Building KU's Teaching and Learning Community

Improving Student Learning by Making History More Accessible to a Diverse Group of Non-Majors—Andrew Denning (2021)


An associate professor in the Department of History describes the implementation of high-impact, writing-intensive practices in History 115 – Europe: 1789-Present in an effort to make the course more accessible to a diverse group of learners. Students in the course demonstrated improved writing abilities as well as stronger understandings of how historical knowledge is developed.


Europe: 1789-Present is an introductory course within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. It covers the history of the continent in the wake of three major revolutionary periods of the 18th century: the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution. The course also explores Europe’s politics, culture, and society and their continued influences on modern life. The changes to this course were intended to provide a more process-oriented approach to understanding how historians create and debate knowledge about the past. Given that the majority of students in HIST 115 are freshman non-majors, these changes were also intended to make the course more accessible to a diverse group of learners with differing experiences and background knowledge.


Through CTE’s Diversity Scholars Program, I learned about the importance of evidence-based pedagogy in making courses more accessible to a diverse group of learners. With that in mind, I worked at making HIST 115 more transparent and reframed the content and assignments around the production of historical knowledge. Changes to the course were done using a backward design approach, with the end learning goals driving the formats and expectations of the activities and assignments. A number of low-stakes writing assignments were added to the course along with a more scaffolded approach to the course’s major essay assignments. The high-impact writing assignments for the course included significant opportunities for peer discussion, peer editing, and instructor feedback at numerous checkpoints along the path to students’ final drafts. For the final assignment, students created podcasts rather than completing the traditional blue book exam. This required students to thoughtfully synthesize material from the course while providing them latitude to express their knowledge in different formats and to develop multiliteracies.

Student Work

Student learning outcomes improved both quantitatively and qualitatively compared with previous iterations of the course. As a result of the high-impact writing approach, student writing skills were more developed than in past course offerings. The students also demonstrated stronger argumentative skills and had a better grasp of how historical knowledge is developed. By implementing more structured opportunities for collaboration and feedback, students in this introductory course developed a level of sophistication in discussing history that would be more typically expected in an upper-level history course.


The implementation of the high-impact practices and the backward design approach to the redesign of HIST 115 made the course more accessible to learners of diverse backgrounds, and students in the course demonstrated significantly stronger understanding of how historians work than in past semesters. The process-focused nature of the new assignments allowed students opportunities for reflection and iteration on their ideas. A focus on inclusive pedagogy also helped me provide space for critical conversations about the Great Man view of history, which focuses on a canon of particular historical leaders and thinkers (such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Vladimir Lenin, and Adolf Hitler) as the primary agents of historical change. In our discussions, students understood how this view is itself a product of the politics of knowledge production drawn from specific sources and scholarly perspectives, and how integrating the perspectives of diverse historical actors enriches our knowledge of the past. Based on the success of the project in HIST 115, the lessons learned from this project are already being implemented in my other courses.

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History 115 – Europe: 1789-Present is an introductory, three-credit course on Europe from 1789 to the present day that fulfills KU’s Core Goals 1.1 and 3. HIST 115 is offered about once per year by multiple faculty members in the history department. Students are typically freshmen and sophomores, and most are either undecided or non-history majors. The course consists of a lecture section and weekly discussion sections, led by graduate teaching assistants, split into groups of 15. History 115 examines how the definition of Europe (in geographic, cultural, political, social, and economic terms) has been established, challenged, and altered since the 18th century and how historical individuals and movements, from liberal democracy to National Socialism and Soviet communism, might be considered equally modern.

The course covers three revolutions that inaugurated the modern era: 1. the Enlightenment (a revolution in culture and thought); 2. the French Revolution (a revolution in politics); and 3. the Industrial Revolution (a revolution in the economy and society), and their ongoing historical ramifications. Course topics include the emergence of liberal and socialist political views, the rise of nationalism, the creation of overseas empires, the chaos and destruction of the two world wars, the Cold War split between East and West in the post-World War II era, and the current place of Europe in the world.

HIST 115 has four primary learning outcomes:

  • Students will become familiar with the difference between primary and secondary sources and the ways historians use each
  • Students will learn to “think historically,” recognizing the role of contingency and multiple factors in creating historical change
  • Students will learn to articulate an argumentative thesis statement and to develop an argument using well-chosen evidence and historically contextualized analysis
  • Students will become familiar with key historical developments in Europe in the modern era and will be able to formulate an argument about the events and trends that defined this era.

