Newsletter – Spring 2011

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This international newsletter aims to promote scholarly approaches to history teaching and learning in higher education. Contributions that report any matters in this field are welcome.  Direct inquiries and submissions to the editor.  Not a member of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History? Join the society to be placed on the mailing list.

The newsletter is sponsored by the History Department at Indiana University and is the official newsletter of History SoTL: The International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History.

Special thanks to the contributors: David Ludvigsson, Svetlana Suveica, and Geoff Timmins.


Report on The Uppsala Conference on History Teaching and Learning in Higher Education

ISSOTL 2010 Summaries

Teaching History in Moldova: Challenges and Outcomes of a SoTL Experience

Every Student Counts: Some International Perspectives

Report from the Australian Learning and Teaching Council on “Historical Thinking in Higher Education”


The Uppsala Conference on History Teaching and Learning in Higher Education

The Uppsala Conference on History Teaching and Learning in Higher Education was held at Uppsala University, Sweden, on 11 June 2010. Around twenty-five Swedish historians participated in the conference, with Alan Booth and David Pace adding international perspectives. Paper presentations dealt with various aspects of the field, such as the case method, research-based teaching, fieldwork, and developing skills in history education. An edited volume will appear shortly that includes revised versions of the papers presented.

The Uppsala conference was the first Swedish conference devoted solely to history teaching and learning in higher education. However, it will be followed in 2011 by a session at the Meeting of Swedish Historians, and plans are that more conferences will follow in the future. Currently, some eight or ten individuals form the core group, some of whom have also visited the annual history conference at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford.

On a principal level, scholarly interest in history teaching and learning is wide-spread partly because excellence in teaching is a major factor when individuals are selected for appointments as senior lecturer at Swedish universities. All universities have units training new university teachers, and a regular part of these compulsory courses in university pedagogics is that everyone must complete a mini-study. Thus, many young Swedish historians have performed at least one small study that deal with history teaching and learning. Further, during the last ten years both local and national multi-disciplinary conferences such as NU2010 have been held dealing with the scholarship of teaching and learning. Several historians have participated in these conferences.

david [dot] ludvigsson [at] hist [dot] uu [dot] se“>David Ludvigsson, Uppsala University



ISSOTL 2010 Summaries

Several papers relating to learning and teaching in history were presented at the ISSOLT conference held at Liverpool, UK in October, 2010. Summaries of them are given below.

“Embracing Failure and Learning From Mistakes”
Sean Brawley (University of New South Wales, Australia), Sarah Richardson (University of Warwick, UK), Alan Booth (University of Nottingham, UK), David Pace (Indiana University, USA), Geoff Timmins (University of Central Lancashire, UK), and Paul Hyland (Bath Spa University, UK)
A workshop built on the premise that while SoTL educators have successes and failures, we tend to publicize only the former.  This workshop acknowledged that learning from failure can help all avoid past mistakes.

“Les bieres sont bon”
Mike Gosgrave (University College, Cork, Ireland)
A study of how national or cultural differences affect approaches to pedagogy, this paper looks at some initial work in History which investigates the exposure of internationally mobile students to varieties of teaching. Students visiting at and from UCC were studied using a range of methods to discover how History is taught differently in different countries and to what extent students are aware of these differences.

“Thinking comparatively in the Moldovan history classroom”
Svetlana Suveica (Moldova State University, Russia)
Comparative thinking skills are indispensable for historical thinking to occur. The paper reveals the expectations and outcomes of a classroom experience aimed at developing students’ comparative thinking skills. The exercise was marked by the legacies of the Soviet education system and impacted by the ‘hidden curriculum’ that brought the voice of the so-called ‘Twitter revolution’ (6-7 April 2010) into the classroom. That increased students’ motivation to learn and shifted their rhetoric forward to a more complex one.

“Decoding student motivation in history: the double loops of accountability and assessment”
Leah Shopkow, Joan Middendorf, Arlene J. Diaz, David Pace (Indiana University, USA)
Motivation and accountability are inextricably connected for both teachers and students. Students need accountability to foster motivation and teachers need to organise their classes to enhance student self-efficacy and motivation, while holding students accountable for their own learning. Three papers from the History Learning Project present data resulting from experiments in enhancing student motivation, accountability and learning in the disciplinary context of history.

