Improving the Teaching and Learning of History through Alternative Assessments

By Drake, Frederick | Teacher Librarian, February 2001 | Go to article overview

Improving the Teaching and Learning of History through Alternative Assessments


Drake, Frederick, Teacher Librarian


A HISTORY TEACHER'S CURRICULUM PLANNING, CHOICE of classroom methodology, and means to assess student learning are inextricably linked. Forms of assessment that involve only recall of discrete information are likely to encourage teaching methods that emphasize low-level cognition.

Further, traditional forms of assessing students' knowledge of history neither prompt students to reveal all they know about the subject nor challenge them to learn more. Thus, teachers and researchers have concluded that traditional assessments must be complemented by new methods that can reinvigorate and improve the teaching and learning of history in schools.

Alternative Assessments And Historical Literacy

Alternative assessment can be a diagnostic tool to improve both a teacher's instruction and a student's learning of history by revealing information about three dimensions of a student's historical literacy. First, students who complete alternative assessment activities demonstrate their knowledge of historical facts, themes and ideas. Second, students who complete alternative assessment activities demonstrate their ability to reason; that is, to analyze, evaluate and synthesize historical evidence. And third, students who complete alternative assessment activities demonstrate their ability to communicate their historical knowledge and reasoning to others.

Each dimension of a student's historical literacy has its own important characteristics that provide the structural flame teachers need to create an alternative assessment activity for their students. Knowledge of historical evidence is the prerequisite students need to demonstrate their ability in the other two dimensions. The Bradley Commission's "Vital Themes and Narratives" is a conceptual scheme that helps students organize their knowledge of the past. These themes serve as filters to help students differentiate between what is important and what is insignificant in the historical record. They provide direction for students to accurately identify, define and describe important concepts, facts and details. (The Bradley Commission on History in the Schools 1988, 10-11).

Historical facts and themes, approached through informed questions, are points of departure for demonstrating a student's ability to reason. Reasoning makes the facts and themes meaningful and thereby brings about a deeper understanding of the subject. Reasoning certainly involves critical thinking and requires students to discover relationships among facts and generalizations, and values and opinions, as a means to provide a solution to a problem, to make a judgment, or to reach a logical conclusion.

Historical reasoning ought to be the principal aim of historical study and alternative assessment. The National History Standards (1996, 14-24) distinguish historical reasoning or thinking and historical understanding. The latter defines what students should know; the former makes it possible for students to differentiate between past, present and future; raise questions; seek and evaluate evidence; compare and analyze historical illustrations, records and stories; interpret the historical record; and construct historical narratives of their own. The Bradley Commission's "Habits of Mind" provides a useful conceptualization of historical reasoning, such as the ability of students to understand the significance of the past and the present to their own lives; to perceive events and issues as they were experienced by people at the time; and to recognize the importance of individuals who have made a difference (Bradley Commission on History in the Schools 1988, and Gagnon 1989, 25-26).

Effective communication of historical knowledge and historical reasoning requires a student to organize, interpret and express his or her thoughts. In recounting events of the past, a student must develop a clearly defined thesis and create an interesting narrative that tells what happened in an informed way. …

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