Identifying bottlenecks to learning in History courses

We began by interviewing seventeen faculty members from the history department, asking our subjects to identify bottlenecks to student learning in their upper level classes and to try to reconstruct the habits of thinking that enabled them (as historians) to avoid such bottlenecks themselves.

We identified seven predominant bottlenecks.

Bottleneck 1: Misunderstanding the role of facts
Students often fail to recognize that history is not about accumulating facts but rather about interpreting sources to explain and seek answers to problems in the past.

Bottleneck 2: Interpreting primary sources
This is the main methodological task in history. It is actually a group of bottlenecks and different types of primary sources(art, modes of producing goods, policies, etc.) require students to pose both questions common to all and distinctive to each about the nature, the origin, and the intended audience for the source.

Bottleneck 3: Maintaining appropriate emotional distance
Many of the issues dealt with in history classes are emotionally charged, and yet, complete detachment from the events of the past is often inappropriate.

Bottleneck 4: Understanding the limits of knowledge of historical actors
Students commonly employ hindsight onto historical actors, ignoring the difference between their own knowledge of subsequent events and the inability of the people that they study to know there future.

Bottleneck 5: Identifying with people in another time/place
To understand the actions of individuals or groups in the past, students must use an understanding of human motivations based largely on their own experience, but they must also recognize that thought and action in earlier eras were conditioned by very different assumptions, perceptions and experiences.

Bottleneck 6: Constructing and evaluating arguments
Like many bottlenecks, this one is composed of many subsidiary bottlenecks, but the main question is, how do arguments "spring" from the evidence? And how does an argument posed by one author measure up in light of others about the same historical issue?

Bottleneck 7: Linking specific details to a broader context
This bottleneck arises from the difficulty students have tying the specific details of a primary source into the broader historical context(the issues or themes) of the course. For instance, when a student reads a medieval document donating property to the church, the student may have difficulty seeing how the witness list, for example, may shed light on medieval families or how the narrative of how the gift came to be given may illustrate medieval social relationships.

We are revising this page. Please be patient.

These descriptions are taken from Joan Middendorf, David Pace, Leah Shopkow, and Arlene Díaz, "Making Thinking Explicit: Decoding History Teaching," National Teaching & Learning Forum, Volume 16, Number 2, February 2007.