Part IX of The Current State of Assessing Historical Thinking: How Does National History Day Motivate Students?

In the last part of this article series, I explained how assessing inquiry can motivate students. Now, I will demonstrate how National History Day can both be used to measure students thinking and motivate them to succeed.

Exemplar Article #1

David Wallace’s qualitative analysis of National History Day is an apt research study that demonstrates the power of motivation. Wallace was a professor of history at Cleveland State University in Ohio. In the mid-1980s, National History Day was operated in Cleveland, and Wallace would have been one of the earliest history professors who was helping with the program.

If you are interested in doing History Day, I did a review of my implementation of the program in weekly updates.

National History Day has great resources for teachers who wanted to try out Project Based Learning.

In 1987, Wallace completed a qualitative research project and wrote the article “The Past As Experience: A Qualitative Assessment of National History Day.” The purpose of this research was to describe and evaluate National History Day as an education program, and to describe its implications for teaching history.

Wallace sent a questionnaire to 1,500 students who were state winners in the National History Day program. The questionnaire focused on the perceptions of the students, especially in how they viewed their cognitive ability because of National History Day. Not only did student participation in National History Day result in increased excitement and engagement with the history curriculum, students believed the program fostered new skills useful for historical research.

This is the most students ever surveyed for a research sample over National History Day.

These skills were evident in the explanations of the students, especially when they described how their theories and evidence involved forces of culture, politics, and economics. The most significant limitation to Wallace’s study is the survey was sent only to state winners, who most likely possessed social advantages compared to their less victorious peers. The lack of a more balanced participatory group may skew data since students who lost at the contests were not included.

Wallace’s study connects learning historical skills, historical projects, and student motivation to one another. The importance of students obtaining historical skills does not lie within students receiving some score on a test, although there are studies that suggest National History Day, and other extended history projects, do support better standardized test scores (Monaco et al., 2009; Parker et. al, 2013; Sloan & Rockman, 2010).

 The more important benefit is students creating products that demonstrate their ability to inquire through historical reasoning. Finally, students were motivated to complete their projects because they were proud of the skills they had learned, and they wanted to demonstrate them outside of their classroom.

Students have pride in what they create.

Coming Up Next

The next part of this article series will focus on the question: Why is it difficult to assess historical thinking and inquiry based learning


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