This blog post is about the teaching side of my work. While I have been working on content for History to Knowledge (H2K) for the past several weeks I have also been focused on organizing and getting documentation ready for a course that is new to me, the Colonial Era in American history which I will be teaching this Fall (2012). I have been working on ways to update my teaching documents and to integrate digital resources into the course. While I spend a fair bit of term evaluating students and their learning, students have also been providing feedback to me on my teaching.
If I am to be honest, I am having trouble meeting their expectations in feedback and grading because I have not been adapting well to class size and feedback expectations. I have extended assignment deadlines that impede my ability to give back assignments in a timely fashion and I have had stacks of assignments with hours of comments never claimed because they came too late for students.
I have been using the framework for a grade form since the early 1990s when I was providing feedback to 15 to 20 students per term. Class sizes have increased. The number of teaching assistants have decreased and student expectations for electronic classroom resources and grading feedback has changed dramatically for me.
The original form that I used was a word processing document that was completed with extensive comments throughout the assignment and typewritten. As I began to teach more, I developed a database template to manage student information, assignment grades and comments and final grades in one place. For each assignment there were seven criteria evaluated:
Introduction – 10 %
Thesis statement – 10 %
Structure and Outline – 10 %
Content: Research and Analysis – 35 %
Conclusion – 10 %
Style – 10 %
Mechanics – 5 %
Depending on the assignment, 1st, 2nd, 3rd and the value to the term, I have changed the weighting for each criterion and provided feedback. Depending on the amount of time I have for grading, I have provided full written comments from the database or noted the value attained for each criterion, or more recently, provided a grade and percentage and ask students to discuss if they require more feedback. I think the breaking point seemed to come last year when the class was 190 students and I realized there was no way to keep all of the information and data maintained without some dramatic changes, but I was too snowed-under all of the work for keeping up with new lecture material, emails, texts and feedback to do everything well.
I also encouraged students to submit electronic copies and provided detailed feedback in track changes, but I can see that there may be challenges over time with this method and wonder if there are experiences that others have had and would be willing to share.
For the fall term course, there will be 60 to 75 students and I am not certain that I will have a teaching assistant to help. I have been working with the University of Ottawa’s Virtual Campus system to upload a grading form and I will try to use it as the location for feedback and course management. Last year when I attempted to upload grades from excel it did not work and I lost hours of time inputting grades.
The evaluation that I am considering is as follows:
Introduction, thesis statement and structure – 20 %
Content: Research and Analysis – 60 %
Conclusion, style and mechanics – 20 %
Another point that I am considering is how to decode the grades and percentages that are assigned to student paper. I have also modified the description of what letter grades and percentages mean. The description I have been using for years outlined one’s ability to continue in graduate school. I began to wonder how many students in a diversity of courses really wanted to know about their ability to apply to graduate school, especially in courses that were not mandatory for BA Honours students or for courses that had at least half of their students from other faculties and so I have also changed this feedback. I note that some universities provide feedback for A range, B range, C range and failures. I am not sure about the value of having information for A+, A and A-, B+ and B, C+ and C , etc. Does this help or confuse students?
The expectations that have been set are: exceeds, meets, needs improvement and does not meet. I am still trying to figure out how to have a course database and how to integrate this new structure while being efficient and timely for students. The paper that begins below is the draft of the document that I will provide to students and adapt for other courses. Comments and feedback are always welcome! It’s a long document, so thank you for reading in advance!
Considerations for a Well-Written History Research Paper
For the past fifteen years, I have advocated a detailed grading scheme that provides students with comments and suggestions for their research papers and all written assignments. The challenge I have encountered is ensuring you obtain feedback in a timely manner to incorporate into future work and to provide you with feedback regarding your progress and learning. For some students, feedback and grades are important information that will assist with your decision to continue in the course. For HIS 2150, I will be trying to use a framework for grading that will provide you with clear feedback about what your grade means and in a format that will be more efficient and timely.
Point of Departure
For all of your research papers and assignments, remember that you must consider your audience and the learning objectives presented to you in the course syllabus. Other professors may provide you with different guidelines and advice.
Audience is an important consideration in academic and in private and public sector jobs. Refereed journals each have style guides and do book publishers. When a conference paper is presented, a guide regarding the format of the session and the amount of time we have is also provided. Writing for a blog also has a different style that requires us to adapt. Many jobs require presentations, briefing notes and analytical papers.
You will learn to adapt your writing styles. This assignment is a formal research essay and the following information is intended to provide you with tools and links that will help you to complete the research paper well, appropriately using evidence and demonstrating analysis of the topic.
At any time, feel free to discuss the academic level at which you are working in the course. Your assignments will have comments and suggestions throughout. Read the course material, the suggested tools and any feedback carefully before setting up a meeting to discuss your evaluated work.
