Research on Students' Historical Thinking and Learning

Keith C. Barton, October 2004

For many years, public and professional discourse in the United States has abounded with proposals for revising the form and content of history education in the nation's schools—or sometimes, for restoring its presumed former glory. Such discussions invariably rest on assumptions about the nature of precollegiate students' historical understanding—particularly what they don't know, or what they fail to comprehend. Even historians who are more interested in university teaching often point to elementary and secondary education as the source of their woes—if only students knew more, or had been taught better in previous years, then professors' jobs would be infinitely easier and more rewarding.

Unfortunately, these discussions rarely are informed by the extensive body of empirical research on students' understanding of history. Over the past quarter-century, educational researchers in North America, Europe, and elsewhere have conducted scores of studies of how elementary and secondary students think and learn about history. These have not been simple surveys of comprehension and recall. Most such studies have been grounded in a deep engagement with the logic of historical explanation, and they have included attention to students' ideas about evidence, time, perspective, narrative, and significance. A comprehensive review of the literature clearly is beyond the scope of this article, but the following summary of some key points may motivate historians to become more familiar with this body of work (see a select list of readings on page 20).

One of the most striking findings is that from a young age, many students know a great deal about history, think of themselves as historically knowledgeable and aware individuals, and are motivated to learn more about the subject. Even students in the primary grades, for example, usually can arrange historical images in correct chronological sequence, and older students draw on an increasingly detailed store of knowledge about the past. Much of students' early learning has taken place outside school—through discussions with relatives, family trips to museums or other historic sites, and exposure to popular print and electronic media—and these experiences have led many students to develop their own questions and concerns about the past. This represents a tremendous reserve of knowledge and interest on which educators should be able to capitalize in more formal settings.

Not surprisingly, though, students' knowledge is uneven, and the mismatch between what they know and what educators think they should know may account for prevalent stereotypes of ignorance and apathy. Students know more about the history of social and material life, for example, than about political, legal, and diplomatic history, or about famous people and events of the past. This suggests that such topics are particularly poor starting points for instruction, because references to wars, leaders, and constitutional developments are unlikely to evoke much recognition. If educators hope to build on what students know—a basic tenet of contemporary theories of learning—they must start with attention to how people lived in the past and then help students understand the broader developments that shaped their lives.

This necessarily means expanding students' understanding of society, politics, and the economy, so that they recognize how such forces affect people's lives. Research indicates that students frequently interpret historical changes as though they involved only the actions and intentions of individuals rather than societal structures or collective action. For example, elementary students may think that race relations changed because Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech and changed people's attitudes. They do not conceptualize civil rights in terms of the legal and political mechanisms that supported discrimination, nor do they fully understand the role of organized movements for social change.

Older students' ideas may not be quite so simplistic, but they nonetheless tend to focus on history as the record of individual thought and action, with little regard for institutional contexts. This means that educators must devote explicit attention to helping students understand how society operates (a core concern of the field of social studies, incidentally). Teaching about events like the American Revolution without developing students' grasp of concepts like taxation and representation means that the subject literally will be unintelligible to them, and they will retain little meaningful content.

Students also tend to "overnarrativize" history. They think of the past as taking the form of a relatively simple story (generally one of progress), with a limited number of characters and a clear sequence of events. They tend not to appreciate, for example, that social and economic developments have not always been linear, nor that at any given time some people lived in cities and others in the countryside, some were rich and some were poor, and so on. Just as important, they tend not to recognize that processes such as immigration were long-term developments that extended over centuries, rather than discrete events that happened at a single point in time. Similarly, students often conceive of topics such as racism or other forms of discrimination as problems that were "solved" at a given moment. This tendency to reduce the scope and complexity of the past may arise from the extensive but shallow narrative survey of events in the precollegiate curriculum. Students might benefit from a history curriculum that focused on enduring processes and themes in history, as well as from exploring the diversity of experiences that existed at any time in the past.

Historians may be especially interested in students' understanding of the status of historical evidence and of the creation of historical accounts. In a famous article published in these pages over a decade ago, Sam Wineburg reported research showing that even outstanding secondary history students had little understanding of how historians evaluate sources for reliability.1 Subsequent studies have confirmed that students have rarely given much thought to this issue, and that they have little acquaintance with the range of sources used by historians. Yet research also has shown that these obstacles are relatively easy to overcome within the classroom: Students have valid ideas about what makes contemporary sources more or less reliable, and with direct exposure to historical sources, combined with careful guidance by teachers, even elementary students can develop sophisticated ideas about the indeterminacy of historical evidence.

Students have much more difficulty, however, deciding what to do with evidence once they have recognized its limitations. Upon realizing that every historical source is biased in one way or another, they often dismiss all sources as unreliable and give up on the possibility of knowing anything about the past with reasonable certainty—often preferring to make up purely fictional stories, or dismissing all historical accounts as "just an opinion." This may result from the isolated treatment of sources as objects to be evaluated or explained, as in "document-based activities," rather than as pieces of evidence within a context of inquiry. If students pursue historical questions they consider important, they may be forced to use the available evidence to reach conclusions; but if they are expected only to learn about accounts produced by others (or to investigate questions in which they have little interest), it is hardly surprising that they avoid the hard work of synthesizing evidence into supportable arguments.

Although each of these trends has been evident in multiple studies, their magnitude has not been uniform across settings or participants. In Britain, where the history curriculum focuses on issues of evidence rather than a narrative of national development, many students develop an understanding of the creation of historical accounts at an early age. Students there also appear less likely to overnarrativize the past or overemphasize individual actions and attitudes than their counterparts here.

Even within the United States, students' ideas may vary depending on their social backgrounds. African American students, for example, consider a somewhat different set of people and events significant than do white students, and they see social progress in more complicated terms.2 This variation among students from different national and ethnic backgrounds is encouraging, because it indicates that no single pattern of historical thinking is inevitable, and that learning is not solely the result of some kind of age-related development. At the same time, it warns against a "one-size-fits-all" approach to history education, because students begin with different concerns, concepts, and experiences.

Educational researchers have made major strides toward identifying trends and variety in students' thinking, the influence of social background on ideas about the nature and purpose of the subject, and the influence of instruction on learning. This research cannot directly tell us how history should be taught, because curricular and instructional decisions necessarily involve judgments about what students should learn. Nonetheless, discussions of these issues might be more meaningful and productive if they were better informed by accurate and up-to-date familiarity with research on how students do think and learn.

Keith C. Barton is professor in the Division of Teacher Education at the University of Cincinnati and is a member of the AHA's Teaching Division. He can be reached at


1. Samuel S. Wineburg, "Probing the Depths of Students' Historical Knowledge." Perspectives 30 (March 1992), 19–24.

2. See Terrie Epstein, "Deconstructing Differences in African-American and European-American Adolescents' Perspectives on U.S. History," Curriculum Inquiry 28 (October 1998), 397–423, and "Adolescents' Perspectives on Racial Diversity in U.S. History: Case Studies From an Urban Classroom," American Educational Research Journal 37 (spring 2000), 184–214.