Title: Analyzing how context shapes content
Authors: Marti Lybeck, Gita Pai, and Tiffany Trimmer, History Department, University of Wisconsin – La Crosse.
Discipline / Field: History
Submission Date: May 20, 2014
Abstract: The History Department has selected the General Education Student Learning Outcome (SLO), “Explain how content is shaped by the context in which it was created” for assessment in all sections of HIS 101 and 102. For historians this learning outcome means making a persuasive argument about was a particular source allows them to understand about the historical setting in which it was created. Our main goal was to encourage students to analyze the primary source and explain why its author chose to write in the way he did during his historical context-influenced lifetime. In this way, students would not merely describe the historical setting; instead, they would think critically about how context informed the actual primary source and why its author wrote in a certain manner and expressed certain arguments. Our observations revealed that many students had difficulty in comprehending the author’s strategies that were specific to the historical context. Most students who could understand strategy relied on the easiest of strategies only: the author’s appeal to emotion and in use of vivid detail. Their analysis was mainly rooted in present-day values, i.e. “slavery is bad.” In addition, many students could not make use of their understanding of the relevant historical context in a way that explains an author’s arguments and strategies.