Undertaking Research: Secondary and Primary Sources
Many of you will take methodology courses on writing a historical research paper. In addition to the information you learn from that course, please consider a number of guiding principles to help you manage, systematize and analyze your research topic.
You may develop a checklist of mandatory requirements for your paper and make sure that you have completed them before you submit your assignment.
- Keep a clear record of your research notes. Some historians use notebooks, recipe cards, file folders, word processing programs or open source software like Zotero. I highly recommend and suggest learning to use software that allows you to track and manage your notes to make the writing process easier.
- Select a topic early. Do not wait until the night before your research plan is due. Consider your workload and develop strategies to manage your research time. Set a schedule for the time when you will research your topic and try to respect it. This strategy will help you to keep focused and alert you to challenges you may encounter regarding scope.
- Ensure you have a clear chronology of your topic. Time matters.
- Ensure you have an understanding of the geography of your topic. Place matters.
- Organize your research to reflect the themes of your analysis. You may develop key words to help you with this analysis.
Introduction, Thesis Statement and Structure and Outline: 25 % of final paper
The introduction to your research paper must include a clear presentation of the historical context of your topic. A well-written introduction requires answers to the following questions:
ü Who? This may include a group, organization or an individual.
ü Where? What is the geographic location? Does it have defined boundaries?
ü When? Is there a specific day, year, decade or longer period key to your research?
ü What? What aspect of the research topic are you writing about?
ü Why? This question is key to your thesis statement.
You must provide the reader with an explicit statement of your argument and the evidence you will use to support your thesis statement. A minimum of three supporting arguments must be presented in a logical progression. For this course, you need to establish the context of your research and argument in the first paragraph and to complete the introduction with an easily identifiable thesis statement. You should have a title for your assignment that relates to your thesis statement and informs the reader of the time and place of your topic.
Clear and Unclear Thesis Statements
Many sources on writing will help you to further understand the elements of a clear thesis statement. We will be exploring examples in class. Several characteristics have been identified.
A thesis statement:
ü Is not a fact, but is an assertion about facts
ü Takes some sort of stand
ü Justifies and invites discussion
ü Expresses one main idea
ü Is specific
Suggestions for Constructing a Thesis from Maxine Rodburg and The Tutors of the Writing Center at Harvard University
First, analyze your primary and secondary sources. Look for tension, interest, ambiguity, controversy, and/or complication. Does the author contradict himself or herself? Is a point made and later reversed? What are the deeper implications of the author’s argument? Figuring out the why to one or more of these questions, or to related questions, will put you on the path to developing a working thesis. (Without the why, you probably have only come up with an observation—which is not a thesis.)
Once you have a working thesis, write it down. There is nothing as frustrating as hitting on a great idea for a thesis, then forgetting it when you lose concentration. And by writing down your thesis you will be forced to think of it clearly, logically, and concisely. You probably will not be able to write out a final-draft version of your thesis the first time you try, but you’ll get yourself on the right track by writing down what you have.
Keep your thesis prominent in your introduction. A good, standard place for your thesis statement is at the end of an introductory paragraph, especially in shorter (5-15 page) essays. Readers are used to finding theses there, so they automatically pay more attention when they read the last sentence of your introduction. Although this is not required in all academic essays, it is a good rule of thumb.
Anticipate the counter-arguments. Once you have a working thesis, you should think about what
might be said against it. This will help you to refine your thesis, and it will also make you think of
the arguments that you’ll need to refute later on in your essay. (Every argument has a counter
argument. If yours doesn’t, then it’s not an argument—it may be a fact, or an opinion, but it is
not an argument.)
Key Points to Remember:
- A thesis is never a question.
- A thesis is never a list.
- A thesis should never be vague, combative or confrontational.
- An effective thesis has a definable, arguable claim.
- A thesis should be as clear and specific as possible.
Well-considered and Poorly considered Paper Titles: You should have a title for your assignment that relates to your thesis statement and informs the reader of the time and place of your topic.
“Assignment 1/Assignment 2”
“Women in Colonial America”
“Slavery in Colonial America”
Structure and Outline
The outline of your paper and its overall structure are important to ensure that your evidence and analysis follows a coherent narrative. The structure may depend on a number of factors including the approach you are taking. Consider a thematic approach, using chronological approach to present your evidence or your structure may be determined by primary sources.
Content: Research and Analysis 50 %
You must demonstrate your knowledge of the topic and that you have completed research required to support your thesis statement. For this assignment, you need a minimum of 10 academic sources (journal articles and monographs). You must also have 5 (five) primary sources. Your paper must be a minimum of thirteen pages and a maximum of eighteen pages, not including the bibliography and footnotes. Your margins should be 1 (one) inch all around and font should be 12 point Times New Roman and footnotes should be in 10 point Times New Roman.
