Building History Skills Tier by Tier

Carole Srole, February 2008

Editor's Note: The author of the essay printed below received the AHA's Eugene Asher Award for Distinguished Teaching in January 2007 in recognition of her successful attempts to develop innovative and inspiring methods of teaching history that would excite and challenge students in postsecondary classrooms. The Asher Award is intended precisely to recognize exemplary teachers who seek to make a "real difference to students of history." The methods described in the article are one dedicated teacher's attempts to make a difference. There must be many other teachers who are trying to inspire their students in the postsecondary history classroom through their own methods, and who could thus be nominated for consideration of the Asher Prize committee.

When college faculty become frustrated with poor student performance, many think they have only two choices: dumbing down their classes or maintaining standards that leave behind the majority of their students. There is, however, a third way: we can demand higher-order thinking as long as we provide students with the necessary tools in our courses. We can teach to the problems we encounter and expect to see again by naming and modeling certain skills, explaining their need, giving students practice with them, and most importantly, scaffolding assignments (that is, creating assignments that get students to acquire skills tier by tier as they deal with increasingly complex parts of projects such as outlines, literature reviews, and so on, so that eventually they are ready to take on a project independently with little or no guidance). "Skills" do not have to be boring lessons that take away from teaching history. Instead, by improving reading, writing, and analytical abilities, students can engage history content in more sophisticated ways. Ultimately, all students, even the most advanced, can be benefited by consciously teaching skills.

We can integrate history content with scaffolded assignments that build skill levels tier by tier. The scaffolded assignments vary between the skills-based courses, for which skills become the subject of instruction, and regular content classes. Two examples of the former are an undergraduate historiography course and a graduate research seminar.

The undergraduate historiography course offered by the history department at California State University at Los Angeles seeks to teach students how to read and understand academic articles and write a literature review, as well as learn about the past hundred years of historiography. I teach this course by scaffolding the skills that will lead to a literature review. To learn how to compose literature reviews, students must write strong summaries. In preparation at home, students assemble thesis sheets, which include the thesis and supporting arguments (subtheses) for each assigned reading. In class, they compare answers and help each other find where in the text the authors stated their theses and supporting arguments. In the process, students improve their reading skills and recognize the benefits of a clear thesis and concise subtheses for their own writing.

The next step in writing a literature review, critiquing, begins with breaking down the historiographic schools by highlighting their traits and assumptions. In groups, students locate the traits and assumptions in the assigned reading. We then discuss avenues for criticism, such as logic, evidence, missing topics, and most important of all, assumptions, especially those associated with each historiographic school. Together, we list the strengths and weaknesses of each school's traits and assumptions. For instance, social historians presume that people fall into recognizable groups. The strength of this supposition, of course, is that historians can show how varied peoples experienced the past differently. However, social historians accept that these clusters of people are recognizable, knowable, and even natural, without demonstrating how they were fabricated. Once the students understand this and other premises held by social historians, they can dissect any work from that school. By the end of the course, they can also critique histories in the Whig, Marxist/Progressive, Consensus, New Left, and Cultural history schools.

Since literature reviews also must reveal conversations between historians, students compare and contrast the readings of each school in their groups and develop an overarching question that ties the reading together. They learn to ask a question that summons their own thesis, that is, their proposal for new research.

In this ten-week course, students pen three literature reviews: one at week four based on two readings; a second at the eighth week; and a third during finals, each using three readings. I furnish decreasing amounts of guidance for each essay. By the end of the quarter, students barely need my help and rely on one another. Through scaffolded assignments in this course, they learn basic features of our craft: historiography and literature reviews.

Our department's graduate research seminar illustrates a second course that revolves entirely around skills. Students, who know how to do literature review from a previous graduate course, enroll in this class to learn a model for doing research and to write a research paper. First, they prepare a prospectus, then a draft based entirely on primary sources, followed by a revision that incorporates secondary sources, and then an edited final version.

Throughout the course, students execute short scaffolded assignments, many of which become integrated into their research paper. At the end of each class session, students read prototypes for the next task. Then, at the beginning of the following class meeting, they share their assignments, often critiquing them in pairs to help recognize the flaws in their colleagues' work or find models for their own work. One such exercise requires a page on the limitations of the dominant type(s) of primary sources that they are using, and another page justifying their use of these sources for their project. This short assignment helps them think about their documents more generally and ends up as a section of their research paper. For another scaffolded task, students reconcile conflicting evidence, sources, or concepts. They draft a page describing the two (or more) sides and resolve the contradictions. To improve the final product, students rewrite papers that do not measure up initially.

Beside completing these preparatory assignments, students follow specific steps to prepare for their first draft. For a few weeks, they share with their group samples of their primary sources, discussing their meanings and usefulness. Students jot down one idea on each note card (or any hard copy) and bring all of their notes to class. A few times over the quarter, they spread out throughout the room, organizing their piles of cards into complex categories and subcategories. Students then justify their organization to one or two of their colleagues, who along with the instructor might propose alternative structures. Now, that they have thought out their theses and supporting arguments, they are ready to sketch an outline that includes their thesis and subtheses.

