Historians on Assessment


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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.

Rethinking the History Survey Course


Steven Mintz of the University of Texas has some good ideas to get more students engaged in the study of the history through the required survey course.  Here are some of them:

  • Thematically Organized Surveys: One striking example at the University of Kentucky focuses on citizenship: historical controversies over the rights of immigrants, voting rights, marriage rights, and other rights.
  • Interdisciplinary Clusters: Georgetown, UCLA, and the University of California, Berkeley are experimenting with paired and team-taught courses that combine the insights of a variety of disciplines on a topic (the 1960s, for example) or problem (climate change).
  • Career-Aligned Pathways: The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley redesigned the pathway through the biomedical sciences to emphasize professional identity formation, with students taking a history course in the history of disease and public health, a literature class on the literature of pain and illness, a philosophy course on medical ethics, and an art history class on representations of the body. The University of Texas at Austin has an introductory-level course on the history of engineering.
  • Inquiry-Driven Approaches: The University of Michigan’s History 101, which focuses on the question “What is history?,” offers an overview of the approaches historians have taken to studying the past and how they analyze and interpret historical sources and uncover the meaning of history for life today. My own inquiry-driven US history survey course focuses on solving historical mysteries, wrestling with troubling moral dilemmas rooted in history, interpreting a wide range of historical sources (artifacts, architecture, fashion, film, hairstyles, maps, naming patterns, paintings, photographs, and political cartoons, among others), and responding to such questions as “What if?” and “How do we know?”

Read the entire piece at AHA Today .  Of course no discussion of innovative approaches to the history survey course is complete without considering the work of Lendol Calder.  Lendol has been talking and writing about these matters for years.

“The Mechanics of Class Participation”


Yesterday we did a post on Lendol Calder’s use of “Point Paragraphs” in the history classroom.  Calder’s piece was a part of larger Perspectives on History forum titled “How to Get Students to Think, Talk, Share, Collaborate, Learn and Come Back for More.” Here is a taste of Elizabeth Lehfeldt‘s Introduction to the forum:

We’ve all been there. Our syllabus specifies that a percentage of the course grade will be based on participation. We’ve presented riveting material or assigned a provocative reading. We show up for class, stand at the front of the room, and begin lobbing questions at the students. And the silence is deafening.

Our intentions are good, but something is missing in the execution. The four pieces offered here offer strategies and ideas for lifting our class discussions out of the doldrums and making them meaningful and efficacious for students.

Check out the forum here.


Should Howard Zinn Be Banned in Public Schools?

689e7-zinnKim Hendren, an Arkansas state legislator, wants to ban Howard Zinn‘s books from Arkansas public schools.  Here is a taste of a news story from “Common Dreams” website:

A Republican Arkansas lawmaker has introduced legislation to ban the works of the late historian, activist, and writer Howard Zinn from publicly funded schools.

The bill from Rep. Kim Hendren, just noted by the Arkansas Times, was introduced on Thursday and referred to the House Committee on Education.

It states (pdf) that any “public school district or an open-enrollment public charter school shall not include in its curriculum or course materials for a class or program of study any book or other material” authored by Zinn from 1959 until 2010, the year in which he died

The Zinn Education Project, which aims to “to introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of United States history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula,” noted Thursday that educators in the state may have a very different take from Hendren: “To date, there are more than 250 teachers in Arkansas who have signed up to access people’s history lessons from the Zinn Education Project website.”

The project is also offering a free copy of Zinn’s seminal A People’s History of the United States to any Arkansas teacher who requests it.

Read the entire post here.

Should Zinn be banned from classrooms in Arkansas?

“Banned” is a strong word.  I don’t know the motivation behind Hendren’s bill, but I imagine it has something to do with the left-wing leanings of Zinn’s work, especially his  A People’s History of the United States.   

So should Zinn’s works be used in school classrooms in Arkansas or anywhere else?  No and yes.

