Dr Sara Wolfson, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History (School of Humanities) has been using several strategies to engage students with a variety of activities which develop their graduate skills and attributes. Below are four examples of activities which could be replicated in other programmes across the University. Sara won a Times Higher Education Award for ‘Most Innovative Teacher of the Year’ in 2016.

  1. The trial of Charles I, Level 4 Snapshots in Time. Simulated workshop with external partner

In the past, Sara has experimented with workshops rather than traditional lectures across all levels of undergraduate study, using archival material from The National Archives and Canterbury Cathedral Archives and Library. Students recreated Charles I’s trial of 1649 with the help of an external scholar, Dr Simon Healy from History of Parliament. The core reading for the task was split up amongst the students, who then separated into prosecution and defence teams. Role-play, historical investigation, teamwork and interaction presented the course in a creative way to highlight the historical debates that are still very much alive today. Students were tasked with listening to an audio extract on The National Archives website from a report of the trial of Charles I, January 1649. On reflecting upon the experience of workshops, a third year student emphasised the holistic benefits of this form of teaching: ‘This approach has inspired me, and certainly others I have noticed, with confidence to articulate and develop my thinking on a given topic’. In her teaching, Sara values working directly with archival material and external partners in an interactive manner, which helps to shape the individual student experience, while maintaining the academic rigour of historical study. This approach has recently been used as part of the National Archives’ collaborative document: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/archives/2018-edition-archive-and-he-guidance-all-sections-combined-ci-final.pdf

  1. Applied Humanities: Employability in Practice and the use of PebblePad for reflective learning

To ensure greater coherence in the assessments for the second year work placement module, Applied Humanities: Employability in the Workplace, Sara adopted the use of PebblePad. The students now complete two portfolios for their assessment, based on their own reflections of the course and work-related learning activity. She decided to adopt PebblePad for these portfolio exercises, as the students benefit from having one space to upload and collate information for their portfolios. The word limitation imposed by PebblePad also produced more succinct answers from the pilot year where portfolios were submitted through Word and Turnitin. To adopt PebblePad, Sara registered this different form of assessment with the Faculty. Although this was a simple process, she wants to stress that Turnitin is useful to detect plagiarism, but this is not relevant to individual reflective portfolios used in this module, where Pebblepad is a more suitable platform. It also allows for more reflective marking than what is usually available for Arts and Humanities subjects. This more structured approach has led to an increase in first class marks from five in 2016-17, to nine in 2017-2018, suggesting that PebblePad is a stronger forum to encourage reflection, particularly as there is space to put up reflective examples and targeted questions to help students with their own skills’ development and awareness.

  1. Sex, Deviance and Death, Student-Led Assessed Exhibition
Sex, Deviance and Death flyer
Sex, Deviance and Death flyer

Sara has spent time integrating graduate employability more broadly within her history modules.  Her second year module – Sex, Deviance and Death – is assessed through a student led exhibition tied to a public facing audience. The decision to change the assignment from a traditional source based analysis to an exhibition was unanimous amongst the students. Collectively the students recognised the wider benefits of organising an event on this scale from project management to marketing, alongside maintaining the academic specifications of the course. Figure 1 shows an illustration of the student flyer designed in collaboration with the university’s Design and Print team for the 2015-2016 exhibition. Student involvement in the structure of the course made them feel responsible for the success of the event. The first year that the exhibition ran, the students linked to the County’s celebrations of Shakespeare 400. The students chose the theme of Shakespeare’s times, linking his plays to concepts that they explored over the year, for example: witchcraft; monstrous births; cuckoldry; homosexuality; the double standard; health and medicine; poverty; and death.

The exhibition was well received with comments such as ‘it was a wonderful event – the work was excellent, challenging and they clearly valued the opportunity to do something innovative and linked to developing employability skills’ and ‘the poster exhibition in the Priory by the students was excellent – some really imaginative themes’.[1] The exhibition and assessment allowed students to showcase their involvement in research and analysis, articulating their ideas in one-to-one interactions during the event. On a wider level, it reinforced how the curriculum should develop a quest for knowledge that is tested and communicated within and beyond the programme. In her efforts to enhance the student experience, Sara is inspired by G. R. Evans’ argument that universities should balance a rigorous curriculum and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake with encouraging a sense of public duty amongst our graduates.[2] Through employability linked directly to the undergraduate curriculum, she has endeavoured to educate the whole person.

  1. Power, Splendour and Diplomacy: Extra-curricular activities and practice-led research

Level 6 students taking the module ‘Power, Splendour and Diplomacy: The Early Modern Courts of Europe’ undertook a variety of extra curricula activities designed to enhance their subject knowledge of royal history through practice-led research. This is unusual in History, where this form of teaching and research is usually the preserve of more vocational subjects, such as Music. Students carried out a Renaissance dance practical workshop led by Dr Anne Daye, formerly a Lecturer of Dance History at Trinity Laban Conservatoire, as a way of understanding the connection between dance and diplomacy. As a collective, students worked together to choreograph a short dance piece under the supervision of Dr Daye. They were able to physically understand the current debates that help to shape the discipline, as well as work together with their peers on a final product, i.e. a completed seventeenth century dance segment.

Student non-assessed presentations also had a professional external element within this module. Students were tasked with researching how we can understand court history through one object. The presentations were attended by heritage and professional practitioners who assessed each presentation based on a ‘dragon’s den’ pitch. Together the judges selected the top three presentations to contribute to the School of Humanities blog. The successful speakers undertook a creative writing workshop prior to the completion of their blog entries. This task allowed students to broaden their career planning portfolio by evidencing creative writing, analytical and research skills, as well as collaboration and presentation to a professional audience. The three best presentations were written up for the School of Humanities blog and demonstrate students’ research literacy. Moving forward, Sara intends to make the presentations an assessed element of the module, as they were all have a high quality and deserve to receive marks for their research.

[1] Email feedback from Prof. Helen James, Pro-Vice Chancellor, 25 April 2016; and Dr John Bulaitis, Senior Lecturer in History.

[2] G. R. Evans, Academic and the Real World (Buckingham, 2002), pp. 8, 38-42

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