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Case Study: Creating Active Learners at the University of Colorado Denver


In historian Pam Laird’s classroom, students take responsibility for learning

The problem with teaching history, says Pam Laird, a professor at the University of Colorado Denver, is that the content is so naturally engaging that it requires very little polish to turn a lecture into a performance that wins high student evaluations. As a result, historians can be lulled into believing that reciting their “wonderful stories” in the classroom translates to effective education. Laird notes that, in fact, many of these faculty are superb teachers in the sense that they engage students with their lectures, work enthusiastically with the students who come to see them, and their students often serve as cheerful ambassadors for history studies.

Laird spent the first twenty years of her four-decade teaching career following that traditional classroom lecture format until an educators’ workshop introduced her to active learning, a concept that shifts the responsibility for learning onto the learners. It was a turning point in her classroom approach, moving from lecture/performance-driven teaching to a method that engaged her students more deeply in what gets historians excited about doing history.

“Learning requires activity on the part of the student,” says Laird. “Passively sitting doesn’t allow the material to soak in. I haven’t done a stem to stern lecture in more than 12 years.”

Instead, Laird uses a modified Socratic method, focusing heavily on classroom discussion that develops rich critical thinking skills and delivers the kind of engagement that challenges all levels of students – an especially appealing aspect for Laird’s upper-level undergraduate and graduate students. She has spent years honing her classroom approach, tweaking the method a bit each semester.

“When I first started experimenting with trying to generate discussions in class, I assigned secondary sources and expected students to be able to raise discussion questions on their own. Graduate students are generally capable of doing this, but most undergraduates are not,” says Laird. So, she primes the pump. In advance of each class, Laird posts the questions that will be discussed on the university’s Blackboard system. Students are expected to come to class prepared to use the questions to build discussions. “We begin conversations with the questions, from which discussions develop, including through the students own questions about the material and how it relates to previous class assignments and discussions,” says Laird.

The students are coached initially by Laird’s syllabus, which includes descriptions of good discussion elements and specifics on what constitutes “A” level participation in class. Then, class experience takes over, with students developing their skills with every session. Laird’s role is to act as the guide for the conversation and fill in gaps, ensuring that all the important elements of issues, events, and personalities are covered completely. She keeps notes on hand for reference, but “I never read from them,” she says.

Term papers position students as analysts, too. For instance, in some classes, each student picks an issue that interests him or her from the era covered in the course and creates a composite of a person who would have taken a stand on that issue in that era, including gender, age, race, and social and economic status. Then, using primary documents and secondary sources for research and providing context, they write the paper in that person’s voice, describing what they are thinking and why. About 25% of the paper has to provide historical context, with the other 75% in the voice of their creation. Monologues that regurgitate facts about the issue are grade killers. Instead, Laird challenges the students to dig beneath the issues for their root causes, identifying and describing the life events that have driven their historical avatars to take a stand. “The students are terrified of the assignment at first,” says Laird. “Then, they get engaged. These papers can be so moving that I’ve been in tears by the time I’m done reading.”

Laird’s method requires flexibility that can’t be accommodated by a traditional textbook. Instead, she relies on monographs and, increasingly, primary documents. However, Laird notes that “free-floating primary sources do not provide students, any more than professional historians, with enough context.” Until a year ago, her classroom materials included slim, paperback anthologies of primary documents. They provided useful context, but “They’re so outrageously expensive,” Laird says. “I couldn’t bear to make students pay $60 for a skinny book.”

Laird’s rebellion against the high cost of textbooks reflects a larger, national trend, with students abandoning expensive texts at a record rate. Book Industry Study Group’s ongoing study “Student Attitudes Toward Content in Higher Education” reveals that less than half of students now purchase the current edition of the required texts for their courses. So, when Laird received a brochure from Milestone Documents – priced at just $19.95 for a full semester of unlimited access – she was eager to explore. She discovered that the resource was much more than just a bargain.

Milestone Documents is a unique online classroom service that is part document reader and part historical analyst, all packaged within framing content that’s akin to what a traditional textbook would include. For Laird, its intriguing nature starts with the range of documents available – 1,400 with more being added all the time. Each is supported with expert analysis to help students decipher the impact of the document.

