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Tuning  History: Redirecting History Surveys for General Education


The Intro Course guided by the insights of the Tuning process

Andrew Arnold, Louis Rodriquez, and Laura Scappaticci



     When it comes to teaching our four introductory classes that double as General Education courses, history faculty at Kutztown University are not alone in trying to adjust to pressures of societal changes and demographics shifts. Of late, these intro courses, which include The US to Civil War, The US Since the Civil War, and World Civilizations I and II, have been the focus of new initiatives that required fine tuning.

     Over the past few decades the landscape affecting our curriculum changed little. Our courses were always over-subscribed. We hired adjuncts to teach the overflow. In recent years however, the scene has changed drastically. Three related developments have hit us hard. First, the university built large classrooms and tripled our course sizes. Second, a new General Education program ceased to require History courses. Third, in the College of Education admissions declined. As a consequence, our enrollments crashed.

     This account explains how we diagnosed this problem and responded to it. Guided by the insights of the Tuning process, we instituted plans to refashion our program with a focus on skills as well as the knowledge of History. As soon as it was possible we reduced course sizes back to their levels before the large classrooms. Now we partner with other departments such as English to develop classes that meet our specific needs and we collaborated with the Center for Academic Success and Achievement (CASA) that has the overall task of improving retention. By instinct and design we applied the lessons of the Tuning Project to the creation of multi-semester courses that have allowed us to stretch out the learning curve for higher-level skills and to build familiarity between students and faculty. While there was little resistance to the changes, they did require our department to significantly increase our levels of activity and administrative capacity. It hasn't gone smoothly and we are still on a learning curve. What follows is an explanation of how we carefully planned, muddled, fudged, and creatively ad-libbed our way through. The emphasis here is on muddled and fudged.

The Problem: Declining Enrollment

     For the fifth straight year a disturbing trend continues at Kutztown University: declining enrollments. This is not something peculiar to Kutztown. Fourteen other Universities in the Pennsylvania System of higher Education mirror similar enrollment declines.

     According to statistics released by the University, the 2015 fall enrollment was at 9,000, a decline of over 15 percent from the 2010 high of 10,707. In comparison, the Pennsylvania State System in total saw a peak enrollment of 199,000 in 2010 as compared to enrollment of 110,000 in 2014, a decline of 7.5 percent. As a result, over the past five years numerous programs in the PASSHE system have been discontinued and faculty have been let go.

     However, we may have reached an end to the decline as there are signs that a turnaround has begun. For example, between 2014 and 2015, KU witnessed a 2.4 percent decline. While still a downturn, it was the lowest rate of decline in five years.

Figure 1

Reasons Behind Declining Enrollments

     There are numerous reasons for the drop in students. The recession was a major contributor; as families' incomes declined, so did the number of students who could afford tuition. Consequently, many people decided to put off college or forego it entirely, while others decided to attend Community College or a less expensive alternative. On the other hand, as the economy improved, fewer people went back to school to learn new skills. This may be because as the employment rate accelerates and the economy improves, potential students opt to work rather than attend school.

     Demographic changes are also an important factor. Firstly, according to census numbers, Pennsylvania has experienced a declining population. The results show up in high school graduation rates. For example, the number of high school graduates has declined in our area, and when you consider that approximately eighty-nine percent of Kutztown's students are Pennsylvania residents, the competition for students becomes intense as all 14 colleges in the system angle for the same declining pool of students. So, while we can compete for the students that are available, there is little we can do about the overall decline in population. Further complicating the matter is that the pool of potential students is becoming more diverse and older, bringing to the fore issues associated with non-traditional students: finances, language, and other factors that have to do with preparedness.

Figure 1
  Source—Central PA Business Journal. "Colleges and universities fight harder for students. With fewer high school graduates, competition grows," by Heather Stauffer, March 8, 2013.  

Proposed/Attempted Solutions

     Following protocols we learned in the Tuning Process, history faculty at Kutztown worked out several responses to the problem of declining enrollment.

CASA—The Center for Academic Success and Achievement

     Assigned with providing our students with the tools needed to succeed, The Center for Academic Success and Achievement (CASA) is one of the University's programs that complement and supports our department's efforts to assist students. To this end, CASA provides a range of services to help our students gain the knowledge and skills necessary for achieving their educational goals. CASA's main focus is on promoting student success through planning and strategic decision making that contributes to academic achievement and career development. When done correctly, the result is graduation and career success.

