A Competency-Based Approach to Teaching History Surveys

William W. Cutler III, April 2002

Many college instructors are introducing competencies or outcomes into their teaching today. They are defining in behavioral terms the content knowledge their students will acquire and the cognitive skills they will master. For more than 30 years, teachers and administrators at the elementary and secondary level have practiced outcomes-based education on the grounds that it encourages serious thinking about the relationship between educational goals and pedagogical means. Since the early 1980s, outcomes-based education has also served this professional community in another way. Faced with a growing chorus of complaints about low academic standards and students who underachieve, it turned to outcomes-based education as a demonstration of its commitment to accountability. Once considered to be above such considerations, higher education can no longer look the other way. Increasing enrollments and soaring costs have forced many colleges and universities to reexamine their mission and methods because parents, students, and taxpayers want more than empty claims. They want tangible evidence that their substantial investment in a college education will pay personal and social dividends.

In spite of these pressures, learning has not yet become the coin of the realm in college teaching. Student satisfaction is still the standard by which failure or success is most often measured. Since the early 1970s millions of undergraduates have filled out course evaluation forms at the end of every semester. The purpose of this familiar exercise is to rate professorial performance, and these opinion polls are taken seriously. They have become a routine part of tenure and promotion decisions. Of course, what teachers do affects what students learn, and research suggests that students are more likely to express satisfaction with an instructor if they think they are learning.1 But students are not necessarily the best judges of their own performance. The time has come for more college and university faculty to look carefully at the relationship between teaching and learning. The time has come for them to ask questions about how their students acquire content knowledge and develop cognitive skills. Educational outcomes have something to offer them today.

Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has been a pioneer in the development of practical outcomes for a liberal education. Its students learn from its "ability-based curriculum" how to put knowledge to use. The history major at Alverno supports the "general ability" outcomes of the college as a whole. It is designed to help students develop communication, analysis, and problem-solving skills. It is also expected to contribute to their general education by improving social interaction, enhancing aesthetic responsiveness, teaching global perspectives, and building effective citizenship. The history major has its own learning outcomes that focus on the discipline's epistemology. History majors learn to identify the culturally grounded suppositions that have always affected human behavior; to recognize historical theories, concepts, and assumptions; to acknowledge the values that underlie historical thinking; and to construct and take responsibility for historical interpretations of their own.2

Some institutions, especially community colleges, have decided to stress content outcomes. At Delaware County Community College near Philadelphia, every course is supposed to have a specific set of such outcomes. Instructors must spell out in advance the content knowledge that their students will have by the end of the semester. History courses are no exception. For example, the college catalogue states that students who take History 120, otherwise known as "American History II," will be able to:

  • differentiate the impact of industrialization on the population of self-sufficient farmers, blacks, "old" and "new" immigrants, workers and business people;
  • trace the illusion of isolation and the practice of imperialism as the nation moved from nationalism to internationalism between 1865 and contemporary times;
  • characterize the methods of reform used by the radical republicans, populists, progressives, New Dealers, and in the post–World War II era;
  • evaluate the involvement and effectiveness of the U.S. in World War I, II, and the Cold War.3

With the assistance of the Education Trust and the National Association of System Heads, the Quality in Undergraduate Education (QUE) project based at Georgia State University is spearheading a national effort to develop a competency-based approach to college teaching.4 This project involves faculty at two-year institutions who are paired with colleagues at public four-year colleges and universities. Its purpose is to draw up discipline-based standards or learning outcomes in five fields—three in the sciences (biology, chemistry, and mathematics) and two in the humanities (English and history).5 All the history departments participating in the QUE project have developed cognitive outcomes. For example, the history departments at Towson University and the Community College of Baltimore County have specified five that range in complexity from analyzing maps to constructing historical explanations. Some history departments have combined cognitive with content outcomes. At Armstrong Atlantic State University, history majors are expected to learn "a body of knowledge in American and World History," understand historical analysis, and develop critical reading, writing, and thinking skills. The history departments at California State University at Long Beach and Long Beach City College have been working on cognitive and content outcomes specifically for the U.S. history survey. According to the latest draft of their "Skills and Content Standards for U.S. Survey Courses," students moving from the survey to upper-division courses at these two institutions should have developed competence in three domains: historical skills, historical understanding, and content knowledge. For example, they should have practiced "serious historical thinking by building on their knowledge of facts, dates, names, places, events, and ideas in order to ask historical questions and assemble solid evidence in support of their answers." And they should have learned how to "formulate historical arguments that express ideas with clarity and coherence."6

In my own department at Temple University, the faculty adopted cognitive outcomes for its entire curriculum in 1999. Leaving decisions about content to individual instructors, the faculty agreed on three sets of cognitive outcomes for all introductory, intermediate, and advanced history courses. These outcomes are not mutually exclusive; those for advanced courses follow from and build on those taught at the introductory and intermediate levels.

