Social Inquiry Department
University of Wisconsin-Superior
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Social Inquiry Department
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For more than a decade, Dr. Joel Sipress has encouraged students in his introductory history courses to avoid memorizing long lists of facts and to instead question, examine and argue about history -- in other words, to look at history the way historians look at it.
Now, the professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Superior is sharing national honors for a recent journal article that examines the way history is taught and argues for a better approach.
Sipress and co-author Dr. David Voelker of UW-Green Bay recently were named winners of the 2012 Maryellen Weimer Scholarly Work on Teaching and Learning Award for their article, "The End of the History Survey Course: The Rise and Fall of the Coverage Model" that appeared in the March 2011 issue of the Journal of American History.
The Journal of American History is the leading journal of American historians. The award is sponsored by Magna Publications, publishers of a journal titled The Teaching Professor.
Reviewing the 'coverage model'
In their article, Sipress and Voelker examined "the coverage model" of teaching basic U.S. history.
Under the coverage model, generations of history professors have worked under the assumption that "you can't think about history until you first know the facts," Sipress said. So professors have laid facts, concepts and themes before their students through lectures and readings, and it's been the students' responsibility to master this information and reproduce it on tests and other course assignments.
Meanwhile, critical thinking about history has been reserved for students in advanced courses and for professional historians.
A century of dissatisfaction
The coverage model came into use about 100 years ago, and many educators and historians have been dissatisfied with the approach ever since. Sipress and Voelker argue that it's time to put the coverage model to rest.
"We want to have students do at the introductory level what historians do, which is argue about the past," Sipress said. "Pose important questions, consider different answers to those questions, and weigh the validity of those answers on the basis of historical evidence."
Sipress said he's used the newer approach for more than a decade in the introductory history courses that he has taught.
Other approach helps students
Using the approach that he and Voelker are suggesting not only helps students to "develop critical thinking and writing skills but also to have a better knowledge of what happened in the past because they've been asked to think about the past and to apply their knowledge," Sipress said.
Sipress joined the UW-Superior faculty in 1994. He and Voelker developed their ideas by participating in activities through the University of Wisconsin System's Office of Professional and Instructional Development, which encourages university faculty to reflect on teaching and learning. The pair came to similar conclusions about teaching history and began collaborating on work that led to their recent article.
Others share their conclusions
Sipress said he and Voelker are among a growing number of history professors around the country who are coming to similar conclusions.
"The main message of our work is that an undergraduate education should really ask students to think in the way people in these academic fields think," he said. "And learning to think in these ways is really the most important value of an undergraduate degree."
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