What students need to know and do
Tertiary-level studies of history must develop higher-order communication skills in students as well as deep thinking. Depth usually means more emphasis on evidence, coherence and reflection. In history’s particular case, the expository skills relate to framing and substantiating lines of argument that are clear and fair, sound and coherent. This new advanced-level history skill-set can seem daunting. Academics want their students to combine distanced and even-handed disinterest with the selection and substantiation of points of historical importance and interest. Openness and something approaching neutrality must join with saying and writing something sound and interesting. These are subtle distinctions and major challenges. Students in the first year must begin to construct evidence-based lines of argument that equate with the accepted practices of the discipline (De La Paz, Ferretti, Wissinger, Yee & MacArthur, 2012; Limón, 2002; Voss, 1998; Wrigglesworth & McKeever, 2010).
Student barriers to learning
Students often find essay writing difficult. The key barrier to learning is often simply that many students still don’t realise historians construct meanings out of the past and transmit that ‘meaning’ as ‘history’. The distress in this sense of difficulty arises because the student may still think learning is simply a fact-collection or accumulation exercise. This is called ‘surface’ learning. Faced with preparing an essay, these students will tend to study hard, but still not thrive. This is because they commonly misconceive the ‘deep’ task of having to form a line of argument as simply a task to comprehend, collect and report back. Their essays just re-arrange some of their readings. Struggling students may also err in thinking the essay task of having to express a viewpoint is only a summons for their opinions, pure and simple. They may thereby overlook the ‘deep learning’ agendas of the task. They are yet to take on board the agendas of higher learning: namely that they must impart their structure or organisation on the historical material, and they must elaborate their evidence explicitly (Greene, 1994; Hounsell, 1984; Hounsell, 1988; Hounsell, 2000).
Our teaching strategies
‘Decode the discipline.’ Teachers need to learn not to neglect the signals sent by the most common errors made by students in writing essays. A student, quite capable of writing well in one genre, may be less capable in another. Student errors are more often not literacy problems per se, but rather problems of adjusting to the more complex and unfamiliar tasks associated with tertiary studies in History. Essay-writing techniques and explicit models of good practice need to be discussed and explicated to help students master unfamiliar forms of academic discourse (Díaz, Middendorf, Pace, Shopkow, 2008; Huggins, 1993; Monte-Sano, 2008; Pace & Middendorf, 2004; Taylor & Nightingale, 1990).
De La Paz, S., Ferretti, R., Wissinger, D., Yee, L., MacArthur, C. (2012). Adolescents’ disciplinary use of evidence, argumentative strategies and organizational structure in writing about historical controversies, Written Communication, 29(4). 412-54. doi: 10.1177/0741088312461591.
Díaz, A., Middendorf, J., Pace, D., Shopkow, L. (2008). The history learning project: A department ‘decodes’ its students, The Journal of American History, 94(4), 1211-24. doi: 10.2307/25095328
Greene, S. (1994). The problems of learning to think like a historian: Writing history in the culture of the classroom, Educational Psychologist 29(2), 89-96. doi: 10.1207/s15326985ep2902_4
Hounsell, D. (1984). Learning and essay-writing. In F. Marton, D. Hounsell, & N. Entwistle (Eds.), The experience of learning (pp. 130-123). Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.
Hounsell, D. (1987). Essay writing and the quality of feedback. In J.T.E. Richardson et al. (Eds.), Student learning: Research in education and cognitive psychology. Milton Keynes, CSHE and Open University Press.
Hounsell, D. (1988). Towards and anatomy of academic discourse: Meaning and context in the undergraduate history essay. In R. Säljö (Ed.), The written world: Studies in literate thought and action (pp. 161-177). Berlin: Springer-Verlag.
Hounsell, D. (2000). Reappraising and recasting the history essay. In A. Booth & P Hylands (Eds.), The Practice of University History Teaching (pp. 181-193). Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
Huggins, L. (1993). Reading to argue: Helping students transform source texts. In A.M Penrose & B.M. Sitko (Eds.), Hearing ourselves think: Cognitive research in the writing classroom (pp. 70-101). New York, NY: Oxford UP.
Monte-Sano, C. (2008). Qualities of historical writing instruction: A case study of two teachers’ practices, American Educational Research Journal, 45(4), 1045-79. doi: 10.3102/0002831208319733
Pace, D., & Middendorf, J. (Eds.), (2004). Decoding the disciplines: Helping students learn disciplinary ways of thinking in new directions for teaching and learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 98.
Taylor, G., & Nightingale, P. (1990). Not mechanics but meaning: Error in tertiary students writing, Higher Education Research and Development, 9(2), 161-76. doi: 10.1080/0729436900090207
Wrigglesworth, J. & McKeever, M. (2010). Writing history: A genre-based, interdisciplinary approach linking disciplines, Language and Academic Skills, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 9(1), 107-26. doi: 10.1177/1474022209349987
What students need to know and do
History can be communicated in a variety of innovative ways. Academics tend to presume historical imaginations are always linked to scholastic forms of immersion. Scholars privilege the essay, seeking rigour in research and coherence, and in exposition and substantiation. But historical imaginations may be evocative as well as argumentative. The genres of the lines of argument (and evocation) are actually unimportant. They can be written, oral, or employ multi-media as well.
Student barriers to learning
It is a mistake to assume that because students find essay writing difficult they will necessarily find other modes of presentation easier. When set an assessment task, some students may research too little, too late. They may also not expect to have to draft and re-draft the things they write. Some students are also less aware of the different forms historical writing and presentation can take. Alternatively, some students can be more aware of the new e-presentation possibilities than their teachers, and so feel straitjacketed by teachers’ insistence on a single and traditional form of historical presentation. Either way, all these types of students need to be helped to focus on the same goals of rigour, coherence and evidence in exposition when presenting history in traditional and other forms e.g.: blog, role-play, debate, whole-class exhibition.
Our teaching strategies
Teachers need to allow students to present History in different ways. Teachers might consider creating and enabling more student opportunities to present their knowledge of history through a range of formats such on a web-page/blog in an in-house and on-line journal, or even to mount an exhibition in a whole-of-class festival of historical learning. Teamwork is also often neglected in History classrooms. There is considerable scope for peer critique of student work and indeed for group research and presentation tasks. The core classroom agenda is to build an environment that sustains non-emotive argument in which students can disagree without rancour. History is presented in a variety of ways within the community, but traditionally in the tertiary classroom these forms have been under-explored. There is potential to help students develop historical thinking skills by using different formats for the presentation of history and the demonstration of those skills (Booth & Hyland, 2000; Chang, 2005; Frederick, 2000; Jones, 2011; Peters, 2001).
Booth, A. & Hyland, P. (Eds.). (2000). The practice of university history teaching. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
Chang, H. (2005). Turning an undergraduate class into a professional research community, Teaching in higher education, 10(3), 387-94.
Frederick, P.J. (2000). Motivating students by active learning in the history classroom. In A. Booth & P. Hyland (Eds.), The practice of university history teaching (pp. 101-111). Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
Jones, A. (2011). Teaching history at university through communities of inquiry, Australian Historical Studies, 42(2), 168-93. doi: 10.1080/1031461X.2011.566913
Peters, J. (2001). Combining innovative professional practice with a traditional subject: Negotiated learning in history. In E. Chambers, Y Evans & K Lock (Eds.), Subject knowledges and professional practices in the arts and humanities (pp. 105-112). Milton Keynes: Open University Press.