Context is everything in learning. The events leading to the Civil War make sense only within the wider context of debates over states' rights and federal power. Understanding these broader principles also improves retention of the events themselves because our minds are built to remember significance, not brute facts such as dates and actions. Moreover, context provides a foundation for applying learning to other areas, including modern issues that stem from the same debates over states' rights and federal power.
It is thus important to always situate exploration of particular issues within a broader context. One of the main themes in my medical ethics class is a shift in the medical profession's attitude toward patients from one of paternalism (“doctor's orders”) to autonomy (the patient has a right to determine his or her own treatment and even to refuse treatment). Most of the cases we examine in class, as well as cases that students will encounter in their own practice, implicate this distinction in some way, and so I continually return to this underlying distinction in my teaching. I want students to see how each of the historic cases in medical ethics modified the profession's view of its ethical duties by shifting the balance of this distinction from one side to the other. Thus, I situate the cases we study within a broad timeline, tracing the evolution of this vision of medical duties.
Digital timelines are a great way to add context to learning by tracing themes that develop over time. They are simple visuals that provide both a broad view of how themes evolve over time and particular instances that the viewer can click to dive down into the particulars. They can also be used as a student activity. A student in an economics class can build a digital timeline of the Great Depression by tracing out the specific governmental and business decisions that led to it and that led the United States out of it. A student in an art class can construct a history of an art movement, using examples that represent the theme and explaining how the examples influenced the movement. A student in a philosophy class can trace the development of a particular school of thought concerning knowledge and reality. Even the hard sciences can use digital timeline assignments. Instead of demonstrating a concept in a paper, a student can trace its development over time through different experiments. Each of these examples forces students to understand the context that lends significance to what they learn.
Timeline Creation Systems
There are a variety of good web-based systems for constructing timelines. Here are two of my favorites:
Sutori (https://www.sutori.com) is a very easy-to-use tool that allows the builder to add text, images, videos, links, and podcasts to a timeline. The timeline appears in two columns and scrolls top to bottom rather than left to right, with the creator adding elements to either column as it is being built. One nice feature is the ability to add multiple-choice questions. This allows the instructor or student to add questions about content just covered to measure learning and improve retention. The system also allows teachers to build classes with multiple timelines as well as having all student-produced content appear in one place. The teacher can just share a code with students to get them into the class to see all timelines. There is also a collaboration feature that helps with developing group timelines. Take a look at some of the examples on the site to get ideas, and learn how to build a timeline with this tutorial: https://youtu.be/aq-4zjytoTU.
Timeline JS (http://timeline.knightlab.com) from Northwestern University uses Google Sheets to create a timeline. The builder copies a spreadsheet template to his or her own Drive account and then enters the timeline elements as information in columns, such as title, description, URL, content type, and so on. The timeline runs horizontally from left to right, in contrast to the vertical orientation of Sutori. You can include links to maps, which is helpful to providing a geographic axis to a timeline, and the tool also provides embed code to put a timeline into a website. This is helpful if you want your own timelines or those of your students to appear in a class blog, website, or wiki. See Richard Byrne's overview of the system here: https://youtu.be/bn5CXhxTPVU.
Try digital timelines as a way to teach context in your courses.