways to organize another “special exhibition” about the topic, they engaged with aspects of the material culture and the politics and esthetics of exhibiting gender that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.
The group working on the exhibit on scientific racism discovered through the objects displayed in the Tropenmuseum that non-European racial differences in the Dutch Indies became a fertile environment for Dutch anthropological research that was often disrespectful of local populations. The topic led this group of students to reflect on issues concerning the public display of human remains (relics, skulls, shrunken heads, etc.) or human bodies in museums – whose body can be examined, dissected, and displayed? how do such exhibits make visible the social inequalities of the time? – and to think about the ethics of cyberspace where images of these human bodies are still visible even after their physical removal from most ethnographic museums. By having to construct a website, students faced serious ethical issues which historians and museum curators need to confront in their own everyday jobs.
Another group organized a virtual exhibition about Dutch propaganda during the so-called “policing actions” of 1945-1949. For their website they used posters, books and other material from the Tropenmuseum and also searched other online resources for propaganda movies and documentaries about the colonial war. They explored the way visual material creates and carries meaning, which would not have been the case had they been asked only to write an essay on the topic. They also noticed that there was not much material on this subject in the museum, and that what they found often failed to contextualize the images and did not present a balanced view of the complex situation during the transition to an independent Indonesia. The visual material was thus used not only as illustration for the essay, but it also inspired and shaped its arguments. By completing this assignment, students learned not only about the Dutch colonial past, but also about the differences between the various media, the “framing theory” in journalistic practices, and the ways that ideology can influence history. These courses have sensitized students to the ways in which history is used and abused in contemporary media and in modern life.
In the other course students enjoyed thinking of creative ways to teach colonial history in high school. The group who created a website with lesson plans for teaching slavery (to access the “Docenten” tab you need the password “ikbendocent”) did an amazing job with digital teaching tools: for example they created an interactive timeline with https://www.hstry.co/, made quizzes with https://getkahoot.com/, and developed interactive historical maps to present the Dutch slave trade routes and major ports. The digital nature of the assignment was an incentive for students to search for many more sources than they would have needed for a classical essay, and to explore the topic of slavery from cultural, economic, and political perspectives in order to create attractive and informative material for secondary school education.
Another group created a website with digital lesson plans about the topic of trade and commodities. The digital interface and the educational nature of the assignment made them emphasize the connection between the present economic situation and the past commercial exploration and exploitation more than an essay would have inspired them to do, since on a website they could visualize the ubiquity of the historical connections between companies with a long and shady past more easily than on paper. The other groups working on websites about scientific racism and Dutch slave trade also highlighted the relevance and topicality of colonial historical research by visualizing the similarities of past and present racial thinking. The interaction of serious scholarly historical research with the possibilities of the digital interface enriched the project of the students who found more sources, were more creative, and had more fun than a classical assignment would have provided.
Research-based teaching in the humanities cannot ignore the fact that we are all dependent on digital technology in our own academic work: we use online databases, rely on digital archives, practice text mining, and access and read online (historical) sources. In fact, we are all constantly experimenting with or developing resources for digital humanities. This four-week course was an excellent occasion to see how a discipline-driven use of technology can enrich the research experience of students. This innovative method not only enhanced their research skills but also equipped them with a basic understanding of digital resources that they can put to good use in their future careers. They were more inventive and creative, found and used more relevant sources, and became aware of the mechanisms which are important for understanding how history is made.
The digital assignment was an extra incentive for students to do a proper job because they knew that the results of their efforts would be shared publicly and would not simply disappear into the file cabinet of their teacher. The main goal of my courses was not to teach students how to make websites, but to invite them to look around for research inspiration both in the material world and in cyberspace, to understand how history is made, to reflect on the use of digital technology for research in the humanities, and to show that they can be creative and scholarly at the same time. If they also learned how to design and build websites, this is just an added benefit which they can cite in their future job applications.
Many people associate Blended Learning with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and online learning. This reductionist approach misses the main point of the epithet “blended”: a mixture of brick-and-mortar (physically present classrooms in a building) and online (virtual classroom) educational platforms. Blended Learning does not want to substitute real professors for voices on the screen. Blended Learning is not about transferring our entire educational system to the Cloud, but instead to make optimal use of all the technology available in the 21st century to enhance learning and the effectiveness of teaching. An explanatory video about the concept can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5EdjW1rTH4. The co-author of the book Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools (http://eu.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1118955153.html) emphasizes that Blended Learning is student-centred learning and not technology-centred teaching. Blended Learning aims to engage students at different levels with the material by distributing assignments in a way that serves everyone’s specific learning needs. These varied teaching methods give students the opportunity to make use of 21st-century technology to understand the material in an interactive and thorough way. By using the technology, they actually learn how to apply their theoretical knowledge to a concrete project.
