Part X of The Current State of Assessing Historical Thinking: Why Is It Difficult to Assess Historical Thinking and Inquiry Based Learning?

In the last part of this article series I described how National History Day motivates students through inquiry assessment. Now, I will answer the following question; Why is it difficult to assess historical thinking and inquiry based learning? Also, I will describe how a study over German students ability to think exemplifies the difficult of assessing inquiry.

It is laborious to measure students’ cognitive abilities in history. When considering assessing historical thinking and inquiry, teachers must face a lack of instructional time to assess, pressure to satisfy standardized high-stakes test, and cultural issues with focusing on inquiry over recall/memorization. Monika Waldis’s research study elaborates on another problem; the coding mechanisms that are needed to assess historical thinking are convoluted.

Exemplar Article #1

If you need questions that are geared for assessing historical thinking skills, check out Questions and Prompts For Social Studies Skills

Waldis was interested in how the use of narrative changed in quality and structure based on a student’s ability to think historically. In order to assess students’ historical thinking, Waldis asked German students to produce a narrative based on analysis of primary sources. The study used two topics, “Trade Relations with Japan” and “The Nazi Boycott of Jewish Businesses,” which were seldom and often taught respectively in Germany.

Students were given exam booklets with primary sources inside of them and given as much time as they needed to complete the analysis questions.  The participant sample included 193 high school students from nine classrooms in three different towns. Waldis and the team of researchers developed quality features of narrative assessments, which included concepts such as “value judgments” and “quality of making historical references” (Waldis, 2015, 122).

Primary sources are needed to test historical thinking.

When the writing from students is so varied, it is likely that history classes are not teaching them analytical skills.

Student answers were structurally heterogeneous; for example, some answers were one sentence long while the longest was thirty-three sentences. The raters of the narrative answers distributed low numbers in the category of normative cogency because students did not support their values with evidence and reasoning from the primary sources. This finding is disturbing as it suggests history courses are not educating students to provide evidence to support their own opinions.

If teachers are not teaching the concept of using evidence, it could be because the task is more difficult than researchers realized. Waldis used highly detailed coding mechanisms, similar to other research articles but much more complex, and categories when measuring student answers, which resulted in discovering that responses lacked certain qualities.

If these complex coding mechanisms are the only way to accurately measure students’ acquisition of thinking skills, then teachers will not have the training or background to successfully lead students through exercises.

Assessing historical thinking is complex, and teachers will need a lot of training in order to effectively measure students’ abilities.

Coming Up Next

That covers all of the questions that I came up with after reading articles about assessing historical thinking. The final part will be next and I will conclude with some extension questions.


Attewell, Paul and David Lavin (2011). “The Other 75%: College Education Beyond the Elite.” In E. Lageman’s and H. Lewis’s (Eds.) What is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Corliss, Stephanie B., and Marcia C. Linn (2011). Assessing Learning From Inquiry Science Instruction. In D. Robinson and G. Schraw (Eds). Assessment of Higher Order Thinking Skills, 219-243.

Hicks, David, and Peter E. Doolittle (2008). Fostering Analysis in Historical Inquiry Through Multimedia Embedded Scaffolding. Theory and Research in Social Education, 36(3), 206-232.

Lee, John (unpublished chapter). Assessing Inquiry.

Lee, P., & Ashby, R. (2000). Progression in Historical Understanding Among Student Ages 7-14. In P.N. Stearns, P. Seixas, and S. Wineburg (Eds.), Knowing Teaching & Learning History: National and International Perspectives, 45-94. New York: New York University Press.

Levesque, Stephane and Penney Clark (2018). Historical Thinking: Definitions and Educational Applications. In S. Metzger’s and L. Harris’s (Eds.) The Wiley Handbook of History Teaching and Learning, 119-148. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

McGrew, Sarah, Joel Breakstone, Teresa Ortega, Mark Smith, and Sam Wineburg. (2018). Can Students Evaluate Online Sources? Learning from Assessments of Civic Online Reasoning. Theory & Research in Social Education, 46(2), 165-193.

National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History (2013). Silver Spring, Maryland: NCSS.

Reich, G. A. (2009) Testing historical knowledge: Standards, multiple-choice questions and student reasoning. Theory & Research in Social Education, 37(3), 325-360.

Renn, Kristen and Robert Reason. “Characteristics of College Students in The United States”. In Renn’s and R. Reason’s College Students in the United States: Characteristics, Experiences, and Outcomes, 3-27. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Shemilt, Denis (2018). Assessment of Learning in History Education: Past, Present, and Possible Futures. In S. Metzger’s and L. Harris’s (Eds.) The Wiley Handbook of History Teaching and Learning, 449-472. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Selwyn, Doug (2014). Why Inquiry? In E. Ross’s The Social Studies Curriculum, 267-288. New York: State University Press.

Vanderslight, Bruce (2014). Assessing Historical Thinking & Understanding: Innovative Designs for New Standards. New York: Routledge.

Virginia Tech. SCIM-C: Historical Inquiry. Retrieved from

Waldis, Monika, et al. (2015). Material-Based and Open-Ended Writing Tasks for Assessing Narrative Among Students. In K. Ercikan and P. Seixas (Eds.), New Directions in Assessing Historical Thinking (pp. 117-131). New York: Routledge.

Wallace, David Adams (1987). The Past as Experience: A Qualitative Assessment of National History Day, The History Teacher, 20(2), 179-242.

Wineburg, Sam. (2001). Picturing the Past. In Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (pp. 113-136). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

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