What do historians know about writing that students (usually) don’t?

What do historians know about writing that students (usually) don’t?

By Heather Nice

If the goal of history education is teaching our students to embrace disciplinary practice, a paradigm shift in how we teach writing in the history classroom is necessary. Although historians understand their role in the interpretation of the past, many of our students do not. To that end, I want to share a few tips to help students learn to write historically.

1. Begin your argument with a claim.

Whether you call it a claim or a thesis statement, teach students to take a clear stance in response to the question being asked. Make it clear, however, that they shouldn’t develop their claim until they’ve reviewed all provided sources and collected evidence. While students might be tempted to cherry-pick the sources for quotes that support an argument they’ve already decided to make, their claim should come directly from the evidence gathered from the sources.

2. Own who you are and why you chose this argument.

While this may seem counterintuitive to the impersonal and removed voice we’ve taught students to use in the past, historians are taught to be clear about who they are, why they chose their research question, and how they have approached their argument. For students, this doesn’t have to be a part of the formal essay. Instead, consider asking them to write a few sentences after their conclusion to describe how they approached the argument and why they chose the evidence they did. This simple act encourages them to reflect on their choices and can help them see where they may have leaned into confirmation bias or past practice.

3. Provide quality evidence that supports or confronts this claim.

In writing to respond to a question about the past, the student as historian must select the facts that are relevant to the argument they make. Quality evidence is clear, relevant, and compelling—it not only supports the student’s argument, it furthers it. Other historical thinking skills, such as sourcing, contextualization, and corroboration, can help students sift through and identify the best evidence to build their argument. These skills will also help them deal with, rather than discard, evidence that disagrees with their claim.

4. Synthesizing evidence is more important than inserting a quote.

Document-based questions (DBQs) have, unfortunately and unintentionally, taught many of our students that inserting a quote qualifies as evidence. While a well-placed quote can certainly further their argument, approaching evidence as only a series of quotations means they’re missing a key point of disciplinary practice. Historians, rather than letting individual sources move their arguments forward, synthesize evidence across a variety of sources to identify themes and key ideas. When students use quotes from singular sources to build an argument, they miss the integral role they should play in synthesizing the evidence they encounter.

5. Where there are gaps in evidence, infer what might have happened. Use historical imagination, bound by evidence, and hedge your language.

History, or the story of the past, is interpretive and subject to change. The past, or those events that happened before now, cannot change. We need to teach students three things: The historical record is incomplete; history is interpretive; and, as we ask new questions, new answers come to light. To help them reflect this understanding in their writing, students should be taught that they can make inferences where there are gaps in the evidence, but that those inferences must be bound by evidence and context-based historical imagination. Further, they should use hedging language, or clear indicators of potential uncertainty (“may,” “could possibly,” “might,” “it is unclear; however, the evidence seems to point to,” for example), to help the reader understand that they are making an inference.  

Remember, the goal here isn’t to produce the next Lynn Hunt, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Edna Greene Medford, or Simon Schama. Your job isn’t to create professional historians (although how cool would it be if you did?). Instead, your mission is to plant the seeds for historical thinking and cultivate those skills over time. When students are trained in historical thinking, they understand the importance of thinking critically about the arguments they present. They seek quality evidence in the arguments they make as well as in the arguments made by others. They don’t make claims or hold positions that can’t be supported by evidence and historical context, and they learn to own their positionality in the claims they make. Given this, I’d argue that our ultimate goal as history teachers is to cultivate informed citizens who approach all information, including what they create, with both curiosity and skepticism.

What kind of writing strategies do you use in your classroom? Share your thoughts with others in the OER Project Teacher Community. In addition, check out the activities in the WHP and BHP writing progression or give your students extra DBQ practice with Project Score prompts, warm-up activities, and revision activities.

About the author: Heather Nice has extensive experience in social studies instruction, curriculum development and assessment, instructional design, and the use of technology in learning environments. Her academic and professional interests lie in the intersections between archives, education, and history as she seeks to understand best practices for the instructional use of archival collections and disciplinary practice in the K–12 classroom.

Cover image: Herodotus (c. 484–425 BC, ancient Greek historian) reads his story and is crowned with the laurel wreath. He was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to a certain extent, and arrange them in a well-constructed and vivid narrative. Woodcut engraving, published in 1864. © DigitalVision Vectors / Getty Images.

  • Thank you Heather for lining out for us the real purpose of teaching historical thinking. The OER makes a bold claim that teaching skill is as important or even more important than teaching facts. Teaching students how to read and watch and listen to understand the relationships of communities over time and how they continue and change is our focus. Showing them how to connect those ideas in writing through the use of essays is a great undertaking and one that will prove useful to the students as they progress in education. Thank you for giving us such a succinct argument! I'm printing this one!

  • I hear what you are saying. In the back of my mind when I'm teaching historical thinking is the essay by Carl Becker, Everyman His Own Historian, to remind myself that while developing historical thinking is a process, it's something we all do. Everyman His Own Historian

  •  Although I don't have a lesson plan to suggest or any specific handout, I find that modeling this type of thinking helps students.  So, at appropriate times, I might "think out loud" with my students for them to hear how I use this type of thinking.  I might encourage students to do the same immediately with another example and take time to give feedback.

    Additionally, I personally believe that some HTS can germinate when student are 15 years of age, but not really come to full fruition until they have had many experiences/time to practice and use this type of thinking skill.  I just keep 'plugging away' at it by modeling as much as I can. Additionally I always positively call out when students do use inference appropriately in a lesson or in writing, and encourage students to ask "what if" questions.

    Any type of metacognition strategy seems like it could support students grappling and progressing with points 2 and 5.

  • This post is so helpful. Specifically, points 2 and 5. Owning who you are as a why you chose the argument is a challenge for 10th graders. When I asked students to decide on a claim, to state what they believe in, I get blank stares from a lot of them. I'm wondering if anyone has any ideas on how to help students with this. When I read point 5, I thought of how students don't know if there are gaps in historical knowledge -- or in their historical knowledge. With point 2, I see both of them asking students to engage with history as human beings, not just as students in a high school classroom.