This project aimed to embed active learning strategies in the lecture space in a first year history course.

  • Course: HIST1201 The Australian Experience, 1st year undergraduate history course (120 students)
  • School/Faculty: School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
  • Delivery: weekly, two-hour face-to-face lecture
  • Active learning approach: primary source analysis in lectures, small group work, large group discussion, use of Padlet 
  • Assessment tasks: new active learning innovations were not tied explicitly to assessment

Key issues and anticipated outcomes

  • The main problem we have in History with integrating active learning into our classes is a simple one: students like lectures.
  • We get this feedback from them regularly, in class and in SECaTs. Further, when we have introduced seminar style teaching, teaching scores have declined, sometimes quite markedly, even when staff have been committed, well-loved teachers.
  • So this case study is an exploration of how we might introduce active learning principles into the lecture program.

Project innovation team

Active learning approach

Lectures were retained, but they were shortened. The two-hour slot was redesigned as follows:

  • Shorter interactive lecture
  • Activity using primary sources (20–30 mins).

Activity using primary sources:

  • Primary sources were pre-circulated and put up on screens
  • Students in groups of 3–4 answered a series of generic questions to get them used to dealing with sources (the backbone of historical study)
  • Each group answered one specific question about the source, carefully designed to let them see ‘history in action’
  • Learning was shared via a live Padlet, and through small and large group discussion.

Resources/technologies used:

  • Primary sources were pre-circulated via Blackboard. Students did not need to read them in advance, but some students required more time to digest material
  • In class, primary sources were put up on screens and some hard copies were also provided
  • Padlet was used to gather initial responses
  • Class discussion was via small groups, then came back together to the full class.


Tools and strategies used:                                                               

  • Student perspective:
    • Quantitative and qualitative – SECaTS
    • Quantitative and qualitative – Survey Monkey student survey
    • Qualitative – 2 x 45-minute focus groups, 5 participants per session

Project outcomes

Short and long-term outcomes

Students did enjoy and gain from the use of primary source activities during the lectures, on five grounds:

  1. Introduced active learning into the lecture space: “The primary source broke up the lecture and allowed for students to refresh their brains, and engage more in the lecture." (Focus group)
  2. Aided their historical understanding of a certain topic: “encourages students to think more about the complexity and contradictions of a range of topics” (Focus group)
  3. Aided their historical methodology, in particular their use of primary sources as a key component of historical writing: “[it] offered scaffolding in terms of the interpretation and critical analysis of sources” (Focus group)
  4. Helped students indirectly to prepare for other work in History, in this unit and beyond: “useful for all assessments particularly journal entries and take-home exam” (Focus group)
  5. Helped students to engage with their work, each other and technology, through small group discussion, large group discussion, and Padlet: “students got more comfortable each week discussing the sources and expressing their thoughts” (Focus group).

Other comments

All ten students in the focus group liked that this was not an assessed item. “This gave them the freedom to ‘give it a go’ without the fear of doing it incorrectly.” (Focus group)

Transferability of findings

From the Survey Monkey and focus group findings, students were strongly in support of the consistent inclusion of primary source analysis in first year courses in particular.

Further work

  • We have now integrated primary sources analysis into most weeks in my third year course.
  • We will give a short presentation on this experience to the History discipline, and discuss extending this program to other courses, especially first year courses.