World History MOOC Report 2: In which I make an embarrassing confession.

20 09 2012

I worked for a visiting professor during my second semester as a teaching assistant. He usually taught at one of the UW’s two year branch campuses, so he had rather inflated expectations of what students in Madison could do. In order to help them study for the first exam, I wrote up a study guide based on the lectures and the readings. I gave a copy of the study guide to the professor. When the test came, literally none of the terms I put on the study guide appeared on the test. He told me that he didn’t want to make things too easy for the students. Needless to say, neither of us was particularly popular after that.

Before I started teaching my first classes as a lecturer at UW-Oshkosh, I watched one of my friends teach a World History class. For her lecture, she wrote out an outline on the blackboard beforehand so that her students wouldn’t get lost and so that they would be able to spell the tough European words correctly in their notes. I didn’t have the time for that since I had two separate preps and a dissertation to finish, so I picked out a smattering of six or eight ID terms per class period to signify that these terms were particularly important and fair game for quizzes. Then I added two or three arguments to read up front to serve as scaffolding for the lecture. I still do both those things today through the magic of PowerPoint.

Jeremy Adelman does nothing like that in his World History MOOC. Perhaps students don’t need guidance at Princeton, but I sure do because (here comes the embarrassing confession) I am absolutely bombing the multiple choice questions after each lecture segment. After two lectures, I think I’ve gotten only one of them right on the first try in about eight or nine chances.

How could this be? Unlike my new Twitter pal Vim Ph.D., I’m pretty good at avoiding multi-tasking. When I get distracted, I do it in the old-fashioned way (i.e. I zone out). Nonetheless, I think there’s a design flaw involved here too. Like so many other history professors I’ve encountered, Adelman seems to be assuming that absolutely everything he says is incredibly important. It may be, but to expect anyone to remember everything you say right after you say it is entirely unreasonable, especially if they’re taking notes (which I am not by the way – we’ll see how much that hurts me come paper time).

When I teach, I always give signals to emphasize what’s particularly important so I know the students will remember the most important of all the important things I cover. Without guidance, knowing what’s important enough to get quizzed on is basically a guessing game, even when the lectures are broken up into twelve minute segments. And for some ridiculous reason, these multiple choice questions sometimes have more than one correct answer, which goes against every test rule that I’ve learned over my 20+ years of education. I’ve inevitably been jumping after I find one correct answer (because I’m conditioned to do that) and then getting the question wrong if there’s another one too.

This critique doesn’t mean that I claim to be the greatest teacher in the world. Far from it. However, my early experiences have made particularly sensitive to the need for history to be narrowed for students somehow. Otherwise they will inevitably be overwhelmed. Despite my many flaws, I do spend enormous amounts of time thinking about how I can teach US History to new Freshman better. I’m not sure that anyone at Princeton would ever be able to a better job at that than a talented community college professor whose job is essentially teaching and nothing else (except, of course, committee meetings). Maybe Coursera’s super-professors should be the ones who’ve spent the most time in the trenches teaching the masses rather than the ones who teach at the most prestigious schools.

Hey! That gives me an idea for a new TV series: “The Best Community College Professor in America.” Winner gets their own MOOC (and maybe a living wage too). I wonder what the weekly competition segments would look like…

PS Lest you think I’m a lone angry crank, James Atherton covers a lot of the same ground that I do here.




12 responses

20 09 2012
Vim, Ph.D. (@Exhaust_Fumes)

One of the emails we got said something about reading all the choices in the quiz questions first, basically a reminder to read them carefully, which I’ve noticed my own students have trouble with way more than I ever expect. Still, the fact that I never know which ones have more than 1 correct answer is really bothering me too. When emphasizing nuance or complexity requires more than a single correct answer, it seems to me that you’ve already reached a point in which a multiple choice question is not adequate for assessing comprehension.

But MOOCs can *only* give this kind of test (and those peer-graded essays) because, even as it barely makes students think carefully, the computer that grades them won’t have to (and can’t) think carefully about whether the student has genuinely done any high-level thinking. Standardized testing is so entrenched in our educational system that it perhaps doesn’t seem egregious and antithetical to real learning as it actually is.

Totally with you on the kinds of experience/considerations that would make for the best MOOC teachers. The tv show idea is hilarious (but I also wish it were real!).

As for my distractedness, well, guilty as charged (though I should add that the other thing I wanted to do while listening to the lecture was to respond to the many emails in my inbox from my own students).

20 09 2012
Vim, Ph.D. (@Exhaust_Fumes)

Oh, also, I am taking notes. I really am excited about our different approaches. You=textbook, no notes, Me=no textbook, taking notes. You=distractions internal, Me=distractions external, etc. etc.

