“Ditch the Highlighter”: What the Research Suggests about Teaching and Learning in Higher Education

Andrew Nurse

This is the second post in a two-part series on STLHE by Andrew Nurse. Read part one here.

Lego storm trooper holding a paintbrush next to an easel.

Photo by Daniel Cheung on Unsplash

How can we — how should we — teach history at the university level? This question has been the subject of a great deal of discussion. The perspective that I’m trying to introduce here is influenced by the scholarship of teaching and learning in higher education (STLHE). If the STLHE is about evidence-based changes that can make for more effective university-based teaching, what are changes that historians can make? James Lang’s Small Teaching is an easy and accessible guide. His blog and periodic column in The Chronicle of Higher Education provide a set of nicely-organized suggestions that can point university instructors toward STLHE-informed educational strategies. These suggestions are not a series of tips per se, or even best practices, but what Lang calls “classroom practices,” or ways in which we can reorganize classroom time and pedagogy guided by research into teaching and learning. Following some of Lang’s work, let me suggest three small changes to classroom practice that seem to make a difference in learning. You might already have implemented these changes, or some variant of them. If this is the case … good! I hope I can provide some positive reinforcement.

First, the according to Lang, the STLHE  suggests that we should make better use of the first few minutes of a class. I’ve tried a whole series of different ways of starting class, from what I had hoped were stirring — nay, arresting — opening words, to due date reminders, announcements about co-curricular activities, admonitions or congratulations about test or paper scores, to explanations of assignments. Lang thinks we don’t make good use of the beginning of class time, particularly in the age of social media, when students come to class already distracted by the gadgets in their hands. I’m not certain any of my ways of starting class are bad, but the research we have suggests that a more effective way to begin class is to get students thinking right away. Begin with what a colleague of mine calls “orienting questions” and don’t just use those questions as an outline. Have students take a few minutes to work in, say, pairs or small groups to answer them.

This practice has several merits. It allows students to begin thinking about the material or issues that will be addressed in that class and gives the instructor a rough overview of the state of knowledge, giving us a better chance of pitching, say, a lecture at the right level. Obviously we already come to class with lectures prepared, but some subtle adjustments are always needed — no two lectures are ever exactly alike. More importantly, it allows students to activate any knowledge they already have and build on (or challenge) it, or connect it to material they may have previously learnt. Regardless, it begins of process of making a class — a lecture, a lecture/discussion, a seminar —  about thinking, addressing issues, and fitting things together, rather than simply dropping a knowledge bomb. At this point you are already ahead of the game.

Additionally having students write down their answers seems to help, and this is the second point I want to make. The STLHE suggests that there are way of improving factual recall. At Mount Allison, we used to have long discussions about whether we were teaching ‘facts” or “critical thinking.” If you pause to think about for a bit, this is actually more than a bit of an artificial distinction. I agree with Tom Peace: we should not pretend that a straightforward narrative built around supposed “great men” — and recalling facts about their lives —  is somehow Canadian history. Much less do I like those polls that periodically pop up in the newspapers telling us that Canadians don’t really know their history because they can’t name a certain Prime Minister or a World War I battle. This is more akin to trivial pursuit than it is university-level history education.

On the other hand, the ability to recall factual information is important because this information is the precondition of critical thinking, analysis, and challenging or confirming different perspectives on the past. Knowing precisely when an important event occurred may not be important in and of itself but it can be important for a discussion of the processes that led to that event, say Confederation, the progress of suffrage, or the various facets of colonialism and marginalization that produced the long-term subjugation of Original Peoples. These are examples, the point is that knowing these “facts” helps us fashion narratives and analysis. They provide the basis upon which we might, say, question the triumphant narratives of Canada that surrounded us during Canada 150.

