One of the more successful yet simple strategies that I have used addresses historical methodology in Church History and World Religions courses. Class sizes average thirty-five for each of these courses, and the classroom configurations are always traditional lecture hall formats, with just enough desks arranged in close aisles to get all of the students in the rooms. I use this group exercise very early in the semester, usually within the first week of class.
The pedagogical purpose:
This exercise forces students to self-select events and to make judgments about their importance for a historical “survey.” It limits students both by the particular personalities and interests of their leaders, and the auditory and writing skills of their recorders. It also helps them to see how very different the stories of a relatively common experience will be. I usually conclude the class session with a review of issues in historical methodology, and a reminder that the histories we study that particular semester are told and written in many ways and with various strengths and limitations.
Description of the strategy:
After dividing the class into groups of four to six students, I ask each group to elect a leader and a recorder. Then I ask the group to spend fifteen minutes composing a history of the semester up to the start of the current class meeting. No other instructions are given. As the leaders engage their groups, the recorders begin writing notes. After time ends, each recorder presents the history to the class. Finally, the class as a whole votes on the best history that was presented (again, without further instructions or criteria).
Why it is effective:
The exercise reinforces through student discovery my statements that historical study is unavoidably perspectival. It also establishes early the communal nature of our learning.