20 09 2012
Jonathan Rees


How exactly is it possible to answer e-mails and take notes at the same time?

20 09 2012
Vim, Ph.D. (@Exhaust_Fumes)

I am taking notes with a real pen and notebook and everything, just like I did in the early 90s! I didn’t answer the emails–just wanted to.

20 09 2012
Music for Deckchairs

I’m not at all embarrassed to admit that Coursera is revealing me to be an epic fail of a student. I always suspected this (and in fact I have quite a track record in this regard). But like you, I think it’s making me a better teacher, by confirming quite a few what-not-to-do strategies.

I’m also not taking notes, and I think this is partly a failing of the Coursera platform. I watch the lectures on a laptop — opening a second note-taking window that will then create a document that will compost among the zillions of documents I’m dealing with doesn’t seem to me anything other than busywork. I want a notetaking field right there next to the lecture, so that I can keep my Coursera notes … inside Coursera.

TV show proposition: America’s Next Top MOOC, with very occasional foreign franchising. (This is in response to coverage of the latest Coursera MOOCs that described the non-US partners as “foreign”. Global? Not so much.)

21 09 2012
Leslie Madsen-Brooks (@lesliemb)

You’re not alone. I don’t have the study at hand now, but when I worked in a teaching center, I was reading all the time about the efficacy of lecture, and one researcher found that students retain about 15% of information from a lecture 10 minutes after it’s completed. Google “curve of forgetting” to see how much information we likely lose after a single day.

Personally, I test poorly, especially on multiple-choice tests. I also don’t learn well from lecture because I zone out. (Related: I give crappy lectures, so I don’t lecture to my students. It’s all discussion and in-class activities, all the time.)

21 09 2012
Jonathan Rees


Can you avoid lectures in your surveys? I go to great lengths to avoid them in all other classes, but I don’t see how you can avoid them in a survey.

21 09 2012
Leslie Madsen-Brooks (@lesliemb)

I do a pretty good job of avoiding lecturing in the survey–the longest I talk on any given subject might be 10 minutes. I don’t ever prepare PowerPoint slides or the like–I just bring up websites with images or artifacts as is relevant. I also occasionally use short video clips from PBS documentaries and the like, as I figure despite their faults, they’re going to do a better job than I am at conveying what happened in the past in any kind of narrative way.

I worry less (meaning hardly at all) about coverage than most faculty. Honestly, it’s a matter of me not really knowing enough U.S. history to feel an urgent need to cover it all. I explain to my students that we’ll be exploring select islands in the archipelago of U.S. history, and that if they want to learn about the stretches of water between those islands, I can show them where to go to learn more (and their research papers do help them explore those waters).

I do think it’s easier for faculty not to lecture if there’s a textbook that can provide some kind of narrative for students, though I share your distaste for textbooks. Last time, I used instead a primary source anthology with essays commenting clusters of primary sources, supplemented this reading with additional sources (many of them visual, since the anthology wasn’t as strong with those), and then led discussions.

21 09 2012
Jonathan Rees

Coverage is very hard to completely shake. I do 1 or 2 clips per 50 minute period. I also have a few days devoted entirely to skills. I need to think creatively about lecturing less, but there is enough that I want to cover that I won’t stop doing it entirely.

25 09 2012
World History MOOC Report 3: In which I feel sorry for Jeremy Adelman. « More or Less Bunk

[…] more freedom to adapt. The other day, Leslie M-B and I were talking about lecturing in the comments here. The conversation reminded me how much less frequently I lecture in survey class than I did in the […]

23 10 2012
World History MOOC Report 8: In which I explain my MOOC student survival strategy. « More or Less Bunk

[…] so I don’t really feel like I’m missing anything. In fact, I’ve been doing much better on the mid-lecture multiple choice questions since I started employing this strategy (although that […]

6 05 2015
MOOCs for Mooks: local proffie takes one out for a spin | Historiann

[…] Part the second, in which Jonathan confesses that “I am absolutely bombing the multiple choice… After two lectures, I think I’ve gotten only one of them right on the first try in about eight or nine chances.”  He believes that this is because Professor Adelman offers no guidance in his lectures as to which are the more important concepts or terms–no outline, no key words on the screen or whiteboard, no nuthin’.  Now friends, although I confessed to you recently that I am something of a creampuff when it comes to peer reviews of my colleagues’ teaching, this is the kind of rookie teaching unforced error that I would comment on in a letter.    (Or on a blog, in the case of a public lecture.) […]

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