Practical Ways of Engaging History Students

It can be a daunting task to engage students when teaching history. But a number of simple things can be done to get the students involved in the learning process.

For starters it may help if name of the course being taught does not have the word “History” in it. Somehow generally there are negative associations with the word itself and it tends to put people off. If a relevant title can be used sans the word history, go for it. For example, a history course dealing with the history of modern Psychology was titled “Schools of Psychology” because it focused on the modern and postmodern schools of thought within Psychology.

Secondly, we can draw upon the power of the narrative to generate interest in history. Students can be told that the word “Story” is included in the word “History”. This can be thought of as more than just a semantic coincidence. History, after all, is a series of stories or even a grand story of mankind or the universe. So, stories from the particular part and kind of history that you are teaching can be taken and narrated, highlighting the characters in the story and the temporality i.e. the beginning, middle and end. The narration can then be followed by class discussion whereby students talk about whether they liked the story or not. If they liked it, they can point out one or more elements that made it appealing, entertaining or worth liking e.g. the element of suspense, humor, irony, tragedy, novelty etc. They can also debate whether the ending was a happy ending or not and from whose perspective. They can determine who the central character or the protagonist was or if there were more than one. They can even think of alternative endings, Questions can be thrown at the class to engender discussion. An example of a story from the history of modern Psychology is the story of Anna O, one of the patients of Josef Breuer (Freud’s friend and mentor).

Thirdly, the people in history for example leaders (especially charismatic ones) can be focused on to stimulate interest. Their biographies and traits can be recounted. Students are more likely to take interest in Classical Behaviorism as a school of thought in Psychology if they are told about the life and personality of Behaviorism’s founder J.B. Watson.

Last but not the least; one thing that might make the biggest difference is for the teacher herself to be genuinely interested in the history that she’s teaching. Students are drawn toward material that is taught with enthusiasm and passion.