Your supporting arguments should be sufficiently supported by relevant data, quotations and evidence from primary documents and appropriate academic secondary sources.
Parameters and context of your research: details, description and information from multiple sources can be collected to provide the reader with complete sentences that provide important context for your papers. Your research assignments are all more about specific events, people or places.
Primary documents and critical evaluation: ensure that you provide specific examples that relate to your topic and avoid general comments like, “A picture says a thousand words,” or “All diaries, letters, newspapers or documents have bias.” Take your analysis to a more complex level of analysis. Be explicit about the biases that exist in each source. Critical evaluation will become part of your reading of both primary and secondary sources routinely without referring to a checklist like the ones provided below. Listing newspapers, diaries or letters is not enough information. In some instances, there are very few individuals who left letters or the letters were written before or after the key event. Maps and drawings can supplement your analysis, but should always be part of the evaluation criteria. Remember that footnotes are important to understanding the research that has been completed and should be read as well as the main text of the article or monograph.
ü Evaluate the quality of your historical document: authenticity, scope, and its suitability to your research agenda
ü Is provenance identified? Why does this matter? (Provenance is about the sources origins or what we may know about it – where is it preserved, who wrote it, created it, collected it, etc.)
ü How do you know your document is authentic? i.e. what it claims to be?
ü Is the information from the document complete? Are they illegible?
ü How could an incomplete document or an incomplete series of documents influence your research findings?
ü Any single document does not provide us with enough evidence to make reasonable conclusions about the past. What other documents on the same subject, time period or about the same person, issue or event should you read to get a better understanding?
Assess the kind of information the document contains:
ü Who created the document,
ü When was the document created?
ü Why was it created?
ü How does it answer your historical question well? Poorly?
ü How does information about the creator affect your assessment?
ü How does information about why it was created affect your assessment?
ü Is the subject of your document relevant to the subject you are studying?
ü What makes this document particularly suitable to the research you are studying?
ü Does the kind of information provided by your document answer the questions you are asking?
ü Does the information contained in this document support or contradict the findings of other historians? How?
Your analysis must consider the historical context of your research and the topic. What do we know and what don’t we know? What information is missing? Why is it missing? How central is the missing information to the historical topic? Does it matter that you are using only one kind of historical source? How are different sources used to study the past? What do we know about the author of the document and its intended audience? Who preserved it and why? Are there groups whose voices cannot be easily recorded? What sources can we use to include them?
Has the way your topic been studied changed over time? Is this change related to new sources or new ways of interpreting the past?
Avoid cut and paste history by introducing your direct quotations and by paraphrasing common knowledge and information. For example, cite the author’s who has completed the research or name the document you or the author has cited. Demonstrate that you have read the footnotes from the secondary academic sources you are using.
Conclusion, Style and Mechanics: 25 %
Your conclusion should pull together your contextual arguments and key elements from the evaluation of the sources and methods to provide the reader with your ‘closing’ arguments. Remember to clearly restate your thesis. For this course, do not add new information in your conclusion or end with a quotation not cited in your document. For some audiences, this may be appropriate.
Your style will be checked for grammar, spelling and eloquence. Be sure to use topic sentences and that paragraphs are neither too long nor too short. Direct quotations should not be used as topic sentences. Have you used clear language to express your ideas? Avoid using ‘I’ as it should be evident that this is your view and your work. Avoid starting sentences with ‘and’ or ‘because’. Avoid parenthetical statements or excessively hyphenated phrases as this style is more appropriate to indicate a conversation.
Colloquial phrases and slang are not acceptable use of language in formal research papers. If you are using a word or description that is appropriate to your research period, use single quotation marks: ‘Savage’ for example. Double quotation marks are used to indicate a direct quotation that is not indented. Proof read your assignment. Reading out loud helps to identify errors that spell check misses.
Ensure that you have numbered your pages, stapled them together and that you have included a bibliography and title page. As well, direct quotations should be properly formatted and footnotes should be used for this assignment. Embedded footnotes are not acceptable in this course. (McCutcheon, 2012)
You must use Chicago Manual of Style, meaning you will note author, title, journal/publisher, city, year, page(s). You will do the same for primary documents and Internet sources and websites. The reader should be able to follow your research and go to the original document or source as may be needed.
Decoding Letter Grades and Percentages
A+ = 90 – 100: You have clearly read the research paper guidelines and understood the requirements for writing a historical research paper. While there may be a few suggestions regarding the assignment, the feedback is overwhelmingly positive. Your level of research and analysis exceeds expectations for an undergraduate course and shows unequivocally an ability to succeed at the master’s level.
