The Higher Education Academy, History, Classics and Archaeology

Subject Centre for History,
Classics and Archaeology


    Skills Development for History Students


    Status: complete

    Funding Initiative: Teaching development fund/mini projects



    Round 1 Teaching Development Grant

    The aim of the project was to further the teaching and assessment of skills (both general and subject-specific) for History students at the University of Warwick.


    The project's objectives included:

    • the provision of a virtual learning environment (VLE) which will integrate skills development into the Department's teaching and learning;
    • a link with the Skills Development officer of the University Careers Service to integrate generic skills for graduates with the subject-specific skills of History students;
    • the development of a strategy for assessing students use of skills.

    Results of Investigation

    The project was centred around the first year core module, the Making of the Modern World which was taken by all History and Joint-degree students in the Department. For 2001-2 this totalled 165 students. The project recognised that skills teaching (both of subject-specific skills and 'generic' skills) for history students is often haphazard and non-systematic because it is assumed to be 'integrated' into all modules. Skills may also not be taken seriously by students because they are rarely separately assessed. The project aimed to tackle both of these areas by course design, assessment strategies and the use of ICT to facilitate delivery.

    Course design 

    The module identified a number of key skills (generic skills) which all History students should develop. These included skills in: writing, oral communication, information handling and research, numeracy, problem solving, team work, approaches to learning and time management. Further subject specific - largely source oriented - skills were also identified and integrated into the curriculum. These included areas such as measuring history; disease maps; landscape; primary texts; nationalist iconography; film; memory and memorialisation; fiction; art and modernism; newspapers; popular music.

    The module began with a skills workshop that focussed on essential skills such as basic IT, Library, bibliography, writing and presentation, seminar participation, foreign languages, spatial analysis. The students were given a 'skills exercise' to consolidate their understanding of these skills. (see appendix 1) There was a further workshop in key skills during the first term of the module. The subject specific skills were integrated into each week's lectures and seminars. An optional part of the module taken by 40 students in 2001-2 was a 10 week course on 'Computing for Historians' which enhanced ICT and numeracy skills. The course culminated in a final project which was assessed.


    A number of assessment strategies were used to consolidate the learning of skills. All students undertook a skills exercise (see appendix 1) which was discussed with their seminar tutors. During the module each student produced at least one 'skills-enriched' essay where they were able to use sources to understand historical problems. (for examples of these 'skills' essay questions see appendix 2). The students undertook two formal exams during the module which used a variety of methods (multiple choice, identifications and short notes, essays) to assess their proficiency. Many students singled out the opportunity to do a focussed piece of work on skills and sources as a key strength of the module.


    Three separate evaluation exercises were undertaken. When the students arrived at Warwick they were given a 'skills assessment' questionnaire which evaluated their understanding of their skills base. (see appendix 3 for module questionnaires)

    In December 2001, an interim assessment of the module using qualitative questionnaires and focus groups was carried out.

    In June 2002 a final assessment took place, this helped to refine the module for the coming academic year.

    Use of ICT

    The website for the module proved to be an essential tool in the learning and teaching of skills for the History students. It was overwhelmingly singled out as an excellent resource and fundamental support for skills development. The website had included a skills forum which co-ordinated the learning and teaching both of generic and subject specific skills. Its contents had included resources to support the skills teaching on the course and links for further training, particularly the Warwick Skills Certificate which enabled students, if they so wished, to achieve a formal qualification, in part from their work on this course. It was primarily used to support the independent work of students in developing and enhancing their skills but also fed into a number of formal exercises and workshops throughout the year. Unfortunately, the University of Warwick used this academic year to end its license with Blackboard and develop its own content management system and therefore the module was unable to use the virtual learning environment as planned. Therefore some central elements, such as the electronic discussion forum which had been planned to complement the website, had to be postponed.


    • a course design which prioritises the development of skills for all History students
    • assessment strategies which ensure the effective assessment of skills
    •  a web-based resource that can be further developed to support skills development

    Future development/lessons learned 

    • the evaluation exercises highlighted the need for more specific skills training. The website has now been amended to include task oriented exercises to assist students in their independent work on skills. (for an example see appendix 4)
    • evaluations have helped to refine the provision of key skills training. Whilst independent study is an important part of the training provision in this area it has become clear that students are more motivated if they have specific tasks to complete and are given feedback on their work.
    • the lack of a suitable VLE highlighted again the potential technical problems of integrating ICT into courseware design. Although the project was able to go ahead using a more simple website, elements such as the discussion forum had to be postponed. The University's own content management system and discussion group software has now (finally) been implemented and the module will now incorporate these elements as originally planned.
    • the emphasis on skills training in the first year needs to be continued into the second and third years. The teaching team needs to consider how this can be done effectively.

