Teaching the Introductory Survey: Insights from the College Board's AP® Survey

Robert B. Townsend, September 2005

The following report was prepared by Robert Townsend, assistant director for research and publications at the AHA, in consultation with Lee Formwalt and John Dichtl of the Organization of American Historians, Michael Johanek of the College Board, and Uma Venkateswaran and Despina Danos of Educational Testing Service.

Introductory history survey courses play a vital role in undergraduate education, and are often the only college-level history courses taken by those not majoring in history. Even though a majority of history departments in the United States offer survey courses in U.S. and European history, there is no single, universal, paradigmatic design for either introductory history course. So faculty—whether new or experienced—struggle with the fundamental challenge of defining the course and its content.1 To identify the common threads—if any—of the U.S. and European history introductory courses taught across the nation and facilitate curriculum development, the College Board conducted a nationwide survey in 2003 of faculty teaching these courses. This article is based on the data gathered from that survey. (The text of the questionnaires can be viewed online; it is also available at http://www.oah. org/go.php/apsurvey and http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/.)

The survey questionnaires were prepared by Educational Testing Service as part of a periodic assessment of course curricula for the Advanced Placement history program and were distributed to members of the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians in the relevant fields. 2 More than 800 faculty responded and the results provide valuable insights into course content, class assignments, and pedagogy.

One of the most demanding issues for anyone trying to teach an introductory history course is how to organize and cover—in a meaningful way—the enormous amount of material involved. A dilemma teachers often face is whether to cover course material chronologically, or to organize sections thematically. The College Board results indicate that most faculty who teach the introductory U.S. and European history courses prefer to use a combination of chronological and thematic approaches. In both courses, very few (2 percent) faculty members used a purely thematic approach. Among those relying on a purely chronological approach, an interesting pattern can be seen: a time-focused organization was more widely used by European history faculty than by U.S. history faculty—40 percent against 26 percent. Baccalaureate institutions were more likely to organize the introductory European history course chronologically (with nearly 50 percent reporting that they do so), while faculty at two-year degree-granting institutions were more likely to use a combination of chronological and thematic approaches (68 percent).

The U.S. History Course

There was considerable uniformity among faculty in the coverage of time periods and topics for the U.S. history introductory course. Most respondents (71 percent) indicated that their surveys began in the pre-Columbian period. There was a notable difference between public and private institutions, as 90 percent of the faculty at public colleges reported that they start their survey at or before 1492, as compared to 76 percent at private institutions. A comparison of the 2003 survey results with past survey data indicates that there was very little shift in the chronological and topical breakdown of the course (Table 1). The only noticeable changes were a small increase in time devoted to discussion of the colonial period (which increased from 17 percent to 22 percent) in terms of a chronological division of the course, and an increase in time allotted to cultural history (which increased from 5 percent to 15 percent) in the distribution of topics. The increase in coverage of cultural history may be a reflection of the fact that recent scholarship merges social and cultural history.

Table 1

Respondents to the U.S. history questionnaire were asked to list five major themes used in their courses. While the range of responses was quite broad, the following themes appeared on most lists: role of government and constitutional development; civil and political rights; the struggle for equality (political, economic, and judicial rights); America's role as a global or imperial power; race, class, and gender relations; the rise of consumer and mass culture; and the development of a national economy.

The U.S. history survey also included the question, "Does the course cover historiography?" Surprisingly, more two-year colleges (72 percent) responded with an affirmative than four-year colleges and universities (less than 50 percent). This apparently anomalous response may be due not only to institutional differences in terms of curricular design, but could also be due to the different ways in which respondents may have interpreted the phrase "cover historiography."

Less surprisingly, however, when asked about the time they devoted to historiography, respondents at institutions with doctoral programs indicated that they spent an average of 9.2 hours, in contrast to respondents at institutions with associate's and bachelor's programs who reported that they average about 6.5 hours on the subject.

The variations are particularly noticeable when we further correlate the respondents (to the question on historiography) to their location at public and private programs. More than 70 percent of the respondents at private bachelor's degree colleges reported that they teach some historiography, as compared to around 62 percent of their counterparts at master's and doctorate institutions. At public institutions, one finds a large proportion of faculty teaching historiography at the associate's degree colleges, but the portion of affirmative responses dropped sharply at the baccalaureate, master's, and doctoral levels. Aside from differences in perceptions about what it means to "cover historiography" in a course, the difference might also be a function of class size, particularly in the public universities, where the higher negative response corresponds to institutions with larger class sizes.3

The European History Course

As in the case of the U.S. history course, there was little variation among institutions in terms of the chronological coverage of the introductory course in European history.

