top of page

Teaching Points: Transforming a Survey Course and Improving Student Research

Updated: Aug 13

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY.  The Teaching Points series investigates the role of alcohol, drug, and pharmaceutical history in the classroom.

When I first started teaching in 2009, I assigned my class a research project. With absolutely no classroom experience beyond my own, I naively assumed that students just kind of knew how to do research, and I quickly grew frustrated with the poor results. From that point on, I decided to forego “independent” research entirely in my classes and instead to focus on providing a “guided tour” of the material, providing students with textbooks, articles, and/or primary sources and requiring a mix (over the years) of exams, quizzes, analytical essays, and/or source analyses. Unable to spend sufficient class time explaining the research process or troubleshooting issues, I reasoned that the efficacy of a research project in a survey course would always be undermined by my students’ limited exposure to proper research methods.

In subsequent years, I continued teaching under this assumption. But, coinciding with my transition to a PhD program at Albany and my TA responsibilities, I also increased my efforts to explore how others instructors taught their survey courses, and I continued to make adjustments to my own teaching based on knowledge gained at conferences and in professional journals, newsletters, and magazines. I encountered two appealing strategies. The first is the idea of the flipped classroom, where the activities that typically take place in a classroom and those activities usually occurring outside the classroom are flipped. The second are strategies that stress digital literacy (a topic covered recently on Points by Stephen Siff) to help future citizens confront the information dump that they see every day online.

Combining these two strategies, I thought, would provide the ideal model for teaching real-world “research skills” during class time. On this forum (so long ago) I dreamed of one day flipping my classroom, but I lamented the prep-time required—particularly for a doctoral student and later an adjunct. I could, and did, adjust for prioritizing digital literacy, but the flipped classroom remained just that, a dream.

Then the pandemic came, and everything changed.

Beach August Teaching Points Title Card

Left: Sample student research subject, “Why did the Reagan Administration show Just Say No Ads with the likes of NFL and MTV Stars?” Image of Nancy Reagan accepting a “Just Say No” jersey from quarterback Doug Williams in 1988 courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Library.

Forced to adapt to remote and asynchronous teaching, I’ve sought to make adjustments to my priorities as an instructor. In attempting to teach key historical concepts without the benefit of any in-person group contact, I moved back toward the individual research project model. I’ve chronicled these efforts over the last few semesters on Points (here and here). We’re now planning on a return to campus in the fall (with vaccination and mask requirements to combat the rise of the troublesome delta variant), and, instead of going back to the old, pre-pandemic version of my survey course, I’ve decided to lean into my new approach. This choice was made quite simple after the conclusion of the recent Spring semester, which was one of the more successful and rewarding of my short teaching career.

Having fully made the transition to remote learning, and with a couple of semesters of experience under my belt, I witnessed my students do some really interesting research. I had hoped to get students to think more broadly about drugs as historical topics worthy of study. Up to that point, virtually all of my iterations of the course revealed that students were more interested in learning about drugs considered “illicit,” and they rarely considered many topics beyond subjects related to the “War on Drugs.” To be sure, there were plenty of those types of projects this time around. But I discovered that my emphasis on digital literacy—I limited topics to those with primary sources plentifully available on the web—changed the way my students thought about drugs and the role of drugs in the recent American past.

Bull Durham cigarette ad

Sample student research subject: “How did Cigarette Companies Promote Family and Patriotism in Cigarette Ads during and after World War One?” Image of c. 1918 Bull Durham cigarette ad courtesy of the Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society.

While struggling to find primary sources for their (preconceived) ideal topics, students stumbled upon a wider range of sources related to a broader range of drug substances. Several student projects, for example, used newspaper articles to chronicle a major event in drug history, and, compared to previous semesters, far more students analyzed political cartoons, Public Service Announcements, and advertisements. The student research topics included a wide range of subjects: the cultural context for the 1980s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign; the use of opium imagery in 1880s anti-Chinese political cartoons; soft drink advertising (Coca-Cola and 7up); tobacco advertising (mostly cigarettes) ranging from the 1890s through the 1980s; and pharmaceutical advertisements for products like Benzedrine, Ritalin, and various patent cures.

Ritalin ad 1966

Sample student research subject: “How did early Ritalin ads Capitalize on Tensions and Anxieties of the 1960s and 1970s United States?” Ritalin ad, c. 1966.

While researching drug marketing and the use of drugs in popular imagery, students discovered how deeply drug cultures—and problematic assumptions about those drug cultures—are embedded in the standard narrative of American history. We drove toward these conclusions through eight research steps (reduced to seven by the end) that guided students through the entire research process: choosing a topic, finding primary sources, using a textbook alongside reliable online secondary sources to contextualize primary sources, creating an annotated bibliography, developing and supporting an argument, and, finally, presenting their argument in a 5–7 page research paper with thorough source documentation.

Benzadrine ad c. 1943

Sample student research subject: ‘How did Benzedrine ads transition from Wartime to Peacetime After World War Two; And What did that Mean for how the Drug was Marketed”? Benzedrine Inhaler ad, c. 1943.

To supplement the individual projects—which developed more or less asynchronously—I held a weekly meeting of the course in small groups. In each hour-long meeting, students received information and insight about each of the assignments at the appropriate stage of the process; they were able to ask questions and get real-time feedback about research problems and challenges; and they were required to give a report about their research progress. I also required students to meet with me individually several times for one-on-one Zoom discussions about their individual projects. While remote conditions made it difficult for the process to always work as planned, I discovered that I had stumbled upon my mythical flipped classroom. As we prepare to move back to in-person teaching (again, with the proper, common sense protections like vaccinations and/or masks), I’m ready to reap the benefits from teaching this course in person.

To be sure, I don’t yet have all of the required elements of a fully flipped classroom. One of the major deficiencies in my current model is the lack of comprehensive quality lecture material available for my students outside of class time. Increasing our “real” contact time to three hours per week, though, will give us plenty of time to incorporate a full discussion about the history of the various drug topics that students choose to research. To mitigate for unavailable canned lectures, I plan to draw upon contributions from my fellow Points authors and from the recent volumes of recorded online web presentations by drug historians, especially the annual AIHP Kreminar lectures. Students will have access to a wealth of supplemental lecture-type materials by some of the leading researchers in drug history. I will be sure to keep Points readers up-to-date about my progress incorporating digital literacy strategies in my courses and further refining my flipped classroom instructional methods.

#teachingpoints #teachinghistory #drughistory #teachingthewarondrugs #universityteaching #Teaching

bottom of page