Historians on Assessment

00b02-classroom-1

Enter a caption

In his recent book Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone), Stanford University professor Sam Wineburg challenges history teachers to develop new assessments of student learning to see if the study of history really does teach the skills we claim it teaches. (Wineburg is scheduled to visit The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast in the next few weeks to talk about the book). The chapter in Why Learn History is based on research conducted by Wineburg’s the Stanford History Education Group.  You can read more about that work here.

Yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, a group of history educators explored some of Wineburg’s findings in a session titled “What Are We Learning?”: Innovative Assessments and Student Learning in College-Level History Classes.”  Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed reported on the session.   Here is a taste:

CHICAGO — A 2018 paper by members of the Stanford History Education Group called out historians for failing to value evidence of student learning as much as they value evidence in their historical analyses.

The authors’ occasion for rebuke? Their recent finding that many students don’t learn critical thinking in undergraduate history courses — a challenge to history’s sales pitch that its graduates are finely tuned critical thinkers.

Even among juniors and seniors in a sample of public university students in California, just two out of 49 explained that it was problematic to use a 20th-century painting of “The First Thanksgiving” to understand the actual 1621 event, wrote lead author Sam Wineburg, Margaret Jacks Professor of Education and professor of history at Stanford University, and his colleagues.

The paper, which included other similar examples, was distressing. But it wasn’t meant to damning — just a wake-up call, or, more gently, a conversation starter. And that conversation continued Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. A panel of professors here urged a sizable crowd of colleagues to embrace not just grades but formative, ongoing assessment to gauge student learning or lack thereof in real(er) time.

Suggested formative assessments include asking students to engage with primary-source documents such as maps, paintings, eyewitness event accounts, newspaper ads and unconventional historical artifacts via specific prompts. Others include asking students to examine a symbol of American nationhood, a local historical site or how pundits use history to advance arguments.

Panelist Lendol Calder, professor of history at Augustana College in Illinois, ran a study very similar to Wineburg’s on his own campus, and said the disappointing results held up. In general, he said, students either take any historical source at face value or — when they discover it was created by a human being — dismiss it outright as “biased,” he said, to chuckles.

Partly in response to that finding, Calder and his colleagues have doubled down on their ongoing campaign to discuss historical “sourcing” in every single class. That is part of a larger, existing departmental motto: LASER, an acronym for Love history, Acquire and analyze information, Solve difficult problems, Envision new explanations, and Reveal what you know. Sourcing work, which Calder called a “threshold concept” in history, means asking students to evaluate the reliability of various historical texts. Who made it? When? Why? What value does it hold for historians, if any?

Read the rest here.