Thematic US History: End of Year Reflections

Having taught an inquiry-based, thematic US history course with quite a bit of student choice presented us with a challenge when it came to crafting a final exam. Since our senior electives do not generally have exams, this would be the last history exam our students would take before college. We did not have a mid year exam, with a research paper due instead. How do you create an exam that provides students an opportunity to show what they know when there is not a common body of knowledge they learned?

We knew it had to involve lots of choice and some broad questions. Our foreign policy unit was based largely on individual research, so each student had different expertise on that topic. They learned from one another but not to the degree that I felt comfortable basing mandatory questions on student presentations. The economics unit  was more  straightforward since we did mostly common work. We decided on a format that included a choice of statements for students to provide evidence to support/refute, a document analysis section, and an essay. Here is the Review Sheet .

Grading the exams was a little unsettling – not because the students did poorly but because they brought such different perspectives and examples to the same questions. I  actually wish they could have read what their classmates wrote. I was impressed by most and blown away by some. Many students used examples from their research papers and projects, as well as the course readings.

Feedback from students was positive in my course evaluations. Students learned research skills. They learned how to create their own paths of learning. They also learned some specific content about American History, including the role of government in the economy throughout the twentieth century.

When I debriefed with my classes on the last day they confirmed what I suspected – they liked the freedom to learn what they wanted part of the time, but they also liked having a body of shared work to analyze, discuss, debate. It is a balance. This year I think we leaned too heavily to the side of student choice a bit. Next year, we may swing back to more common topics.

What I did not feel, for the first time ever in teaching US history, was the press to get further in the curriculum. Present had mingled with past all year long, and we knew from the beginning that some of our favorite topics might get passed over. I do believe that we had more important, relevant and meaningful discussions this year. I can’t imagine going back to a straight chronological US history course.

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