    Appendix 1

    Skills Exercise

    1. Library
    Where exactly are the following items and collections housed in the University Library (give floor and as much detail as you can).

    1. Student Reserve Collection
    2. History periodicals before 1999
    3. History Workshop Journal
    4. Current and recent History periodicals
    5. Video library
    6. Historical atlases
    7. 19th century government publications
    8. Dictionary of National Biography (hard copy and electronic copy)
    9. Books on Chile
    10. Books on the history of medicine
    11. History pamphlets
    12. Language dictionaries

    2. History Department Website
    Locate on the departmental website the following items and give full details:

    1. Dr Anne Gerritsen's room number
    2. Dr Patrick Major's research interests
    3. The first four questions from a past exam paper of any module you are studying.
    4. Rules on plagiarism.
    5. The authors of the TLTP History Coursework Consortium on 'Enfranchising Women'.
    6. Using the glossary from the TLTP unit on the French Revolution give the meanings of the following terms: aristocrate, bourgeois, jeunesse dorée, parlements, philosophes, san-culottes.
    3. Analytical Skills

    Write a 100 word synopsis on one of the following articles which can be found via the electronic journals on the library website:

    • D Goodman, 'Public sphere and private life', History and Theory, 1992
    • M Jacob, 'Enlightenment re-defined', Social Research, 1991
    • M Ozouf, 'Public opinion at the end of the old regime', Journal of Modern History, 1988

    When writing your synopsis please bear in mind the issue of plagiarism - past experience has shown us that it is the practice of taking notes verbatim from texts and then transferring these to essays which has led to inadvertent plagiarism.

    4. Bibliographic Searching
    Setting out each item correctly following the Undergraduate Style Guide:

    1. produce a five item list of the books on any ONE historical personage
    2. produce a five item list of articles drawn from different history periodicals

    5. MAPPING
    Mark on an outline map of the world the following locations: Afghanistan, Argentina, Beijing, Bolton, Chechnya, Mecca, New York, Potsdam, Rwanda, Serbia, Tibet.

    Appendix 2 

    Skills-enriched essay questions

    1. What measures do historians have for comparing changes in the quality of life over time?
    2. Does industrialisation improve the quality of life?
    3. Show how quantitative approaches are useful for understanding any ONE historical problem.
    4. How valuable is the notion of a 'poverty line'?
    5. Using quantitative measures, analyse levels of wealth in any ONE past society.
    6. In what ways do maps reflect the concerns of the Victorians with poverty and disease?
    7. Could mapping the city be seen as a means of social reform, of social control, a defence mechanism against infectious disease, or as a method of advancing professional interests?
    8. 'Landscapes provide a major source for our understanding of the past.' Discuss with reference to ONE society.
    9. Analyse changing perceptions of the countryside in any ONE past society.
    10. Assess changes in perceptions of landscape which are evident in the paintings of European artists in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
    11. Is Rousseau's Social Contract more convincingly seen as a text of liberal, or of totalitarian democracy?
    12. What light do your extracts throw on the nature of Heinrich von Treitschke's liberalism?
    13. `Reaction to western models played a key role in the concerns of nineteenth-century German intellectuals'. Discuss, with illustration from your documentary extracts?
    14. In which precise ways does Eduard Bernstein's vision of socialism in the 'Preface' to his Evolutionary Socialism differ from the vision of Engels and Marx in The Communist Manifesto?
    15. What are the affinities between Rosa Luxemburg's 1918 critique of the emerging Soviet state and the 1928 assessment of the consolidating Soviet bureaucracy by Christian Rakovsky?
    16. Which elements in Jean-Paul Sartre's 'Preface' to Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth may permit the reader to place this work firmly in the socialist tradition?
    17. How does the historian try to gauge the effectiveness of propaganda?
    18. What can historians add to the viewing of an old film?
    19. ' Photography is mere handmaid of empire, but a shaping dimension of it.' Discuss
    20. Has the use of photography as a primary source transformed the practice of history, either by changing the questions historians ask or changing the conclusions they reach?
    21. 'Photographic images....reinforced the attitude(s) of mind which lay behind the imperialist approach to international politics, the positivist, materialist approach to the natural world as a belief in progress through advancing technological development.' Discuss.
    22. Are photographs more objective sources than textual primary sources used by historians?
    23. How reliable is oral history and/or memory as a historical source for war?
    24. How far can historians reconstitute the experience of war, and of battle?
    25. How does contemporary reporting of a war differ from later histories of that war?
    26. How should the Holocaust be memorialised?
    27. 'War memorials and associated ceremonies are often intended to warn against war but end up glorifying it.' Discuss.
    28. Why was Coventry Cathedral rebuilt?
    29. 'The quickest way to identify the values of a society is to look at its architecture' Discuss?
    30. How far are religious buildings a barometer of spiritual values?
    31. To what extent are novels more 'fictional' than more conventional sources used by historians, such as legislative acts, contemporary books, articles and pamphlets, or diplomatic treaties?
    32. Which novel is the better source for understanding 19th -century British identities, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre or Jean Rhys's Wild Sargasso Sea?
    33. Compare and contrast the historical use of photographs and novels as primary sources.
    34. Does it matter to the historian if an autobiography is fictional or real?
    35. How reliable is memory in autobiographical writing?
    36. Can we ever know the experience of people in the past?
    37. In what ways did Nietzsche pioneer the 'deconstruction' of cultural values?
    38. What can Freudian psychohistory tell us?
    39. How has Freud influenced subsequent writers, painters and filmmakers?
    40. Discuss the potential as historical evidence of any one work of modernist art or architecture.
    41. Is there a 'modern' way of seeing illness, and if so how did this emerge?
    42. In what ways has the advertising of modern capitalism shaped modernity's way of seeing?
    43. Do feature films have any value in promoting understanding of the past?
    44. Analyse one or more historical feature films in relation to the social and political circumstances in which they were made?
    45. What role did race play in popular music in the mid-twentieth century?
    46. Did 1960s rock music embody previous radical traditions?
    47. How can the historian approach the performance and consumption of opular music?
    48. Assess the implications of the World Wide Web for the subject of History?
    49. Discuss the challenge of designing a website on the theme of 'The History of the World Wide Web'.
    50. Review the strengths and weaknesses of the World Wide Web as a source for the historian of life in the age of the internet.