“Milestone Documents reimagines the textbook in a form that’s more flexible for professors and less expensive for students, without sacrificing quality,” said Neil Schlager, founder and president of Milestone Documents. “Our service mixes content and context in a digital format that allows teachers to have better control over their course structure and materials. The content is constantly expanding, and all of it is curated and guided by subject experts in the various disciplines that we cover – History, American Studies, and Religious Studies.”

Milestone Documents offers two editions for adopting professors. The Standard Edition includes a foundation of more than 1,400 key primary sources, accompanied by comprehensive analyses written by a global network of scholars. Each content area is led by an Editor in Chief – a scholar and educator who curates the document coverage and oversees the development of pedagogical materials such as model outlines, recommended documents, lecture notes, and assessments.

The Premium Edition includes an optional textbook layer of peer-reviewed narrative articles for introductory and survey courses in U.S. history, world history, and Western civilization. The textbook layer aligns with model outlines created by the Editor in Chief for each subject area.

Both editions have the hallmark Milestone Documents features. These include the ability for professors to customize their class readings list and to change it at any time. In addition, the service offers student analytics that help professors understand how students are progressing through the assigned readings and which students are the most active and engaged at the site. Students can highlight, take notes, and star their favorite readings.

Laird adopted it for her classes in winter 2012 and found it was an “incredible service. It worked beautifully,” she says. Milestone Documents’ enormous trove of primary sources frees her to tailor the assignments that fit her and her classes’ needs. She was happy with its performance and, when considering adopting Milestone Documents again, she decided to consult students for their input. This feedback clinched her decision to continue using the service.

“I think Milestone Documents is fabulous,” wrote undergrad Emily Lavery to Laird. “I have always felt that interpreting primary sources was a daunting task, but Milestone Documents has created a new forum for reading and understanding primary sources. The site is incredibly easy to navigate, and each document provides an array of contextual information that brings the document to life. The explanations, the audience overview, and the impact sections are very helpful in understanding the bigger picture.”

Laird believes that Milestone Documents fosters a sense of discovery. Students like poking around in the site, traveling from the documents to what’s related to them, divining their own path. “Students can play with the hyperlinks, following what interests them. And navigation is so easy they can always get back to where they started. It’s really well designed,” she says.

The simple navigation is critical to Laird, who finds that students are “clueless when it comes to databases. They may know Facebook and Twitter, but they’re not very sophisticated searchers.”

She also notes that her students use Milestone Documents for research for other classes … a perfect fit for an educator like Laird, who wants the experience her students have in her classroom to translate into better outcomes wherever they are. Lavery, who is preparing for her own career as an educator, even recommended the resource to a former teacher. “He has constructed some wonderful lesson plans around the primary sources,” wrote Lavery. “And he says his students enjoy the primary source analyses over the textbook renditions of history. Reading the ‘real thing’ is cool.”

Appreciation for the “real thing” is enhanced by Milestone Documents’ renowned analyses, commissioned works by a global network of scholars, each handpicked for their expertise. Lavery describes their inclusion in the service a “relief,” enabling students to read documents with a virtual historian at their sides. In a course such as Laird’s where students are drivers of classroom conversations, the analyses provide a particularly effective way to prepare for class, building understanding and confidence.

As students have begun adopting responsibility for their education in Laird’s classroom, she has found that the fulfillment she gets from her role as an educator has gone up. She’s impressed by the effort her students put in and delighted by the content and complexity of conversations that emerge among students. So impressed that earlier this year, she abandoned a final exam in her upper level classes in favor of a “final discussion” that captured content from the entire semester. “They worked so hard,” she says with a note of genuine admiration in her voice. “They came prepared and our discussion actually ran over the two hours allotted for the exam. It was the single best experience of my four decades of teaching.”

Laird is committed to staying open to new ideas and approaches in her classroom. In addition to turning out better students, it keeps her enjoyment up. She keeps an eye on science, technology, and math classroom techniques, where she sees real innovations in education taking place. She encourages her colleagues to do the same by taking risks, assessing payoffs, and honing to ever-better classroom experiences. “Experimentation is the point here,” says Laird. “That is what I encourage. It is good for students, and even better for teachers.”

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