Musings about academe in haphazard fashion.
Now, if Dora the Explorer can do it, shouldn’t college level students be able to as well? Reading maps, that is.
I’ve been doing some soul searching about the map activities that I have assigned the past couple years in my HIST 2112–U.S. Since 1877 course at Augusta State University. I quickly realized in my first couple years teaching the class that I could talk about U.S. cities, regions, or areas of international connection all I wanted in my lectures, but that did not necessarily mean that students could make any spacial connection in their heads as to the “where” of the conversation. Nor, even when added as images on an overhead reader or on a Powerpoint on the white board, could I guarantee that students would do anything other than casually glance at the images and almost as casually wipe it from their memories. There seemed to be a general trend towards ignoring images, as if the images and what they represented were merely fluff and filler to keep the eyes happy, but not something containing important information to be retained.
So, after including maps in the actual assessment of the course for the first couple years and having some dismal results related to 19th century U.S. railways and mining, major U.S. cities, and countries important to the U.S. in wars from 1898 through the Vietnam conflict, I decided to assign maps as homework. The old fashioned notion was that the action of looking at the text or online text components for the original map and incorporating the required information onto a physical page would take the images from eyes to brain to hand and hopefully cement the memorization of the material for quizzes and exams. I also fully realized and gave a disclaimer at the start of every year that this was a high school level exercise for which, yes, they had to have either crayons, colored pencils, or markers. Students groaned in some cases (but I always dropped 2 out of the 10 assignments), others took it as an easy 25 points per assignment, and some, though very few, found the assignment challenging.
What have I learned over the years? In my very unscientific study of 3 survey classes per semester of anywhere from 75 to 100 students each semester, I have come up with some basic statements:
1. Most, but not all, male students are very careless in their work and in their intent to be neat, stay in the lines, accurately label, and, in general, show full level of effort. I think this is reflective of our push as a culture for gender differences in the arts from a very young age.
2. My minority students, of whom most are African American, have a much more difficult time reading the blank maps and associating areas of water versus land as well as national boundaries. I believe this to be reflective of the quality of teaching to our minority students, who are primarily coming from the Richmond County School system; they may not have had the same exposure to basic geography classes prior to coming to ASU.
3. I had my moment of revelation when baffled by a student who, in a map of the Pacific Ocean and rimland nations, put the U.S.A. where the Pacific Ocean should have been and a very interesting rendition of the world. A fellow student said, “We don’t know how to read maps any more; we all have GPS.” There was a generational component to what I had been asking students to do, without the full instruction on how to do it.
After a long discussion with a past student about his experiences with this particular assignment, I’ve come to some conclusions. The students realize, as do I, that coloring in blank maps is busy work and not really appropriate for the college level. However, given that location of world cities, regions, nations, and bodies of water are important to the course and should be assessed in quizzes and exams. Instead of giving myself up to 100 maps to grade for each of 10 map assignments and causing my eyes to fall out and students to complain, they will just have the page #s and locations of the maps to study for their quiz/exam. So, what about those students who cannot read the maps? Those students coming from poor educational backgrounds or the GPS generation? My former student asked some very true, if difficult to swallow questions, “Even with the map assignments, would those students pass the exams? Would they be likely to pass the class if you included or did not include the maps?” Rhetorical question, with the obvious answer of no. As an educator, I do not want to leave even a single student behind. But, I cannot make extra work for 99% of my other students just because extra work has a very slim possibility of assisting the 1%.
So, the map exercises will go away, but they will keep being emphasized on the board, in my lectures, and will be pointed out in students’ textbooks. And, hopefully less busywork will enhance the students’ other assignments in my course and will speed up the process of my actually grading things in a timely manner.