My newest module, Go West: North America 1785-1914, was an experiment in many ways. First, it attempted to provide a survey of North American history—of Canada, the US, Mexico as well as the Iroquois, Creek, Cherokee, Cree, Sioux, Nez Perce, Apache, Navajo, Comanche and Yaqui. In 11 weeks. No problem.
I had hoped focus these very disparate histories with a common theme, or question—namely, to what extent was the 19th century was shaped by westward migration. Over the past 10 weeks, we have explored and challenged this idea, discussing not only the conflict and cooperation of these groups, but also the very idea that the century was defined by westward migration, as opposed to eastward from the Pacific, or meandering north and south as economic prospects rose and fell.
Even still, I knew that outside reading was going to be crucial for success. I prepared a basic reading list of some key (and niche) articles and book chapters, but I wanted my students to go further. As a second-year module, many were preparing for their third-year dissertations. They needed to learn how to search out material based on very preliminary knowledge—for example, a single slide in a one-hour lecture.
To develop these skills, I decided that each week my students should read two journal articles, one from the reading list (so there was some consistency in what the cohort read) and one that they found on their own. For each of these self-selected readings, they were required to write a 150-word critical analysis, handed in en masse at mid-term. Not being cruel, and knowing that this ‘Reading Diary’ was probably unlike any other assessment they had had, I encouraged my students to develop their critical style through formative submissions. Unlike my historiographical blogs, however, these were to be visible to the entire class.
Making the formative work public addressed two key issues. The first was writing the same piece of feedback over and over again. Doing so was not only cumbersome for me, but prevent students from seeing that they were all making the same error—which may have reduced anxiety about ‘doing it wrong’. The second was that students were not able to learn from each other’s good work. By making the 150 word analyses public, and giving public feedback that pointed out the traits to emulate as well as those to improve, I had hoped to create an environment in which students felt comfortable expressing their critiques of their reading and were given valuable advice and examples on how to improve these critiques before their final submission.
The tricky part was where to post these mini-critiques. Moodle offered blogs and discussion boards, but having had limited success with these in the past, I was hesitant to use them. Moreover, as the entries were very short, a more impressionistic posting service would suffice. In the end, I chose Trello, an online project management tool. The free service allows users to create lists, composed of cards. Each card can be a single ‘to-do’ or a project, replete with attachments, check lists and commentary. Cards can also be assigned to one or more users and labelled, allowing other users to filter the cards they see.
I organised my board as a series of lists, one for each week in the module. After each lecture, students were asked to log-in (using an invitation link posted on Moodle) to post analyses of their reading. If they were the first to post on a particular article, they titled the card with the full Chicago-style reference and placed their analysis in the ‘description’ field. They then assigned themselves to the card and attached one or more labels, such as ‘historiographical debate’, ‘highly detailed’, or ‘difficult read’. If they were the second (or later) student to post on a particular article, they included their own analysis as a comment and assigned themselves and any further labels they saw fit. This led to many articles being labelled both ‘difficult’ and ‘easy’ reads.
Each week, I worked through the cards, providing feedback to each entry, though occasionally grouping similar entries that merited similar feedback. I encouraged students to respond to my comments by asking follow up questions, but the central aim way to provide them advice on how to tighten up their writing before their final submission.
The experiment ran for seven weeks and the majority of the students engaged with the formative work to a greater or lesser extent. On average, about 50% of the cohort posted at least once a week, and as the weeks progressed, students tended to focus on posting their self-selected reading rather than those from the reading list—resulting in a greater number of cards with fewer students attached to each. As it only the self-selected reading was formally assessed, this was not unexpected. A small number of the other students chose to send me their critiques via email. Although I provided feedback to these students as well, this was in some ways unfortunate, as their work was sometimes particularly good and would have helped foster online discussion with the other students.
As for the labelling system, this allowed me to quickly filter to a particular student to view their progression across the seven weeks and offer them tailored feedback on their final submission. The students, on the other hand, can now filter by ‘historiographical debate’ or ‘highly detailed’ in preparation for their second essay and exam.
Looking back on the experiment as a whole, I will certainly continue it in future years. The core elements of my historiographical blogs have been retained but the briefer entries, flexible interface and mobile device compatibility have noticeably increased engagement.
That said, there are some improvements to be made. First, the inclusion of additional exemplars in class and online are needed. Even after several weeks, some students remained uncertain about the level of summary and analysis required. This might also require slightly more pointed feedback when students drift too far into simple description. Second, I will need to make the benefits of the formative (read: voluntary) work clearer. Some students quickly lost interest in the ‘extra work’ and other misjudged the tone expected for their online critiques.
In the end, those students who engaged regularly showed clear improvement across the seven weeks, leading to good (and, in some cases, excellent) final submissions. Meanwhile, several of lurkers also, in one-on-one conversations, admitted that reading work by other students helped improve their own writing style.
**Feature Image Courtesy of Kennisland