The “Teach to mastery approach” for history class

Shortly put, teach-to-mastery means (at least to me) that students get multiple attempts to learn, do their work, repeat and improve on their work. The approach is revolutionary in the sense that it allows students to absorb feedback from their teacher and incorporate that feedback in a revision to their work. Instead of punishing students for getting something wrong, this approach shows them where they are wrong and gives them the opportunity for improvement. In the end, this approach encourages learning. I think this approach is also ideally suited to the history classroom.

For years, I’ve been saying that history classes ought to be designed to teach students to think like historians. This is far from a radical idea. People in the “historical thinking” movement have been saying this for years. But there are some necessary consequences of this view that perhaps don’t get applied in the classroom frequently enough.

For example, professional historians seldom or never take tests or exams. The pub trivia quiz is not a measure of who is a good historian. If tests were a good way to learn how to be historians, then it seems professional historians should be taking tests to improve themselves. But I would certainly not appreciate being required to take a history exam every year, like a drivers license test, in order to continue teaching history. And I don’t think I’d learn much by taking a test. Tests mimic memorization, not the critical thinking that is necessary to be a historian. For all these reasons, I don’t think students in history classes, especially at the college or graduate level, should take quizzes, tests, or exams of any kind,

Historians tell stories, and typically they write these stories down. Becoming a historian means learning how to write like one. While historians in the real world don’t get grades as such, they do get responses from editors, from peer reviewers, and from the public, that are equivalent to grades. For example, I have yet to write an “A” book in the sense that I’ve yet to find a large public interested in one of my books, even if a few readers and reviewers liked it. I have, however, written what I would consider a few “A” articles in the sense that they easily passed peer-review at top journals and have been cited by other scholars. I have also published more B-level work than I’d like to admit.

At any rate, I think college history students should write and receive feedback like professional historians do. The teach-to-mastery approach is useful in this regard.

I pioneered the approach in my course on the History of Globalization this spring. For the course, students had to write three 5-page papers. Each student signed up to be a discussion leader for two separate weeks in the course. They were then responsible for writing two separate papers based on the readings corresponding to those two weeks. The student could choose to turn in their papers before, during, or after the week corresponding to their discussion. A third assignment was a book review.

I made it clear in the syllabus that these assignments were not due on any particular date during the semester, but that they had to all be turned in before the end of the semester. No extensions would be given beyond that, except in extenuating circumstances (that is, circumstance which the Dean determines to be extenuating). I also promised to grade each assignment within a week of receiving it, and then return it to the student with edits and comments, allowing them to revise their paper. I event allowed multiple (even infinite) re-writes, so long as the students understood that the typical time for me to return a paper to them would be one week. This approach did a number of important things:

(1) It incentivized students to turn in their work earlier, so that they could have more time to revise and re-submit their work.

(2) It removed a lot of student anxiety about due dates, schedule conflicts, and concerns about what the professor wanted in the assignment.

(3) It encouraged students to listen to my comments and work with me to improve their work.

(4) It essentially obviated any student requests for extensions.

In about fourteen years of teaching history, I’ve learned that most problems with students arise because teachers are unclear about expectations, leading to student anxiety and anger. Although syllabi get longer and longer, and grading rubrics and assignment requirements run for pages, it is impossible to cover every possible concern. I don’t want to hear from a student “You never said I couldn’t do X” in which X is some palpably ridiculous thing like writing in some language I don’t read or copying half of a fellow student’s work.

For some of the same reasons that I don’t like exams, I don’t like grading rubrics. They seem unnatural. A historian doesn’t get 40 points for a thesis and 10 points for an introduction and 20 points for grammar, or whatever. It is the entire presentation that is subject to judgement. At the same time, it is good to set some expectations for student papers. My paper assignment descriptions are usually about a half page long, and they tend to say the same thing: “Discuss the author’s view. Has the author presented strong evidence and reasoning for their position? What are some possible criticisms of the author’s work, and how might they respond?” Essentially, I am always pointing students towards considering the arguments. History is a form of argumentation, based on evidence, reasoned from creative comparisons and metaphors.

Naturally, every student will have their own strengths and weaknesses, and my comments on each paper will have to be unique and sometimes extensive to explain where they have gone wrong. Sometimes it is because a student only summarized what they read and haven’t added any personal insight or analysis or comparisons. Sometimes it is because a student writes a K-12 book report instead of a professional book review. Sometimes the probably is with organization, or sentence structure, or simply not considering alternative viewpoints.

Now the teach-to-mastery approach, especially in the manner which I have applied it, requires a lot of work from the instructor. Like most teaching methods, it will probably not work in all settings and circumstances. It helps that I only had 14 students in this class, and that these students were mostly very good.

But the advantages of the approach have been obvious this semester.

They are:

(1) Students feel that they are working with me, rather than against me.

(2) Students express gratitude (rather than anger) for comments, which they can use to fix their paper.

(3) Students respect the final deadline, since I have already given them much time to get their work in.

(4) Students can finish their work on their own schedule and don’t need to ask for extensions.

(5) Students realize that if they received a lower grade than they would have liked, it is often because they did not get their work in early enough to hear what the professor thinks about the first draft.

(6) It builds a sense of a history workshop, in which students can read each other’s work and offer comments for improvement.

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