    Appendix 3 
    Preliminary evaluation - October 2001
    The evaluation of 165 students asked them to rate their confidence/ability in certain skills on a scale from 1 to 5. The average scores are charted in rank order below. Surprisingly perhaps numeracy skills received a high rating whilst communication and IT skills were near the bottom of the ranking.

    The questionnaire also revealed other skills where students wanted support. These included research and note taking, handling large amounts of information and verbal/argument skills. The course design was modified to take account of some of these requests.

    Mid-module evaluation - December 2001
    This evaluation was carried out in focus groups and via a more qualitative questionnaire. For a selection of responses see below:

    • 'Should be more emphasis on skills - skills are a necessary part of a history course'
    • 'The course guide handbook and website are indispensable'
    • 'More website resources would be useful as everyone could have access to the material'
    • 'I have found the skills section interesting and is of great use when writing essays etc.'
    • 'Skills week wasn't particularly useful, although we talked about writing essays there was nothing new in the lecture'
    • 'Lectures do not specifically mention skills very often'
    • 'More specific skills readings required'

    The evaluation demonstrated that the students found the skills training innovative, useful and important. However, there were suggestions on how to improve the delivery of the teaching and learning and these were incorporated into the module.

    Final evaluation - June 2002
    The final module evaluation included a question on whether students rated their confidence in using skills higher after the course. 87% of responses considered their skills had improved after taking the course. There was wide appreciation of the integration of skills into the curriculum and a demand for skills training to continue into the second and third years of the degree.

    Appendix 4 - example of 'task-oriented' skills training top
    Identity: Nationhood
    Associated Skill: Fiction as an historical source

    Charlotte Bronte: Born in 1816, she was the third daughter of an Anglican clergyman, who had been born in Ireland (where his surname was Brunty). Bronte settled in Yorkshire, at Haworth Parsonage (which still stands today, and is well worth a visit). Charlotte and her siblings grew up reading the Romantic poets, of whom Byron was a particular favourite (in Jane Eyre, Mr Rochester is a Byronic hero). After a ghastly spell in a boarding school established for the daughters of impoverished clergymen, Bronte worked first as a teacher and then as a governess. In an effort to earn a living without sacrificing their femininity or leaving the family circle, she and her sisters began to publish first poetry and then novels.

    Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre, her first novel, in 1847, under the masculine pseudonym of Currer Bell. The book, although deemed grossly indelicate by many reviewers, was a smashing success: it was in its third edition by 1848 and guaranteed Bronte both fame and income. She died of tuberculosis in 1854, shortly after her marriage to an Anglican clergyman.

    Jane Eyre (1847): Orphaned as a child, the protagonist of this novel, Jane Eyre, lives as a poor relation with her rich cousins, but is expelled from the family circle and sent to a repressive boarding school. She works as a teacher before becoming a governess in the household of Mr Rochester at Thornfield Hall. (The child for whom she serves as a governess is Mr Rochester's illegitimate daughter by his French mistress). Despite Jane's lowly social origins, Rochester falls madly in love with her and proposes marriage. Jane, having fallen in love with him, accepts his proposal. It is all very Romantic, but also rather ominous. Shortly before their wedding day, Jane wakes to find a strange women in her bedroom in the wee hours of the morning:

    '...a woman, tall and large, with thick and dark hair hanging long down her back...I never saw a face like it! It was a discoloured face-it was a savage face. I wish I could forget the roll of the red eyes and the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments!' (Jane Eyre, chapter 25).

    Rochester dismisses Jane's experience, attributing it, among other things, to her overwrought imagination: she is, after all, a woman. The wedding day arrives. At the alter, a stranger from Jamaica, Mr Mason, interrupts the nuptials, announcing that Rochester is already married to his (Mason's) sister Bertha Mason, a white creole heiress (who at their marriage had brought Rochester a dowry valued at 30,000 pounds, money derived from slave labour on the family's Caribbean plantations). Rochester explains to Jane that he married against his will and inclinations, and soon found that Bertha Mason was immoral. She (Bertha) subsequently become a complete lunatic (as was her mother before her). In consequence of her violent insanity, Rochester keeps Bertha locked in the top storey of Thornfield Hall. Her escape from her nurse/gaoler, Grace Poole, one night had allowed Bertha to slip into Jane's bedroom: hence the nightmarish vision quoted above. Rochester describes Bertha in these terms:

    'Miss Mason was the boast of Spanish Town [Jamaica] for her beauty...tall, dark and majestic. Her family wished to secure me, because I was of a good race; and so did she...I was dazzled, stimulated: my senses were excited; and being ignorant, raw, and inexperienced, I thought I loved her...her character ripened and developed with frightening rapidity; her vices sprang up fast and rank...What a pigmy intellect she had...Bertha Mason...dragged me through all the hideous and degrading agonies which must attend a man bound to a wife at once intemperate and unchaste. (JE, chap. 27).

    Rochester begs Jane to live with him despite his marriage to Bertha (divorce is not an option in England in this time period). Jane is horrified at this immoral suggestion, and flees Thornfield Hall to live an independent, but virtuous, existence. Meanwhile, Bertha Mason goes completely off her head, setting fire to Thornfield Hall and throwing herself from the rooftop to the pavement below. Rochester redeems himself morally by attempting to save his deranged spouse despite his loathing for her. He fails to prevent her death, and is blinded, disfigured and partially crippled by the fire. Unsurprising, he becomes quite depressed. Jane learns that Rochester is now a widow and returns to him. They marry and live happily (one hopes or presumes) ever after.

    Jean Rhys: Born Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams in Dominica in 1890, she was the daughter of a Welsh physician and a white creole mother, whose ancestry was Scottish and Irish. Rhys travelled to England in 1907, rereading Bronte's Jane Eyre shortly after her arrival. She attended school in Cambridge before working on the provincial stage. (Rhys returned only once, briefly, to the Caribbean as an adult). She lived for a decade or so in Europe (primarily Paris and Vienna) from 1919, was associated with literary modernism, and began to publish works of fiction in 1924. She returned to live in England in the late 1920s, and her works were largely forgotten by the literary world by the Second World War. Publication in 1966 of Wide Sargasso Sea, a rewriting of Jane Eyre from the twofold perspective of Bertha Mason and Mr Rochester, brought her to the forefront of literary attention. Winning the Royal Society of Literature Prize and the W.H. Smith Annual Literary Award, the book was interpreted by critics within three different (if overlapping) frameworks: 1) as a work of British literature; 2) as a study of gender relations or of women's writing; and 3) as a work of Caribbean literature. Rhys died 1979.

