My students are generally resistant to the idea of not being assigned exactly what to read. I do give some short common readings, and they have my lectures by which to get a thematic framework for the historical periods we are studying. But after that, they are turned loose. Where to start? What to do? This is meant as a short guide to assist my students.
I believe self-directed learning works best when certain parameters are in place: clear purposes, a time structure, and accountability through documentation and sharing.
It also helps to understand the differences between types of sources and activities for learning, to vary among these, and to avoid getting stuck in the most common secondary sources. All of this I address in more detail below.
Here are four purposes I'd like to have govern my students' self-directed learning:
- "I need to be able to learn about [a given historical period] so that I can characterize it in general."
- "I need to have direct experience with primary works from a period so I do not have to rely on others' analysis and so I can provide examples to illustrate generalizations about the period."
- "I need to find a personal connection to the history I'm studying so that I will care and be more invested and engaged in what I'm learning."
- "I need to make my learning social by telling others (not just classmates) what I'm doing and finding."
I want my students to budget a set amount of time (3 hours between each of our class periods) in which to do their common, assigned reading, the online discussion in our class forums, as well as their personal reading and research. Homework for this course is not a matter of pushing through a specific set of readings, but of deciding how to spend this available time to meet the purposes stated above. Of course, documenting time spent is key.
Accountability: documenting and sharing
Each of my students is using a learning log -- a spreadsheet in which they record the time spent on specific personal learning activities, and where they will document both what they experience and their response to it -- briefly.
Sharing is critical to learning. My students are to discuss their learning with their classmates in an online forum I've set up for them. But I also will urge them to share their learning informally within their personal social networks -- both face to face and online.
Types of Sources and Learning Activities
Primary vs. Secondary Sources
Personal learning should be a mix of seeking out primary and secondary sources.
Personal learning should be a mix of seeking out primary and secondary sources.
Secondary sources are the best starting point -- this allows one to draw upon others' efforts to synthesize and analyze far more material than one is likely to be able to do as a nonprofessional in a given field. The textbooks I've provided are secondary sources, as are encyclopedia entries, general history books, and any kind of historical scholarship. Documentary films can be good secondary sources, providing an overview and bringing together various primary sources in the process.
The problem with secondary sources is that they are more removed from history itself, and always mediated in various ways that could be biased or incomplete. We need these sources to get a general fix on things, but we must not rely on them altogether.
What are primary sources or works? These include
- texts, writings, and literary works -- letters, manuscripts, books from the period
- art, architecture, or music from a given period -- paintings, sculptures, buildings, symphonies, ballads, etc.
- material objects -- clothing, tools, artifacts, relics, machinery, musical instruments
Electronically Accessed Sources, Good and Bad
Nowadays one's computer is the go-to method for accessing everything. I'm eager for my students to deepen and develop their abilities at finding good content digitally and even through social media. But I also know students are more likely to spend five minutes in a laptop looking something up when a paper book across the room, or a person in the room, could be of help. In short, I want my students not to become overly dependent upon electronic means of finding and experiencing content for their personal learning. And I especially do not want them to get stuck in the rut of general Google searches, YouTube videos, and Wikipedia. (All of which are legitimate entry points for learning, but I want my students to learn they can learn things independent of those common sources.)
Starting Points for Self-Directed Learning: Electronic Sources
Here are some starting points for electronically accessed learning sources, followed by a list of activities that go beyond keyboards and screens. (Note that I have avoided Wikipedia and general Google searches)
- Social media
On your Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or other favorite social media platform, notify your online connections about what you are doing and finding. "Today I'm researching the Industrial Revolution and poking into how Karl Marx influenced things" or "Wow, I just read Margaret Cavendish's feminist utopian work called The Blazing World and I had no idea women were writing science fiction in the Renaissance." You can also post links to things you've found or experienced. "Watched this documentary on Prohibition and decided it was mammoth blunder [URL]" Another good idea is to post questions. "Does anyone else think the Renaissance was an overblown elitist thing? Cause it's looking that way to me" or "Who are the three most important people in the 20th century?"
Posting on social media about your personal learning may not seem to be the sort of thing you would think of doing, but if this opens up conversations, you'll get more invested, you can count the time spent on such conversation as part of your homework, and it will add some fuel to researching further as people show interest and provide their own suggestions!
- The Library
- Research or Subject Guides. Subject specialists have already assembled key reference works on any given topic (especially history), and have curated sets of print and digital sources based on relevance and reliability. (See, for example, the chronologies listed and linked from the world history research guide).
- Library Databases
Those subject guides will lead you, among other things, to various databases to which the library is subscribed. You can also go to those databases directly. When I searched "history" in the database search at the Harold B. Lee Library, it returned 29 pages of library databases that are historical in nature.
- Almost any of the categories listed on the library home page includes links to digital resources you can study: ebooks, audio recordings, documentary films, and curated websites.
