Using discussion posts and a reflective report in 1st year course to develop students’ abilities as historians.
In the Historian’s Toolkit students are introduced to what it means to be a historian. As the first of a series of vertical courses culminating with the dissertation, the Toolkit prepares students by developing and reflecting on skills essential for being a successful historian.
Half of the final 2000-word assessment is dedicated to a reflective report, where students identify their own development as historians against the Benchmark Statement published by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). Moreover, students write forum discussion posts typically related to using taught skills in practice.
Students are very positive about the tutorials, which they find helpful to implement methods, theory, and skills in practice. The course team is eager to see what effects will come from the new approach when the first cohort are writing their dissertations. Positive effects seem to establish themselves already. In contrast, some students don’t manage to reach high levels of criticality in their essays and struggle to see their own development. To engage with this, the course team is restructuring their support such that students will be introduced to writing reflections earlier.
Takeaways may include:
- Allowing students a place to reflect on skills they have gained throughout a course can make learning outcomes and graduate attributes explicit for students.
- Using QAA Benchmark Statements can be useful to start reflection on skill development in students (linked below).
- Using support services such as the Careers Service, Employability Consultancy, and the Institute of Academic Development can be helpful in adopting reflection and focusing on employability.
QAA website (external site, includes Benchmark Statements)
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The ‘Historian’s Toolkit’ is a compulsory 1st year 20-credit course for the History degree offered within the School of History, Classics and Archaeology.
1st year History students
Course Organiser, guest lectures, Careers Consultant, postgraduate tutors.
Students reflect on their development as historians in a 1000-word reflective report.
Moreover they submit discussion posts in which they will be thinking about what they have learnt in response to tutorials.
The lead discussion post has to be written weekly but can be reused with each iteration of the course.
Discussion posts are around 200 words and are estimated to take up to an hour to write.
The first two discussion posts receive formative feedback from tutors, and the rest of the posts are not marked until the end of the course – therefore marking for tutors is more time consuming at the end of the course. The course organiser moderates all final assessments.
The History degree has recently introduced of a range of vertical courses which build on top of each other and culminate with the dissertation. These courses teach historical methodology and skills which are essential to historians.
The first of these courses is the compulsory 1st year course ‘Historian’s Toolkit’, initially offered in 2016 which focuses on developing skills essential to succeeding at studying history and at university in general. These skills include structuring proper arguments and using primary and secondary sources.
Through this, the Historian’s Toolkit serves a range of purposes:
- It prepares students for further progress in History and, together with the other skill-based courses, prepares students for their dissertation.
- It ensures that every student is at the same level in essential study skills relevant for History and more generally.
- It helps students to surface relevant skills and so facilitates students’ awareness and communication of their employability.
The Careers Consultant associated with History gives a lecture with the Course Organiser on the importance of skills development to enforce the last aspect – reflection is essential to identifying the skills being developed.
The course assessment spans the final assignment, online quizzes on skills – such as finding relevant literature, referencing and more – tutorial participation, and tutorial discussion posts.
Reflection in context
Within the course reflection is most prominent in the reflective report. The report, together with an annotated research plan, makes up the final assessment, which is worth 50% of the course mark.
Reflection is also used as part of critical analysis in discussion posts that students write in response to the tutorials and the previous week’s skills quiz and lectures. The discussion posts makes up 30% of the course mark.
Introducing and implementing reflection
For the reflective report, a description is given in the course handbook. Students are asked to reflect on what it means to be a historian in relationship to the skills they are developing. There are different prompts in the handbook students can incorporate in their answer. However, as one of the goals of the course is to develop independent thinking no template is provided for students to follow. The course wants to train students to get away from following recipes and instead possess skill sets that allow them to tackle a range of situations.
Similarly, in the handbook there is a description of the discussion posts. These will have to reflect on the skill quizzes, the week’s lectures and tutorials. Students are asked to respond to a leading comment written by the Course Organiser. Students should answer with their opinion, relevant theoretical literature and learning taken from the course. In order to fully engage with these posts students will have to surface their own opinions and use critical analysis to create arguments and understand relevant literature. They will also have to use reflection to examine and improve their own practice according to these newly gained skills.
The course team is working on improvements to the course so that students are better aware of their own development.
Response to reflection:
Students’ responses to the reflection are divided – some students produce well thought out and structured reports, where others do not engage equally well. The staff see and expect multiple benefits from the course and are working hard to make students equally aware of their own development. The team is thinking about a diagnostic essay in the beginning of the year and one at the end for comparison. This change will also provide new materials for students to reflect on in regards to their development.
The discussion posts and final assessments are marked by the postgraduate tutors and then moderated by the Course Organiser. The organiser will also provide training for the markers to ensure consistency.
Assessment criteria for the discussion posts touch upon regularity of posting, use of relevant literature and evidence of engagement with the tutorial discussions. Students are expected to take their learning and link it with relevant literature to show how theory and practice inform each other.
The first two discussion posts receive formative feedback and the remaining are marked as summative assessments.
A good reflective report must put the content of the course in relation to the QAA Benchmark Statements for history. Students will surface specific skills and critically engage with what this means to be a historian. The strongest reports effectively track changes and values that the students have identified throughout the course.
Skill-based and methodology courses can be extremely helpful to create students who can succeed within their degree and university in general. Moreover, using reflective assessments in such a course allow students to surface and track development of skills, which ultimately can boost their employability.
Dr Anna Groundwater (History)
Craig Phillips (Careers Consultant)