    Wide Sargasso Sea (1966): The action in the novel begins in 1839, six years after the enactment of the Emancipation Act, by which the British Parliament outlawed slavery in Jamaica. Some of the characters in Jane Eyre are renamed in Rhys's retelling of the tale. Bertha Mason is referred to for much of the novel as Antoinette: Part One is told in her voice and from her perspective. Antoinette's father (deceased by the time the novel begins) is called Cosway and has fathered many illegitimate children with slaves on his plantation, the Coulibri estate. Her mother, Annette, is from Martinique (in the French Caribbean). Cosway had given Annette a female slave from Martinique, Christophine, as a wedding present: Christophine still works for the household after emancipation and Cosway's death, and is a practitioner of obeah (sorcery or magic). Annette remarries, and Mr Mason becomes Antoinette's stepfather. Mason's determination to extract labour from the former slaves of the plantation creates disaffection among the local black population, who burn Coulibri to the ground. Antoinette's demented brother Pierre dies as a consequence of the fire, and her mother goes raving mad. Antoinette is sent to board at a Catholic convent. When she is 17, Mason and his son by a previous wife, Richard Mason arrange Antoinette's marriage to Rochester, an impecunious younger son from England who needs her money.

    Part Two is told alternately from Rochester's and Antoinette's perspectives. They travel to the Windward Islands for their honeymoon, taking Amelie, a mulatto servant, with them. Although the marriage gets off to a rocky start, soon they are having steamy sex. But the signs are nonetheless ominous. Still on honeymoon, Rochester receives two letters from Daniel Cosway, who claims to be an illegitimate son of Antoinette's father and a slave woman (and thus to be Antoinette's mulatto half-brother). Daniel Cosway informs Rochester that Antoinette's mother was a lunatic and that madness and sexual depravity run in her family. Rochester is now revolted by his wife, with whom he stops sleeping and whom he begins to call Bertha (go figure). He sleeps with Amelie. Antoinette attempts to win Rochester back through obeah; when this tactic fails, she takes to drink and (according to Rochester) loses her mind. In Part Three, told briefly from Grace Poole's perspective and then from Antoinette's, Rochester removes his wife from Jamaica to England and confines her in his house, which she eventually burns to the ground.

    Some essential quotations to ponder (page references to the Penguin edition, 2000):

    1. Rochester's comment on Antoinette's creole identity, at the beginning of their honeymoon:                                          'Creole of pure English descent she may be, but they are not English or European either.' (Part II, page 56).
    2. Antoinette's explanation to Rochester of how her family, as whites dispossessed by the Emancipation Act, are viewed in Jamaica:                                                                           '...a white cockroach. That's me. That's what they call all of us who were here before their own people in Africa sold them to the slave traders. And I've heard English women call us white niggers. So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.' (Part II, page 85).
    3. Amelie's description, to Rochester, of Daniel Cosway:                      
      'She added...that Daniel was a very superior man, always reading the Bible and that he lived like white people. I tried to find out what she meant by this, and she explained that he had a house like white people, with one room only for sitting. That he had two pictures on the wall of his father and mother.         "White people?"                                                                  "Oh no, coloured."                                                             "But he told me in his first letter that his father was a white man."                                                                                  She shrugged her shoulders. "All that too long ago for me."' (Part II,  99).                                                                
    4. Daniel Cosway to Rochester, ahving failed to blackmail him:                                                                                "Give my love to your wife-my sister", he called after me venomously. "You are not the first to kiss her pretty face. Pretty face, soft skin, pretty colour-not yellow like me. But my sister just the same..."' (Part II, page 104). 
    5. Antoinette's comment about England to Grace Poole:                 ' "They tell me I am in England, but I don't believe them. We lost our way to England. When? Where? I don't remember, but we lost it?"' (Part III, page 148).

    Some questions to consider: (see also seminar questions in module handbook):

    1). Why did both Charlotte Bronte's father and Jean Rhys change their names? Why did Rhys choose to refer to Bertha Mason as 'Antoinette' in her novel? What do these changes tell us about Britishness and its 'Others'?

    2). How is race figured or represented in the quotes from Jane Eyre and from Wide Sargasso Sea above? What is the racial identity of Bertha

    Mason: white, black, or something else? What factors complicate the assignment of racial identities to creoles?

    3). Does Wide Sargasso Sea tell us more about the complexities of British identity in the 1830s-1840s, or in the 1960s?

    4). Is Wide Sargasso Sea an historical source? If so, whose history does it tell? Is it a primary source, or a secondary source?Are the skills needed for reading Wide Sargasso Sea historically the same or different than the skills needed to read a document such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man?





    Dr Sarah Richardson, Department of History

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