Engaging Freshmen and Sophomores in the Humanities: Creative Ideas that Work

Engaging Freshmen and Sophomores in the Humanities: Creative Ideas that Work

How to engage students in your humanities course

Recently, Russell Berman, director of Stanford’s Introductory Seminars and the Thinking Matters Program, brought together a group of humanities instructors, professors, and experts to share and discuss strategies to engage freshmen and sophomores in humanities courses.  Here are some of their ideas.

Attract Students to your Course

Since getting students to register is the first step to a successful course, attracting first- and second-year undergraduates starts with titles and descriptions that invite them to actively explore topics and ideas that may be new to them.

One professor knew firsthand how changing a course title marketed his class in a new way: “I used to call my course ‘The History of San Francisco.’ This year I changed it to ‘From the Gold Rush to Google Bus’ and cross-listed it in two other departments. As a result, enrollment almost doubled.” Another had a similar experience. When he taught a course called “The Nile,” total enrollment was in the low single digits, but when he taught a course called “The Egyptians,” more than 80 students registered. When it comes to course titles and descriptions, keep them brief, pointed, and interesting.

Make Them Co-Owners

Once students are enrolled, their interest must be maintained and their curiosity continually ignited. Designing effective syllabi and course assignments—including group and final projects—can make the difference in the ways students actively engage in the course.

Students must feel a sense of ownership in the course and the material. Emphasizing that this is “our” class can get them to understand that they have a stake in—and a responsibility for—the success of the class. Allow students to define the parameters of discussion sessions, and to lead class discussions or present on the material for that day. Asking questions becomes the central pursuit. In fact, asking questions is often more important than finding the right answers. If we ask students to write short papers about the readings in response to prompts they come up with themselves, students begin to understand what a good question is and how it can lead to further exploration into a particular issue or theme. And we gain insight into how students are understanding the material in complex ways.

Giving students a problem to be worked out prior to lecturing on that issue can also be useful. This could be done in groups or pairs, or as in-class writing assignments, then shared with the class as a whole to prompt further discussion. Other ideas that activate student learning include informal debates for which students are divided into groups during class and asked to speak about the different sides of an important issue. More formal debates, when students are asked to put together presentations that engage specific topics, can also be a way to demonstrate what students have learned and how they critically think about and interpret the main themes of the class. These types of “sharing” assignments or presentations allow students who might have difficulty speaking in class the opportunity to participate. Having online forums may also help.

Having students focus on one theme during the quarter can also boost engagement and student responsibility. Ask students to follow and be responsible for a single thread (such as technology or women’s rights) throughout the quarter that they then share with the entire class. Or ask students to become an “expert” on an individual or organization and then present about the object of their focus at a TED-talk style conference at the end of the quarter.

Go to the Source

Often learning tools are found outside the classroom, and field trips can be very much a part of an interactive learning experience. Visiting archives can ignite student excitement in the historical endeavor while also giving students a new skill. Ask students to send a question ahead of time to the archivist to pull material that’s relevant to the topic and to have ready for the students when they arrive. Visiting an archive speaks to the idea that engagement with primary sources is key in any course. These could include films and television shows; literary texts; archival documents; paintings, sculpture, and public art; advertisements; maps; and even an urban landscape.

Take advantage of on-campus resources as well: media labs, museums, and archives may all be available right at home.

Connect with Current Culture

Finally, remember that freshmen and sophomores feel engaged in what is happening in their current moment. This could be a problem for humanists working with topics about history or ancient cultures. Popular culture can be an effective learning tool. A rigorous focus of academic inquiry in its own right, pop culture can be useful in hitting certain points home to students who may feel that some of the material is less relevant or certain issues are more relegated to the past than they actually are.

The Bottom Line

  1. Remember that course titles and descriptions matter. Incorporating punchy names and marketing-style language can make a world of difference in enrollment.

  2. Promote active learning and allow students to feel ownership over the course. This means not solely lecturing to a passive classroom but emphasizing the importance of reading, writing, discussing, debating, leading, sharing, and problem solving as part of the learning endeavor.  

  3. Include activities outside the classroom that further enhance the learning experience. Archival visits, field trips to art and history museums, in-the-field research excursions, and out-of-classroom writing and media literacy workshops all enrich student engagement and learning. Be sure to take advantage of on-campus resources.

  4. Make classes relevant. Build bridges between the present and the past by incorporating films, television shows, news items, blogs, and other productions of popular culture to help students understand how to apply the ideas they’ve learned in class to the world around them.

All of these strategies can be put to use in the humanities classroom to invigorate active engagement and learning and prepare students for future discovery.

How do you engage students in your humanities course? Leave a comment below.


Headshot, Kara McCormack, Ph.D.Kara McCormack, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the Thinking Matters Program at Stanford




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