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SHEG's Joel Breakstone advances ‘formative assessment’ in history instruction

At an annual conference for social studies teachers in November, Joel Breakstone will be honored for his doctoral research at Stanford Graduate School of Education on how teachers can enhance their students' historical thinking.

The National Council for the Social Studies recently named Joel Breakstone PhD ’13 as recipient of its 2014 Larry Metcalf Exemplary Dissertation Award for his doctoral research at Stanford Graduate School of Education on the use of formative assessments in the teaching of history.

While educators are well aware that they must gauge students’ progress beyond the data provided by multiple choice tests, they have struggled to find reliable ways to monitor students’ understanding and to then adjust instruction accordingly, a process referred to as “formative assessment.” It’s a challenge faced in all subjects, but history poses some particularly difficult hurdles.

Breakstone, now director of the Stanford History Education Group, and colleagues designed a set of assessments and then conducted several experiments to see how they worked. His dissertation, “History assessments of thinking: Design, interpretation and implementation,” spotlights how such tools can take formative assessment from promising concept to effective classroom routine.

“Much writing on formative assessment conveys the impression that having better assessments will somehow lead directly to improved practice,” said Sam Wineburg, the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford University and Breakstone’s dissertation advisor. “But Breakstone shows that better tools are only one part of a complex equation. Teachers not only have to interpret the meaning of students’ responses but have to formulate an action plan on their basis.”

Read Breakstone's overview of his dissertation research.

Breakstone showed that even teachers who shared similar knowledge of students’ strengths and weaknesses in their understanding of a lesson would vary greatly in their approaches to helping the students improve. The findings further revealed that in that same group of teachers, those who rated more highly in pedagogical content knowledge were more successful in enabling students to overcome the gaps identified in the assessments.

In the final experiment, Breakstone demonstrated how working with teachers to develop strategies to use the assessments as part of the learning process lead to better results from their students.

“In summary, Breakstone’s work brings a hearty dose of reality to a lot of rhetoric about formative assessment,” Wineburg said.

The research fills a gap in a subject area — history — that does not easily lend itself to a frequent cycle of formative assessments in the same way as, say, math and science. Not surprisingly, there is also a notable lack of research on how history teachers can use assessments and the data they provide in order to enhance students’ historical thinking. “I predict that this dissertation will inspire a whole set of studies around the various ways that formative assessment can advance achievement across the social studies,” Wineburg said.

Breakstone’s dissertation is the third from Stanford Graduate School of Education to win the Metcalf Award over the last eight years. Chauncey Monte-Sano, now associate professor of education at University of Michigan, received the prize in 2007, and Avishag (Abby) Reisman, now assistant professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, was honored with the award in 2011.

Breakstone has been invited to give a presentation on his research in November at the 94th Annual Conference of the National Council for the Social Studies in Boston, where he will officially be presented with the award.

Download a summary by Joel Breakstone of the studies that comprise his dissertation.

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