The pilot study I received from our university (mentioned in my previous post) also confused the idea of Blended Learning with using MOOCs in education. The authors suggested that the more MOOCs the better, and we should all jump on the bandwagon while we can. They gave examples from the Sciences and Social Sciences, but none from Humanities. The exclusion of Humanities was not the biggest, albeit a very serious problem, with the document. The most important issue was the lack of reflection on the learning benefits of MOOCs. Only at the end of the 90-page document did they cite several studies which concluded that MOOCs do not increase study success (another key word nowadays in academia), because only a tiny percentage of all students enrolled for MOOCs pass their exams (or bother to take the exams).
MOOCs should not replace face-to-face education. MOOCs are intended more for life-long or distance learners than for regular students. MOOCs contribute to the democratization of higher education, as students from all over the world can go online and listen to lectures recorded at top universities for free. MOOCs could also be used sometimes to complement the physical lecture hall, but never as a substitute for credits earned by face-to-face interaction with teachers. Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/) is a great example for a free online MOOC platform with 1,797 courses available. Another such site is Edx (https://www.edx.org/). (More information on Coursera and the way Yale has integrated MOOCs into their curriculum: MOOCs at Yale). Basel University at https://www.futurelearn.com/partners/basel (scroll down on the page to find the free online lectures) also released a few MOOCs on their website.
MOOCs are not cost-efficient. If the university believes that deploying more MOOCs will reduce the costs of real teachers, they are wrong. After making a MOOC, my colleague Professor Phillip Schweighauser at Basel University concluded that MOOCs are very time- consuming and costly endeavours. Phillip explained in an email that in order to produce the MOOCs, the university had to:
– make a business agreement with an external company (in their case https://www.futurelearn.com/) that hosts the MOOC(s) for a substantial fee. Unless universities have the necessary expertise and infrastructure already in place (e.g. MIT, ETH Lausanne), a MOOC cannot be hosted on a regular university server.
– hire a camera/sound/cutting team of four people to produce from 18 to 30 professionally made videos of short duration (2-15 minutes) and additional materials: texts, images, multiple-choice quizzes.
– employ someone to monitor and respond to the lively online discussions (in the MOOCs that he tried out, each video received around 200-480 comments from course participants).
– commit a lot of time: for his MOOC alone, a full four weeks of script-writing, production, and post-production were scheduled.
– spend around EUR 35,000/MOOC.
MOOCs are also suspected of contributing to the further ‘adjunctification’ of universities (hiring more contingent faculty members without job security or hope of a permanent tenure-track position).
If the university decides to invest a large amount of money to improve the quality of teaching, instead of focusing on the production of MOOCs, it should spend the money to train its faculty to acquire digital skills and help them to integrate Blended Learning into their classes. MOOCs could be used effectively to advertise a certain programme or as an additional offer in the curriculum, but they should not replace traditional face-to-face lectures because they do not improve learning or study success, nor are they ultimately cost- effective. MOOCs should be neither banned nor feared, but they should be implemented properly to serve the best interests of students and teachers at the university.
Who would have thought that twenty years after receiving my diploma as an assistant programmer, I would again be confronted with coding? Or that I would become an enthusiastic advocate of teaching with digital tools in humanities?
Upon graduation from a high school that specialized in sciences and informatics I swore off technology forever and ritually burned all my science textbooks. Though it seemed interesting in the beginning, I did not find informatics attractive at all; I struggled through the four two-hour long weekly sessions, and had probably the worst grades in my class in informatics, doing otherwise well in other subjects and exceptionally well in literature and languages. Everything else seemed more stimulating than writing endless algorithms for mathematical problems I never fully understood. It is still surprising that I passed my final exam in programming, but I was happy that I did; otherwise I would have felt like a total failure for wasting four years of my life studying something I truly hated. When I was accepted to the university to study philology (which meant literature, linguistics, history, and culture) I was contemplating a future career as a literary scholar who uses computers at most only for word processing. I was the ultimate bookworm, living in libraries and loving the feel, the smell, and the sight of old books and manuscripts. I spent five amazing years studying English and American literature, Linguistics, Hungarian literature, and comparative literature, my ultimate favourite. I indeed managed to avoid technology as much as possible and wrote all my graduate essays on an old-fashioned manual typewriter inherited from my father. Not until I was working on my MA thesis did I finally purchase a battered second-hand computer.