“SoTL’s communities of practice and signature pedagogies: a framework for the humanities”
Jan Parker (Open University, UK), Nancy Chick (University of Wisconsin, USA)
This international dialogue explores disciplinary- and domain-specific “signature pedagogies” and their relationship to signature SoTL methods. It draws together three models linking teaching and learning with discipline- and domain-specific processes: Writing in the Disciplines, Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge, and Signature Pedagogies, all relevant to how SoTL is conceived and produced. We will conclude by considering how these disciplinary ways of knowing, of creating and presenting knowledge, inform a signature SoTL for the Humanities.

“Disciplinary variations on a theme: a conversation about methods, theories and findings”
Sherry Linkon (Youngstown State University, USA), Dan Bernstein, Srah Bunnell (University of Kansas, USA), Stephen Bloch-Schulman (Elon University, USA)
Scholarship of teaching and learning engages scholars from a variety of fields and incorporates diverse methods and theories. Scholars bring to their SoTL work questions and approaches reflecting the culture of their home disciplines. This workshop will examine strategies from the social sciences and humanities. Participants will apply these models to evidence of student learning. The session will conclude with discussion of how SoTL scholars might benefit from learning to see through multiple disciplinary lenses.

“Decoding emotional resistance: challenging student perceptions in the History classroom”
Joan Middledorf and Nicole McGrath (Indiana University, USA)
The Decoding the Disciplines approach is used to explore student emotional bottlenecks in learning. From math anxiety to students unable to deal with highly-charged topics, there seem to be affective blocks in every discipline which hinder student learning. This session describes the results of experimental lessons designed to overcome emotional resistance, and the two frameworks that informed this study, Chi’s framework for overcoming student misconceptions (Chi, 2008) and Barton’s (2008) work of narrative simplification.

“Getting on message: developing feedback practices in History and Politics”
Alasdair Blair and Samantha McGinty (De Montfort University, UK), Steven Curtis (London Metropolitan university, UK), Sarah Richardson (University of Warwick, UK)
The National Student Survey continues to highlight student dissatisfaction with assessment and feedback practices. This project draws on the research of the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme project It’s Good To Talk: Feedback, Dialogue and Listening. The paper argues that there is a transmission gap in existing approaches to student feedback where there is an over-reliance on written feedback at the expense of dialogue.



Teaching History in Moldova: Challenges and Outcomes of a SoTL Experience

In the former Moldovan Soviet republic the history teacher was responsible for the education of homo sovieticus, and neither the teacher’s authority, nor his statements were supposed to be questioned in any way. Undoubtedly, the curriculum encouraged learning but it did not carry much creativity and individuality. There was a huge teacher-student gap: little communication, thus little trust and little cooperation. Today the history classroom reflects both the historiography debates and the social incertitude. At school many teachers, facing continuous ministry orders, try to adjust syllabi to new textbooks, some of them written overnight in order to fit the official discourse. At the university the history taught in the classroom is often taken as “the official history”; in many cases it is a one-sided narrative. The historiography debates on many controversial topics are far from being over, and these directly affect the quality of history education.

Several solutions have been identified: shifting from “what” to teach toward “how” to teach in order to offer a balanced multiperspective approach to thorny subjects; shifting the accent from teaching to learning; shifting the efforts from knowledge-type toward skills-type of learning. Despite visible changes during the last two decades, still a lot is to be done in this sense.

I was looking for a mechanism that can facilitate the above mentioned “shifting”-s when I learned about SoTL. It was a brand new idea for Eastern Europe, as well as for the ex-Soviet space when five years ago the Curriculum Resource Center in Budapest proposed such a program for our region. During the academic year of 2008/2009 I have researched how students think comparatively in the history classroom within the course “The anti-communist resistance in Romania and Moldovan SSR, 1944-1989”. Right from the beginning, the peer discussions turned into a dispute over the course subject and the historiography, instead of debating the aim and the outcomes of the project. This convinced me once again that shifting from “what” to teach toward “how” to teach and, subsequently, how to learn will be a very difficult task.

The analysis of the evidence of comparison was based on various data  (first-day and last-day questionnaires, one-minute papers, in-class observations and two classroom discussions based on preliminary group-work). What worked? Many strategies: clear instructions for in-class and homework assignments; explanation of comparative vocabulary; plurality of primary and secondary sources offered; lecture as constant example of comparison; exercising to take notes with the specific comparative purpose; encouragement of group work and classroom discussions; and last, but not least, students learned that “repeticio est mater studiorum.” Still, they tended to formulate conclusions based on a single source, and the descriptive method and consecutive description of cases prevailed.

