History teaching: eliminate memorization and emphasize depth of knowledge

History isn't memorization it's thinking - about cause and effect, differing interpretations, etc.
History isn’t memorization, it’s thinking – about cause and effect, differing interpretations, etc.

After five years of doing the same old thing in my History 1700 class (the general education history class every student has to take) at Dixie State University, I decided it was time to revamp things. Although my class was a well-oiled machine, I felt like I was in cruise control most of the time and that, even though the material was new to students, I could do better at challenging them and increasing their depth of knowledge of the subject. Students were doing three assignments that expanded their knowledge of events in which they were keenly interested, including an oral history project, a comparative source project in which they compared an extreme right-wing source with other, less-biased sources, and a historiography project I call a historiographical presentation, in which they compare two books’ interpretations of the same historical event. I can nearly guarantee that they’ll remember something from these projects one, five, and hopefully even 10 years hence, but the other stuff I wasn’t so sure.

With my feet in two realms of education, both secondary and college, I have been feeling from the direction secondary education is turning that I have been providing my college students with inadequate depth of knowledge in other areas. I was still clinging to the classic multiple choice, matching and true-false midterm and final exams, which, when it comes down to it, are level-one depth of knowledge indicators – simple recall, or, what have become nearly curse words in recent secondary education circles – rote memorization. At the turn of the 20th century and well beyond it was the standard, and now many educators look down on it.

Emphasize depth of knowledge

A big indicator on the need for emphasis on level two (skill/concept) and level three (strategic thinking) depth of knowledge was the recent shift in my state, Utah, from a strictly multiple choice end-of-level test towards a much more in-depth test. The last year my 8th and 9th grade English students completed the multiple choice end-of-level test, approximately 90-93 percent were considered proficient, which makes one think they’re getting it right. Those proficiency levels made the next year a reason to see a counselor, with proficiency levels hovering around 40 percent. A fellow English teacher said that on the old test, if students simply chose “C” for every answer, they could get at least a 50 percent correct. The next year, it was a complete 180 in that they really needed to know the material. Guessing doesn’t pay any dividends anymore. A student has to have a more firm grasp on the concepts to have a chance of earning proficiency.

With depth of knowledge, as well as the three guiding tenets of my class (historiography, comparing sources and primary sources) in mind, I decided to ditch the traditional textbook in favor of a non-traditional textbook that includes secondary and primary sources to compare about selected topics of U.S. History since 1865. The non-traditional textbook was for the second half of the semester. For the first half, I decided to strike out on my own, finding at least two sources to compare on the same topic (sometimes three of four), many secondary, but some primary, so students could get the broader view and see how historians and textbook authors can interpret the same event a little differently.

Make history interesting and ask for feedback

For instance, on the first day, I decided to juxtapose the introduction of James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me with the introduction of a 1952 textbook geared towards junior high students, entitled America: Land Of Freedom by Gertrude Hartman. The over 60-year-old textbook does what Loewen pans in his intro – makes history an overly nationalistic tale in which the United States can do nearly nothing wrong. In his work, Loewen emphasizes the need for history teachers to make history more interesting for students by such things as doing historiography, stressing cause-and-effect relationships, emphasizing what he calls the “raw materials of history” or, in other words, primary sources, and including formerly marginalized groups such as African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics as part of the historical narrative, among other strategies. As a Loewen disciple, I am trying to do in my courses exactly what he suggests and consistently asking students for feedback on what I can do better — what’s working, but also what’s not. Not surprisingly, student input has shaped a lot of what I do. Teachers and professors put themselves in peril if they ignore their students’ suggestions.

Compare sources for interpretation

This class revamp, as I’ve been calling it, has made me more excited about history again. It’s been like a treasure hunt finding the sources on each topic for my students to compare. I’ve turned to some textbook accounts — some contemporary and some from the 50s and 60s. The event with which I’ve had the most fun has been, hands down, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. I’ve been fascinated with explorers since fifth grade during my nationalistic history education that portrayed historical figures such as explorers and founding fathers as practically infallible beings. My fascination with them is intact nearly 30 years later. What I found with my Lewis and Clark sources was a stark contrast. Stephen Ambrose (whom my graduate professors called a “commercial historian”) in his book Undaunted Courage, paints the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark’s expedition as grandiose and the opening of a major epoch in American history. On the other hand, Native American authors writing essays in Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes minimize the Corps of Discovery, saying that the expedition shouldn’t be on such a high pedestal in the American pantheon as it didn’t actually discover anything, that French and British trappers had already been where they traversed and that they were nothing new to the Indians, among other reasons not to laud the Corps’s journey. It’s stuff like this that makes history interesting and more exciting. It’s stuff like this that actually makes students THINK about history. And it’s stuff like this that helps students remember the material more than just in their short-term memories so they can regurgitate it on a test.

No more memorization

Speaking of tests, I’ve decided to throw out the traditional multiple choice test in favor of a comprehensive short-answer final that, again, makes students actually think about what they’ve learned throughout the semester rather than studying enough to be able to identify Abraham Lincoln as the winner of the 1860 presidential election or specific “alphabet soup” programs of the New Deal.

Emphasis on memorizing such facts makes history boring for most students. Comparing sources, especially primary sources to secondary sources, makes history more interesting, showing that historical interpretations. Actually thinking and writing about history leads to more internalization. I always tell my students (and I’ve found it to be very true over the years), that when they do projects in which they compare sources – those sources’ facts and interpretations – they are going to be way more likely to remember the information years hence then if they are just cramming for a test. They will “own” the knowledge instead of just “borrowing” it for a while.

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