Looking back on that time makes me smile, because nowadays I can hardly imagine my life without computers. I am the owner of several computers, two tablets, mp3 player, an e-reader, a smartphone, and many other gizmos, and when I travel half of my luggage is filled with chargers and digital accessories. I have both a physical life and a digital existence on the various social media; both lives are equally real and are connected with each other. This technological addiction happened gradually, unnoticed, and I never gave it a thought until recently, when I was asked by the university to read and comment on a ninety-page document about Blended Learning.
“Blended Learning is generally applied to the practice of using both online and in-person learning experiences when teaching students,” according to the definition of The Glossary of Education Reform (http://edglossary.org/blended-learning/). It all sounded familiar, because that is exactly what we all do in our teaching anyway; so then why reinvent the wheel? The document I was asked to comment on was densely written, begged its own questions, and argued the obvious point that modern teaching does indeed involve a “blending” of online and in-person activities in the classroom.
We all use the internet and online resources for our research and teaching, and we do communicate with our students and give them various assignments through online platforms such as Blackboard. Why all the fuss about Blended Learning (BL)? Why invent yet another buzzword – like Problem-Based Learning, Research-Based Learning, Situational Learning, and so many other concepts I have encountered during my teaching career? In addition, the document mentioned countless instances of the pedagogical benefits of BL, but, alas, none of these examples came from the Humanities. Neither the faculty nor the students in Humanities were consulted. The document read like another top-down policy the university decided to implement regardless of our opinions. BL was presented as a cost-efficient and cutting-edge practice which, if regarded highly by the Faculty of Science, should work well enough across the disciplines, including the Humanities. The paper focused almost exclusively on testing factual knowledge and how technology can be used in big lecture rooms to give hundreds of students simultaneous and instantaneous feedback. What the authors of the study forgot to mention was how technology could improve learning in those disciplines where the emphasis is on interpretation and critical insight. Not a single example they gave could be used in teaching history, for example. How can one write positive comments about a policy paper that does not take into account the learning objectives of an entire field, or whose authors did not bother involving at least the professors from the Department of Digital Humanities at my university?
However, reading through the document proved to be a rewarding exercise after all, since it made me think about the ways we have already integrated digital technology into our courses, and about how BL could be used effectively in the Humanities. As the chair of the Board of Studies in my department, I was also asked to participate in a conversation about BL with an “educational technologist” from Brussels whom we invited to one of our regular staff-lunches to give a presentation about the digital tools most useful in the Social Sciences. I did my own research on the internet about BL, which proved incomparably more informative and helpful than browsing through the massive document I was sent by the university. The snowball-effect kicked in and one useful link led to another, and I became more and more convinced about the potential and necessity of using digital tools in humanities. Meanwhile I realized that, though I have used practices associated with BL in my courses, I could integrate digital technology in a much more targeted and effective way in my teaching. During my preparations for the meeting with the educational technologist I made a Powerpoint presentation (Blended Learning-Krisztina) that clarified what BL is in my field and gave me a solid basis on which I could build in the future.
The most useful sources I discovered during my research were blog posts by W. Caleb McDaniel, Associate Professor at Rice University (http://wcm1.web.rice.edu/history-major-in-digital-age.html) which led me to some illuminating examples used in the courses devised by Michelle Moravec, Associate Professor at Rosemont College in Philadelphia (https://nl.pinterest.com/professmoravec/digitally-assignments/) or such brilliant books as Teaching History in the Digital Age (2013) by T. Mills Kelly, Professor of Historical Pedagogy at George Mason University, and Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (2005) by Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, both also professors at George Mason University. Reading about their approaches to digital media in teaching history made me eager to try some of their recommendations and urged me to explore the possibilities offered by freely available apps on the internet.
Here are a few useful and easily accessible apps. I tried some of them with good results and I am keen to experiment with the rest.