The classroom observations were made during the spring semester of 2009. The spring of 2009 will remain in Moldovan history as a harsh political and social period, marked by the electoral campaign, the April 5 elections and, more important, the post-election events, called in foreign media “the Twitter revolution.” The events were a “teaching moment”, as these broke the course in two parts: the second part proved to be more difficult, but more vivid at the same time, as the classroom mirrored the frictions and tensions of the society.

The SoTL experience let toward important conclusions about the factors that shape students’ values and attitudes. The outside events was a “wake-up call”: students gained a harsh but enriching personal experience that led toward rethinking the content of learning, the use of knowledge and the value of the acquired skills, discovering the role of the adequate educational environment in which past and present can be linked, and reflecting about the impact of personal civic engagement for the society. In some cases, the emotional side prevailed over the attempt to “think like a historian.” That had not surprised us, because manifesting a civic attitude was an act of courage that deeply marked the students.

The students pointed out at two important things: one is that learning about the anti-communist resistance in a comparative perspective, by geographically enlarging the area of comparison toward the other Soviet Republics and East European countries, can lead toward enriching conclusions. There was recognition of insufficiency in researching two cases, and exploring in a comparative perspective was considered crucial: comparing how other societies live with resistance, how remembrance evolved and what forms it took in other countries was an illuminating idea. The student understood that the historian’s task is also contributing toward the development of social remembrance. The value of knowledge and skills gained during the course became obvious when it was linked with the present and the future. The course served as a starting point for engaging in exploration of the ways these can be used together with certain civic attributes, such as remembrance, civic engagement, and solidarity.

All of that was possible to explore within SoTL. That is what SoTL is all about: it is about making students value knowledge and skills gained in the classroom and make sense of the past in order to enjoy the present and bravely face the future.

ssuveica [at] yahoo [dot] com“>Svetlana Suveica,
Moldova State University
Chisinau, Republic of Moldova



Every Student Counts: Some International Perspectives

Every Student Counts is National Teaching Fellowship research project that was based at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK. Completed in 2010, it deals with teaching numerical skills in various academic disciplines at undergraduate level. The strand dealing with numeracy in undergraduate history courses focuses on the UK, but also has an international dimension. This short report highlights some of the key findings arising from the international responses that the project team received.


Number and location of responses:
Around 500 individuals in overseas history departments in various parts of the world were contacted.  Responses were obtained from 91 individuals in 73 of these departments, the geographical distribution of which is shown below.  Just over half came from North America and a further 16% from Australasia. Response rates were influenced by the number of institutions available to survey and the ease with which contact could be made.





The extent of provision:
Only 26 (just over a third) of the responding institutions offered history programmes that actually aimed to develop undergraduates’ numerical skills, though nine (12 per cent) of those which did not have this aim reported that some tutors incorporated numerical elements into their teaching. Marked geographical variation occurred, however. Affirmative European responses exceeded two-thirds (and were in line with UK responses to the question), whereas those for North America were fewer than one in five.

Other findings:
These are based on the responses reached from history departments that did aim to teach numeracy.
• The most popular method of numeracy teaching used by the affirmative respondents was as part of a broader course/module dealing with historical skills. This occurred in 60 per cent of cases. In the UK, respondents placed greater reliance on numeracy elements being diffused across a range of modules.
• An overwhelming majority of the respondents (78 per cent; N = 27) stated that the development of numerical skills within their history course/programme is managed by committed individuals. This compares with a figure of 47 per cent for the UK.
• Only 34 per cent claimed to develop numerical skills in a progressive way through their undergraduate history programmes. The figure for Western Europe (excluding the UK) was 29 per cent and Australasia 25 per cent. The indications are that, as a rule, only a relatively small proportion of history departments are concerned to develop undergraduate skills in a progressive way.
• Just over half the programmes included numeracy as a compulsory element at level 1. Compulsion declined at each level thereafter and was absent at level 4. At each level, few programmes reported the provision of both compulsory and optional numeracy inputs.
• Only 31% of respondents (N = 32) indicated the use of assessment strategies for measuring the attainment of undergraduates’ numerical skills, with the figure being as low as 8 per cent in North America.
• Only in a minority of cases was it reported that students were required to use computer applications, especially statistical packages and spreadsheets. The use of databases was not only reported as being used more commonly than spreadsheets and statistical packages but was also the most likely to be compulsory.
• Of the 91 individuals who responded to the survey, 68% were of the view that their course/programme should do more to improve students’ numerical skills.