- Online Archives
Many primary sources can be found, in digitized form, online. It's not quite the same thing as seeing or holding these things in person, but it's still a good way to have more direct contact with primary sources.
- The British Library - This great institution has thousands of works online for all to experience. See the British Library Online Gallery. Think about other great libraries or universities and try searching for their online archives.
- The Walt Whitman Archive - A person-based collection with extensive primary works (such as letters) online about this famous 19th century American. Think about other famous individuals and search for online archives that include their works.
- Audio Sources
- Librivox has public domain recordings of famous literary works. They give you a different way of understanding those sources.
- Podcasts can bring new ways of approaching old topics. Here's a list of 19 history podcasts. Find something you find interesting and that relates to one of our periods.
- Online Courses
- EdX provides free online courses through great schools like Harvard. You can enroll for free and sample the lectures or texts that appeal to you. Here are 131 free online history classes ready for your enjoyment.
- MIT OpenCourseware is a similar platform with oodles of good, free course content. I noticed they have a course on Renaissance and Reformation. Hmm.
- Documentary Films
- There are many guides to documentary films that cover historical topics. Pick a period or subject (or person) and look for a documentary film. How to view these?
- Libraries. The Harold B. Lee library at BYU has about 20,000 films available on historical topics for those with a library card. Thousands are streamable online.
- Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc. -- If you have one of these services, there is a whole section on documentary film you may have overlooked. Very likely to include topics within the period you are looking for.
- YouTube. Lots of documentaries there, though often in poor quality and interrupted by ads.
- Filmed Performances
A broad range of plays, symphonic works, or even sporting events are available to view through library and other sites. Fathom hosts live (and sometimes encore performances of) operas, Shakespeare performances, etc. that are simulcast to movie theaters For example, later in May 2016 there will be a special Shakespeare Show broadcast from the Globe Theatre in London to venues worldwide.
- Virtual History Tours / Online Exhibits
You can explore historical places through various virtual tours and resources.
- 360-degree historical tours. Go into the trenches for World War I, for example.
- British Library - virtual tours (mostly oriented to warfare, but some interesting stuff)
- National Women's History Museum - online exhibits across a broad range of history
- The Vatican offers an impressive virtual tour of the Sistene Chapel
- List of online and interactive museum exhibits
Starting Points for Self-Directed Learning - Non-Electronic Sources
- Your Homies. That's right, talk to your significant other, your roommates, family members, and close friends (preferably face to face, not online). Tell them what you are studying, then ask them what they know about the topics you are studying. Maybe they have taken a class, read a book, seen a movie, or know an expert who could inform you further. Maybe they can help sharpen your questions or whet your curiosity.
- The Library
- Subject Librarians. Actually speak with or contact a real, live, trained librarian regarding specific historical topics. They are often the ones who have written the subject/research guides, and they get a thrill out of being asked about resources. At BYU, see the list of librarians organized by subject -- and dare yourself to have a face-to-face, non-electronically mediated conversation at his/her office!
- Exhibits. The BYU Library, like most libraries, has rotating exhibits that are typically of an historical nature. Find out current HBLL exhibits, then go by in person and see them. The Education in Zion exhibit in the JFSB is impressive.
- Special Collections. BYU (like many fine universities) has an impressive set of books in a special archive that is open to the public. You can't check these books out, and you have to read them in a special room, but nothing is cooler than actually thumbing through an original King James Bible, or Hooke's Micrographia (both things my recent students have done at BYU's L. Tom Perry Special Collections). Browse their catalog of special collections, then pay a visit and hold and examine these precious resources first hand.
- Field Trips
Virtual field trips are mentioned above. Put in-person trips are still extremely valuable, and they do not require massive amounts of money, travel, or group organization -- especially if one is in or near a diverse city or close to a university.
- Go to the Crandall Printing Museum in Provo, Utah
- Attend church services or a concert at a Catholic church (like Salt Lake City's Cathedral of the Madeleine) or a Protestant church like St. Mark's Lutheran in Provo.
- Recreate a trip or voyage of an historical person like Petrarch, who mused about the intellectual / spiritual view one gained from hiking to the top of a mountain. Read his short piece on this, then go hike a mountain and repeat what he did by reflecting on it.
Museums abound and are often free or cheap for students. Start with the ones you can walk to and then look further afield
Around universities and metropolitan areas can be found many venues for seeing performances and productions that have an historical component. For example, BYU is currently putting on the play Mother Courage by Bertolt Brecht, an anti-war play from 1939 that would be very relevant to a study of war in the 20th century. Many musical performances can also involve history in them, too.
Find an important literary or philosophical passage, memorize this, and share it with others.
Learning by making is a great way to get into a topic. Some of my past students have made:
- knitting that imitates actual patterns from historical periods
- stained glass window sections
- period-based foods, shared with classmates
- clothing designs from historical period costumes
- recreating a scientific instrument like Galileo's telescope