In-class discussions of primary sources

I have been frustrated with students’ analyses of primary sources. To be blunt, their interpretations seem superficial, not always tied too closely to the evidence, and usually are completely lacking nuance. I’ve been puzzled about how to teach these skills more effectively, and how to get students to read more critically.

I have thought back to how I learned to carefully read evidence. There were three events that I remember as particularly formative:

  • Learning Latin. This taught me to notice small details more and to think about every word being used.  The more I noticed and appreciated Horace and Cicero’s manipulation of word order, the more I was able to read closely and carefully.
  • Talking over papers with my undergraduate professors. I remember one professor chastising me for writing a page-long paragraph. Another professor, who was intimidating because he had a reputation for never giving As, was even more formative. His paper topics were nicely challenging at the time, but I see their pedagogical value at the time. The one that stands out in my mind asked how a passage of Thucydides illustrated the thesis or key themes of the text which he had been outlining in class lectures. This was a great way to force us to critically read Thucydides with a goal in mind.  I think it was this same professor who offered the same advice that I give my own students now. When you introduce a quotation, do three things: (1) explain the document and from where in the document the evidence is coming (or at least your motivation for mentioning it in your own paper), (2) provide the quotation, and then (3) provide your explanation of the quotation.  I’m learning that I also need to tell students not to omit parts of the quotation, and that, as they write their interpretation of it, to constantly refer back to the quotation.
  • Writing a thesis and dissertation. This conversation among me and my advisors made me constantly provide an interpretation, receive feedback on the interpretation, refer back to the evidence, and provide a more refined interpretation. This process and the peer review process hone(d) our skills to critically read and critically think about the relevant evidence.

The first of these three elements is field specific (and one of the many reasons why Latin and Classics matter), but the second strategy is something that all teachers can do: have conversations where we guide the students as they develop their own ideas. So how do we make that happen?

I think some of the key is flipping the classroom so that students receive information more passively at home and engage with the primary sources and learn to critically analyze them in class, where we can help them engage with the sources, or in papers where our feedback helps them improve. Here’s a more detailed version of how this class might work?

  1. At home, students read a history textbook and/or watch a YouTube video to receive background knowledge, and they read a primary source that will be discussed in class. I would also assign reading questions, an online quiz, or posts to an online discussion forum to ensure that students do the reading.
  2. At the start of class, students need to remember what they read about for that lesson. Briefly review the passively received content with a lecture, or ask them to summarize or skim back over the reading. I often find that summarizing it in groups is helpful.
  3. Depending on students’ skill level, provide them with reading questions or a worksheet to consider for the text.  This will guide their reading and hopefully make them notice more details that will help them become more critical readers. Again, depending on their skill levels and the class dynamic, ask them to work on the questions alone then in groups and then discuss it as a class. As the groups get larger, their ideas are challenged more frequently and put into a conversation with each other–they will need to be more critical about whether to maintain and how to adjust their ideas.
    Of course, how you frame these questions is important. Lately, I am hoping that two types of questions help students see more nuance: (1) “True or false or somewhere in between” questions that are then followed with “Justify your answer” (and “Justify” seems to work better than “Explain” when talking to non-academics), and (2) “On a scale of 1 to 10, …” that is then followed with “Justify your answer.”
  4. Do this often. The more you do it, the more engaged (or at least the more active learners) students become and the more critical their reading may become.

There is an added benefit for professors with this method: we get to discuss and develop their ideas and exchange ideas more often, and I think that’s partly why many of us enjoy teaching and academia. Of course, their ideas are not necessarily going to be profound but they can surprise us every once in awhile with a great discussion or new insight.

Note: This is very much like Socratic Seminars, but with more guidance from a worksheet or reading questions. I think, in some ways, this is also stuff that I’ve known already but I needed to reiterate and think through for myself again.

Additional note: Stations with worksheets are a great way to encourage students to pick up details, but they seem to lack the benefit of long conversation.


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