Part VIII of the Current State of Assessing Historical Thinking: How Does Inquiry Assessment Motivate Students?

In the last article of this series, I describe what scaffolding exists for teaching historical thinking and how it can be improved. I will know focus on how inquiry assessments motivate students to succeed.

A reason teachers scaffold a lesson or activity is because it motivates students to accomplish tasks which lead to mastery over skills, concepts, and information. In essence, if students believe they can climb the mountain, even if it is difficult, they are more likely to start down the trail.

 Like scaffolding, inquiry assessments also motivate students. Inquiry motivates students because it involves them learning knowledge through the active creation of it, not just simply receiving it. Inquiry assessments can be brief prompts that ask students something like; “Should Abraham Lincoln have signed the Emancipation Proclamation?” Questions like this require students go beyond simple recall of information, they must think about why historical actors committed their actions.

How do you help students take on new concepts, abstract ideas, and difficult subjects?

Inquiry assessment will not be standardized; it will look different to each student. 

Inquiry assessments can also be large-scale, such as the National History Day projects that thousands of students complete each year. In these projects, students form questions, read sources, and develop a historical argument. Throughout these extended projects, students engage in deeper cognitive processes in order to answer inquiry questions. Inquiring is often more strenuous than receiving a lecture or copying notes, yet students tend to be more motivated in doing the advanced cognitive processes.

Students also enjoy demonstrating their skills to a wider community.

This is especially true during extended inquiries like the kind National History Day provides. Through inquiry, students create knowledge by relating new information to their own perspectives, beliefs, and ideas. It is from forming knowledge through the combination of self, new information, and cognitive processes that motivates students. National History Day, and other large-scale projects, provide opportunities for students to create their own inquiry assessments, thus adding another layer of motivation.

Students being comfortable with topics is key when assessing their historical thinking ability. Students shaping inquiry assessments can provide motivation in an environment where students are uncomfortable with the new skills being obtained. For example, at the beginning of a project, students likely will not understand the importance of historical thinking skills like “contextualization”, or what it truly means to detect bias in a secondary source.

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Students will need perseverance to understand these abstract topics, which can be promoted through students being able to shape the inquiry assessments. Students who can choose the content in which they study, and the way their final products will look, will be much more motivated.

Coming Up Next

The next part of this article series will focus on an article about National History Day that demonstrates how inquiry can motivate students.


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