     CASA not only assist students to shift into the university environment but also in their transition out. In addition to facilitating out-of-class opportunities for students, they also help to develop the academic skills that are common to all learning opportunities. At the more personal level, Casa encourages personal dispositions and habits that promote commitment and resilience. They try to help every student to develop their own self-responsibility and motivation to learn.

     CASA has Professional Coordinators for Student Success who provide personalized academic support and connect students to resources. These services include individual meetings, referrals to campus resources, weekly forums, and residence hall programs. The skills developed through involvement with CASA are helpful for all academic areas, as well as in clubs and organizations across campus.

     With CASA and the English Department, we are trying several strategies. To carry out our mission, we start with assuming nothing about our students' preparation for college. Then, we intervene early and keep reintroducing learning communities because of student turnover. While learning communities in one fashion or another have been with us since at least the 1920s, they have been constantly reinvented and reintroduced into the classrooms. Currently the use of learning communities is supported by growing evidence that student learning is enhanced by engaging with one another in educational activities.

     Learning communities combine the academic and social activities of a group of students to ensure that they are engaged as much as possible. This is accomplished by enrolling students in the same courses and engaging them in activities outside the formal classroom. Throughout the semester, students with similar interests and/or backgrounds are formed into a learning community so they will participate with faculty and fellow students in academically-engaging experiences. The overarching goal is to take advantage of the power of the cohort. Learning communities feature collaboration in scheduling and learning by taking a cross disciplinary approach.

Learning Communities and the Introductory History Course

     Over the past five years, we have been searching for a way to use the introductory History course to introduce students to the college experience in a more valuable way. So, at KU, the learning community that I am part of is intended to provide freshmen students with an academic base from which to begin their college careers. For our purpose, an introductory History course is paired with an introductory English course. The shared purpose is to provide students with guidance toward learning complementary skills to help them succeed in college. The classes along with the learning community attempts to create an environment where the student is provided with a rigorous educational challenge that integrates American history with the writing skills that are part of the English course. The collaboration inherent in the learning community environment is intended to provide the students with the confidence and skills needed to meet the challenges they will face during their time in college.

     Leaning Communities are not new to Kutztown University. The University has an array of inclusive Living and Learning Communities that provides academic learning while connecting with residence life. The advantage of living on campus is complemented by living with a group with similar academic interests. Within this environment our students, especially freshman, will be provided with an opportunity to live with their fellow students facilitating the transition to college academic life.

     Over the past year, Louis Rodriquez and Maria Sanelli of the History Department and Laura Scappaticci of CASA have been developing a learning community model for first year "Exploratory" students. We worked in tandem combining team teaching, enrichment, and academic skills training to benefit students. By scheduling introductory courses at the same time in adjoining rooms and working closely with CASA personnel, we have been able to add significant value for 200 incoming Exploratory students. We would like to expand and reshape the model by adding sections to include nearly all Exploratory students, so we can create learning communities with English Composition courses.

     The difficulty with embracing the learning communities model has been the complexity of matching students precisely between two or three courses. It takes only a few students to drop and/or add one course to make the linkage frustrating. Learning communities are easily degraded when three to five students in each of the classes are no longer in the other. It means faculty have to teach those students separately. Learning communities often run out of energy because in the necessarily small groups of students, too few will be genuinely interested to sustain programming. As the semester goes on, the faculty too is in jeopardy of losing the energy necessary to develop and sustain programming. So, for us to bolster success over time will require flexible and adaptive models to fit and include the learning communities.

We can solve all of these problems if instead of adding a few new intro courses we attempted to create a new kind of learning community for 400 first year students in 24 separate sections.

8 Sections of HIS026 (Total enrollment 400)

16 Sections of English Composition (Total enrollment 400)

• 2015F Exploratory students be placed in one of these HIS026 and ENG023 courses.

• No incoming exploratory students be scheduled any courses for one common hour — ideally noon or 1:00 MWF or TH — so that we could do programming during that period.

This program would accomplish many of the objectives of a learning community, but with significant additional advantages:

1. Partnering with the English department would add the critical component of writing skills and small sections for this group.

2. It would create a critical mass of students and professors for additional enrichment, programming, and shared class visits between faculty.

a. In this case we will have at least 400 students, 3 History professors, 4–8 English professors, CASA personnel, and Career Center personnel.

b. We would ask the shared staff to work together to create some coherence between sections, without needing to create identical syllabi.

