Developing Historical Thinking Skills in a Lower Division History Course: Teaching Practicum Project


Eminent historian E.H. Carr defined the study of history as “the continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.”[1] He argued that the historian and history are inextricably linked and that those who wish to understand history must understand the historian. Historians engage in “historical thinking” which according to Sam Wineburg is an “unnatural act” but one that is necessary in today’s modern world. Wineburg argues that “history holds the potential, only partially realized, of humanizing us in ways offered by few other areas in the school curriculum.”[2] While this idea is not Wineburg’s propriety idea, his work at Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) has become foundational in promoting the importance of teaching historical thinking skills to young people in American society. He states, “achieving mature historical thought depends precisely on our ability to navigate the uneven landscape of history, to traverse the rugged terrain that lies between the poles of familiarity and distance from the past.”[3] It is this uneven landscape of history that contributes to the formation of individuals’ identities. The names, dates and events that we learned in our elementary and high school history classes has shaped our identities and our biases. This knowledge shapes are beliefs about our worldview and our place in society.

Our beliefs contribute to the ways in which we engage in society, specifically in the realms of politics, religion and culture. Without the development of historical thinking skills, we succumb to the polarization of identity politics and a binary way of thinking about ourselves and society. As Wineburg argues, our “existing beliefs shaped the information [he] encountered so that the new confirmed to the shape of the already known.”[4] Presentism, as a theory of time, is defined as an “uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts,” and is a by-product of a lack of historical thinking skills. It encourages moral complacency and superiority in attitudes and prevents students from truly understanding the events, people and places studied.[5]

History, then is a “discipline of inquiry and analysis.”[6] It requires an active engagement with historical material and robust habits of mind to analyze, interpret, contextualize and communicate ideas about a particular historical trend, event or person. The study of change over time requires a conversation with primary and secondary sources. The scholar must be able to step out of one’s own time and place and enter into the time and place of the subject to fully comprehend the purpose, intent and consequences of the historical event. Historians strive for accuracy in their thinking and endeavor to communicate with clarity and precision, habits of mind that lead to reasoned responses to the challenges of life. Ultimately, the development of historical thinking skills is required for the continuation of a functioning democracy.

Historians have identified different historical thinking skills. For example, in their “Beyond the Bubble: History Assessments,” the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) defines historical thinking skills as “contextualization, sourcing, background knowledge, corroboration, use of evidence and periodization.”[7] These skills are especially applied to the interpretation, evaluation and analysis of primary source visual documents from the Library of Congress. Nikki Mandell and Bobbie Malone use different, but related terminology to define historical thinking skills. In their Thinking Like a Historian: Rethinking History Instruction, five key skills are identified “cause and effect, change and continuity, using the past, through their eyes, and turning points.”[8] Third, the SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina has defined historical knowledge and historical thinking skills in their guide, “How to Assess Student Performance in History: Going Beyond Multiple Choice Tests.” In the creation of their high school level rubric for US History, historical knowledge includes “knowledge outside the text” and “accuracy and importance” as two skills to be assessed along with historical thinking skills which include “interpreting texts, connection to today and communication.”[9] The rubric developed for this Teaching Practicum project combines elements of all three definitions of historical thinking skills.

Teaching Practicum Project

This project is a collaboration between Dr. Samantha Francois, Dr. Bridget Ford, and I at California State University, East Bay. As a student in the master’s program in U.S. History, I have served as a Teaching Assistant for Dr. Francois’ U.S. History 110 class during the fall 2019 and spring 2020 semesters. During the fall 2019 semester, I attended class each week and observed Dr. Francois’ teaching techniques and methods of engaging students through small group work and a team project. During the spring 2020 semester, I worked mainly behind the scenes grading papers. This project was designed with guidance from Dr. Ford to assess student historical thinking skills through a close analysis of their writing and to make recommendations for skill building activities for future classes.

The identified course objectives for History 110 from Dr. Francois’ spring 2020 syllabus include:

  • Identify and describe major social, economic, political, and cultural developments in U.S. History.

  • Compare and contrast the lives and roles of Americans throughout various periods, and of those of different social and cultural backgrounds.

