Assessment History Uncovering History

How to Assess Historical Thinking

Contribution to April’s History Blog Circle:

Historical thinking is important, but it’s hard, even “unnatural”.   Likewise, assessing historical thinking is daunting, but very necessary.  Both doing and assessing historical thinking require practice.  Lots of it.  This practice is worthwhile because reading and writing like historians are skills that students will use in college, career, and civic life.

The current issue of The Journal of American History features a lively round table discussion on the future and value of US History survey textbooks.  In the article Amy Kinsel, Professor of History at Shoreline Community College (WA), outlines purposes for teaching US History:

My goals for my survey courses are to help my students learn what the historical discipline is, ask a few historical questions, think critically about some primary and secondary sources, write an arguable thesis statement, produce some form of analytical writing that is not plagiarized, and become better “consumers” (for want of a better term) of information in general and of historical information in particular…More and more, I believe that the information literacy skills I try to teach my students are among the most important learning outcomes of my survey courses.

I share these aims for my high school history classes. Obviously, we live in an information rich world, and students need practice working with information.  Hence, the ongoing relevance of history education.

In fact, teaching  historical thinking skills is one way to address the ELA in the content areas of the Common Core State Standards.  I am confident that addressing the historical thinking skills in the MN State Social Studies Standards (download here) also addresses several CCSS standards for ELA.  The new College, Career, and Civic Life  (C3) framework for social studies standards recognizes this. C3 stresses critical literacy skills, while also making the case that historical, geographic, economic, and political inquiry are inherently valuable.

Two student papers on a desk. A writing has underlining and notes; the other has a chart for organizing information
Annotating primary sources is a key step in thinking historically

Of course, valid and reliable assessment is needed to make historical thinking skills an important part of history curricula.  The difficulties in assessing historical thinking are one barrier to more inclusion of vital higher order tasks in high school history courses.  While many teachers think they know how to fairly assess mastery of discrete facts, measuring student thinking seems inherently problematic, and since most such assessments involve writing, it is time consuming, too.

Enter rubrics!  Working collaboratively in my Global Studies PLC and through twitter I am developing a rubric for historical writing.  Using this rubric with colleagues has led me to two fairly obvious, yet still important, conclusions: 1) mastering an unfamiliar skill takes time, and 2) complex skills are mastered one step at a time.  So, last term my student teacher and I focused on improving eleventh grade students’ historical skills with one paragraph, evidence based writings.  We assessed these with a simplified form of the rubric, using just the evidence and sourcing lines.

Hand points directions on a white board.  A T chart with "citations" on one side and "paragraph" on the other.  Two pieces of evidence were required.
Mr. Holmstrom points out the importance of citing sources in historical writing

Providing practice and rubric-based feedback helped students to improve. The first time through, using SHEG’s Augustus activity, we emphasized using and citing evidence and discussed sourcing. A strong majority of students (32/41) used evidence proficiently or better by supporting their claim about Augustus’s leadership with two pieces of evidence.  But, despite some quality small- and large-group discussion during the activity about the impact of sourcing on the documents, far fewer students were proficient at the higher order task (4/41).  This fits my previous observation that it’s hard.  I recorded grades based almost solely on student use of evidence, since this was focus of instruction for the task.

As with any difficult task, becoming proficient at sourcing analysis requires repetition.  Global Studies students next did this with SHEG’s First Crusade activity. They read Christian and Muslim

Student hand writing a paragraph with a document beside the notebook paper
Historical thinking in action

sources then guessed the identity of a third.  In class discussion Mr. Holmstrom highlighted words and phrases that students used to inform their guess about the author.  We did not assess this, but I did refer to it frequently during the next graded activity.  Students used evidence from documents taken from the Center for New History and Media’s French Revolution site to support an interpretation of the Revolution’s causes.  Students read all or most of these documents over several days. After the Crusades intervention and ongoing discussion of sourcing, the number of students proficiently analyzing sourcing more than doubled (9/37).  Comments from colleagues working with students this term, including some of mine from tri 2, indicate that sourcing needs more practice.  But, that is what it will take to develop this valuable skill.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

Let me know what you think!

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