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I require students to complete library-based research in all of my history courses. In the past I’ve blogged about a successful project that I assign in US History I and II, which involves historical images and requires students to use a book-length narrative history as well as academic journals to explain historical context (See “Picture This”). Over the years I’ve been very pleased with students’ responses to the project. Based on the students’ submissions I believe that they are learning valuable skills that will be applicable to subsequent college-level research.


This week I’d like to share an assignment that I’ve had less-than-fabulous success with and ask for feedback and suggestions from you, the Macmillan Community. This is an assignment that I use in varying forms in both US Women’s History and in Black History, both of which are 2000-level courses at my college, which means students should have taken at least US I or II before enrolling. For the purpose of this week’s discussion, I will focus on how the project has worked/not worked with students in Black History.


Click here to read my instructions to the students.


I’ll start with the positive. Students have embraced the opportunity to research something of interest in the civil rights movement. Many female students have chosen to study lesser-known female activists. This past semester one of the best submissions was a project on Daisy Bates and her work with the Little Rock Nine. Another student who had briefly visited Selma on a school trip researched the 1965 actions there. Others chose Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Panther Party for their topics.


Since they have so many options for their topic choices, all of the students start the project with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. We spend seventy-five minutes of class time in the college library getting started with the research by working with a reference librarian. The students are re-introduced to the library’s academic databases (they use the same databases earlier in the semester) and have a refresher demonstration in their use. This time is especially helpful for students who are having a difficult time narrowing down their topic. At the end of this class meeting students commit (in writing) to a topic after which I send them on their way. They have a full month to pull together sources and complete the project on their own, knowing that if they require assistance both myself and our reference librarian are available.


What happens next?


In my experience over the last two years of assigning this project about half of the students meet the general criteria I have set forth for the project with a satisfactory or better result. They understand the difference between primary and secondary sources, make a good effort at proper citations (this assignment is not the first to require citations in this course), and try to make an effective argument about the overall significance of their topic.


The other half, however, fall short of the mark in some significant way. The most profound problem I’ve faced has been the students’ choice of sources. Even with the time in the library and in spite of the instruction that general web materials (Wikipedia and, for example) are not acceptable sources, a handful of students in each class will completely ignore my warnings and use only those unacceptable sources. Even students who have otherwise done well in the course to this point will sacrifice their overall grade by ignoring source requirements.


Next time around, therefore, I’m trying a new approach: I’m requiring students to turn in a draft of their Works Cited page before they write the essay. My hope is that I will catch (and correct) those students using the wrong kinds of sources before they write the research paper. It’s my way of staging an academic intervention. While I’m hopeful that this new requirement will help, I’m also frustrated that so many students are not grasping the value of academic sources.


What are you doing to ensure that all of your students are using appropriate academic sources? Are you experiencing the same kind of struggle I am? Help wanted. Suggestions welcome.

As we enter Final Exams Week I’m already starting to think about what did/did not work this past semester. My efforts to increase content coverage in the US History since 1877 (US II) survey, for example, had mixed results and I’ll be evaluating the syllabus this summer, again, to find space for additional material. This semester I changed from having three in-class exams in US II to only two. I’ll have a better sense of whether that decision was prudent when I grade exams later this week.


Once again this semester my hybrid Black History course ran out of time without a tidy endpoint. We were just starting to cover black power and black nationalism when the semester ended. Current events are often detrimental to content coverage in this course. It never fails that something happens in the outside world that students will connect to a theme or topic from the course. I am always willing to let our discussion stray (at least briefly) from the course topic to some domestic or world event related to Black History. As interesting as those conversations were, now that the semester is over I’m wishing I had managed some of that discussion time differently.


In my courses that are fully online I make regular use of discussion board. I like the way that online discussion provides a space for each student to have a voice. It allows me to get to know the students’ perspectives and provides short samples of their writing before they submit their research projects. Since my hybrid class has one weekly meeting, I’ve had the students focus their independent/online work on learning content so that our in-class time could be used for face-to-face discussion.  


I’m of two minds when it comes to using discussion board in my hybrid course. On the one hand, because the students do see each other in class I want to take advantage of our time together for face-to-face discussion. In previous semesters I have intentionally not used the online discussion board with my hybrid students because I thought it would take away from the quality of in-class discussions. Students might be reluctant to say something because they have already “said” it in the online portion of the course. Or, conversely, they might simply restate ideas that were already addressed in discussion board.


After several semesters of teaching the course this way, however, I’m beginning to wonder if the face-to-face discussions would, in fact, be improved by use of the discussion board. Would it make sense to start discussion of a particular topic online and continue it in class (or vice versa)? In the past I have assigned students films to watch between our meetings with the plan being a group discussion of the film when we are face-to-face. Admittedly, this assignment has not been a success. On a typical day, a handful of students come to class having watched the film while the rest sit quietly and avoid making eye contact during the discussion. Would moving this discussion online as a graded assignment significantly change the dynamic? Currently our class meeting time for this hybrid course is split evenly between lecture and discussion. Would it make sense for me to increase the amount of lecture for the sake of coverage?


As more courses at our college move to hybrid delivery we are grappling with questions about what makes sense in the brick-and-mortar classroom versus online. I’d love for readers to weigh in: how do you breakdown your hybrid courses? What assignments are online and what absolutely must happen in-person in the classroom?