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“Yesterday and Today”: Activity for Discovering Contemporary Relevance in Required Courses

Mon Nov 1, 2021 at 07:30 AM

Even the best of students have wondered, from time to time, how something they have learned in the classroom may be of benefit to them outside of that classroom. This can particularly be the case in general education courses where students have not chosen to major or minor in the subject being taught. As a professor of history who teaches topics ranging from the ancient world through the end of the eighteenth century, I have witnessed this challenge firsthand. In addressing this challenge, at the end of each semester, my students design a project called “Yesterday and Today,” which involves reflecting on our course content and illustrating—through a medium of their choosing—how a topic in the class has helped them to think more critically about a certain event or issue in the present. In doing so, students are able to better appreciate how the topics and skills that we have learned over the course of the semester can benefit them beyond the walls of our classroom. Moreover, in allowing students to design the format that their project will take, they are able to highlight their own personal strengths and use them to further their knowledge formation.

The objective of this project is to help students think critically about course content and appreciate the value of both the topics and skills that they have learned. Furthermore, they do this by identifying their own course interests and connecting these to their own aptitudes and talents. In this way, this assignment resonates with Jess Tess-Navarro’s recent teaching tip on Learner-Centered vs. Learner-Driven Design.

In approaching this specific assignment, students are first asked to consider what course topics they found most interesting, perplexing, thought-provoking, etc. Once students have identified a topic of interest they are then asked to reflect upon how such an issue relates to the present-day. Students are allowed to focus on historical continuities, contrasts, or something in between. It is up to the students to consider how the knowledge and skills they have learned throughout the semester have helped them to evaluate or reevaluate a current issue.

Often, the most rewarding part of the assignment comes next when the students choose the format through which they will present their conclusions. Students who enjoy writing can opt to submit a traditional paper, but I frequently encourage students to take this opportunity to highlight their own innate creativity and skills. In past semesters, students have submitted masterful paintings and sketches, poignant poems, creative web designs and much more. All of these non-traditional submissions (i.e., anything that is not a written paper) are also accompanied by a brief description explaining the creator’s approach to the assignment.

This project has proven to be valuable in a number of ways. It allows students to engage more deeply, beyond what we are able to do within the confines and time-constraints of the classroom, with course material that they find interesting. By asking students to draw connections or contrasts with the present-day, they often become more engaged in the world around them and are better able to appreciate the relevance of both the skills and content about which they have been learning. Additionally, by encouraging students to design their own project according to their own talents, they often realize that they are even more interested in the course material than they initially thought. Relatedly, I have witnessed students’ true sense of pride and accomplishment when they submit their final projects. Hopefully, they can then carry that sense of confidence and engagement into whichever courses and topics they pursue next.

Lastly, while this teaching tip has been discussed within the context of history, it can be easily adapted to other disciplines, by focusing on real-world applications and, again, encouraging students to bring their own creativity to the task at hand.

Save and adapt a Google Doc version of this teaching tip.

About the Author

Andrea Wenz is an Assistant Professor in the History Department. She specializes in the history of early modern Europe (c. 1400-1800) and teaches classes on the Renaissance, Reformation, and early modern culture and society. In her free time, Andrea loves listening to music, especially that from the 1940s-1960s, going on hikes, and playing with her mini-Australian shepherd, Annabelle.

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