Student Engagement

5 Steps to Creating a Rigorous Humanities Course

Challenging assignments inspired by college-level standards can help students broaden their understanding of content.

December 16, 2022
Maskot / Alamy

I teach an AP course in United States history (APUSH). My goal, of course, is to teach U.S. history to my students, but I desire to do so in intellectually rigorous and thought-provoking ways. My students have “learned” this history before, but it’s my task to engage them with history so that they can better understand the world and their place in it. 

To do so, I inject college-level rigor into the course.

No shade to my K–12 education, but when I entered college, I had to be trained to think through information as opposed to memorizing information. In other words, my professors sought to engage me by requiring me to make connections between theory and practice—to assess our current path as a society. 

Train Students to Engage in Intellectual Work

For example, I was required to make the connection between our country’s founding documents and how true our institutions are to those documents as a means of assessing racial injustice. That level of analysis is more valuable than simply knowing who wrote and who signed the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. That type of engagement shouldn’t be limited to the collegiate experience, and that’s why I encourage my students to participate in this intellectual work.

However, knowing dates, people, and places is important. Identifying literary devices in prose or poetry is critical. Yet knowing these absent the opportunity to utilize the knowledge of them to dissect the content to interpret what our world is saying to us is akin to providing someone with a comfortable home without the key to unlock the door.

Rigorous intellectual work helps students unlock the doors of understanding, which may seem easier in an 11th- or 12th-grade humanities classroom. But how do you do that in a ninth-, seventh-, or fifth-grade humanities classroom where knowing the basics is as vital as philosophical discussions about society as part of rigorous instruction?

Here are some ways you can do this in your classroom that have worked well for me.

1. Assign a timely book for classroom discussion 

A text that is recent or relevant to the times can spark interest in history. Depending on your students’ needs, a book that provides steps or tips for accomplishing a goal may work well. For my APUSH class, we’re reading Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s book Not a Nation of Immigrants. It explores American history by discussing the white settler origins of the U.S. in relation to the experiences of all peoples that make up the “melting pot,” in a relevant way. It spurs great discussion and has complemented our coursework well. Be creative and find something that students can sink their teeth into. You may have to strategically introduce it, but do it.

Lastly, make class time to discuss the book and highlight students’ insights from their reading. Don’t be afraid to let students know they’ll be graded on participation (or lack thereof). Also, use the Socratic method if you have to encourage students to read the text.

2. Give writing assignments rather than tests and quizzes 

Quizzes and tests generally assess knowledge of a subject or of specific content. Writing assignments often do the same, but they also provide an opportunity to show how students can apply or relate their knowledge to a scenario or assess something they’ve witnessed.

Writing in general helps students think through their experiences as well as what they’ve learned. Use writing exercises and assignments so that students can internalize, question, identify, and call out things that lead to their mastery of the content.

3. Create opportunities for public speaking in class 

Inject some life (and fun) into your class by allowing students to present what they’ve learned by offering an in-person or prerecorded video presentation. Another way to get students talking is to allow them to debate with each other on lesson topics (and/or current events).

Public speaking opportunities can help students develop their skills and possibly overcome their fears while also providing a different kind of assessment for teachers. Not to mention that students just might have fun talking instead of always listening.

4. Have students utilize data to expand their understanding 

Data offers researchers and educators alike an opportunity to gain more insight into social and historical trends and also into attitudes and stances concerning various social and policy issues. Teaching students how to engage with data (read/interpret data and also manufacture data via experiments) is a valuable skill for them but also a great way to engage them. Show students how to read and understand data/statistics, so that they may include data within their writing as well as evidence during discussions.

In my classes, I’ve used qualitative coding to discuss the importance of voting. To prove that, we asked educators, parents, and non-educator staff whether they voted in the previous election and if so, why. We took those responses and created data by coding words in them to find themes among the categories of respondents. The data gave us insight into the reasons why folks choose to vote or not. We even shared our report with local lawmakers to inform their voting drive initiatives.

5. Give students autonomy with assignments 

This looks like offering a wide range of assignments to students, such as writing assignments, review assignments, team projects, interpreting a political cartoon, creating a meme or GIF to make commentary about a current event, etc. Each type of assignment can be used for any unit of study, and they each should come with a rubric that explains how students can achieve the desired grade.

For example, if a marking period is 10 weeks long and contains two units over the course of the marking period, you could require that students complete 20 assignments per unit (40 total) out of a possible 25 assignments per unit (50 assignments). That means students must complete four out of five assignments per week. If you categorize your assignments (for example, homework, classwork, quizzes, tests, and projects), you can decide which assignments are mandatory or optional.

For example, tests and projects are mandatory, and everything else is optional. Quizzes are weekly, but students only have to take three out of five quizzes. That would mean that in one unit (five weeks), students would complete one test, one project, three quizzes (one task a week), 10 classwork assignments, and five homework assignments.

When students express difficulty with the challenging nature of the assignments, I compromise where I can and push them where they need to be pushed. I generally do more pushing than compromising. My compromise for anything they request grace with is the removal of a rubric requirement—not a removal of rigor.

Lastly, you can provide extra assignments for which students can receive extra credit . This kind of autonomy provides students with the opportunity to display their mastery of the content in various ways with the flexibility of selecting their assignments, while also being rewarded for going above and beyond what is asked of them.

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  • Student Engagement
  • Critical Thinking
  • Inquiry-Based Learning
  • Social Studies/History
  • 9-12 High School

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