Grou on a Mountain Top

When I was an undergrad at McGill (in the dark ages, before mobile devices…), one of the classes I dreaded the most was the pre-Confederation introductory survey class. It was like something out of my worst nightmare: an hour and a half lecture twice a week, with occasional tutorials. Those lectures were hellish. Not that there was anything really wrong with the professor. She was lovely. But she read her lecture out from a prepared text. I was usually asleep within about 20 minutes. Tutorials weren’t much better, since they usually involved the TA awkwardly asking everyone about their thoughts on the readings.

Like most professors, much of my teaching style is based on which classes I hated or enjoyed the most as an undergrad. That pre-Confed class has stayed with me as an example of what I wanted to avoid. Especially when I contrasted it with a course in English literature that I loved (confession, I have a minor in English lit. Don’t judge me too harshly.). I don’t remember much about the content, since it was also a survey class, but I remember looking forward to the tutorials, where the group of TAs gave us activities to do in small groups.

As I mentioned in my previous post, most professors receive little to no training in pedagogy. I certainly didn’t. The closest I got was a TA training course, complete with diploma from the UVic Learning and Teaching Centre (I probably still have it somewhere too…). While I believe that this should be a requirement, especially for those intended to try for a career in academia (try being the operative word here), there are a number of great resources available online. So in this blog post, I’m going to share my journey to make my introductory Canadian history classes better through active learning techniques. I’ll also include information about how you can develop the same kinds of activities for your classes. This blog post is a revised version of the talk that I gave at the 2016 Festival of Learning conference, which I wrote about last week.


 What is Active Learning?

There are lots of definitions for active learning. The one I like best comes from an Education Resources Information Centre digest on active learning from George Washington University. It states that:

“Active learning is generally defined as any instructional method that engages students in the learning process. In short, active learning requires students to do meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing. While this definition could include traditional activities such as homework, in practice, active learning refers to activities that are introduced into the classroom. The core elements of active learning are student activity and engagement in the learning process. Active learning is often contrasted to the traditional lecture where students passively receive information from the instructor.”

Or, to put it another way, active learning is any kind of learning that does not involve a student sitting in a chair listening to a professor lecture. Or sleeping, or playing games on their phones, or whatever else your students do when they’re supposed to be paying attention.

There are a significant number of benefits to active learning. Not only does it increase student interest and engagement with the material, but it also leads students to develop critical thinking skills, leads to a greater retention of materials, and provides opportunities for on-going classroom assessment. These results are backed up by solid research.

You can find further information about these studies by going to:


The Value of a Good Chair – My Introduction to Active Learning

I started with small group discussions. These have been part of my courses from the very beginning. There isn’t really a great reason why I did this. Mostly it was because that’s how they worked at McGill, and the professor I was a teaching assistant for at UVic in grad school, Eric Sager, also used them. My students seemed to respond well to them, noting in student evaluations that they appreciated the dialogue that emerged from the discussions and that these discussions were the best part of the course.

Since the beginning, I’d thought about integrating some activities into my introductory survey classes, but I wasn’t really sure how to do it. All of that changed after a department meeting at the University of the Fraser Valley.

The chair at the time, now the Dean of Students in the College of Arts, Alisa Webb, decided to turn the department meeting into a workshop on innovative teaching techniques. And to be frank, she blew my mind. She introduced the concept of active learning, talked about the benefits, taught us about the different techniques we could use to integrated active learning into the classroom, and then led us through a couple of these techniques as a demonstration. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that department meeting. As soon as it finished, I wanted to rush home and start figuring out ways to implement these activities in my classes.


And Then I Hit A Massive Speed Bump

Oh hubris, thou art a heartless bitch. As soon as I got the chance, I decided to see if I could find any ideas about how to use active learning in a Canadian history survey class. Google failed me. While I could find descriptions of generic active learning techniques, there was no information about how to use these techniques in a university-level Canadian history classroom. What little was available on active learning in history was restricted to elementary or high school classes, or to American content.

Needless to say, I was not pleased. It took me several years to figure out how best to integrate active learning into my introductory surveys. And because I’m awesome, I’m going to share my process with you.