- Network visualization – https://gephi.org/
- Network overview – https://nodexl.codeplex.com/
- Map-making and geospatial information – http://www.qgis.org/en/site/about/features.html
- Creating websites – http://www.wix.com/
- Creating fake ‘Facebook’-like pages for historical figures – http://thewallmachine.com/
- Whiteboard-style animation – http://www.videoscribe.co
- Blogs and media projects- https://wordpress.com/
- Organizing research – https://www.zotero.org/
- Video projects – www.youtube.com & https://plus.google.com/
- Presentations – https://prezi.com/dashboard/
Sceptics might wonder about the added learning benefit of these apps and question the necessity of playing with websites, video projects, or blogs. No matter how distrustful one is about the pedagogical value of digital (new) media in the classroom, one cannot deny that we live in a digital age where technology is at our fingertips. Our students are children of the Web 2.0 era, in which users not only consume but also generate and transform the content on the internet. Why should the Humanities retreat into a museum of its own and focus only on traditional ways of preserving and transferring knowledge?
Our students take notes on their laptops, browse their smartphones, and chat on social media, often even during the lectures. We could either ban the use of technology from the classroom, or co-opt our students’ familiarity with modern technology and encourage them to use it for learning purposes and scholarly projects. Many students start (and some of them end) their research for their papers on Google and Wikipedia. What is not visible or available online does not exist for them. As teachers we often get annoyed by their lack of interest in searching for sources in the library; however, anyone visiting a modern library cannot help noticing that the long open bookshelves have been replaced with computers. Primary and secondary sources still exist, but one can only access them through a digital catalogue and by using a sophisticated search engine, which our students actually find quite a challenging task. Nowadays libraries are online and are rapidly being digitized. As Mills Kelly observes, LexisNexis claims to have “billions of searchable documents and records,” the Europeana.eu project has more than 20 million digitized sources, the Library of Congress has 15 million digitized primary sources, and ProQuest Historical Newspapers has 25 million digitized pages (Kelly, 62). The trick is to teach our students to find their way in this maze of digital information.
No matter how familiar our students are with 21st-century technology, they often do not know how to search effectively in large databases for specific information, and they have difficulty evaluating the scholarly value of the sources they find on the internet. Instead of banning internet sources, our task as teachers should be to help them to make use of online resources in a scholarly and efficient way. Regardless whether we ask students to read novels, listen to music, watch movies, or browse through archival material, we have to teach them how they should appreciate these media in their own right and how to use them accurately for their historical narratives. The internet and new media is no exception. We need to educate them about how they can not only read but generate, criticize, and improve historical content on the internet. Writing a Wikipedia site, for instance, and connecting through it with many professional and amateur experts can be a very rewarding and instructive experience.
European Studies at the University of Amsterdam has a rather special position, because as a discipline it is located in the Faculty of Humanities and not in the Social Sciences, and has a strong historical component. We emphasize in our programme the importance of historical thinking and the humanist dimension in understanding current political, social, and economic problems. As far as our courses are concerned, we already use BL by definition. Digital literacy, however, could be much better represented in our curriculum. It would be nice if teachers could have more opportunities to train and equip themselves with technological knowledge and could receive help from the ICT department to realize their digital projects.
I have experimented with BL and digital media in some of the courses I taught at both BA and MA level. For example, in my modules on nationalism and European colonialism I asked students to work in small groups and make 10-minute video projects about different topics related to our main theme. In order to make the video, they were required to research the topic as if for a traditional essay: they had to write an outline for the structure of their movie, and needed to justify the scholarly importance of their choices and approaches. All their work was recorded in a digital portfolio which I monitored in the course of the semester. The movies were recorded and posted on a special channel on Youtube. (See some of them at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCckIvezeFBWp2f5ZDkiAG9g and (in Dutch only) https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClx7TpscGlWYuB6w_LxSYbw). Students enjoyed this work and gave very positive feedback in the final evaluation forms. I also found it a very satisfying experience, because the project combined research and presentation skills with teaching visual and digital literacy, and it actively engaged their interest. Our students are accustomed to text-based history and are still mainly required to read and write about history and literature, which are indeed very important skills; but BL practices can make them aware that historical records are more than just written documents: everything can carry precious historical information as long as one knows how to decipher, interpret, and apply it to answering current questions.
The critical integration of social media in my course on nationalism engaged the interest of my students and was very instructive. In the past couple of years, we have witnessed the rise of nationalist sentiment and xenophobic discourse in the public sphere. In my M.A. course on Cultures of Nationalism in Contemporary Europe one of the assignments was to use social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and other internet sites to gather information about nationalistic groups, analyze their discourse, identify the ways in which this discourse relates to nineteenth-century nationalism and how it differs, and study the ways national history is recycled, reinterpreted, and generated on the digital media platforms of the 21st century.
