Speed Learning: Teaching History in January Term

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This week I’m attempting what feels like the impossible: I’m transforming a fifteen-week survey course into a three-week winter session. Yikes. 


Many two and four-year schools offer short, intensive courses in a variety of fields and formats over the January break. In my case, I will be delivering “US History since 1877” fully online. Although I’ve taught six-week summer courses for many years, the three-week format is new to me and somewhat daunting. 


I spent a good part of this week deciding how best to assess students in such a short period of time. For better or worse, the students will have to take on a great deal of independent learning and I definitely worry about whether they know what they are getting themselves into: fifteen chapters of historical narrative will be covered in a period of eighteen class days.


After several discussions with colleagues in a variety of disciplines, I decided to break the course into three units of six class-days. Each unit will contain roughly five chapters of material. I will assign a reading quiz for each chapter and a discussion for each unit, which will draw together the major themes of the unit’s chapters. Students will have a research project assigned on the first day and due on the last, a well as a final exam. I’m exhausted just thinking about it! 


I need to continuously remind myself that students take short, intensive courses for a number of reasons, most of which involve needing credits to complete their degree. At the same time, however, I do not want their need to get the course done quickly to take away from what I see as the value of a US history course. This challenge, I believe, may be the greatest to the process of condensing a full-semester course into the time frame of winter session. 


Unlike in typical-length semesters when I rely upon the College’s student evaluations for feedback, I’ve decided to survey the students myself at the end of the January term to find out what did and did not work for them. I’m very curious to learn whether students’ expectations of workload were realistic. And, I’d love to hear from anyone in the Macmillan Community who has taught a three-week intensive course -- history or any other subject. Advice? Suggestions? I’m all ears!

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.