Publication Date

November 1, 2018

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities

Historical thinking is crucial to active participation in a democratic society and to preparation for the 21st century’s dynamic work landscape. Introductory courses in history could be key to cultivating historical thinking, functioning as gateways to future success and to an understanding of the wider world. Yet many introductory history courses function as roadblocks, especially for first-generation college students. A new AHA initiative, History Gateways, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and in partnership with the John N. Gardner Institute for Undergraduate Excellence, aims to change that.

Students studying together around a table.

History Gateways seeks to revamp introductory courses to further student learning, enhance teaching, and improve graduation rates. Courtesy of the Gardner Institute

Research conducted in 32 postsecondary institutions by the Gardner Institute identifies history as one of a handful of disciplines where students entering from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds show disproportionately low rates of successful completion in introductory courses. Moreover, students who failed one introductory history course but were otherwise eligible to remain enrolled dropped out of college altogether. Improving student performance in introductory history courses could, therefore, dramatically boost the completion, retention, and graduation rates of these students, not to mention improve student learning.

The Gardner Institute data should be a wakeup call for historians, as well as anyone who cares about the value of liberal learning and the democratic potential of higher education. Because everything has a history, any student should be able to find ways to engage with the value of historical thinking—if a course can be designed with such opportunities in mind. 

A study shows that students who failed one introductory history course often dropped out of college altogether.

Through History Gateways, the AHA will lead an evaluation and substantial revision of introductory college-level history courses so that they better serve students from all backgrounds and align more effectively with the future needs of a complex society. Starting in January 2019 and running through December 2022, the AHA and the Gardner Institute will work closely with faculty from 11 two- and four-year institutions, clustered around three regional hubs. In Houston, the AHA will collaborate with Texas Southern University, Houston Community College, the University of Houston–Downtown, and the University of Houston. In the Chicago metro area, the initiative will bring together Purdue University Northwest, Waubonsee Community College, Roosevelt University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Partners in New York are St. Francis College, Bergen Community College, and Kean University. Together they will draw on the AHA’s successful Tuning project and adapt the Gardner Institute’s successful Gateways to Completion program (G2C) to rethink the purpose and substance of what it means to be “introduced” to history at the postsecondary level, and to develop models for implementing these alternatives.

A focus on introductory courses is a logical next step from our Tuning project, a faculty-led, discipline-based initiative that articulated what a history major should know, understand, and be able to do. Indeed, the importance of the introductory course has always lurked on the edges of our discussion of the history major. As past AHA president Kenneth Pomeranz (Univ. of Chicago) remarked in the early days of Tuning, “This is all well and good for the major, but it’s even more important to take these ideas to the introductory courses, where we reach more students.”

The AHA Tuning initiative demonstrated the potential for curricular intervention through collegial, discipline-based work. AHA Tuning inspired historians to change pedagogical practice through faculty-driven and discipline- and institution-specific conversations and methods. Tuning also produced the Discipline Core, a set of reference points based on shared disciplinary values, which faculty used to frame their perspectives on history pedagogy and explore strategies for assessing student learning at a disciplinary level. Faculty participating in History Gateways will start by adapting the Discipline Core to introductory courses, supported by experts in history learning.

This firm disciplinary grounding will be complemented by the education research and pedagogical insights of the Gardner Institute, which in G2C has already developed a successful model for curricular redesign of introductory courses. Guided by comprehensive data analytics on course effectiveness, G2C provides an established structure and procedural framework to create meaningful institutional change. In the History Gateways program, history faculty will collaborate with their colleagues in institutional research to analyze data (using historical course performance analytics) and craft and implement a plan to enhance teaching, student learning, and success in high-enrollment courses that have historically resulted in high rates of Ds, Fs, Withdrawals, and Incompletes.

A focus on introductory courses is a logical next step following our Tuning project.

Working within the Gardner Institute’s established framework will strengthen the tools history faculty have to evaluate student learning and to contemplate how and when to implement curricular changes. Participating in the G2C process will allow history faculty to enter an ongoing conversation about how to improve student learning in introductory courses. The process will help them better understand what students already know, integrate frequent formative assessments in order to better monitor student learning and progress, and provide a structured approach to improving introductory course design that includes outside mentors. In other words, drawing on G2C to build upon Tuning will allow faculty to go “wheel shopping” rather than try to reinvent the wheel, all while remaining firmly grounded in disciplinary values and habits of the mind.

The Gardner Institute’s approach—heavy on formative evaluation, data analysis, and pedagogical discourse—stands outside the comfort zone of many historians. We are asking our members to try something new, to think differently about our roles as teachers on a terrain that we must traverse. As a discipline, we too often squander opportunities to convey why learning to think historically matters in the history classes that reach the most students: introductory courses. History Gateways will result in introductory history courses that improve student learning of history and historical thinking, especially among African American, Latinx, Native American, and first-generation students. That learning will prepare students for success across the college curriculum and help them understand the value of historical thinking in their classrooms, in their future careers, and in their civic and social lives.

Julia Brookins is the AHA’s special projects coordinator. James Grossman is the AHA’s executive director, and tweets @JimGrossmanAHA. Emily Swafford is director of academic and professional affairs at the AHA. She tweets @elswafford.

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