3. Because of the larger common experience of combining several sections of HIS026 and HIS023 we won't have to worry about precisely aligned class lists between two specific classes, and we will be able to fill enrollments completely.

4. Students will gain the valuable experience of belonging to a specific group, having additional opportunity to know faculty members and their fellow students, and gaining skills and knowledge necessary to choose a major, stay at KU, and succeed in college and beyond.

     That said, I find introductory (survey) history courses among the most difficult to teach (really I found them all difficult to teach) because they have so much material to cover. Adding to the difficulty is the problem over covering contents or themes. Content becomes difficult because you have to decide what content to teach and everyone has a set of content material that they think is important – secondly it always happens when teaching a class that you get caught up in the moment and go off on tangents about events that are of interest to you, but eat up time and are off schedule and of little interest to the students.

     Furthermore, what about critical thinking skills? Do you introduce them in an introductory course or save that for a higher level course? Finally, how do you make what can be an exceedingly boring subject interesting to young people without misrepresenting the facts just to make them interesting? All this while attempting to convince students of the importance of history? Finally, how do you convince non-history majors of the importance of developing historical research skills which are valuable and transferrable to other disciplines? How then do you transfer all these important skills in a limited time and keep on schedule without oversimplifying the subject matter?


     For history teachers today, the task at hand is becoming more difficult. Consider, how do we teach when technology enables everyone to have the "facts" at their fingertips? I do not mean to dismiss the value of online information nor traditional lecturing. But I do think that we have to embrace technological change without being intimidated by it. We need to use technology not let it use us. The challenge is how to interest students using traditional methods that work while competing with new technologies that make history far more compelling and interesting. It is not that interesting is not good; it's just that "interesting" history tends to lack accuracy and credibility. How then, can we integrate technology into the classroom and then turn to lectures and traditional methods while maintaining students' attention and interest?

Andrew Arnold (, Louis Rodriquez (, and Laura Scappaticci teach at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.



These charts provide a qualitative summary overview student surveys reflecting participant responses. Included are 36 students responses 5 classes during the Fall 2015 semester. The aim of the analyses is to both illustrate places for improvement and complement the use of the Learning Communities as described above. Hopefully this project will be continued.

This study highlights student with the CASA and the Learning community. The resulting data gave us a preliminary view of what parts of the Learning Community worked well in the classroom and which areas did not. In addition as the project evolves we hope to find common themes; explore possible connections between student answers and theoretical applications to learning. Finally, this report will summarize the research findings and outline recommendations for possible revision of the project.

The demographics vary, overall, for myself however, I had three classes of undeclared freshmen students who were "volunteers" that is they had a choice to be part of the project or not.

Obviously, these initial assessment results are not definitive, but I feel we are headed in the right direction and as the project evolves more data may reveal more information needed to go forward effectively with this project.


Strongly Agree - 14%

Agree - 55%

Neutral - 24%

Disagree - 4%

Strongly Disagree - 2%

Figure 3

Strongly Agree - 46%

Agree - 50%

Neutral - 4%

Disagree - 0%

Strongly Disagree - 0%

Figure 4

Strongly Agree - 49%

Agree - 41%

Neutral - 11%

Disagree - 0%

Strongly Disagree - 0%

Figure 5

Strongly Agree - 49%

Agree - 37%

Neutral - 13%

Disagree - 0%

Strongly Disagree - 0%

Figure 6

Strongly Agree - 19%

Agree - 31%

Neutral - 31%

Disagree - 23%

Strongly Disagree - 0%

Figure 7

Strongly Agree - 9%

Agree - 37%

Neutral - 40%

Disagree - 12%

Strongly Disagree - 2%

Figure 8

Strongly Agree - 37%

Agree - 36%

Neutral - 22%

Disagree - 2%

Strongly Disagree - 0%

Figure 9

Strongly Agree - 25%

Agree - 50%

Neutral - 21%

Disagree - 4%

Strongly Disagree - 0%

Figure 10

Strongly Agree - 41%

Agree - 56%

Neutral - 2%

Disagree - 0%

Strongly Disagree - 0%

Figure 11

Strongly Agree - 24%

Agree - 51%

Neutral - 8%

Disagree - 6%

Strongly Disagree - 0%

Figure 12

Strongly Agree - 36%

Agree - 32%

Neutral - 25%

Disagree - 3%

Strongly Disagree - 0%

Figure 13

Strongly Agree - 34%

Agree - 40%

Neutral - 27%

Disagree - 0%

Strongly Disagree - 0%

Figure 14



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