This course is the standard Western Civilization-style survey course that—in being structured around war, revolution, and intellectual change—has long been dominated by Great Man historical paradigms, which focus on a canon of particular historical leaders and thinkers (such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Vladimir Lenin, and Adolf Hitler) as the primary agents of historical change. As an introductory course with a majority of non-majors, it assumes no prior knowledge. The course had previously been organized to familiarize students with the basic narrative of European history since the late 18th century. As a result, students often struggled when challenged to think analytically about why historical change occurred and to formulate persuasive arguments about the historical past using evidence.

My desire to transform the course therefore centered on making the course more inclusive, transparent and accessible for students with varied exposure to the course material, and reframing the content and assignments around the production of historical knowledge. The changes to HIST 115 added a number of writing exercises, including eight short reflections on course readings, two in-class exams, and a take-home final exam that, collectively, composed 47% of the final course grade. Two essays developed progressively throughout the semester accounted for 40% of the final grade, and these two central assignments, as well as the take-home exam, provided excellent opportunities to implement the changes I envisioned for HIST 115.

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Through CTE’s Diversity Scholars Program, I learned about the importance of evidence-based pedagogy in making courses more accessible to a diverse group of learners. Practices such as transparency, low-stakes assignments, scaffolding, and options for demonstrating understanding help all students but have proved especially valuable for first-generation students and students from underrepresented backgrounds. With that in mind, I worked at making HIST 115 more transparent and I I drew on the principles of high-impact learning practices. I made the course writing-intensive, requiring one-page, weekly responses to reading and discussion topics. I shifted the approach from the delivery of content to more of a process-based discovery of “how the sausage is made” in history. We highlighted historiography, pairing most weeks of primary source readings with curated historiographical debates on the same subject. As a result, students became familiar with the ways historians read sources and pose historical questions, while simultaneously coming to understand how the work of history advances through debates and interpretations, not the memorization of facts.

Course assignments supported the new pedagogical approach. Each writing assignment was scaffolded to require students to produce their paper in steps, engage in significant peer review, and master each stage of the writing process. The scores on these assignments served as the data analyzed to gauge student performance and improvement.

The first essay assignment challenged students to make sense of a variety of sources relating to imperialism, synthesizing them into a coherent essay on its meaning and import. This was done over the course of three peer-review checkpoints that provided students the ability to approach the final version of the essay in phases. The first two checkpoints had students focus on a reading or group of readings and construct a short essay with clear organizational support from the instructor as well as in-class peer feedback and discussion. The third checkpoint asked students to synthesize their work from the previous two checkpoints in support of, or in argument against, a provided thesis statement. This process reinforced the course’s focus on presenting the discipline of history as driven by interpretation and argument rather than memorization of content.

The second essay assignment implemented another high-impact learning practice: requiring students to produce a group essay, which focused on the Holocaust. Each student in the group became an expert on a particular monograph and the debates surrounding the work and, in a scaffolded series of assignments, first produced a short essay on their debate, then synthesized their work with those of their groupmates to answer a question about the historical provenance of the Holocaust. This assignment challenged students to place works in the historiography into conversation with one another, and to weigh their claims and make sense of the stakes of the historical debate. Form and content united in this case, as students both came to understand and practice the collaborative and iterative work of historiography.

The final exam for this course shifted from the usual blue book essay to an oral podcast recording of students making an argument about whether fascism and communism were departures from European history or its recognizable legacies. This required students to synthesize a wide range of information from lectures, readings, and discussions and to make a persuasive argument in oral form, a skill that is central to the study of history but that we rarely teach or evaluate. Like the previous two essay assignments, I made sure to provide ample scaffolding for the exam, including a number of potential questions to consider in their responses as well as clear directions for organizing and recording their podcasts.

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Student Work

As I attempted to assess the impact of the new writing practices in the course, I compared the scores on the three major essays in the redesigned course to the scores on the same assignments from the previous semester HIST 115 had been offered. This was aided by the fact that these assignments were assessed using the same 100-point common rubric found in the course syllabus in both semesters. The rubric was qualitative and impressionistic, used to place students' work on a spectrum and frame our evaluation of their written work. Grading of the essays in the two semesters was done by a different GTA. However, we worked together, and I monitored and did quality control checks for standards and consistency in assessment.

The following box plots and descriptive statistics show the distribution in the three major essay scores in both the Spring 2016 and Fall 2018 semesters. Additionally, independent sample t-tests at an alpha level of .05 were conducted for essays one and two and the final exam to measure whether there were significant changes in student performance in the two semesters:

On essay one, students in the redesigned course showed higher mean scores (M = 81.189, SD = 13.258) than those in the previous course session (M = 75.97, SD = 11.839), t(68) = 1.729, p=.088.