  • Analyze the forces that shaped the lives of Americans.

  • Be able to write an essay that presents clear, original in-depth analysis.

  • Be discussion participants. Thoughtful discussions will enable students to consider points of view other than their own, and to develop their ability to muster evidence and convince others of their own interpretations.

For the purposes of this project, student learning outcomes (figure 1) from the CSU East Bay History Department were consulted for the development of the rubric (figure 2).

Figure 1: Student Learning Outcomes, CSUEB History Dept.

Careful attention was given to ensure that the Historical Thinking Skills Rubric used for scoring student papers aligned with the history department’s Student Learning Outcomes in the following ways:

  • Accuracy and Importance correlates to SLO #2

  • Comprehension correlates to SLO #5

  • Thesis and Argument Development correlates to SLO #3

  • Analysis and Interpretation correlates to SLO #1 & 4

  • Communication correlates to SLO #3 and

  • Contextualization correlates to SLO #5

A simple scoring system (proficient, emergent, and deficient) was developed with definitions for each score. The rubric was reviewed and approved by Dr. Ford, Dr. Francois and Dr. Kevin Kaatz.

Figure 2: Historical Thinking Skills Rubric

The Assignment

In the History 110, students were required to read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Douglass’ autobiography written for a primarily white audience to explain the injustices of the American slave system and write a 4-5-page double-spaced paper in response. The prompt for the essay reads:

This 4-5 page typed, double-spaced essay asks you to analyze what Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass teaches you about how slavery confined both slave and master in a system of violence and oppression.

Historian Margaret Washington in the documentary Africans in America that I showed in class noted that “when you enslave a person, in some ways you become a slave yourself because masters and slaves are natural enemies.”

In your analytical essay, I’d like you to consider at least two of the following topics in connection with the question I’ve asked.

  • Physical violence

  • Sexual violence

  • Work

  • Religion

  • Family

  • Education

Note: This paper was due on March 5th, just one week prior to the California-wide shelter in place orders related to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Francois supplied students with a comprehensive writing guide (figure 3).

Figure 3: Dr. Francois' Writing Guide

She employed a scaffolding technique by requiring students to submit their thesis statement in advance. Generous and timely feedback on the thesis statements was provided enabling students to revise and refine their ideas about two weeks prior to the due date for the final paper.

This lower division U.S. History course consisted of fifty-seven students, fifty-five of whom submitted a paper. This project involves an in-depth analysis of historical thinking skills applied to a random sample of twenty-five of the fifty-five submitted student papers. Student papers were coded to protect student identities and to reduce subconscious biases when scoring. Each paper had the possibility of scoring a total of twelve points.

The Results & Key Findings

The average score for all twenty-five papers assessed was 59%. Nine papers scored in the proficient range, four in the emergent range and ten in the deficient range. As evidenced below, proficient is defined by a score of between 83-100%, emergent is between 58-67%, and deficient is 42% or lower.

A total of nine students scored in the proficient range: Five scored 100%, two scored 92% and two scored 83%. Examples of well-articulated thesis statements that provide evidence of a clear understanding of the writing prompt include:

“Within the confines of brutality and barbarity, both slave and master fall (sic.) victim to an institution of oppressive violence due to the socioeconomical (sic.) necessity of preserving the image of white superiority.”[10]

“Frederick Douglass’ personal account of his life in this narrative details the parasitic dichotomy between eh slave and the master that led down a path of inhumanity that severed families, ended lives, corrupted the pious, turned men into wicked beasts and scarred the very fabric of an entire people.”[11]

These authors artfully used evidence from the text to support their arguments, contextualized the significance of the quotes used, and crafted good topic sentences and transitions. The essays they wrote demonstrated clear understanding of Douglass’ arguments against slavery.

Some of the students in the lower end of the proficient range wrote about the past through the lens of the present – presentism. Here are a couple examples from the same paper:

“When you instill a memory so traumatizing into a child’s memory it can bring about scars that can change the person entirely.”

