Department of History
Teacher by Donatello

Teacher by Donatello. Bronze plaque.

Teaching College History

Skills Survey Project

Below you will find a description of a portion of a History Department project that was funded through a competition for projects in the scholarship of teaching and learning sponsored by the I.U. Dean of Faculties Office. The remainder of the proposal, a description of the web site for the scholarship of teaching and learning history being created by our department, will be available soon.

Part I: An Inventory of Disciplinary Tasks

At the core of the notion of a scholarship of teaching and learning is the belief that learning at the college level is always rooted in disciplinary ways of knowing.i But these practices are often so ingrained in the practice of experts in the field that they are invisible and not explicitly taught. In the field of history we are quite fortunate to have access to the research of Sam Wineburg, who has demonstrated so effectively that historical thinking is "an unnatural act."ii His work has shown convincingly that the very act of casting one's eyes across a historical source is shaped by the extent of one's initiation into the special world of historical thinking.

The IUB History Department believes that it can make a major contribution to the effort initiated by Wineburg by creating a systematic inventory of some of the more important forms of historical practice expected in the upper-lever classes of a large Research-1 department of history. Building on Wineburg's "think-aloud" interviews and the "decoding the disciplines" process developed for I.U.'s Freshman Learning Project (FLP),iii we intend to conduct lengthy interviews with our own faculty in which we will identify places at which significant numbers of students are unable to successfully complete one of the tasks required for success in our upper-level courses. Then we will press each instructor to define as thoroughly as possible the steps that an expert in the field would take at this point to overcome the bottleneck to learning.

In the summer of 2005 we conducted a pilot project in which three members of the History Department each identified a place where the learning of many students in one of their upper level courses was blocked and then worked with another historian and a consultant from Instructional Support Services (ISS) to define the kinds of skills that were required for success at this point in the course. As the process unfolded, vague statements about faculty expectations were replaced by ever more precise definitions of particular skills that were needed in the course. The results of these interviews were very encouraging. One of the historians began with a general statement that "students don't know how to write in a manner that is stylistically appropriate for a history paper," but as the interview progressed this generalization was transformed into a carefully articulated description of many of the specific steps that a student would need to follow to actually produce "stylistically appropriate" prose. Another interview began with the statement that "students have difficulty identifying the central line of reasoning in a historical work and connecting it to the evidence" and ended with an analysis of the operations that a student would have to perform to draw the argument out of the complex historical writing in which it was hidden and to link it with the evidence for its validity offered by the author. A third historian focused on the difficulty students have in formulating a suitable paper topic and succeeded in the course of the interview in providing some of the steps a professional historian might take in deciding whether a particular topic was appropriate.

We would now like to record at least ten more interviews with members of our department and to produce written transcripts that can be analyzed in great detail. The results will combined with the material gained from the pilot program and from the work of historians in the Freshman Learning Project to produce an inventory of basic operations that students typically need to master in order to succeed in upper level history courses at our university. We will subject this list of operations to extensive analysis, determining which of them seem most essential and looking for places where the learning of one operation may be transferable to another. Sam Wineburg has agreed to provide an external critique of these interviews. His stature within the field and the skill with which he has explored the cognitive processes involved in learning history should make a major contribution to this effort.

The result will be an unprecedented inventory of faculty expectations of students in upper level history courses, a document that can serve as the foundation for further explorations in the scholarship of teaching and learning or for concrete efforts to apply these insights to the problem of increasing learning in particular classes. We expect to share this inventory and the process that produced it in a series of articles and papers, some aimed at historians and others at a broader SOTL audience. The directors of this project will also present descriptions of the project and its results at the POD conference and at the meetings of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and the American Historical Association. And the inventory itself will be made available to historians and others interested in this approach through the HistSOTL web site and electronic news letter (see Part III below).

Part II: Modeling Disciplinary Tasks

This inventory of operations required in upper level courses will be made available to members of our department and will also serve as the basis for a conscious effort to teach some of these skills in our introductory courses. Ten members of the department will each pick one of these operations and develop a strategy for teaching it in one of their lower level courses. Using the "deconstructing the disciplines" model developed for the Freshman Learning Project, they will each model this operation, give students an opportunity to practice it and receive feedback, and then assess the extent to which this operation has been mastered by the students. These efforts will be supported by the directors of Freshman Learning Project and support personnel from ISS, which has expressed a willingness of commit resources to this project. In addition two other members of our department will be involved in a similar process of defining, teaching, and assessing basic skills as part of their work as new fellows in the Freshman Learning Project, and they will be able to interact with their colleagues working on this project. And, finally, to test the applicability of this approach to A.I. discussion sections we will ask four of our gradate students to undertake a parallel process of modeling basic skills with their students.

The results of these efforts will be shared with the rest of the history faculty through a written report and a day-long departmental retreat lead by the faculty who have taken part in this project. In order to get an outside perspective on this process and to make maximum use of what is already available on the subject of learning history, we have invited Sam Wineburg to take part in this retreat, thus allowing us to deepen the connections formed during his recent visit.

We expect the creation of the inventory and of new strategies for preparing lower-level students for the challenges of junior and senior history courses will help the members of our department and historians more generally to develop a common language that can serve as the basis for future collective efforts to improve the quality of learning in our classes. The fact that we are beginning with a common set of skills defined as important by history faculty themselves should make it easier to transfer strategies from one course to another and to develop ways to respond to common classroom challenges.

FLP fellows who have gone through a similar process of identifying bottlenecks to learning, defining disciplinary practices, teaching the required processes to their students, and assessing the results have found that it is a small step to move from these activities to actually producing papers and articles in the scholarship of teaching and learning. We expect to see the same process in the history faculty involved in this program, and the honorarium linked to this work will only be made available after a paper or article as been produced and accepted. This transition to the scholarship of teaching and learning will be assisted by the ISS staff from, who recently assisted thirteen FLP fellows in the creation of a volume in the prestigious New Directions in Teaching and Learning series. And, these studies may lend themselves to the publication of a volume bringing together all the work produced in this project. Thus, we have good reason to expect that this project will draw more faculty and graduate students of our department into SOTL and motivate them to make future contributions to the field.


i See, for example, Lee S. Shulman, "Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching," Educational Researcher Vol.15, No.2 (February 1986): pp. 4-14; John Seely Brown, Allan Collins, and Paul Duguid, "Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning," Educational Researcher, Vol. 13 (Jan.-Feb. 1989), pp.32-41; Sheila Tobias, "Disciplinary Cultures and General Education: What can we learn from our learners?," Teaching Excellence 4, 6 (1992-1993): pp.1-3; Janet Donald, Learning to Think: Disciplinary Perspectives (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002).

ii Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).

iii For more on the decoding the disciplines process see David Pace and Joan Middendorf, Decoding the Disciplines: Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking in New Directions in Teaching and Learning, Vol. 98 (Fall 2004).