I have argued here in the past that Zinn’s book is bad history.  On this point I find myself in agreement with both leftist Georgetown historian Michael Kazin (who also serves as editor of Dissent) and Stanford history education scholar Sam Wineburg.  I would not assign it as the sole textbook in a history class.  It should be viewed as political text that uses the past to advance its agenda.

I would, however, consider using Zinn in the way that my friend Lendol Calder has used it in his United States history survey course.  Calder assigns Zinn alongside a conservative-leaning textbook such as Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People  (Larry Schweikart’s A Patriot’s History of the United States might be another conservative option) in order to show his students that history is “an argument without end.”  He calls Zinn and Johnson “untextbooks.”  I imagine that Calder assigns these two texts because their ideological bent is so overt and obvious.

Should Zinn be banned in Arkansas schools?  No.  But it should be used in very strategic ways that teach students how to think like historians and not like politicians.

Historians: How Does Research In Pedagogy Inform Your Teaching?

Ben Wright, a historian at the University of Texas at Dallas, challenges his fellow history professors to start reading scholarship related to pedagogy.  He even uses the label “anti-intellectual” to describe those professors who are unwilling to engage with such literature or who look upon this literature with condescension.

Here is a taste of his post at Teaching United States History:

I should confess that I came to the profession of “professing” after receiving an undergraduate training in “teaching.” In fact, this article takes me back to my undergraduate education and the whiplash I often felt when walking out of an educational psychology class and into a history course. I recall how impressed I was by the scholarly rigor of education researchers and the evidence they produced to indicate the difference between effective and ineffective instruction. And then I remember the bemusement I felt an hour later by realizing that my history professor clearly never read a word of this scholarship.
Ignorance is one thing, but outright hostility is quite another, and the tone of this article, and of some of the enthusiasm I’ve noticed around it, evinces a dismissal and even condescension to the academic fields of education research. I would even go so far as to call this attitude an anti-intellectualism. Is this outlook toward the academic study of education any less disrespectful and misguided than what we sometimes get from members of the public who feel that Bill O’Reilly’s study of Abraham Lincoln has the same measure of legitimacy as Eric Foner’s?
We all have a standard answer to the question, “how does your research inform your teaching?” but what would happen if if interviewees began asking, “how does research in pedagogy inform your teaching?” Our guild appears to hold the belief that learning how to teach is mostly a matter of general intelligence, experience, and hard work. Most of us receive little-to-no training in how to teach. We are thrust into teaching assistantships and expected to figure it out on the fly. And we do, but this trial by fire approach teaches us more how to survive and less how to ensure the best possible outcomes for our students. Discussions of learning outcomes, best practices, or education psychology too often get dismissed as administrator meddling or an academia adrift in lowering standards. The “tough love” approach epitomized in the article stands in for rigorous engagement with research.
Wright is right.  If we want more students to get excited about history we need to be more committed to teaching. And yes, this will require reading scholarship related to pedagogy.
Wright lists several places where historians might begin to explore this scholarship.  They include The Review of Higher Education, Review of Education Research, and Contemporary Educational Psychology.  These are probably all great journals that include articles that will make us become better teachers, but not every historian is going to have the time or inclination to read them.
But maybe historians will read literature on scholarship related specifically to teaching history–literature published in history journals, magazines, or history blogs and websites. Sam Wineburg, Lendol Calder, Caleb McDaniel, the folks responsible for The History Teacher, and others are doing great work on this front.  I know that Wright is familiar with this work.  
Rather than encouraging historians to tackle specialized pedagogy and education journals, I think the best we can expect is that more historians like Wright will emerge  to serve as brokers who are willing to bring the best of this literature to those of use who work in the history classroom.

Teaching the U.S. History Survey Course Backwards

Caleb McDaniel

I admire Caleb McDaniel’s courage in the classroom. McDaniel teaches his United States Survey backwards.  He starts in the present and ends in 1848.

