How They Change: Students Tell Us How History Transforms Them

Mary Jo Festle, December 2015

I used to associate the word assessment with unpleasant activities, like grading stacks of papers or being forced to write reports. But now I’m looking at it differently: as an informal, fascinating, and meaningful process.

Students’ work, of course, should always play a crucial role in the assessment of their learning. That’s why in my department we evaluate a 20- to 25-page research paper, which serves as a graduation requirement for history majors. The paper must meet certain standards: in its research base, argument, use of evidence, understanding of historiography and context, and writing (including organization, clarity, and citations). This type of work—along with essays, presentations, and other projects—can indicate how well students perform many of the skills described in the AHA Tuning project.

But do our students change as a result of majoring in history? After all, learning necessitates change. We faculty members hope that as a result of attending college and majoring in a field of study, students will be different, and—if we’re idealistic—even transformed by the experience.

We assume that student thinking significantly changes as a result of taking three or four years of history courses, but how do we know? In my department—and I suspect in others—we haven’t gathered much evidence on the subject. Indeed, as a profession, we historians are still relatively new to the process of applying the same critical approach to evidence of student learning that we use in our analysis of the past. Some have made an important start, however. The History Learning Project has helped history faculty become aware of our underlying episteme and tacit knowledge and the places where students get stuck in comprehending it. The Indiana University leaders of this project have administered multiple-choice surveys to students to ascertain their understanding of what constitutes historical thinking.1

The next step, I believe, is to ask students themselves to describe their thinking in their own words. Over the past few years, I have asked 57 students in eight different sections of our small research seminars to free-write in response to five open-ended prompts, for about four minutes each. (My departmental colleagues Peter Felten and Mike Carignan helped craft the prompts I used.) This free-writing requires students to reflect in ways they might not otherwise. Describing their learning in their own words can improve their metacognition. It also provides faculty with valuable evidence of student perspectives, which we can then analyze.

One prompt I use is “How has your understanding of ‘what history is’ changed during your studies at Elon?” As I interpreted their spontaneous and informal answers, a few things stood out. Over one-third of them said some variation of “I now understand history is not just facts about names, dates, or a chronology of events.” The table above summarizes their most common responses.

Their answers confirmed that, for many undergraduates, the interpretive nature of the discipline of history is indeed a fundamental and striking lesson, one that many might characterize as a threshold concept.2 As one student put it,

I realized how much power historians have—the ability to construct the past. We don’t just “know” history—in high school, textbooks seemed so certain. [Now] I see how these historians have an argument, a point of view. . . . History is dynamic & debatable.

I was also struck that many students changed from seeing themselves primarily as receptacles of facts (often memorized from textbooks) to actors who do history.3 They explicitly mentioned such practices as interpreting and analyzing sources, conducting research, seeking out influences and biases, challenging what they read, looking at situations from multiple perspectives, and forming an argument.

[Before college] I loved reading books and watching documentaries—anything to further my knowledge of the subject. However, I had never been given a chance to discover history for myself. . . . I learned to see history as evidence and pieces of a puzzle that I would have to put together myself. I learned to find evidence, analyze it, and then build my argument—my depiction of the history.

In a couple of cases, students said their understanding of what history is had not really changed, and a few responses made me and my departmental colleagues cringe. In general, however, the students seemed to have grown in ways that mapped nicely onto our own departmental and AHA competencies and learning objectives, even though students took a wide range of courses with very different content. And because a follow-up question asked, “What helped your thinking develop?” we now have specific evidence about the sorts of activities and readings that had the most impact on the students who reported growth.

I asked another question that also revealed insights about student change: “Have you ever studied an idea or topic in history that made you think about who you are or rethink your values? If so, what?” We designed this question because scholarship on transformative learning suggests that courses that respectfully challenge students’ values and assumptions and the world they live in can clarify their identities and lead to significant and lasting growth.4

Over 70 percent of the students reported that they had indeed studied personally challenging topics. Encouragingly, there were almost as many different answers to that question as there were individual respondents. Some areas were mentioned more frequently, though. Eleven students pointed to topics in gender and sexuality and ten to topics in religious history; four pointed to the Holocaust or Nazism. Many mentioned topics that were race-related or that dealt with foreign policy, the American Civil War, China, or ideology. Three pointed to topics in study abroad courses.

Although the question did not explicitly ask students to explain what difference these topics made to them, they often volunteered answers that revealed positive impacts. Some said they viewed contemporary events more critically, including one who found taking a US since 1940 course during a presidential election season to be “life-changing,” helping this student “think more deeply about where I live, where I come from, where our future could be.” While some questioned previously held beliefs and assumptions, others confirmed or deepened their beliefs. Some reported a stronger sense of identity or community with their religion, family, region, or culture. One reported becoming more “comfortable with my background and . . . more open about my own experience.” Others felt empowered, such as one who came to “understand I am not stuck in a certain role.”

Even more encouragingly, some students felt their studies of challenging topics had made them better human beings. One reported that studying about Islam brought to light racist assumptions, while another said that reading primary sources from LGBTQ people prompted a changed stance on same-sex marriage. Others reported being more sensitive or open to different points of view. As one concluded, “History will do that to us; it will challenge our ideas and make us think in a new way.”

Student responses may tell us we are not reaching our ambitious goals for transforming their ways of thinking, viewing, or being in the world, or they might encourage us. Whatever we find out, having them tell us in their own words offers rich evidence for how we as professors might change, too.

Mary Jo Festle is professor of history at Elon University, associate director of its Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, and author of Second Wind: Oral Histories of Lung Transplant Survivors.


1. Arlene Diaz, Joan Middendorf, David Pace, and Leah Shopkow, “The History Learning Project: A Department ‘Decodes’ Its Students,” Journal of American History 94, no. 4 (March 2008): 1217–19.

2. Ray Land, “There Could Be Trouble Ahead: Using Threshold Concepts as a Tool of Analysis,” International Journal for Academic Development 16, no. 2 (2011): 175–78.

3. Others have made this observation as well. For example, see Joel M. Sipress and David J. Voelker, “From Learning History to Doing History,” in Exploring Signature Pedagogies, ed. Regan A. R. Gurung, Nancy L. Chick, and Aeron Haynie (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2009), 19–35.

4. Peter Felten and Charity Johansson, Transforming Students: Fulfilling the Promise of Higher Education (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 20–21; Patricia Cranston, Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 23.

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