Teach-to-mastery approach in history classes

I’m using the teach-to-mastery approach in my course this semester. It helps that I only teach one class with 14 students in it. Essentially, I am allowing students to revise any assignment and turn it in for an improved grade as many times as they wish to. This is much more like how historians operate in the real world, anyway. Journal and newspaper editors work with you (or against you) and give you a chance to improve your writing. This really helps relieve anxiety for students who are new to historical writing, or who worry about what exactly the professor wants them to write. So, I spend some time going over general expectations for assignments, but not an excessive amount, and I refuse to use a rubric for grading (you know, 15% for grammar, 10% for writing a conclusion, etc). That might be helpful for some people, but seems unnatural to me. If you write an amazing paper but have no conclusion, I might still give you a 100%, not a 90%. If you are pure genius, but your grammar is a bit off, well, let’s work on that.

The key is to identify the major arguments in the writing, evaluate them and the evidence presented, write lucidly about it. Essentially, demonstrate to me that you understood the assigned readings, that you can engage with them, and that you can connect them with other things we’ve read for class. So far, using the teach-to-mastery approach has been encouraging. I provide students with feedback for what went right and wrong in their papers, and offer them a chance to revise and resubmit. Instead of punishing them with lower grades for being bad, or for not understanding what I wanted in the assignment, I show them how to improve. They seem glad for the feedback and the chance to improve. They learn more, are less anxious, and have less to complain about. The earlier they turn in a paper, the more time they have to revise it.

Here is an example of the typical kind of comments I provide on a first draft:

“I’ve now read your paper and have made some edits. I stopped editing about half way; let me explain why.  It was clear to me in the course discussion, and it remains clear as I read your paper, that you understood the article and its central concepts. However, your presentation and writing here needs some work. Your paper is largely a summary of the article, which is fine. But you don’t need to reference the page and chapter every time you talk about an idea in the book. Instead of listing, quoting, and summarizing so many ideas in the reading, you should consider focusing a bit more on the major ideas in the book, and tell me what you think about those ideas. Are they well argued? Why is Osterhammel and Peterson’s definition of globalization useful, interesting, or better than definitions of globalization that other authors have given?  Remember that you are not writing a book report – which would say that the book is good or bad – so much as that you are to review and respond to the book. This means identifying its central arguments, judging the evidence that the authors laid out, commenting on their style and clarity, and then reflecting on its usefulness to you and to the themes of the class. I hope this helps to explain what I am looking for.  If you need more advice or guidance on how to re-write this – if you wish to rewrite it – please ask.  At the moment, I will score this as a 78 out of 100, and welcome a revision along the lines I suggested above. “

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