“It is unfair for slaves to get whipped for things that were out of their control, and the fact that their masters knew about this is what makes it even more sickening.”[12]

One student barely touched on how slavery affected whites, omitting part of the prompt, but artfully crafted arguments and contextualized the quotes chosen beautifully:

“Although his masters differed in their severity of how he was treated, they were all religious, and Douglas would even argue, that the more religious, the worse he was treated, ‘my master attended a Methodist camp-meeting…It neither made him to be humane to slaves, nor emancipate them.’”[13]

Despite some stylistic issues, the students who scored in the proficient range clearly understood that Douglass’ autobiography was intended to expose how the institution of slavery was detrimental to whites as well as African Americans. They crafted essays that included historical concepts necessary to address the prompt, included well developed thesis statements and used evidence to support their arguments. They clearly articulated their points and successfully contextualized the quotes used.

A total of four students scored in the emergent range: two scored 67%, two scored 58%.

One student accurately included information necessary to respond to the prompt, but only somewhat comprehended Douglass’ arguments against slavery:

“Although it profited many slaveholders socially and economically it sentenced numerous Africans to a miserable, heartbreaking and violent life. The slavery era impacted salves (sic.) greatly but it also had a slight negative effect on masters as well.”[14]

“Douglass displays slavery had changed the lives of many masters however, there was still a bit of remorse and sensitivity towards slaves.”[15]

This essay demonstrated an emergent level of analysis and interpretation and perhaps indicates an emotional insecurity. As an historian has posited, “changing their understanding of history is complicated by the fact that they believe that if they do this, that they are somehow being disrespectful to their own families, their own histories, their own sense of identity of who they are.”[16]

Two other students also failed to comprehend that slavery was detrimental to both slave and owner. One student wrote in a very informal, almost conversational tone and refers to Douglass’ autobiography as a “novel.” Here are two examples:

“It was evidently noticeable how white folks accomplished slavery by inhibiting the salves’ (sic.) right to education, a human necessity, along with repeated physical abuse in order to continuously remain in control and hold power.”[17]

“Throughout Douglass’s autobiography, there is no actual justification for the physical abuse that would occur so often.”[18]

The other student did not seem fully convinced of their own argument, especially in the conclusion:

“They needed and relied on each other, but both wanted power and in the 19th century power for both was impossible.”[19]

Although this student relied on summarization rather than analysis too much, the conclusion demonstrates clear comprehension of the arguments Douglass’ made against slavery:

“In conclusion, Federick (sic.) Douglass isn’t only able to teach us about the world of slavery through the eyes of a slave, but he can also make us see the way slavery had inlfluence (sic.) in the lives of their masters. Slavery shaped them both through events that they were exposed to as well as the closed society they lived in.”[20]

These students all demonstrate an emergent level of historical thinking skills. These student papers each contained some word choice, spelling and grammar errors and would have benefited from additional feedback, proofreading and editing of their writing.

A total of ten students scored in the deficient range: Two scored 50%, two scored 42%, five scored 33%, one scored 25% and two scored 0%.

Some of these papers could have been improved had they been proofread and edited. As Dr. Ford cautioned during the planning stages for this project, analyzing student writing would be challenging because of the “noise” encountered. Poor sentence construction, informal tone, formatting errors, lack of footnotes were all things noted in this group. However, I attempted to sort through the “noise” to get to the heart of student interpretations and arguments.

The deficiencies in these essays can be grouped into four categories; first, a reliance on presentism; second, questionable interpretation and analysis; third, ineffective contextualization; and fourth, mechanical errors which provide “noise” resulting in a lack of clear communication.

One student relied on additional secondary sources in the construction of their essay which convoluted the assignment and contributed to their expression of presentism:

“However, studies reveal that race is a social construct rather than a biological concept, and that the economic and social disparities caused by race are political.”[21]

Another student argued that Douglass and other slaves suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (which may well be, but because that is a modern diagnosis, it was not part of Douglass’ argument):

“…the physical violence and inhuman treatment that slaves experienced led to psychological trauma as well as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”[22]

Another student did not include paragraph breaks, so essay arguments are disorganized and not articulated well. The essay lacked a clear thesis statement and read like a stream of consciousness that summarized Douglass’ text.