Survey courses are introductory at Temple, just like everywhere else, and for such courses, which are also part of the university's core curriculum, the History Department recognized eight cognitive competencies. They are:

  • development of basic organizational, reading and writing skills;
  • recognition of the difference between primary and secondary sources;
  • construction of simple essay arguments that use historical evidence;
  • differentiation between fact and interpretation and comprehension of their interrelationships;
  • understanding what historians do and the kinds of questions they ask;
  • comprehension of continuity and change over time;
  • appreciation of the varieties of historical perspectives;
  • use of basic historical and social science concepts.

When I teach the first half of the U.S. history survey, I emphasize the first five competencies. During the semester my students write 10 one-page papers that are based on either a chapter in the textbook we use or one of the primary sources I have chosen for them to read.7 They cannot focus their attention on just one kind of source; they must write at least four papers based on the text and four based on a primary source. The main purpose of this assignment is to teach beginning students how to write a short essay using historical evidence to defend a generalization. But the aim is also to build their command of all the cognitive competencies listed above, especially the first five.

In the three semesters I have taught the U.S. history survey in this way, I have assembled a large archive of student work composed of papers posted online. For the purpose of this analysis, I took a one-in-five sample of the 751 reports that were posted on the web site for the course during the spring and fall semesters of the calendar year 2000. I reread these essays with one question in mind. How well did my students learn to write short essays that use historical evidence to defend a generalization? Based on this analysis, I reached the following conclusions:

  • Beginning students can distinguish between primary and secondary sources.
  • Beginning students can learn to use both primary and secondary sources in short essays.
  • Beginning students can learn to use historical evidence to defend a generalization but they would rather rely on the textbook than a primary source for such evidence.
  • To teach beginning students how to write short essays that use historical evidence to defend a generalization the instructor must emphasize this skill from the beginning.

There is no shortage of factual information in American history texts—there is so much information, in fact, that many undergraduates find it overwhelming. Nevertheless, they find it easier to use textbooks than primary sources to write essays that use historical evidence to defend a generalization because textbooks provide a context. When it becomes the student's job to supply the context, the task becomes more difficult. But whether beginning students use texts or primary sources, they need a lot of practice learning how to use evidence to defend a generalization. Put another way, the component parts of a good argument are not self-evident. They must be taught.

—William W. Cutler III is professor of history at Temple University and the author of Parents and Schools: The 150-year Struggle for Control in American Education (Chicago: 2000). The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching selected him to be one of its Carnegie Scholars for 1999–2000. A longer version of this essay was presented at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Los Angeles, California, on April 28, 2001.


1. Wilbert J. McKeachie, Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, 9th ed. (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath & Co., 1994), 317–20.

2. "Ability-Based Learning Program: The History Major" (Alverno College Institute, Milwaukee, Wisc., 1994), 1–2. See also the Alverno College web site at http://www.alverno.edu/educators/ed_index.html.

3. Delaware County Community College Catalogue, 1999–2001 (Media, Pa., 1999), 85.

4. Information about the QUE project can be found at http://www.gsu.edu/~wwwque/about/use.html. The Education Trust (http://www.edtrust.org ) is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, which grew out of the efforts of the American Association for Higher Education to encourage colleges and universities to support K–12 reform. The National Association of System Heads represents presidents and chancellors of public state university systems.

5. The history departments at the following institutions are participating in the project: California State University at Long Beach; Long Beach City College; California State University at Fullerton; Armstrong Atlantic State University; Coastal Georgia Community College; Fort Valley State University; Georgia State University; Georgia Perimeter College; Towson University; Community College of Baltimore County; Salisbury University; Chesapeake College; Wor-Wic Community College; University of Nevada at Reno; and Truckee Meadows Community College.

6. See "Skills and Content Standards for U.S. Survey Courses" produced by California State University at Long Beach and Long Beach City College.

7. In 1999–2000 I built an electronic syllabus for this course that allows students to do much of their homework online. To see a portfolio for this course go to http://www.theaha.org/teaching/aahe/aahecover.html.