Most students don’t like trying to recall facts — most, in my experience, dismiss it as a form of education — and there is a good reason for that. Most of us are really bad at it because we go about doing it the wrong way. We try to recall facts in isolation as a parade of names and dates that are of supposed significance by themselves. Moreover, as James Lang has noted, common student study strategies — highlighting texts and re-reading textbooks — are really ineffective ways to promote recall. More effective methods put those facts in context. Self-testing — that is making up ways of testing yourself that allow for knowledge recall — is one method that can be successful, but rewriting notes, mind-mapping (to provide connections between facts, events, people, and processes), and content review are also useful tactics.  As many of us can attest, cramming does little to promote long-term knowledge or help make the types of connections out of which critical thinking and analysis emerge. Encouraging material review, or even making time for it in class, can facilitate the types of learning — the interaction of fact and process and persons — that we want to promote in our classrooms.

To my third point: we must make better use of the last few minutes of class time.  This is a particular weakness of mine: I run long and, consequently, the last few minutes of my classes are often rushed affairs. If I have the big-class lecture that semester (something which is far from ideal but which is also a reality of the contemporary university), it tends to be even more so, as I strive to “cover” material and “keep on track.” This may not be a very good use of time.  My students, at least, don’t seem to think so. I can tell because they start to shuffle in their seats, close their laptops, glance less furtively at their iPhones, or begin to chat about something other than class material to the person sitting next to them. Instead of trying to hold their attention even as it wanes, a more effective approach is to get students thinking again. Lang suggests the “minute paper” as one way to close out the class and, in one of his columns, explains it like this: “The minute paper comes in many variations, but the simplest one involves wrapping up the formal class period a few minutes early and posing two questions to your students:

  • What was the most important thing you learned today
  • What questions still remain in our mind?”

This encourages students to recall material, translate into their own words, reflect on what they have learnt and still need to learn, and make judgements about what was discussed.

I am acutely aware that the practices I am suggesting add more work to what we do in the classroom, even if I have billed them as small changes. In the modern university, we need to know that the burden of added work falls unevenly across classroom instructors. Faculty who are sessional instructors or on limited term contracts already often have more work than they can handle as they navigate the precarious employment market of the neoliberal university. Asking them to make further changes, to add work, to become more intentional begs more than a few questions about ethics and compensation so I want to state this point clearly: I am not trying to make more work for people who are already underpaid. Indeed, ideally, the opposite development might happen. If we think about the need for more intentional design with regard to classroom practices, the time taken to develop these should be part of the compensation of precariously employed instructors. If it is not, well, then as institutions we are not really making a commitment to more effective teaching. And, that would be a real shame because the STLHE is at a point where we can, I think, start to have this conversation.

Andrew Nurse is a professor in the Canadian Studies program at Mount Allison University and a contributing editor at ActiveHistory.ca

This post is part of the ongoing Beyond the Lecture: Innovations in Teaching Canadian History series edited by Andrea Eidinger and Krista McCracken. Inquiries, proposals, and submissions can be sent to the editors via unwrittenhistories [at]gmail[dot]com.

2 thoughts on ““Ditch the Highlighter”: What the Research Suggests about Teaching and Learning in Higher Education

  1. Adam Chapnick

    Given what we do in history, one of the ideal exercises to begin a class is to ask students to arrange a series of 3-7 events chronologically. They can do so individually, or in groups. In more technologically sophisticated rooms, they can do so through clickers or their equivalents. This sort of exercise promotes recall and understanding the trajectory of events and their significance rather than just memorization. It also provides clarification on what topics from previous lectures / classes didn’t stick.

    When it comes to the minute papers, in my experience, providing a reward for the papers makes it much more likely that they’ll be completed sincerely. More specifically, I have often used ‘identify and state the historical significance of’ questions on term tests. When I use minute papers, I offer students the opportunity to vote on the structure of those term tests: either complete 5 of 15 terms (no list provided in advance); complete 5 of 10 from a pre-distributed list of 20ish; or complete 5 of 6 from a list of 12ish. Some years, I hold two votes (and therefore have them complete two minute papers in different classes),and move from 3 possible types of term test to 2, then to 1. Some years, I reduce the 3 options to 1 directly.

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