Students pen the first draft of their research paper based entirely on primary sources because when they include secondary sources too soon, they lose track of their own ideas. After writing their drafts and receiving comments from a guided peer review evaluation and the professor, students revise the paper. Next, they incorporate secondary sources that flesh out their conclusions, filling in gaps in their research. As students prepare for this revision, we examine the endnotes of history articles to see the varied ways that historians use secondary sources in their research. We also look at examples of introductions to articles. Then, the students add a shortened literature review and the discussion of their primary sources to their paper.

Not only have the students completed a research paper, but the scaffolded assignments furnish a structure for future projects.

Not all classes, however, can devote so much time to methods. Most have to blend them in more subtly, while still providing a scaffolded foundation. Some skill-building activities take 10 or 20 minutes, while others become more central by integrating methods and content. We can sneak some common skills into our classes, such as gathering and organizing evidence, addressing and reconciling conflicting data, distinguishing between specific details and generalizations, compare-and-contrast modeling, and most importantly reading for, listening for, and writing with theses.

Scaffolded activities prepare students for take-home exams that require analytical thinking. To develop real theses in their written work, students must engage multiple interpretations in discussions and recognize a variety of possible answers to any question. To do so, I design exam questions that identify various legitimate answers, so students will recognize more than one real correct answer and struggle to decide their interpretation. In a U.S. history survey, I have asked if American foreign policy rested on self-interest or cultural values. Students compile T-charts, listing evidence from primary sources, lectures, and the text, which demonstrate self-interest on one side and values on the other.1 Filling out a chart provides a goal for analyzing packets of primary source like political cartoons and snippets of presidential speeches. The charts furnish enough evidence so that students have something to say in their paper. If their lists become long, then we practice categorizing evidence, so that they can develop paragraphs. At the bottom of each T-chart, students come up with an argument for each position, then choose one and state why they supported it. Each time we discuss an era of American international relations, like the Cold War, students prepare a T-chart either in their groups or at home. By the end of the quarter, they can handle a complex question that covers a long span of U.S. history because they have been thinking about it and have already collected and organized the evidence. While this scaffolded activity takes class time, it merges skills with content.

While in lower-division courses I merely expect students to acknowledge two sides of a question and argue for their position, upper-division students have to go a step further and reconcile conflicting evidence. For example in a U.S. women's history course, students have had to demonstrate that Charlotte Perkins Gilman illustrated two contradictory beliefs in her utopian novel, Herland: equality for women and women's difference from and superiority to men.2 Then, they must explain how Gilman could have held these adverse beliefs at the same time. To prepare, we work on list-making, categorizing, strategies for organizing, and analogies of how we all rationalize inconsistencies.

To assist students in their writing, these projects begin small and become increasingly more complex. One-page papers to promote compact writing that squeeze in lots of evidence, framed by a thesis and supporting arguments, can expand to more complicated compare-and-contrast essays for the midterm and final. By helping students master shorter forms and providing models before and after they write, they will have less difficulty writing a longer composition.

Scaffolded assignments to improve writing must also name, model, and reveal the skills so students become conscious of what to do. A particularly useful activity enables them to understand that history papers require both specificity and generalizations. After drawing a T-chart on the board, labeled "Specific Evidence (Details)" on one side and "Generalizations (Meanings)" on the other, we fill in the T-chart together by answering a question about a primary source, like Charlie Chaplin views on the factory system in Modern Times.3 If they answer with a specific plot feature, I fill it in on the "details" side of the T, but press for the corresponding generalization as well, recording it on the other side. Or, if they name an abstraction, I note it on the T, but call for a detail that exemplifies that inference. Once we have done this activity together, which takes 20 minutes, students can use it in their groups with other primary sources. Now, it becomes easier for them to supply both specific details and general statements to explain the meaning of their evidence in their compositions. Moreover, by naming and modeling skills, students have the language to understand where to start in preparing for essays.

I also name, model, and disclose the steps and structure of a compare-and-contrast essay, by comparing an orange and apple.4 First we discuss the need for categories in order to compare, such as size, shape, color, seeds, and so on. Then, we construct one T-chart describing the two fruits by categories; then a second T-chart comparing the similarities and differences of the fruits.5 From this second T-chart, I prepare an outline for an essay comparing apples and oranges. We discuss transitional sentences as subtheses that tie the major sections to the thesis. Although the students giggle during this 20-minute modeling, they replicate the process in other classes.

Grade sheets can help students identify their own skill deficiencies. In addition to a section for a few sentences on the strengths of the composition and advice for future assignments, the grade sheets name skills with a numbered list of common errors, such as "generalizations without specific evidence" and "missing topic sentence." The grader circles the appropriate error numbers and copies them in the margins of the papers, so students know what needs work, without scribbling everywhere. Afterward, the class reads samples of "A" papers to illustrate specific, named features.

By developing resources that will enable students to engage challenging materials and concepts, history content can still form the centerpiece of our classes and students can succeed in our courses and beyond. Nothing inspires students better than making progress.

—Carole Srole (California State Univ. at Los Angeles) received the AHA's Eugene Asher Award for Distinguished Teaching for the year 2006.


1. Often we construct more complex charts, dividing into more choices that avoid problems with binaries.

2. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (New York: Dover, 1998; The Forerunner, 1915).

3. Thanks to Lillian Taiz for her early version of this activity.

4. Thanks to Ann Dwyer and Lael Sorenson for development of this exercise.

5. While weak students need both charts, others can skip to the second.