The Current State of Assessing Historical Thinking: Part II

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.

Before answering the previously listed questions, it is foremost to give context to the concept of historical thinking and what has already been accomplished with creating assessments. Over the last twenty years, some researchers have developed assessments for historical thinking (Vansledright, Wineburg, Hicks, and Doolittle).

This can be called a move towards inquiry assessments, which more specifically to social studies, is when a teacher assesses a student’s interaction with primary documents, social issues, and the relationships between people, organizations, and abstract social forces (Lee, unpublished)

Writers like Same Wineburg have been researching historical thinking for the last twenty years (Sam Wineburg’s bio).

Inquiry assessment is not isolated to just history courses; for example, Stephanie Corliss examined how her science projects, which required students to solve basic to complex problems using a rational system, improved student content knowledge and their ability to apply concepts over multiple disciplines (Corliss, 2011).

If multiple disciplines are moving towards inquiry assessment, then there must be a broader force pushing social studies educators to redefine their purpose in education. This force seems to be national, and from my conversations with educators and researchers, and my reading in this literature analysis, it appears that teachers, students, and the United States citizenry are making demands for an education that allows students to ponder and form their own ideas.

Leaders of Historical Thinking

Fortunately, there are some institutions and individuals researching historical thinking skills and producing teaching resources based on their findings. The founders and leaders of these groups have published several theoretical and practical studies that help define historical thinking and the measurement of it.

For example, Peter Seixas, a leader in studying cognitive abilities in history, wrote “A Model of Historical Thinking” (Seixas, 2012) which defined and explained historical consciousness, historical thinking, and the teaching of history in Canadian and United States schools.

Seixas and others have defined historical thinking and created teaching resources, but the definitions are heterogeneous, and critical to this analysis, the information on inquiry assessments and scaffolding is lacking or non-existent (Seixas, Vansledright, Levesque, Clark).

The work of Peter Seixas examines on historical consciousness, which focuses on the identity of the person analyzing history and how that affects their interpretations of it (Peter Seixas bio).

 An absence of results in inquiry assessment and scaffolding challenge the use of historical thinking as a curriculum and pedagogical tool.

History Forge hosts articles and resources that define historical thinking and breaks it up into workable skills that students can learn. The links below help teachers learn how to use historical thinking in their classrooms:

1. Definitions of Grading For Mastery and Skill Based Grading

2. Skills that unite the social studies

3. Questions and Prompts For Social Studies Skills

The Move Towards A National Social Studies Standard

 In the wider disciplines of the social studies, the move to an inquiry based style of teaching is best represented in the creation of the C3 framework. The C3 framework was a unifying set of standards that united the disciplines of History, Civics, Geography, and Economics. Assessment designers created the C3 framework to help improve students’ abilities to

“recognize social problems; ask good questions and develop robust investigations into them; considering possible solutions and consequences; separate evidence-based claims from parochial opinions; and communicate and act upon what the learn” (National Council for the Social Studies).

The C3 standards provide teachers with a structure to vertically align social studies disciplines across multiple grades. What is missing from C3 are assessment advice, measuring devices, and scaffolding. The authors of C3, like John Lee, admitted to this gap in their framework, and believed it would be  “smart, thoughtful, and imaginative teachers” who need to find ways to make the framework adaptable.


It is wise for education policy and standard makers to rely on teachers to make decisions on implementing curriculum in the classroom. For this to work however, school districts must give teachers time during the work day to be lucrative in producing implementation strategies.

John Lee was one of the writers for C3 and has developed inquiry assessments to make up for the gap (John Lee’s biography).

Unfortunately, the C3 framework lacks practical advice for teachers who may feel overburdened with other educational duties. 

In an unpublished chapter titled “Assessing Inquiry,” Lee created a lesson plan, which focused on inquiry assessment, compelling questions, supporting questions, formative questions, featured sources, summative performance tasks, and taking informed action (Lee, unpublished).

Although the chapter is unpublished, it is due for publication in the year of 2020, I believe it serves as evidence that creating inquiry assessment is an ongoing issue. Lee’s lesson plan is a step in the right direction as it gives practicing teachers plenty of practical advice. What the lesson lacks is scaffolding advice.

The writers of the C3 Framework, and later Lee in his unpublished article, create lesson  plans for general education students who are supposedly at the same academic level. This lack of differentiation makes it difficult to implement these lessons because of the realities of teaching. In my own practice, there were at least three general levels of students that needed special attention; this does not include students with learning disabilities and ELL students. Going into the future, scaffolding in lesson plans and the inclusion of resources to scaffold will need to be included.

Coming Up Next

The next part will begin answering the questions outlined in the first part of this article series. The next article can be found at Part III of the Current State of Assessing Historical Thinking: How Do We Measure Historical Thinking 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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