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Teaching Skills, Not Just Content

Key issues when teaching non-majors.


June 9, 2016

Shira Lurie is a PhD candidate in Early American History at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on popular political conflicts over the American Revolution’s legacy in the early republic. You can follow her on Twitter and on her blog.




This year I TAed a course on the history of Colonial British America for mostly non-history majors. Some students were there out of general interest, but many were using the course to fulfill a distribution requirement. While I certainly believe that the study of history is important for everyone, I also wanted my students to see the class as personally worthwhile and, above all, useful for their futures. I think this is one of the less obvious, yet significant challenges in post-secondary teaching: it is often the case that the majority of students we teach will not pursue careers in our field. We also know, likely from first-hand experience, that post-exam brain drain is a battle no teacher can fully win. As TAs, our first responsibility is, of course, to teach content. But given that our students will likely not use, and so forget, most of the information they learn, how can we ensure an impact commensurate to the time our students spend with us? I think at least part of the answer is to work on skill development.


I decided that there were certain skills I could focus on over the semester that would serve my students well in whatever careers they eventually pursued. In addition to future usefulness, spending part of class time on skill development also provides students with opportunities to track their own progress in certain areas. Here are some skills I chose to emphasize this semester and some ideas on how to develop them:



I began the term by explaining to my students that writing would be a high priority for us since good writing can set them apart in whatever discipline they choose. About every other class I would break them into small groups and have them write a few sentences on a given prompt or concept. For example, I would give each group a term that they might have to identify and analyze on the final exam. We would then put them up on a projector and analyze them as a class. This allowed students to get feedback on their writing and to think through what makes an effective sentence, paragraph, and argument. It also enabled them to practice for the exam.



Analytical thinking and the ability to marshal evidence in service of an argument are also widely applicable skills. It is also important to be able to assess the argument of another person and give reasons why you agree or disagree. I had my students react to the arguments of the books we read in class, as well as to the opinions I and other students would voice. Thinking critically about an authority’s opinion and being able to thoughtfully voice opposition are valuable skills that require honing. For example, I put up a sentence from the book we were reading on the board and organized students into two groups: those who agreed and those who disagreed with the sentence. The students then debated with each other, offering evidence from the book and other readings to support their points.



While I didn’t have my students give formal presentations, I viewed participation in class discussion as a good opportunity for them to practice their public speaking skills. I encouraged students to clarify any vague language they used and to build off of each others’ points. I also tried to find opportunities to encourage shyer students to speak up. For example, during group work, I asked quieter group members to be the ones to speak for their group’s contribution when we came back together as a class. This gave them time to mentally prepare and even write down their comments if they preferred.


With all this being said, there are also certain aspects of course content that are important for students to learn and remember. In my case, I wanted my students to understand the average experience of an enslaved person in the transatlantic slave trade. I think drawing attention to certain specific course details and spending time on them is not misplaced. In doing so, students will hopefully come away from the course with improved skills and important core concepts.


How do you teach skills in your classroom? Let us know in the comments!


[Image from Flickr user {Fixelpix} David and used under Creative Commons license]


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