The creation of fake Facebook-like pages where a historical event is “posted” and commented by the different historic actors also works well at B.A. level, as it requires creative thinking, a thorough familiarity with the details (otherwise they cannot really write proper comments), and critical insight to assess and express multiple perspectives on the same event. This kind of “cognitive reenactment” makes students aware of the subjective nature of history and its correlation with its temporal and spatial context.
Jeremy D. Popkin in his book From Herodotus to H-Net: The Story of Historiography (2016) quotes Robert Rosenstone, the author of History on Film/Film on History (2006) who argued that visual representations of history (in film and on television) are no less important than textual media, and that “to leave them out of the equation when we think of the meaning of the past is to condemn ourselves to ignore the way a huge segment of the population has come to understand the events and people that comprise history” (Rosenstone, in Popkin, 176). One could also argue that ignoring the internet in our research would mean overlooking the ways in which we currently live our lives and experience our history.
BL and digital literacy should be – and no doubt in many cases already are – a constitutive part of teaching in the Humanities. To ask our students to present and organize their knowledge by making a website, designing “visual essays,” experimenting with videos, writing WIKIs, reflecting on the remediation of cultural objects, or keeping digital portfolios will integrate research with their everyday experiences and will bring the Humanities to life and make it a prolific, fascinating, and future-oriented study that can be seen not as a backward-looking archival alternative to the sciences but as a vital complementary dimension of our complex world. We do not necessarily need BL to make students realize the fascinating potential of Humanities to generate renewable interest for itself, and its power to inspire subsequent generations to search for new meanings in old texts. Nonetheless, by using 21st-century digital technology in our teaching practices we can generate innovative questions and perspectives, and we can keep the conversation going not only with the old, but also with future generations.
Mills Kelly, Teaching History in the Digital Age (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2013)
When it was first introduced a couple of years ago, the idea to form thesis-writing groups and replace individual tutorials with group sessions struck me as a bad idea. I could not conceive of thesis writing in any other way than as an individual process. It was the final stage of the senior year when, after all the mass lectures and large seminars, students finally had a chance to discuss their ideas thoroughly in one-to-one meetings with the supervisors of their choice. Coaching students with their research and writing and following closely their growth as young scholars has always been the most satisfying part of my job. It seemed that the new system abolished a fundamentally important and precious dimension of our work with students.
I saw it as yet another example of a neoliberal approach to higher education where speed and quantity outweigh profundity and quality. The goal was – according to the official motivation – to increase ‘productivity’ and ‘study success’ and ‘facilitate’ students to write their thesis faster so they could graduate on time. It was presented as a win-win situation for everybody: students could enter the job market or the graduate school earlier, instead of being stuck in a thesis-writing limbo and a study delay period that could last for a year or more, while the university would receive its funding from the government on the basis of every diploma granted. The problem was that none of these official communications ever mentioned quality. It was all management-speak without a single hint at the core business of higher education; refined critical thinking, thorough knowledge of a certain field, enhanced learning abilities, scholarly justification of research, and improved analytic, writing, and presentation skills all seemed to be of secondary importance. All that mattered was efficiency and speed.
During the past few years while experimenting with thesis groups, I tried to develop some ways to use the dynamics of group work for the individual benefit of each student. The challenge was to figure out some method that would explore the potential of the group as a learning unit, instead of just viewing it as a random gathering of individuals with different research interests who had not much in common besides the fact that they were all working on their thesis. I tried to think of strategies that would keep all the students involved all the time during the two-hour-long group sessions. I wanted to avoid a problem I encountered in the beginning, namely that while I moved around to discuss the progress of students or pairs of students individually, the rest of the group tended to chat about other matters than their thesis. Though the usual techniques of peer-review and general feedback on the technicalities of writing worked well enough, they could not sustain their attention for two hours, which made the sessions repetitive and often boring.
This year I had six students in my group. As a first step, I defined each of the five sessions in terms of a theme related to the current stage of writing of my students:
1. “Clarity” – The first session was dedicated to “clarity” and focused on finding a good thesis question or statement and writing a clear proposal.
2. “Solidity” – The second session focused on the “solidity” of their proposal and the relationship between their proposal, the sources, and their case study.
3. “Analysis” – The third session was devoted to “analysis” and discussed their case studies.
4. “Originality” – The fourth session was about “originality” and scrutinized their methodology and the scholarly “frame” of their research.
5. “Coherence” – The fifth and last session focused on “coherence” and compared their introductions with their conclusions to check how the case study was presented and developed for the sake of the research question, and if the research question was answered in their conclusion.