Whilst the limited size of the sample means that the findings must be viewed with caution, the indications are that, as in the UK, numeracy does not feature very strongly as an element in undergraduate history programmes, much being left to individuals. Aside from the absence of interest and expertise amongst history tutors, other reasons suggested for little or no presence of numeracy teaching in undergraduate history courses centre on the lack of need to teach numeracy to history students; resistance from history students to numeracy teaching; leaving numeracy teaching to non-historians; and dealing with more pressing matters, not least the inadequacies of students’ literacy. Yet the implications these views have both for developing students’ historical skills and their employability are of concern and should certainly be given further consideration.

R [dot] Lloyd-Jones [at] shu [dot] ac [dot] uk“>Roger Lloyd-Jones (Sheffield Hallam University, UK)
D [dot] Nicholls [at] mmu [dot] ac [dot] uk“>Dave Nicholls (Manchester Metropolitan University, UK)
jgtimmins [at] uclan [dot] ac [dot] uk“>Geoff Timmins (University of Central Lancashire, UK)



Report from the Australian Learning and Teaching Council on “Historical Thinking in Higher Education”

Our research team was interested in the nature of historical thinking in higher education. In particular we wanted to look for differences and similarities in student and staff perceptions of historical thinking to see how these might impact on teaching and learning within the undergraduate degree cycle.

Twelve Australian universities participated in the study with 1455 first and later year history undergraduates completing a questionnaire. This three part questionnaire asked students: firstly, what they thought historical thinking was; secondly, to rank a list of activities according to how useful each was for the development of their own historical thinking; and thirdly, what they thought the social benefits of historical thinking might be. To gain a broad view of staff perceptions, we interviewed close to fifty lecturers. The interviews were semi-structured and covered similar ground to the student questionnaire. In addition staff talked about their personal epistemological and pedagogical beliefs, and their teaching and learning background.

In our study we found that student and staff views can often be divergent. Students tended to privilege secondary sources while staff privileged primary sources. Most students appeared to understand the contested nature of history, yet they concurrently held an uncomplicatedly optimistic view about the benefits that historical thinking can bring to the world. In addition it became evident that students did not necessarily see themselves as historians. This study showed that students—in placing themselves outside of narratives of change—may not see themselves as possessing skills and abilities that others value.

Using a more complex framework, the staff agreed with the students about the benefits of historical thinking. Students of history gain a wide range of skills that serve them well, on a personal level, academically in other disciplines and beyond graduation in wider society.

Staff tended to focus on student engagement and scholarly rigor. Some despaired at decreasing standards in literacy skills while others expressed concerns about students who imagined a history degree to be formula driven. Teaching this latter group to accept the complexity of history and its ongoing dialogue was seen as a priority by lecturers.

Lecturers grounded their beliefs about teaching the sites of transformative learning within their own life experience. These were often the story of their own research based work, their introduction to history theory and, in particular, their supervisory experience as a postgraduate. It was at these times they came to understand historical practice, appreciate its contested nature and contextualize themselves as historians.

In our study, student agency is seen as a key factor in student development in history education. For transformative learning to occur, there needs to be a willingness to engage in historical thinking, to unpack the evidence and the literature, and to deconstruct their own thinking and the work they produce. Students need to feel inspired and feel compelled to complicate all aspects of historical study. This view adds to research undertaken in the disciplinary research (Anderson and Day 2005, Seixas 2008, Wineburg 2008 and Pace, 2004) and the sector wide work of Barnett (2009) on knowledge making, for example.

The findings of this scoping study led us to put forward a series of recommendations for further research which will identify approaches that promote and enhance student agency and self efficacy while concurrently ensuring high qualities of scholarship. They include articulating assessment standards that reflect discipline priorities and developmental differences between introductory and upper level students, working with primary sources, working with new media, and encouraging academic staff to take opportunities to make more explicit to their students and peers how their course experiences contributes to their development as historians We also recommend that there is a need for disseminating innovations in the discipline-based development of academic literacy and effective examples of assessment in the form of accessible disciplinary databases.

The full report of the study is available here.

adelenye [at] tpg [dot] com [dot] au“>Adele Nye
Macquarie University



  1. My experience with undergraduates at North Carolina State University mirrors the findings of the Australian study on historical thinking. If students are not invited (compelled?) to function as apprentice historians, they cannot possibly gain sophistication in historical thinking. We must move them out of their comfort zone as passive consumers of history produced by others to the role of producers of history. We do this by forcing serious engagement with primary sources and the act of critical evaluation and analysis of evidence. For an elaboration, see “Our approach” on my home page

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