In the “decoding the disciplines” process developed in Indiana University’s Freshman Learning Project (FLP), “bottlenecks” to learning have been identified. According to the researchers, a primary example of a bottleneck in the discipline of history is students’ misconceptions about what history is. This study illustrated that students who scored in the deficient range may be “overwhelmed in a classroom where instruction revolves around such unfamiliar mental operations as analysis, interrogation, interpretation, subjectivity, and argumentation.”[23] These students have difficulty generating arguments and thesis statements and selecting evidence to support their claims. They tended to rely on summarization and simply retold the story Douglass told without including their own arguments. On the other hand, some students were not able to see the past through Douglass’ eyes and articulately communicate his arguments. They relied too much on their present views.

This study also revealed the emotional insecurities of students who are simply novice historians. The history that we learned in elementary and high school shapes our identities and our worldview. Some students arrive on the college campus “without the cognitive ability to process complex issues of perspective” so “it is not surprising that many recoil from the complex forms of analysis required in many of our courses.”[24] Devising methodologies that help students understand perspective and different points of view would be beneficial.

Based on research conducted for this project and reflections on my own educational journey, I’d like to offer three recommendations for improving student historical thinking skills. Considering the fall 2020 semester will be completely online, the suggestions that I offer below could be implemented in either an in-person or online class. First, form static small groups of no more than six students per group. Groups would meet together during the class period, for an activity once per week. Begin with low stakes discussion activities to help students understand that the discipline of history is more than the memorization of facts and dates. Have students reflect upon and share with one another both “good” and “bad” experiences in previous history classes. Ask for groups to report to the large group, then summarize the activity by carefully pointing to the different perspectives shared. This will help students to recognize that there are different perspectives in their group and within the class and will also build trust with one another and build confidence in one’s own skills. For an online class setting, Zoom breakout rooms could be set up for student collaboration.

Second, use role playing activities and a team-based learning approach with the groups to help students interpret primary source materials. These activities “promote critical thinking and team development.”[25] Using the Frederick Douglass’ text as an example, extract excerpts from the text and provide context about the different historical figures, for example, Mr. Covey, Mrs. Auld, Douglass’ Aunt Hester, etc. and provide a question that each group member would answer as their “character.” Discussion between group members would be required for each “character” to understand their motivation. This activity could be conducted prior to the students’ reading of the autobiography. Ensure that students understand Douglass’ motivation and intent as an author of this text. In an online setting, this activity could be conducted in Zoom breakout rooms.

Third, reflecting upon my own experiences in history classes in community college and undergraduate studies, a scaffolding approach to writing assignments was beneficial to the development of my ability to formulate and articulate historical arguments. In one community college history class, a writing assignment was divided into four parts with the first due date about three weeks into the semester, then subsequent due dates spaced about two to three weeks apart from the previous due date. That approach, if applied to the Douglass analytical paper assignment could be assigned as four assignments; first assignment, choose the two topics you’d address (physical violence, sexual violence, work, religion, family, or education) and explain why Douglass would use those examples to teach abolitionists about the deleterious effects of slavery. Provide two quotes from the text per topic. The second assignment could be to write a well-thought out thesis statement based on the evidence you found about the two topics you’ve chosen. The third assignment could be to create an outline with a rough draft of the paper. Then, finally the final paper itself. Students would be encouraged to seek guidance from the SCAA center if they needed extra support.

After each assignment was graded, additional feedback would be given to each student how needed extra support. Not all students we encounter in these lower-division history courses are History majors, so making connections for students about how learning these skills are beneficial “life skills” could be helpful.

Although I am no expert in the field of history instruction, I do have extensive experience (over twenty years) of teaching and leading groups of students of all ages, from kindergarteners to adults. I believe that forming relationships with students and helping students form relationships with one another is foundational as an effective teacher. Providing opportunities for students to apply what is taught in the history classroom to their own lived experiences is critical when teaching historical thinking skills. Historians must recapture the field of history from the common misconception that “history is just a bunch of facts and dates” to “feel kinship with the people we study, for this is exactly what engages our interest and makes us feel connected.”[26] In this era of pandemic, social distancing and online classes, this truism is more crucial now than ever.


During my five years of study at California State University, East Bay, I am indebted to many historians who have guided my research, encouraged my creativity, affirmed my interests, validated by historical thinking skills, advised projects, and formed me as a historian.

