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College students struggle to make sense of evidence from the past, Stanford researchers find

April 3, 2018
By Carrie Spector
History students often have trouble judging the reliability of historical sources, Stanford researchers find.
College history students often have trouble judging the reliability of historical sources, according to new Stanford Graduate School of Education research.
A new study by the Stanford History Education Group shows that even upper-level history majors have difficulty evaluating historical documents.

Historians have long held that the value of studying history goes far beyond learning names and dates—it helps students develop the skills to think critically and discern the credibility of claims they encounter.

A new study by researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education calls into question whether college history courses are delivering on this promise. Asked to complete a series of tasks aimed at judging the reliability of historical sources, the vast majority of students—including upper-level history majors—struggled. 

The findings suggest that educators are missing opportunities to make sure students are learning how to investigate questions about historical events.

“If there’s anywhere you’d expect these skills would be taught, it would be in college to history majors,” said Mark Smith, director of assessment for the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) and one of the study’s authors, along with Professor Sam Wineburg and Joel Breakstone. “But we’ve found that students aren’t adopting these basic ways of thinking about evidence.”

Tasks for students

The study, which appears in the March 2018 issue of the Journal of American History, builds on previous research by SHEG that found high school students struggle with tasks asking them to evaluate primacy source documents.

To see whether more advanced students experienced the same challenges, the researchers gave a series of similar tasks to 127 college students enrolled at state universities on the West Coast. Participants ranged from first-year students taking requisite introductory classes to history majors who had already completed at least five university-level history courses.

In one task, for example, researchers presented the students with an early 20th century painting titled The First Thanksgiving 1621, by Jean Leon Gerome. The painting shows Pilgrim settlers and the Wampanoag Indians coming together peacefully for a feast. Students were expected to reason that the gap in time between when the event took place and when the painting was created diminished the source’s reliability as evidence of what happened at the event it depicts.

Only one of the 78 freshmen and sophomores who completed the task addressed this gap and provided a rationale for why it mattered.

“It’s not terribly surprising that we saw this with freshmen in an introductory course,” Smith said. “But history majors in upper-level courses didn’t do very well, either.”

Only 20 percent of juniors and seniors showed proficiency in the task by noting the time gap in explaining why the painting was an unreliable source for someone who sought to understand the relationship between the Indians and the settlers.

Reading like a historian

History majors go on to pursue careers in a multitude of fields, from business and law to journalism and politics—professions that all benefit from what the researchers call “historical thinking,” the ability to put a source into context and evaluate its trustworthiness.

“We can’t expect that students are going to bring these skills to the college classroom,” said Smith. “And if they’re taking a college history class, just because they’re exposed to higher-level content and learning from someone who’s mastered these skills doesn’t mean they’re going to pick them up.”

Previous research from SHEG has shown that students who use a curriculum built around historical documents outperform their peers in traditional, textbook-oriented history classes on measures such as reading comprehension, general reasoning and even the ability to recall historical facts.

The researchers emphasize the need for meaningful assessment tools to inform ongoing instruction. “Historians offer evidence when they make claims about the past. They also need evidence for claims they make about what’s learned in their classrooms,” said Wineburg, the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education and History (by courtesy).

Unlike final exams, periodic assessments gauge students’ thinking throughout a course, indicating where instructors might need to adjust their course content or pace to help students stay on track.

“We know from past research that young students, even sixth-graders, can engage in historical reasoning,” Smith said. “It’s just a matter of teaching it and making sure they understand it."