McDaniel’s approach is yet another attempt to apply Lendol Calder’s “uncoverage” model to the United States history course.  “Uncoverage” does not neglect content, but it is an approach to teaching history in which success is not based on “covering” every detail.  Instead “uncoverage” focuses on teaching students how to think historically.

McDaniel discusses his attempts at teaching backwards in a recent post at his blog.  Here is a taste:

My first version of the course was especially inspired by a first-week exercise that Annette Atkins uses in her backwards survey. On Day 1, Atkins begins by asking students to “list 10 issues that most concern them,” and then to “read the last chapter of the textbook.” On the second day, Atkins works with students to create a collective list of “issues.” Over the next several meetings, the class begins to think about their “issues” in light of the last 20 years of American history, noticing relations between the two and beginning to develop questions about the historical context in which we ourselves live.
In 2013, I took that idea and ran with it—to a fault, as you’ll see below. On the first day of class, I asked students to make a list of “issues that concern them.” We then arranged the list so that the issues most mentioned were at the top. Here were the top 10 from a list that ran to two double-spaced pages:

  • Gun control / guns / gun laws / guns in schools / shootings (x10)
  • Equal rights / gay rights / same-sex marriage / redefined family (x9)
  • Debt ceiling / debt crisis / fiscal cliff / taxes (x8)
  • U.S. world role / distinctiveness / foreign policy / Middle East (x7)
  • Party system / third parties / 2012 election / partisanship and gridlock (x6)
  • Legalization of marijuana / war on drugs / drug abuse (x5)
  • Death penalty / crime / incarceration (x3)
  • Immigration / immigration policy (x3)
  • Women’s reproductive rights / abortion (x3)
  • Technology / dependence on personal devices (x3)

Either in that class or the next one, I then introduced students briefly to the Five C’s of Historical Thinking. As homework, students were required to go to a Google Doc and generate historical questions about the issues we had listed.

I recall the results of that assignment as bracing. They revealed just how much I had typically taken for granted about how my students approached a history class. Many students asked questions about what the future held. Others focused on asking about what the United States should do about a situation—questions whose answers may be informed by historical reflection, but which are not the questions historians typically begin by asking.

In retrospect, maybe the default questions my students asked shouldn’t have surprised me. As Mills Kelly notes, many students “believe that history regularly repeats itself—so if we just pay close attention to what happened in the past, we will know what to expect in the future.”1 Simply by asking my students to give me some questions, I learned that I could not take for granted that they knew what a historical question was, much less that they could think like an historian about the question. Right away I learned that I would need to teach explicitly the kinds of questions historians ask.
Unfortunately, that was the sort of teaching I had prepared the least to do. I did spend the next two class meetings or so talking in greater detail about the “five C’s of historical thinking.” I hoped this would help students to see how they might reframe their questions as historical ones about causation or change over time. By the second week, we had whittled a massive brainstorm of questions down to a more manageable list that was also more historical in orientation.

Read the rest here.  

Lendol Calder on "Flipping the Classroom"

Like Lendol Calder, the phrase “flipping the classroom” is new to me.  It is an approach to teaching in which content is delivered outside of the classroom, allowing class time to be used as a “workshop where students can explore course concepts, apply new knowledge, test their skills and interact through hands-on activities.”

Calder recently spoke about “flipping the classroom” to a group of professors attending a teaching workshop sponsored by the University of Virginia’s Teaching Resource Center.  Here is a taste of an article on Calder’s UVA presentation:

New lecturers were not given much guidance when he began teaching 20 years ago, said Calder, who teaches at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., and was 2010 Illinois Professor of the Year, awarded by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

Although he spent a lot of time preparing lectures, what he ended up doing was “teaching by mentioning,” he joked. “I really believed if I said it, the students would learn it,” he said.

A comment from a student illustrated part of the problem with teaching large lecture courses, he said. She told him the courses were all pretty much the same, except for the content.

