Teaching and Learning History

Author(s) Timmins, Geoff, Vernon, Keith, Kinealy, Christine
Publisher Sage Publications
Published 2005
Price 19.99
ISBN 0761947736
Reviewed by Dr Sam Riches
Lancaster University-Continuing Education
Review published 17 August 2006

This work forms part of a series of books aimed at both new and experienced lecturers, which are intended to act as core texts for those working towards membership of the Institute for Learning and Teaching. As such, it presents a valuable overview of both the recent and current state of undergraduate history teaching and learning as well as a nuanced discussion of specific aspects of the ways in which concepts such as benchmarking, transferable skills, progression, differentiation and assessment criteria are continuing to impact on the discipline.

This book does not set out to tell the reader how history should be taught – far less what aspects of history should be taught – but instead encourages a reflexive approach which enables the practitioner to think carefully about what he or she already does, whether there is a better way of doing things, and crucially, whether students are necessarily responding in the way that might be expected. One particularly telling anecdote for me was the evidence that half of a sample of humanities students in one university admitted that they were unsure what was meant by the feedback comment ‘too much description and not enough analysis’: we do not always convey to students what we think we do.

A wide range of university history departments were surveyed about their practices around issues such as interactive teaching methods, assessment criteria and (remarkably diverse!) interpretations of the word ‘dissertation’, and the varied findings make fascinating reading, especially when comparisons are drawn with practices in the USA and Australia. The authors are not prescriptive, and certainly do not claim that one size should fit all, but they clearly hope to stimulate the reader to reflect on what she or he does as an individual, and what their department stance on these issues is, and particularly how the student experience can be improved. Particularly useful are the sections on survey courses versus specialised units, making lectures more interactive, the development of subject-specific and generic skills, the importance of transparency in marking schemes and the significance of differentiation between the tasks and standards required of undergraduates at various stages of their studies.

I have a few slight reservations about the book. Firstly, it seems that only anglophone universities were surveyed. Doubtless this was for reasons of manageability, but it would have been very interesting to see how some European universities teach history, perhaps especially where some of the same body of historical knowledge is being used. In light of the attempts to break down linguistic barriers between historians through international research conferences this does seem to be an opportunity missed. Secondly, I would have liked to have seen some specific discussion of the use (and abuse) of non-documentary primary and secondary sources: images, sound and film are all useful ways of engaging students, and it would have been good to see some discussion of the appropriate use of these tools. Thirdly, I regret that little attention was given to debating the issue of plagiarism in relation to assessment through coursework rather than examination. The issue is not raised at all until p.196, and is dealt with in what seems to be a rather cursory way, simply as a potential defence of the use of examinations which have otherwise been (to my mind correctly) presented as a problematic means of assessment. I would have liked to have seen the issue of plagiarism, and specifically the means of tackling the increasing problem of students being able to swap or even purchase essays via the internet, tackled more directly.

These criticisms aside, this book should be required reading for everyone involved in teaching history: there is plenty here for us all to learn from.