Essay 1 Scores

Similarly, on essay two, students in the redesigned course again showed higher scores (M = 83.865, SD = 10.978) than those in the previous course session (M = 80.419, SD = 8.808), t(66) = 1.408, p=.164.

Essay 2 Scores

While significance levels on essays one and two did not reach a value of p < .05, scores on the final exam assignment in the redesigned course (M = 85.943, SD = 8.091) showed a significantly higher mean score than the previous session (M = 81.581, SD = 7.865), t(64) = 2.215, p=.03

Final Exam Scores

On all three assignments, the students in the redesigned course also tended to have scores distributed more tightly to the improved means. An important point to mention regarding the data is the outsized influence of outliers given the relatively small class size. When these small number of outliers are removed, the changes in mean scores on essay assignments one and two and the final essay become statistically significant (p = .015, p = .002, and .004 respectively).

Student essays and exams demonstrated that they developed a much more nuanced understanding of how history is made. Rather than assuming that history is a collection of names, dates, and facts, their work over the course of the semester indicated that they began to understand that history is a set of debates and arguments based in interpretations of historical evidence. Further, in their written assignments, they inhabited this interpretive role ably, and did a more effective job of advancing analytical arguments based in their own interpretation of primary sources and engagement with secondary scholarship.

The quality of students' writing improved significantly through the scaffolded writing assignments. More importantly, the focus on the process of making historical knowledge in the lectures, discussions, and assigned materials led to a higher-level understanding of historical analysis. I had long thought that such discussions were only possible in upper-division history courses, but I was pleasantly surprised that this proved effective for first-time history students as well.

I feel that the students’ work met the goals for the course quite well. Students proved that they understood the contested and necessarily partial nature of historical knowledge. In doing so, they developed widely applicable skills of argumentation, analysis of evidence, and engagement in historiographical debates.

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Andrew Denning

Overall, this rework required me to more explicitly define and justify the goals of the course, and to engage in backward design principles to attain these goals. The result was student work that was much stronger than in previous semesters, and a student population that better understood how historians work and what practices and concerns define the field as a whole. As a result, I plan to import these backward design principles to the rest of my courses.

I was impressed with students' improved understanding of how history works based on the changes made to the course. The heroic work of my GTA, Amy Millet, allowed the students to write about their ideas on a weekly basis and to receive targeted feedback each week. These low-stakes writing assignments provided practice that improved student performance on later assignments. The iterative nature of the graded essays allowed students to work through their ideas over the course of many weeks, demonstrating that writing and analytical thinking are processes that are best accomplished through outlines, drafts, and time to think. The oral podcast final was a great success, allowing students to work both analytically and conversationally through their ideas and translating academic knowledge into a digestible format.

In terms of areas that might be improved, I need to do a better job of meeting students where they are in this course, both to improve student performance and DEI outcomes. The majority of students were in their first semester at the university, and in the future, I plan to spend more time demystifying the course—how to access readings, how to read critically to prepare for class, how to budget their time, etc. In particular, the in-class exams, which were meant to gauge students' understanding of material presented in class, proved difficult. I had imagined these examinations to be relatively easy points for students attending class, but performance on these examinations was poor. In future iterations of the course, I need to help students understand how to take notes on a college lecture, and how to study from those notes effectively.

It was empowering to help students practice history by understanding how knowledge is produced. Their examinations of primary sources and readings in published scholarship provided them with the tools to make their own interpretations of the past. This was particularly fruitful given the DEI goals of the course, as it helped students to understand that the Great Man version of history is itself a product of the politics of knowledge production drawn from specific sources and scholarly perspectives.

The lessons I have learned from implementing this project have already spilled over into other history courses. I taught the introductory theory and methods course for graduate students the same semester and applied many of the same organizing ideas and concepts to that course: backward design, a clear statement of goals and learning outcomes, and a demystification of the professional study and practice of history. For undergraduate courses, I have applied creative assignments and scaffolded assignments effectively. In sum, the perspectives of evidence-based pedagogy and DEI have come to infuse all of my courses by avoiding assumptions about student knowledge and by rendering the course and the creation of historical knowledge more transparent. I look forward to developing these practices further in future iterations of this course, and in other courses at the university.

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Join us at the Teaching Summit

KU's annual Teaching Summit will be held on Aug. 18 from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

This year's theme is What Next? Envisioning Teaching and Learning for the Next 25 Years. The Center for Teaching Excellence will celebrate its 25th birthday this fall, and the Summit theme reflects that special milestone.

Dr. Michael Dennin of the University of California, Irvine, will present the keynote, which will focus on how higher education can open new paths to success for students by building on strengths and breaking down barriers.