A Word to Nay-Sayers

Now, I’ve heard three main problems raised about the feasibility of integrating active learning into Canadian history classes, and I’ll deal with each in turn. First, some professors complain that these activities limit the amount of material that can be taught. That’s absolutely true. But I don’t think this is a problem. It’s so easy to find out information these days, and who hasn’t looked something up on Wikipedia? I think it’s more important to teach students the skills they need to properly evaluate and understand this material.

Second, active learning involves time consuming prep. Yup, this is also true. And also not a problem. Every good professor continually updates their course content. Preparing active learning techniques isn’t that much more work, and you can reuse the activity for years to come. And you don’t need to redo your entire course at one time. Instead, you can integrate a couple of activities per semester. That’s what I did, until I got to the point that I do an active learning exercise in each class.

Finally, some professors complain that active learning can’t be used in large classes. I don’t agree. I’ve used active learning in classrooms of all different sizes. My solution to the problem is to break students into groups of 3 or 4 students who tend to work together for most of the semester (with some variation). They perform the activity, and I circulate. I try to spend 5 to 10 minutes with each group, answering questions and evaluating their understanding.

The one problem I have encountered is in fact one that I seldom hear raised: resistant students. Our educational system has taught students that learning is passive – all they need to do is sit in a chair and tune out their teacher. Many don’t want to change this system, because active learning requires effort. You can’t play on your phone while you do it (unless that’s part of the activity. 😉 ). This is a problem that I haven’t entirely solved, and I’d love to hear any successful strategies you’ve used!


Step by Step (Ooh Baby…)

So you’ve decided to integrate an active learning activity into your introductory Canadian history class. Yay! This will be fun. So how do you do this?


Step 1: Figure Out Your Learning Goals/Objectives/Outcomes

Learning GoalsMost us have these for courses now, but they are also important on a class-by-class basis. The first step in using active learning is to think about what you want your students to learn – the most important knowledge, concepts, and skills they will need to understand and apply.

If you are still trying to figure out how to develop learning goals, The Historical Thinking Project is a great place to start. I can’t say enough good things about this program, and I use it as the basis for all of my introductory Canadian history classes. I’d also recommend the Stanford Teaching Common’s guide to creating learning goals, which really helped me when I first started, as well as the Carl Wieman Science Education Institution at UBC’s guide.


Step 2: Select Your Activity

Once you have an idea of what you’d like your students to learn, it’s time to determine which active learning technique will work best for you. The possibilities are literally endless. Here are some of my favourites:

  • Brainstorming: This is pretty self-explanatory. I like to use this technique in my first class to ask students “What is Canada?” I write down the responses in a big concept map on the board. Once this is finished, I ask my students to explain the reasoning being their responses.
    • Good for: getting your students to think expansively about a topic, assessing prior knowledge.
  • Questions: Again, pretty self-explanatory. I like to ask my students what they know about a given topic before I start a lecture.
    • Good for: Assessing prior knowledge.
  • Historical Debates: Break your students into two groups. Each group will take one side of a historical dispute. They will have a set amount of time to prepare their statements in a traditional debate format, with specific examples from the readings required. After opening statements, each side has a chance at a rebuttal. I decide the winner based on a number of factors. You can give a real prize or not. I usually just tell them that winning is reward enough. 😉
    • Good for: assessing comprehension of information, teaching about historical perspectives, teaching students how to create arguments
    • Warning: It’s usually a good idea to avoid sensitive topics here, particularly for a first year class. While it might seem like a debate on the potlatch would be cool, it can degenerate really quickly. It’s also a tricky subject ethically, particularly with respect to Indigenous history in Canada, since Indigenous peoples continue to struggle for self-governance.
  • Think-Pair-Share: Post a complex question to your students. Give them 5 to 10 minutes to write down a response (Think). Once they are finished, have them discuss their response with a partner (Pair). Once they have discussed their answers with each other, they should turn to another pair and repeat the process (Share). This last step can go on for a fair amount of time if you want.
    • Good for: assessing grasp of content and/or critical thinking skills. The Think portion requires your student to come up with some kind of response. This forces them to think for themselves while also giving them a ready-made starting point for discussion.
  • Class Games: I haven’t done it yet, but I totally want to do Jeopardy in a classroom. Wouldn’t that be awesome? I have done charades with treaty terms, and while the students hated it, I thought it was hilarious.
    • Good for: assessing grasp of content, encouraging students to think differently about a familiar topic, professorial entertainment
  • One-Minute Papers: Pretty self-explanatory. Can be done at any point in the class.
    • Good for: assessing grasp of content and/or critical thinking skills, enhancing information recall and stickiness.
  • Reactions: Whether to images, sounds, or videos. Ask your students questions about what they saw or heard, ask them to make comparisons/inferences/etc…
    • Good for: assessing grasp of content and/or critical thinking skills, enhancing information recall and stickiness.
  • Jigsaw: (Sounds more complicated than it really is) Break your students into small groups of 4 to 5 people. Give each person a number from 1 to however many students are in each group. Then have all the 1s from every group convene in one area, and do the same for all of the numbers. Have each numbered group complete a task, usually involving gathering information. Once they’ve completed their task, reassemble the original groups, and have students teach each other what they’ve learned during their task.
    • Good for: just about anything. This is my favourite. Students learn best when they try to teach material to others.
  • Webquests: These are activities that are created for you by third parties based on a specific collection of material. See below for more information.
    • Good for: Good for: assessing grasp of content and/or critical thinking skills, enhancing information recall and stickiness.

