The Current State of Assessing Historical Thinking: Part I

Dear Reader:

This article series will focus on current research over assessments in history classrooms. Each part will be under 1,000 words and will focus on theory, possess brief literature reviews, and contain resources and ideas for assessing students. Below you will find a complete bibliography of all sources cited.

In American schools since the mid 2000’s, social studies departments and state departments of education have created goals and standards prioritizing critical thinking engagement. This type of thinking involves using inquiry to answer historical questions and evaluate historical concepts. More specifically, education researchers and leaders want inquiry to focus on “real world” questions that students truly want to know (Selywn, 268). Unfortunately, standardized social studies assessments have failed to measure the acquisition of the new standards and goals; higher order thinking skills are too difficult to measure with current practices and assessment tools.

Difficulties are due to cost of assessing higher order thinking, preparing preservice educators to competently teach social studies cognition, and changing traditional testing practices. Despite the struggle of assessing cognitive processes in social studies courses, there is tremendous value in creating these assessments. Improved cognitive processes in social studies courses could result in improved civic engagement, student motivation & agency, and better career prospects for students (McGrew, 2018, National Council for the Social Studies, 2013, Selwyn, 2014).

An example of civic engagement is when my 8th grade students created bills for a Mock Senate. During the Spring of 2019, my teenage students questioned, researched, debated, and voted on bills that they created. Assessing the bills and individual work was challenging, but students were able to be motivated participants while being assessed. The video above shows the description I gave to my students.

Scaffolds give steps for students to master as they scale up their learning.

According to the glossary of education reform, “scaffolding refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process.” Scaffolding means to ease students into a concept, curriculum, behavior, or idea and is considered a fundamental part of excellent teaching. As an example, let’s say an elementary school teacher wants to teach their second graders how to find helpful sources to answer questions. This teacher might have a specific current event that they want to cover, but they will first break-up the lesson into interactive activities that teach the young students important concepts, like finding good sources.

Such an interactive activity could be asking the students to write down the five most trustworthy people that could describe the student. Students would enjoy writing down family members, teachers, close friends and then being asked why they are trustworthy sources. This interactive activity then expands until students complete the standard, such as the C3 Framework’s D1.5.K-2 “Determine the kinds of sources that will be helpful in answering compelling and supporting questions” (National Council for the Social Studies, 2013, p. 25).

Students learning about trustworthy friends and family will also help them shape a positive identity.

Based on my analysis of researchers who examined historical thinking, inquiry, and assessments, I discovered five questions that connect to my interest in scaffolding historical thinking skills and assessing for mastery of skills. The five questions are: 

(1) How do we measure historical thinking? (2) What data can be pulled from research in inquiry and historical thinking? (3) What scaffolding exists and how can it be improved? (4) How does inquiry and assessment motivate students? (5) Why is assessing historical thinking and inquiry-based learning difficult?

Coming Up Next

Part II of this article series will focus on defining historical thinking and assessing for social studies skills.


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.

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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