For Dr. Nancy Thompson, the first historian I met at CSUEB. She led the history department tour for incoming transfer students and provided a meaningful introduction to the department. Because of that familiarity, the first class that I took at CSUEB was Medieval Christianity. She further engaged my love of primary source documents and helped answer many questions about the history of Christianity which has informed my professional life as a catechist in the Catholic Church.

For Dr. Greg Brueck, for showing me that an online class can be fun and engaging.

For Dr. Vahid Fozdar, for teaching me that it is possible to read a book a week and know it well enough to write a brief summary and engage in a seminar discussion.

For Dr. Kevin Kaatz, for guiding me through the masters’ program as my advisor and encourager. Your eternal optimism is infectious and empowering.

For Dr. Samantha Francois, for giving me the opportunity to learn from you and for being open to my ideas.

And, finally to Dr. Bridget Ford, for giving me permission to call myself a “historian,” challenging me to become a more sophisticated writer and for guiding my research and this project. I am eternally grateful for these experiences and am proud to be an alumni of California State University, East Bay.

Attachments: Teaching Practicum Data (EXCEL)


“Against Presentism | Perspectives on History | AHA.” Accessed May 15, 2020.

Carr, Edward Hallett, and R. W Davies. What Is History?: The George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures Delivered in the University of Cambridge, January - March 1961. New York, NY: Random House, 1961.

Diaz, Arlene, Joan Middendorf, David Pace, and Leah Shopkow. “The History Learning Project: A Department ‘Decodes’ Its Students.” The Journal of American History Vol 94, no. No. 4 (March 2008): 1211–24.

Edmunds, Julie. “How to Assess Student Performance in History: Going Beyond Multiple-Choice Tests.” Edited by Donna Nalley. SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, 2006.

Mandell, Nikki, and Bobbie Malone. Thinking like a Historian: Rethinking History Instruction: A Framework to Enhance and Improve Teaching and Learning. Madison, Wis.: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2007.

Michaelson, Larry, and Michael Sweet. “Team-Based Learning.” In New Directions for Teaching and Learning. no. 128. Published online in Wiley Online Library: Wiley Periodicals, Inc., 2011. DOI: 10.1002/tl.467.

SHEG: Beyond the Bubble

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

[1] Edward Hallett Carr and R. W Davies, What Is History?: The George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures Delivered in the University of Cambridge, January - March 1961 (New York, NY: Random House, 1961), 35.

[2] Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching About the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), 5.

[3] Wineburg, Historical Thinking, 5.

[4] Wineburg, Historical Thinking, 9.

[5] “Against Presentism | Perspectives on History | AHA.” Accessed May 15, 2020.

[6] Nikki Mandell and Bobbie Malone, Thinking like a Historian: Rethinking History Instruction: A Framework to Enhance and Improve Teaching and Learning (Madison, Wis.: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2007), 3.

[7] SHEG: Beyond the Bubble

[8] Nikki Mandell and Bobbie Malone, Thinking like a Historian: Rethinking History Instruction: A Framework to Enhance and Improve Teaching and Learning (Madison, Wis.: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2007).

[9] Julie Edmunds, “How to Assess Student Performance in History: Going Beyond Multiple-Choice Tests,” ed. Donna Nalley, SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, 2006.

[10] Student A008

[11] Student A015

[12] Student A019

[13] Student A004

[14] Student A021

[15] Student A021

[16] Arlene Diaz et al., “The History Learning Project: A Department ‘Decodes’ Its Students,” The Journal of American History Vol 94, no. No. 4 (March 2008): 1211–24.

[17] Student A001

[18] Ibid.

[19] Student A011

[20] Student A014

[21] Student A017

[22] Student A007

[23] Arlene Diaz et al., “The History Learning Project: A Department ‘Decodes’ Its Students,” The Journal of American History Vol 94, no. No. 4 (March 2008): 1211–24.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Larry Michaelson and Michael Sweet, “Team-Based Learning,” in New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 128 (Published online in Wiley Online Library: Wiley Periodicals, Inc., 2011), DOI: 10.1002/tl.467.

[26] Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching About the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), 6.