Should a history course be taught the same as a biology course and the same as an economics course?, Calder asked.

The way to design a course is to work backward, he said, first identifying the desired results in student learning and then figuring out how you will assess that. Then you plan the learning experiences, said Calder, who was a Carnegie Scholar in Teaching and Learning in 1999.

He said he realized he wanted his students to learn how a historian thinks – a process he called “a signature pedagogy.” To do this, he came up with a short list of essential questions that historians argue about that have no right answers.

The instructor should also identify two other levels: what facts, concepts or principles students should be familiar with, and what students should definitely know and be able to do.

He urged the audience of almost 150 faculty and graduate teaching assistants to determine how to provide students with exercises and projects that enable them to practice the basic mode of thought of the discipline being taught.

Disciplinary thinking should help people make sense of the world and learn what to value, he said.

Are You an Educator or Historian?

Mark Schwehn begins his masterful Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America with a story from his days teaching at the University of Chicago.  While waiting for a meeting to start, one of the scholars at the table asked everyone to share with the group how they would be identifying themselves on their tax forms.  I will let Schwehn take it from here:

The first person spoke up at once with a kind of brisk confidence.  “Sociologist,” he said.  And so it continued–“anthropologist,” “historian,” “psychologist,” “historian.”  At about this point (though I have been sometimes slow to catch the drift of things, I did discern this time a clear pattern emerging), I began to wonder whether or not I had the courage to be honest in the company of so many of my senior colleagues.

Though trained as an intellectual historian, I had never once thought to put such a designation down under “occupation” on my tax form.  When I finally spoke up, I admitted (it certainly felt like an admission) that I had written “college teacher” under the relevant heading.  This disclosure was greeting with what I can only describe (though it was doubtless a projection even then) as a combination of mild alarm and studied astonishment.  I felt as though I had suddenly become, however briefly, an informant from another culture.

Anyone who has passed through Valparaiso University as part of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts knows this story.  Just ask historians like John McGreevy, Paul Harvey, Kathleen Sprows Cummings, Tal Howard, Stephanie Yuhl, Mike Utzinger, Mary Henold, Andrew Finstuen, and Matt Hedstrom, among others.  It is one of the many stories that informs the culture of a wonderful post-doc program.

I also imagine that Lendol Calder (who was not a Lilly Fellow, but has certainly read Exiles from Eden) was thinking about this story when he recently asked an audience at the American Historical Association annual meeting in New Orleans how they would describe themselves on this year’s tax form.  (I was not in the audience, so I do not know if Calder referenced Schwehn).

Calder was part of a panel on improving teacher-training in history doctoral programs.  I did not get a chance to attend the session, but Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed apparently did.  She has written an informative article on several teaching-oriented panels at the AHA.  Here is a taste:

Lendol G. Calder, history professor at Augustana College, in Illinois, asked audience members to consider whether they’ll describe themselves as historians or educators on their tax forms this year. The varied responses among professors pointed to a fundamental disconnect between the way historians approach their research – problem-based and rigorous – and their pedagogy, he said. 

“Few historians inquire into teaching and learning the way that we venture into our own work,” he said, adding that historians typically have had a disdain for educational literature. But that’s changing. The History Teacher journal now has 40 or more footnotes per article, versus far fewer 15 years ago. Scholarship also focuses now on how to teach, not just what to teach. 

Colleges and universities also can help reshape the supply of teaching-savvy Ph.D.s by demanding more pedagogical training from would-be faculty members. Augustana, for example, now requires interviewees to prepare a 50-minute pedagogical colloquium on teaching philosophy, in addition to the standard information about their dissertations and backgrounds.

“We were nervous when we started,” Calder said. “To our surprise, it sent a very strong message about who we were to applicants, [without] any drop-off in the quality of their research.”

So how will you be describing yourself on your 2013 tax form?