Journal of American History

Starting Places: Studying How Students Understand History

Scott E. Casper

Contributing Editor, Textbooks and Teaching

Who are our students, and what and how do they think about history? Every teacher surely has his or her own answer, grounded in the institution and the place where she or he teaches. For the most part, our answers are probably impressionistic. Our sense of our students grows out of their insights in class, their writing, and our conversations with them and with our colleagues. It comes, too, from the statistics that our institutions generate and disseminate about the student body or entering freshman class. Perhaps it springs as well from the seemingly ubiquitous national studies and surveys of what college students know (or do not know), or the annual reports about the world according to eighteen-year-old college freshmen (as if we all taught at colleges and universities where most freshmen were matriculating straight from high school).[1]

In the 2006 “Textbooks and Teaching” section of the Journal of American History, the contributing editors Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser highlighted recent work in the scholarship of teaching and learning, the self-conscious study of classroom practice.[2] Analyzing what we do as teachers and why we do it might usefully begin with understanding what our students bring to the history classroom. What do our students imagine when they consider the American past, or the study of history more broadly? And how might we answer those questions as historians, applying to teaching the same sorts of analysis that we bring to our historical scholarship?

The section that follows offers three attempts to address those challenges. Each of the essays draws upon a more rigorous examination than is provided by general impressions, institutional data, or pop-culture reference points. Each asks a specific set of questions about students’ historical understanding. And each uses a different tool to study a particular “focus group”: a survey of four thousand high school students and adults; a questionnaire to a single U.S. history survey class; and a study of students and faculty within one large history department.

Sam Wineburg and Chauncey Monte-Sano’s nationwide study of high school juniors and seniors asked a deceptively simple question: Who are “the most famous Americans in history,” excluding U.S. presidents and their wives? Readers may find the results familiar or surprising, depending on the encounters they have had with their own students or with K–12 educators and classrooms. Wineburg and Monte-Sano draw provocative conclusions from the evidence. A new “black and white” American historical mythology may have superseded an earlier version of the past, while not necessarily deepening students’ understanding of the complexity of that past. David M. Wrobel conducted a more targeted study, asking the students in his survey course to consider the meaning of “region” in American history and in their own lives. Their answers, which Wrobel offers in part as a complement to Wineburg and Monte-Sano’s findings, encouraged him to reconsider the way he teaches the survey. As part of the History Learning Project at Indiana University, Arlene Díaz, Joan Middendorf, David Pace, and Leah Shopkow examined students’ historical thinking skills and preconceptions about historical study.[3] They also interviewed history department colleagues to ascertain those historians’ conceptions of the bottlenecks to student learning. The resulting enhanced sense of the conjunctions and disjunctions between students’ and teachers’ perceptions has borne fruit, in new assignments within individual classrooms and a broader rethinking of the Indiana University history curriculum.

Taken together, these three studies begin to suggest where our students begin their college-level exposure to history. More significantly, each essay offers fellow practitioners a model for learning about their own students—and for using the findings to reimagine courses and curricula.

[1] Scott E. Casper is professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Readers may contact Casper at casper at unr dot edu.

One of the best-known examples of those annual reports is the Beloit College Mindset List, which is “a look at the cultural touchstones that have shaped the lives of today’s first year students.” It reports that the class of 2011 (born in 1989) has never known a world without Humvees, bottled water, or virtual reality. The first item on the list: “What Berlin wall?” The Beloit College Mindset List,

[2] Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser, “Beyond Best Practices: Taking Seriously the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,” Journal of American History, 92 (March 2006), 1356–57.

[3] The International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History is a new organization open to all historians interested in research in the pedagogy of our field. For the organization’s Web site and newsletter, see

This article is reprinted from The Journal of American History 94 (March 2008), 1184–85

© Copyright Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved.


How Students Understand History


Scott Casper

Pantheon of American Heros

Wineburg and Monte-Sano

“History Learning Projects”

Díaz, Middendorf, Pace, and Shopko