Continued Thoughts on Best Practices for Teaching (Online or Otherwise)

Several months ago, I posted some preliminary thoughts on online teaching.  I’d like to add to that list now and also include some thoughts on teaching history in general that apply whether one is teaching online or in a traditional classroom.  Most of these thoughts have been gleaned from my experience acting as a discussion section leader for the online course of another professor (Dr. Tim Gregory) this semester.

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1. Streamline online discussion.  I have found that there are a few simple ways to make online discussion less taxing for students and less taxing for the instructor as well.  There are few tasks more tedious than reading 45 nearly identical 200-word responses to the same question about a primary source.  One way is to give students a couple of freebies; in other words, they can miss a few weeks of discussion and still receive 100% for their discussion grade.  This might seem obvious, but I have realized that the first time I taught online, I was a bit too hard on my students for missing a week or two of discussion.  I’ve lightened up my requirements somewhat since then.  Also, another way to make online discussion much less time-consuming is to grade it as pass/fail.  In the past I have used an elaborate point system in which I assigned a certain number of points to each discussion post.  This system was just entirely too involved, and it did not really help students more than simply deeming their unacceptable posts unacceptable and explaining to them why and how they could improve.

2. Make students think independently.  Depending on how the instructor sets up online discussion in the platform I use (Ohio State’s Carmen), students may or may not be able to see other students’ posts before they post themselves.  If they can, and they choose to post later in the week, they may have dozens of posts that they can essentially copy, without looking at the course readings at all.  Rather, only after they post once should they be allowed to view and respond to what other students have written.

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3. Emphasize the historical method over the accumulation of facts. This applies to online and traditional classroom teaching.  I have known the importance of teaching the historical method since I first started teaching, but, this semester, it has stood out to me as even more important to teach this explicitly and to repeat it often.  Make it clear to students that we want them to read monographs not because we want them to know every little detail about the Salem witchcraft crisis, for example, but because we want them to understand how historians do their work and learn how to evaluate arguments and the use of evidence.  We want them to read primary sources not because we want them to memorize every deed of Caesar Augustus listed in the Res Gestae, but rather because we want them to learn to evaluate the context and reliability of primary sources and how to use them properly.  It is the development of these critical thinking skills, not the accumulation of historical facts, that will serve them well later on in life, no matter what field they should choose.  This is clearly not a new or original thought on my part, but I think it bears repeating because some of those outside of the field of history (with exceptions, certainly) sometimes have trouble understanding that this is history’s utility for students.  It fosters the development of skills that are useful in life, not just the acquisition of facts!

I’ll be teaching my own online class again in the spring, and I am looking forward to implementing some of these ideas then.


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