Preparing for the Unprepared

Fewer than a third of the thirty-five students enrolled in my senior seminar for the fall have taken what I’d consider to be the closest thing to a prerequisite. (We don’t actually ‘do’ prerequisites here in our department but I’m careful to offer courses in sequence so that students will have an opportunity to take a second or third-year course on a topic before enrolling in the seminar.) More of the students have taken another survey that might sound relevant as that particular class has been offered multiple times in the past three years but courses that begin after 1700 won’t give students much useful background for a class that wraps up circa 1600.

A bit over two-thirds are veterans of Western Civ but that’s not a big help. At best, if they were in class on the right days, they would have had about half an hour of class time that touched on our seminar’s subject of Tudor Britain. A little bit of class time and reading two or three years earlier hardly constitutes a sound basis to tackle the range of Tudor-era topics we’ll study over an entire term.

Knowing this, I’m paying careful attention to the background readings that I suggest. I’ll put two copies of the survey textbook (Newton & Key, 2e) on reserve in the library and point them to an array of other possibilities they can purchase if they so wish. However, given that I’m expecting them to read a hundred or more pages each week just for the class itself, I’m going to have to really push hard to get them to read even a couple of dozen more for background on a regular basis.

How do you encourage under-prepared students to catch up on the background? My first plan is to circulate the course outline and suggested background texts this week, along with the advice that if they haven’t taken the early modern British survey, they’ll really need to pay attention to the background readings.

I’m thinking of also preparing a one paragraph summary to post to the online discussion board each week. The post would highlight cool themes about that week’s background alongside links to a few amusing videos and intriguing primary sources. The thought is that this would be enough to ‘hook’ the students to read that little bit more which will help them to understand the assigned readings.

I’m wary, though. I don’t want to do a lot of extra preparation for this class if it will likely be wasted. I’m facing another very busy fall with three regular classes as well as two grad students to supervise and all of my writing to move along. So if anyone has a bright idea on how else I might get students lacking background courses up to speed, leave some advice in the comments, please!

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