Embedding critical perception through key skill acquisition: using source analysis portfolios for the study of comparative genocide

Dr. Rebecca Jinks, Department of History

The challenge of teaching genocide is that popular media and official cultures of remembrance tend to flatten out (or sensationalise) the phenomenon and make it harder, rather than easier, for students to understand the causes, process, and consequences of genocide. One of the pedagogical objectives of any course on genocide must, therefore, be to problematise and deconstruct the simplistic categories that inhabit daily life and media.

It’s with these core objectives in mind that I redesigned one of the key formative assessment tasks of History Special Subject courses – that of the short primary source analysis. Primary source analysis is a skill embedded in our History curriculum, but writing a short source analysis is a skill usually taught/assessed only in very compressed fashion in the final year. Thus, when designing my genocide course, instead of the standard 3-6 formative source analyses that most of our Special Subjects require, I developed a formative ‘portfolio’ of 12 source analyses, which also involved the novel use of a wide range of highly diverse source texts. This deliberately aimed at opening up the subject beyond the simplistic public understandings of genocide. My specific task design also allowed students to revisit and improve pieces of their source analysis work both individually and in a peer-review setting. In this way, the task was designed to sharpen several of the students’ key skills – from acting on feedback, to practising and deepening their analytical skills, to the key task of improving their written communication skills and prose-writing style. 


Assessment for learning: the formative portfolio

I designed the task as follows: each week, for 12 weeks, my students wrote a 400-word analysis of a set primary source which corresponded to that week’s topic (each a different case study of genocide). For the first 4 weeks, I marked and returned their work within two days: the students then had 5 days to re-write and re-submit. In this way, they practised the task itself, as well as revising and responding to feedback, and gained a clearer sense of the marking criteria. For the subsequent 5 weeks, they brought their 400-word analyses to class: I set aside 20 minutes for peer review and feedback in pairs. In this way, they were exposed to others’ ideas, practised applying assessment criteria themselves, and developed the key transferrable skill of giving and receiving feedback from peers. This activity also facilitated the students in developing informal support networks within the class. The students then had the opportunity to revise their work before submitting all of the 5 pieces to me for marking. For the final 3 weeks of the task, the students wrote their source analyses under ‘timed conditions’ as direct preparation for the exam, and again I gave feedback on their work.

In this way, the task overall was designed to improve students’ confidence, and support the development of a variety of important skills, not least the core skill of writing – an essential component of which is receiving feedback and acting on it. At the heart of my assessment design, then, I was seeking to address a common problem that the QMUL Thinking Writing team have identified: 

‘Our students do not have enough opportunities for writing and nearly all of their writing is formally assessed. This can restrict the likelihood of experimentation and creative risk-taking resulting in ‘safe’ but more uniform work. Our current assessment system allows students very little opportunity to respond to and act on criticism of their written work. There is no real opportunity for revision’.


Diversity in primary source perspectives and genres

Two types of inclusivity also guided the design of this assessment task. In selecting the range of primary sources that students would engage deeply with, I made it a priority to include diverse, sometimes marginalised perspectives, each of which would complicate simplistic understandings of genocide – for example, testimony from a Rwandan perpetrator explaining his involvement in the killings as having more to do with fear than hatred. I also sought to include a wide variety of primary source genres for the students to analyse: memoirs, oral testimonies, state documents, photography, court trial transcripts and forensic reports, human rights reports, and GIS and mapping technologies. This interdisciplinary variety has the effect of opening up students’ imaginations to how we can approach and analyse genocide, and – crucially – supports different learning approaches, giving those with unusual (or as-yet-unknown!) analytical skills the opportunity to develop and deploy them.


Evaluation and feedback

As noted, I designed the task to develop students’ analytical and writing skills, to improve their ability to act on feedback (and practise giving and receiving peer feedback), and to increase their confidence when writing source analyses. It was also designed simultaneously to enhance students’ understanding of the course material itself, by encouraging reflection on the gaps in public understanding of genocide, by asking them to engage deeply with individual experiences of genocide, and to explore the unusual source genres through which we can study modern genocide.

I tracked the students’ grades on a spreadsheet. Across the 12 source analyses, most students improved their grades by 3-5 percentage points overall. The students generally consolidated their grades by around the 7th assignment, suggesting that by that point they had a clearer understanding of the task and assessment criteria, and improved analysis and writing skills (the latter, of course, being transferrable to other courses). Most interesting was the uptick in grades on the first four source analyses: after receiving and responding to tutor feedback, students improved their grade between 1 and 8 percentage points. 

At the end of the task, I asked students to complete a short questionnaire, which asked for their thoughts on the three stages, which skills they thought they had particularly improved, whether their confidence had improved, and for any changes they would recommend. The students were overwhelmingly positive about the portfolio task as a whole, and reported feeling much more confident about this task and their writing and analytical skills. They found the revise-and-resubmit process to be especially helpful: one student found ‘being able to make amendments and then have you mark them again to check I was on the right lines’ very useful; another found it useful ‘to work on editing words down, being more concise, learning about common errors’. Most commented that the ‘timed conditions’ element was particularly useful as a reminder of the difference between coursework (unlimited planning/writing time) and exam conditions. Most found the peer-reviewed weeks less helpful, largely because of a ‘reluctance from peers to make critical feedback’. On the other hand, another student wrote, ‘it’s slightly awkward, but it’s good to see how different structures can be used and how other people interpret sources.’

Perhaps one of the most gratifying comments was: ‘I looked at things I wouldn’t have found important before’ – which shows that my goal of opening up the students’ imaginations to alternative ways of understanding genocide had been achieved.



See other case studies on our Assessment and Feedback page