Cognitive and Instructional Processes in History and the Social Sciences

By Mario Carretero; James F. Voss | Go to book overview

Instructional Issues

We feel the results of this study have at least three points to make regarding instruction. One is that instruction should include emphasis on the idea of multiple causation and indicate how the different causative factors lead to a given outcome. But given the differences in the initial essays and the causal structures of Part IV found in this study, it would seem to be of critical importance instructionally for individuals to receive practice in generating such essays, drawing extensively on what they know. This matter, moreover, involves an important psychological phenomenon, namely, that individuals can apparently know quite a bit about a topic, but if the information is not organized in memory a priori, they have trouble retrieving it and providing a coherent essay (cf. Prawat, 1989). Apparently, it is only when they are given the causal events that they can meaningfully organize them. Psychologically, in this regard, the limitations of working memory may be an important factor, along with one's underlying knowledge organization.

Second, the quality of the essays was such that individuals apparently did not have a very strict criterion regarding what constitutes an acceptable answer as to why the Soviet Union collapsed. As noted, many of the answers, given by people of college age and older, were rather simplistic, and although such simplicity might be explained by knowledge and/or processing inadequacies, the fact that simplistic accounts were obtained suggests that many of the participants had a rather low or mediocre criterion of acceptability for an adequate historical account. Perhaps instruction could produce a better idea of a quality explanation.

Third, the finding that causes were perceived as involving both actions and conditions as important is encouraging. Although historians may not agree on the nature of causal explanation, the "intuitions" of the novice individuals of this study seemed to show awareness of personal actions and policies as well as the cultural, social, and political factors of society. At the same time, the subjects did apparently not have much of a sense of more remote causal factors, emphasizing actions and conditions immediately before the collapse. There would appear to be a need then to develop a better sense of distant causes.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The research reported in this chapter was supported by a grant of the National Research Center for Student Learning, awarded to the Learning Research and Development Center of the University of Pittsburgh by the

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