A = 85 – 89: You have clearly read the research paper guidelines and understood the requirements for writing a historical research paper. There may be a few suggestions regarding the assignment and one area that may need to be addressed specifically, the feedback is overwhelmingly positive. You have demonstrated an ability to undertake research required at the graduate level.
A- = 80 – 84: You have clearly read the research paper guidelines and understood the requirements for writing a historical research paper. Another draft would significantly improve your paper. There may a few suggestions regarding the assignment and at least two key components that need to be addressed specifically. The feedback is positive with constructive suggestions to build on in future work. You have demonstrated that you may be complete historical research required at the graduate level.
B+ = 75 – 79: Your work demonstrates that you understand the framework of writing an analytical research paper. Another draft or two and more analysis would significantly improve your paper. Each evaluated component needs more work. The feedback is constructive and outlines key steps to improve your work. A B+ is a solid grade in an undergraduate course but at least an A- is required for graduate school applications.
B = 70 – 74: Your work demonstrates that you understand the framework of writing an analytical research paper. Significant revisions and more analysis are required to improve your paper. Each evaluated component needs more work. The feedback is constructive and outlines key steps to improve your work. In particular, there may be an area of significant weakness. While B is a good grade in an undergraduate course, at least an A- is required for graduate school applications.
C+ = 65 – 69: You did not demonstrate that you understood the basic requirements for the research paper. Your bibliography, if included, is weak, lacks the minimum number of sources and key elements were weakly presented. You may need to focus on improving your writing specifically, framing your research question and defining a thesis statement, undertaking Internet research or analyzing primary documents. You are meeting the meeting the requirements of the undergraduate level but with some difficulty.
Below C+ and above F= Your completed research paper does not provide evidence that you understood the basic requirements for the assignment. Your bibliography, if included, is poor, lacks the minimum number of sources and key elements were weakly presented. There are significant problems with your assignment. You may need to focus on improving your writing specifically, framing your research question and defining a thesis statement, undertaking Internet research or analyzing primary documents. You are meeting the meeting the requirements of the undergraduate level but with varying degrees of significant difficulty. You did not adequately apply feedback provided on your research outline.
Below 50: Your assignment failed to demonstrate that you read the guidelines for the research paper, attended class and integrated information learned from seminars, understood and completed the assignment as directed at the outset of the course. You did not apply feedback provided on your research outline. You are not meeting undergraduate requirements.
Virtual Campus Grading Form and Sample Comments
Did not Meet
Introduction, Thesis Statement, Structure and Outline (20 %)
Content: Research and Analysis (60 %)
Conclusion, Style and Mechanics (20 %)
Introduction, Thesis Statement and Structure:
No concerns regarding this component of evaluation.
Introduction requires more historical context and details.
Thesis statement needs to be strengthened.
No clear thesis statement.
No clear evidence or argument presented.
Outline and structure difficult to follow.
Paragraphs have to have a purpose. Please use topic sentences and transition sentences.
Paragraphs are too long.
Paragraphs are too short.
Paragraphs are unstructured because they are a series of direct quotations with no connections.
Research and Analysis
Your research and analysis exceeds requirements for this assignment.
Your analysis of primary and secondary sources is thoughtful and demonstrates critical evaluation.
You did not use evidence from the required number of primary and secondary sources.
You did not meet the number of pages required for this assignment.
You exceeded the number of pages required for this assignment.
Your analysis is missing the required critical evaluation of the sources used.
See paper for comments, questions and suggestions.
Conclusion, Style and Mechanics
You have introduced new evidence and analysis into your conclusion.
Your conclusion is too short.
You have not provided a conclusion.
Please see comments regarding grammar.
Please see comments regarding spelling.
Please see comments regarding style.
Please do not use the first person in your formal assignments.
Colloquial phrases and slangs not acceptable.
Please paginate your assignment.
Please put your name on your assignment.
Bibliographies are mandatory.
Review quotation styles.
Embedded footnotes are not acceptable in this course.
 For examples of this discussion, see: http://www.uhv.edu/ac/research/write/pdf/developingthesis.pdf, accessed, July 12, 2012;
 See Maxine Rodburg and The Tutors of the Writing Center at Harvard University: http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~wricntr/documents/Thesis.html, accessed, July 12, 2012.
 Since 2001, I have been using the Canadian Mysteries Website to teach students microhistory and other topics in Canadian history. I have benefited greatly from the teaching material available on their site that has been developed by Dr. Ruth Sandwell and Dr. John Lutz and other mystery team members. See http://canadianmysteries.ca/en/teachers.php. Accessed August 1, 2012.