Students were required to come to the first session (“clarity”) with a research question and a thesis proposal. In the first session everybody had to fill in a so-called “thesis generator form” which asked some basic questions about the feasibility, originality, and importance of their proposed research. As a model for this form I used a worksheet I found on the website of The Chicago Metro History Education Center. On the thesis generator form students had to complete the following sentences: 1) “I want to learn from this project …” , 2) “I want to prove that …”, 3) “I support my claims with …”, 4) “You should care about my research because …”, 5) “My thesis is …”, 6) “The main arguments/claims of my thesis are …”. After they filled in this form they were divided into groups of two. I asked them to read each other’s proposals and to fill in the thesis generator form again based on their peer’s proposal. Then their task was to compare their own thesis form with the one filled in by their fellow student to see what the differences were and what caused these differences. As a last step they had to reformulate their own thesis proposals in a more convincing way to convey the most important issues they had mentioned in the thesis form with well-structured and clear arguments. For the next session they were asked to write and comment on each other’s first chapter, which was a piece devoted to literature review. I read all the chapters and gave them feedback before the second session.
In the second session (“solidity”) they were first asked to share their experiences about writing the first chapter and then they discussed their papers while I was rotating among the groups and joined their discussions. We did this exercise in every session, just to make sure that students understand the comments and know how to integrate the feedback into the rewritten version of their chapter. As a next step I asked them to write an inverted outline of their chapter to see if it still made sense and if their arguments were logically organized. Finally, as the last task of the second session I tried to prepare them for their case study and make them think of the story they want to tell in their thesis. Their assignment was to imagine their topic as a movie for which they have to write a screenplay. What makes it interesting? What sort of characters do they have? What is the sequence of the plot? It did not have to be long, just a few paragraphs. Then each student read their script out loud and they realized that by letting their imagination run wild about their topic they not only had lots of fun, but also made them aware that they all actually do have an interesting and solid story to tell.
We started the third session (“analysis”) with discussing the feedback on their chapter examining their case study. The following exercise was to experiment and think of another case study which would fit their main statement or question, and see if they could analyze another similar case with the same results. Then I asked them to use “cubing” (a method I found on the website of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Writing Center full of useful writing exercises tips and practices) to gain a different perspective on their topics. They had to 1) describe, 2) compare, 3) associate, 4) analyze, 5) apply, and 6) argue for and also against their own thesis statement. This helped them to see their own work from a fresh point of view and hopefully gave them new ideas to take up in their following chapters.
In the fourth session (“originality”), after discussing the feedback on their following chapter, they were asked to talk about the difficulties they had faced so far and the solutions they found for overcoming these obstacles. Then I asked them to find a perfect cover illustration (either by browsing the internet or using their imagination) as if it were to be published. This was great fun and students enjoyed letting their imaginations loose on their research. Afterwards they had to draw a timeline positioning all the secondary literature about their topic and indicate where they would place themselves in this diagram and how they differ from all the other scholars named in the chart. Finally, they drafted a preliminary conclusion which they saved to compare with their final conclusion in the next session.
The fifth and last meeting (“coherence”) started as usual with reviewing the feedback on their last concluding chapter. Next they had to write two letters: the first one was addressed to the editor of a famous journal and was written by somebody who 1) praises their thesis and 2) another person who disagrees and is furious about their research. The second letter was written by themselves to a family member, to whom they had to explain in everyday language what their thesis is about and why it is important. The inspiration for this exercise I found again on the website of the University of North Carolina Writing Center. Then I asked them to come up with five keywords related to their thesis. Finally, they had to finish the following sentence “The most important advice I received regarding writing was …” which we discussed together and drew conclusions about the process of writing and the way the group dynamics shaped their writing experiences.
These activities made the group meetings more fun and created a mindset defined by writing and thinking about writing. I am not suggesting that all these exercises are necessary or that they could help every group throughout every discipline, but they proved to be useful for my group of students who were required to be actively and intensively engaged with their research. It also proved to me that thesis groups could function well if the teacher takes a creative and active approach. I still believe that thesis writing (in the humanities) is not meant to be a group activity, and that students do need the individual attention of the supervisor. Yet I am also convinced that thesis groups could have beneficial effects: they set a pace for structuring the research, improve self-discipline, enhance creativity, and contribute to keeping students engaged with writing. Once they are used to reading critically their own and their peers’ work, they will also become more confident writers. After all, thesis groups could indeed turn a period of writing agony into a win-win situation.