A comparison of the 2003 European questionnaire results with the College Board's past results shows very little change in the content breakout of the European survey as well (Table 2). According to the 1997 survey, faculty spent the first half of the course on the period from 1450 to the French Revolution, and covered the post–French Revolution to the present in the second half. The 2003 survey indicates that most faculty spent a quarter of the course on the early period from 1450 to the Renaissance and nearly three-fourths of the course on the period from Renaissance to the present. However, there were some differences with respect to the starting point of the course. Public institutions appear to devote more time to earlier periods of history, similar to the trend noted among faculty who teach the introductory U.S. history course. Faculty at public institutions reported that 28 percent of the course coverage was prior to the Renaissance, as compared to 23 percent at private institutions.

Table 2

Analyzing the data further yields some interesting results (see Figure 1). Respondents at two-year associate's programs (which are almost entirely located at public institutions) and respondents at doctoral/research universities (which are heavy with respondents from public institutions) spend the most time in the period before the Renaissance (at 32 percent and 30 percent of their courses, respectively). Respondents at baccalaureate, liberal arts, master's, and comprehensive institutions reported that they allocate only about 20 percent of their courses to the period before the Renaissance.

Figure 1

The European history questionnaire also asked respondents to rate the importance of specific historical themes in their courses on a scale of 1 (not important) to 5 (very important). The top five responses (with average ratings in parentheses) were:

  1. Intellectual and cultural developments and their relationship to social values and political events (4.05)
  2. The rise and functioning of the modern state in its various forms (3.96)
  3. Developments in social, economic, and political thought (3.92)
  4. Changes in religious thought and institutions (3.88)
  5. The origins, development, and consequences of industrialization (3.85)

Use of Primary Sources in Both Courses

In response to questions about students' use of primary source materials in the courses, respondents to both surveys (faculty teaching U.S. and European history courses) indicated that analyzing or discussing original source material was an important part of the course. There were only modest differences on this question when the results are viewed by the type of institution, although it appeared that faculty at two-year programs for both courses were less likely to have their students work with primary documents in the classroom. Of the respondents teaching U.S. history, 55 percent of those at associate's programs said they expect their students to read and analyze primary documents at least once a week, as compared to 71 percent of those at doctoral programs.

Written analysis of historical source materials was clearly an important part of the pedagogy for most faculty teaching the European history course as well. Fully 78 percent of all the respondents said students are required to read and analyze historical source materials "a great deal" or "a fair amount." The only notable variance in this pattern was among faculty at two-year institutions, where 52 percent chose the same two descriptors.

Exam Structure in Both Courses

The similarities in the approaches of faculty to the introductory U.S. and European history courses extended also to the way in which they designed their final exams. Most faculty reported that a major portion of their final exams consisted of essay questions. According to faculty at four-year institutions, on average, more than 70 percent of their final exams consisted of long or short essay questions. Among two-year faculty the average was slightly less—60 percent. Although both U.S. and European history survey respondents reported very little multiple-choice testing, faculty teaching the European history course were far less likely to use this format (Figure 2).

Figure 2

U.S. history faculty teaching in public institutions gave the long essay less importance on the final exam than their colleagues at private colleges. The long essay comprised less than half the weight of final exams in public institutions as opposed to 60 percent in private institutions. Some of this difference was due to the fact that faculty at public institutions made multiple-choice questions a larger part of their testing in the final exams (perhaps because of the larger class size).

Interestingly, this pattern was somewhat reversed among faculty teaching the European history course, but only for respondents at public baccalaureate colleges who reported that long essays were a larger part of the exams they conducted, and that they used no multiple-choice questions.

The differences between the responses of those teaching European history at private and public institutions (particularly at Master's and doctoral-level programs)—with the former preferring the essay question—were strikingly similar to the responses received from those teaching the U.S. history survey course at such institutions.
Overall, fewer than half the faculty teaching the U.S. and European history introductory course said that they incorporate analysis of primary source material in their exams. For the U.S. history course, 40 percent of the respondents said they make this part of their exams, as compared to 47 percent of the respondents for European history.
The results show considerable differences in the nature of writing assignments for the two courses. U.S. history faculty at two-year institutions were more likely to assign research projects or a term paper—78 percent of faculty at two-year institutions reported assigning research papers as opposed to only 40 percent of faculty at four-year colleges and 54 percent of faculty at universities. In contrast, 85 to 90 percent of respondents (at all types of institutions) to the European survey said they include a research project in their course.4


There was a broad range of textbooks used by faculty in both courses.5 No single textbook in the U.S. history survey is used by more than 10 percent of the respondents, with just three textbooks cited by more than 7 percent of the respondents.

