Student Submission: Primary Sources increase interest and confidence in seminars
From Case Studies Wiki
Sarah Shaw, a second year History student found that use of primary source materials in her seminar for Dr. Adrian Bingham’s History 288: Media and Popular Culture in Twentieth-Century Britain changed the way she understood both her discipline and class participation.
In the weekly seminars for History 288, we regularly use additional sources and this has had a major impact on my learning. Every week we have background reading to do and then, in the seminars, primary sources on the topics we are covering are often introduced. We are given these to examine and then asked to discuss our reactions to it. Therefore, instead of following a question and answer format, we examine primary sources as well and are asked to give our opinions on examples from media and popular culture. I find that having used these additional resources helps me retain the information very easily.
In large lectures, students often don’t mix and we tend to sit with our friends. That means that sometimes in seminars you don’t necessarily know the other students. The pair and small group work we do in this seminar when examining the primary sources have helped me to get to know the other members of the group and so I feel more confident about expressing my opinions.
Do you think that this approach was being done consciously with a specific goal in mind?
I’m not sure if Dr. Bingham consciously uses this approach to help us relate to past events and understood them in their context, but I find that actively engaging with primary sources is more productive for my learning than only reading secondary literature. In the past, I have felt hesitant to offer my opinions in seminars. However, after examining primary sources, I feel more qualified about saying whether or not I agree with the theoretical articles we read.
I think there are about 13 students in my HST 288 seminar and about 40 students in the overall module. Part of the difference I find in the seminar has to do with level as my lectures are smaller than they were in the first year. In History, there can be up to 200 students in the same lecture theatre, while seminar groups usually contain about 12 students or less. History students have very little contact time, in comparison with friends in Engineering or Medicine students who seem to be scheduled 9-5, and it can therefore be quite difficult getting to know fellow students.
In general, coming from Sixth Form I found seminars very daunting never having experienced anything like it before. I found having to listen and take in information as well as needing to contribute to be an intense experience particularly if seminar participation is assessed. I think the pressure to make contributions takes the personal focus away from considering what is being discussed to preparing what you are going to say next. This can be especially hard when you do not actually know the other members of the group (everyone compares themselves to each other). The fact that seminar groups change every semester does not help with this. Working in smaller groups within the seminar allows you to get to know fellow students and makes seminars more comfortable.
Many of the primary sources that we used were quite simple: photocopies or short clips (i.e. BBC Broadcast for World War Two).
Obviously there are limitations to how much evidence or artefacts can be used, but I think that whenever they are available, every effort should be made to introduce them into the seminars. It is more interesting from a student view point to actively engage with primary material rather than only reading secondary sources.
I think that this approach would be particularly beneficial for first year students, as it encourages active participation in seminars. Introducing new material also helps break up the intensity of the seminar environment and avoids awkward silences.
- The introduction of new material midway through seminars aids concentration with new perspectives and approaches.
- Allowing students to work in pairs/smaller groups helps the seminar group to bond.
- This approach helps to ensure that discussion is never exhausted.
- Carefully chosen material can help with the understanding of pre-read articles (e.g. on historical viewpoints/theory)
- Introducing primary sources that support the seminar reading helps students make more informed judgements as to their opinions about the secondary reading as they are more informed and can therefore justify any criticisms they may have.
- The seminar information is memorable because there is something concrete to link it to, which can be particularly useful in exams.
I think that many students (myself included) don’t get what they could out of seminars because they don’t always actively engage with them. Using this approach encourages that engagement/discourages passivity and makes the seminars interesting and enjoyable.
Why do you recommend this approach? I believe this approach helps to increase confidence within seminars and also the overall of understanding of the topic, as actively engaging with primary sources helps students when forming their position and evaluating secondary sources.
How will this experience change your performance (in other modules, jobs etc.) in the future?
I think it will make me feel more confident in offering my opinions, both in seminars and other environments, as I have gotten to know more people on my course. It has also reinforced just how useful primary sources can be when examining a topic and how much clarity they can bring to your understanding of secondary literature.
Although the approach of introducing new material into seminars is not overly radical, it has really made a difference in my levels of understanding, which is why I chose to do a case study on it. This minor detail has made the seminars for HST 288 very enjoyable and memorable for me. I think that I will find this approach particularly useful when I sit the exam for the module, as I will be able to recall the material that I have encountered with greater ease.