College of Liberal Arts

Timeline Tool Connects the Dots

Thu, Aug 8, 2019
Image by UT Austin.
Image by UT Austin.

Learning history requires more than just being able to recall the dates when battles were fought or naming all 45 U.S. presidents.

 “History as I teach it,” explains Erika Bsumek, “is structured around what is happening at a given moment and why it’s happening. I try to get the students to think about relationships between the specific events we are studying and all the other things that we’ve previously studied. If they can grasp how events are connected, students can better understand history.”

And yet she noticed this message wasn’t always reaching students in her introductory U.S. history classes. Confronted with large amounts of material, students often focused on memorizing names and dates rather than gaining an understanding of how events are connected to broader historical narratives.

This is a serious matter, as research has shown that students who perform poorly in even one such introductory course, particularly those from disadvantaged populations, are at a greater risk of dropping out of college.

To get students thinking in terms of connections, Bsumek, an associate professor of history at UT Austin, used a variety of techniques. She assigned collaborative, active learning projects that pushed them to answer thoughtful course-based research questions. But students ultimately presented their projects in PowerPoint. Its slideshow and bullet point design made it too easy for them to slip back into the very data-without-context rut Bsumek was trying to break them of.

Seeking a better tool, she soon realized she would need to design one. And thus ClioVis – named for Clio, the Greek muse of history, and Vis for visualization – was born.

Read more about the innovative teaching tool Bsumek created at Life & Letters. 

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