It’s important to think about your context when selecting an appropriate activity. You can use active learning pretty much anywhere in a standard class format: at the beginning to introduce a concept; in the middle to reinforce information or have students apply what they’ve learned; or at the end, to summarize the day’s work and/or assess your students’ learning. Just pick the one that suits your learning goals and content best!

Here are some websites with more information about active learning activities:


Step 3: Find Your Resources

Next, you’ll need to find the resources you’ll need to run your activity. Since I’m talking specifically about history here, what you will most likely be looking for are primary sources.

There are three main places you can go to find primary sources. The first is your library. Most universities have access to some kind of primary source databases, whether these are archives of newspapers or collections of letters. The second place is Then/Hier. Their compendium of primary sources is simply amazing. They are all well organized and easy to search. The one problem is that since they no longer have any funding, the list is no longer being updated. So, many of the links are dead or broken, and there are lots of other sources out there that are missing. Finally, there’s Unwritten Histories! ::shamelessselfpromotion:: My Historian’s Toolkit series highlights primary source collections and teaching resources online. While there is only one blog post in this series so far, there are several in the pipeline, so stay tuned!

Expert Tip: The Then/Hier project has also published a number of books about teaching Canadian history. I haven’t had the chance to read any of them yet, but I’m sure they have tons of useful information!


Step 4: Knowing When to Cheat

As I said before, preparing active learning activities does take work. But there are ways to minimize the amount of preparation you have to do. What do I mean? I’m referring to those Webquests I mentioned early. A number of primary source collections online (whether purpose-built, a museum site, or an archival site) already contain materials for teachers! Someone else has done the hard work of pulling together an activity and the relevant sources. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with using or adapting one of these Webquests! That’s what they’re there for! To be fair, many of these are geared more towards a younger audience, but they can often be easily adapted.

For example, one of the best resources for these Webquests is the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canada website. There are a number of “large mysteries” that can be adapted for use in the classroom, though many of these require multiple sessions. More useful for professors are their Mysteryquests, which are short lessons drawn from the larger mysteries. Again, there are mostly geared towards a younger audience, but again, they can be adapted, and the ones for ages 16 to 18 work well in a first year class.


A Couple of Final Points

Takeaway PointsAdaptability is a key point. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Many of these activities were designed by experts in pedagogy, who know far more about how to teach students than I ever will. Some of them were even designed in accordance with The Critical Thinking Consortium, which is a great project designed to assist teachers and professors with integrating critical thinking skills learning into their classrooms.

At the same time, don’t be afraid to experiment. You are learning as much as your students through these activities. Accept that, like them, you will make mistakes and sometimes fail. And there is nothing wrong with that. Figure out what went wrong, learn from it, and move on!

Finally, embrace your enthusiasm and creativity! Your students can tell when you are emotionally invested in the material, and this can go a long way towards encouraging them to do the same!


So that’s how I’ve implemented active learning activities into my introductory Canadian history classes. Have you had any similar experiences? How did they go? Have you tried any of my suggestions? Let me know in the comments below!

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