However, there were marked differences between the different types of institutions. At baccalaureate institutions, for instance, seven textbooks surpassed the 7 percent threshold—Norton, A People and a Nation; Boyer et al., Enduring Vision; Tindall and Shi, America; Faragher et al., Out of Many; Brinkley et al., America; Roark et al., The American Promise; and Murrin et al., Liberty, Equality and Power. In contrast only three textbooks were cited by more than 7 percent of the respondents at doctoral/research universities—Norton et al., A People and a Nation; Boyer et al., Enduring Vision; and Henretta, America's History. And just two textbooks were cited by more than 7 percent of respondents at institutions with associate's programs—Boyer et al., Enduring Vision and Brinkley et al., America.

There was a similar spread of textbooks used by European history faculty, although there was slightly more heavy usage of a few texts. Once again, though, there were marked differences among the different institutions. McKay et al.'s History of Western Society and Spielvogel's Western Civilization accounted for almost half of the textbooks selected by faculty at two-year programs. In contrast, at doctoral programs, the Making of the West (by Hunt et al.) was the only textbook to be cited by more than 8 percent of the faculty at doctoral programs.


To conclude, the College Board's curriculum survey results indicate remarkable stability and uniformity in the design and structure of the U.S. and European history introductory courses. There was little shift in chronological and topical breakout of the courses from past survey data collected in the 1990s, and faculty tended to agree on the major chronological and topical subdivisions. The survey showed minor institutional differences on the following aspects:
Public institutions tended to devote more time to early historical periods.

For U.S. history, faculty at associate programs were more likely to incorporate historiography in the course and require a term paper.

The survey data thus seem to confirm some common assumptions and conjectures while also offering some useful insights into the structure and organization of the history course. The data also hints at some seemingly counterintuitive conclusions that raise new questions. How can the greater importance apparently attached to historiography in two-year colleges be explained? Why do public institutions commence their U.S. (or European) history introductory courses in earlier time periods, while private colleges start in a later phase (1600 instead of 1492, for instance)? Are there other reasons (besides the practical one of melding social and cultural history) for the greater emphasis given to cultural history in teaching a U.S. history survey course? Are the similarities between pedagogic practices for U.S. and European history survey courses observable in the case of other introductory courses—in history and other disciplines? Why is the research paper given more importance by two-year college faculty? These and other questions obviously call for further exploration and analysis.


1. Michael Grossberg, "Comment: Meeting the Challenges of the United States History Survey" in The History Teacher 37:4 (August 2004), 512

2. The survey of teachers of U.S. history survey courses elicited 477 valid responses, while the European/Western Civ survey received 344 valid responses. Staff then cross-tabulated the results against the institution in which they teach and its location. Surprisingly, respondents to both surveys were primarily full-time faculty. This is of some concern as part-time faculty teaches most surveys. See data in "Who Is Teaching in U.S. College Classrooms? A Collaborative Study of Undergraduate Faculty, Fall 1999," online at http://www.historians.org/caw/ and "The State of the History Department: The 2001–02 Department Survey, Perspectives (April 2004), 13, available online at www.historians.org/Perspectives/Issues/2004/0404/rbtfaculty0404.htm.

There were also some important differences in the institutional demographics of those responding to the survey. In terms of the types of institutions they represent, the respondents to the U.S. history survey were similar to the responses the AHA receive to their annual department survey, with a larger than average response from faculty at two-year programs (though still well below their numbers in the number of history faculty). In the last survey of postsecondary faculty by the National Center for Education Statistics (in the fall of 1998), almost a third of all history faculty were teaching at two-year programs.

3. For a recent analysis of the trends in class sizes and enrollments, see Robert B. Townsend, "Latest Figures Show Sizeable Increases in History Majors and Bachelor's Degrees," Perspectives 42:4 (April 2004), available online at http://www.historians.org/Perspectives/Issues/2004/0404/rbtstudents0404.htm.

4. Given the difference in the way the question was framed, however, this obviously could include shorter written assignments.

5. For a discussion of the role of the textbook in U.S. survey courses, see Daniel J. Cohen, "By the Book: Assessing the Place of Textbooks in U.S. Survey Courses," Journal of American History 91:4 (March 2005).