ECH – Teaching History

1 October 2014

As a subject history is very well taught at universities – the subject is consistently among those which achieve high scores in the National Student Survey, notably for the enthusiasm and engagement of the teachers delivering courses.  But it is also a very demanding subject to teach in terms of the preparation required of both staff and students to ensure that a class is a success, and in the type of feedback required to enable students from very diverse backgrounds to improve and succeed in their studies.

You will often hear sceptical views expressed about the training in teaching offered by HEIs. One issue can be that it can be too generic, with humanities trainees sitting aside those delivering vocational or science degrees with a very different pedagogy. Sometimes the professional jargon of education studies can be hard to relate to the classroom experience of the new teacher, and there can seem a perverse relationship between the tasks that you have been asked to undertake and the prescriptions for best practice you may be offered in training (some students working on lecture-based modules, for example, have found their training programme tells them more about the supposed shortcomings of lectures as a mode of teaching than how to make them more effective!). It is none the less the case that such training will offer much that is of considerable value, not least exposure to new approaches to teaching which can enliven seminars and make feedback more effective. Many institutions may also offer more focused training sessions on particular issues, notably the best use of virtual learning environments, which can be of immediate practical value.

In practice most departments will supplement any institutional training model with more local support from colleagues and course leaders. GTAs and other EC historians should also expect to be assigned a personal mentor, and to be involved in processes of peer observation and review. A lot can also be learned from student feedback (painful though it can be to read!), and many teachers will build additional occasions for receiving such comment into the seminars they run, especially if they are delivering a module for the first time.

Until recently the Higher Education Academy also supported subject-specific support for History teaching. Following the changes made in summer 2014, however, it will no longer do so. Discussions are currently taking place in the subject community on how best to fill the gap this leaves in support for History teaching in HE. It is likely that the annual conference on teaching history formerly sponsored by the HEA will be revived in some form; meanwhile the historic resources it produced in the form of reports and papers on approaches to teaching History in universities remain extremely valuable, and are freely available online from the HEA website.

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