Student-created content and a big weird thang

As a historian, it is my job to teach students about different kinds of sources. As part of my desire to have students DO more history, I asked students to form collections of primary sources in weekly discussion forums, then develop theses about them. I developed a whole new method this year to do that. In many ways it’s been totally cool (see this post), but now, at the end of the semester, there’s a big element of failure as I read the final exams.

Despite ongoing reminders that their colleagues are not primary sources, I continue to read many exams that cite other students’ posts instead of actual sources to support the thesis. I wrote about this almost every week in the forums, once I noticed it happening there.

There’s a big difference between using what Harry posted (a photograph of an H-bomb explosion) and what Harry said about it (“what a big boom!”). They are actually quoting each other as if they are sources themselves. I even had a student quote her own post.

I can’t tell whether this is just laziness, or total misunderstanding, or an extension of their overly-developed self-esteem, but I’ve never seen this before. When I asked them to “use the primary sources that have been posted in the forum”, it never occurred to me they’d do this. I begin to wonder about all this educational push toward student-created content, and what it’s led students to believe about that content. They seem to think that their writing is on the same level as that of a professional historian, worthy of citation.

I really loved the collections of sources they made, and I plan to add something more to the beginning of the class about distinguishing sources because I really don’t want to do away with this idea. But this problem is adding a whole other layer to the difficulty students already have distinguishing a primary source (something created at the time we’re studying) from a secondary source (an article or textbook about that timeframe).

Is this something constructivists deal with all the time?

7 comments to Student-created content and a big weird thang

  • Christine Moore

    I feel y0ur pain and am totally confused as to what is happening in their minds. I mentioned in google buzz about students not understanding what a secondary source is…or do they not care? Since my post, I read your blog here and must add the final insult to injury I received in the last day of presentations. I asked a student where his secondary sources were, he pointed at his lame statement about the birthplace of the subject. I said “that is not a scholarly source.” With a rather insulting look on his face, He shrugged his shoulders and gave a look as to say…”So what?! Now of course this was the worst of the examples. I did get a few presentations that actually were based on the sources and not a biography. So all was not lost…however, the better students “got it.”

    I am almost thinking since I created a class based on social networking I may have mislead the less sophisticated of them. This presentation was meant to bring together the demanding work I assigned during the semester. It really is an abstract. So did I fail? No not really…I learned that I must have not relayed the information in a manner they understand.

    Back to the drawing board and “simple it down.”

    We shall carry on.

    • Christine, that’s a good point. I know that some teachers have their students “go private” to put together something collaborative, and only post to the whole class when it’s “ready”. This lends an aura of publishing rather than just throwing work up into a site. We need to find ways to make our social networking-based class sites look and feel like a classroom.

  • Kathy Shields

    Thank you for exploring this topic. I too have wondered about the impact of student/self- created content on their perception of content value and their perception of peer created content. Frankly, I think this happens all the time in the educator collaboration, don’t you? I mean, what’s the difference? We are always setting up individuals as experts in wikis, twitter, on blogs, and so on. Are we just as careless as the students?

    • Kathy, yes, as with most things, our problems tend to reflect those of the culture at large — I’d go bigger than educators and say that our whole society sets up people as experts who may have few qualifications!

  • Denise

    I have found too that students have difficulty distinquishing between primary and secondary sources. And to compound the confusion, Web 2.0 has created a whole new dimension, might I say, a new definition to types of sources. Are we relying on an old definition of these types or do we need to redefine the types to fit the new meanings of history? Just a thought.

    • Denise, I think I’ll stick with the traditional definitions — there are primary sources on the web and secondary sources. If a student creates something about their own experience, it’s a primary source, but only for the contemporary era!

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