• Designing history lessons: a four-point guide to improve students’ learning of historical concepts

    Designing history lessons: a four-point guide to improve students’ learning of historical concepts

    Posted by Wouter Smets on 2024-05-23

My article, published in History Education Research Journal, draws on theory from cognitive developmental psychology and presents four design principles to reinforce substantive historical concepts in history teaching and to foster historical thinking in history students. Teaching of concepts is traditionally regarded as one of the elementary goals of the humanities and social sciences. Substantive historical concepts are an essential part of the history curriculum. A richly developed apparatus of substantive historical concepts that is easily accessible to the working memory is a cornerstone for the development of historical thinking and reasoning. Yet often substantive concepts are used only once when a particular topic is addressed in the classroom. For instance, to deeply grasp the concept of what is a monarch, a student must a learn differences between diverse types of monarchs such as kings, pharaohs, khalifs or emperors. If such concepts are not systematically integrated in a curriculum, but only addressed once without discussing similarities or differences between them, it may be expected that students’ retention of this substantive content knowledge is relatively small. Research has shown that content needs to be addressed multiple times before it is effectively stored in long term memory. Hence, as discussed in my article, it is important that history teachers take into account the key principles of cognitive science while designing history lessons and history curriculum. In contrast to the use of meta-historical concepts, this aspect of historical thinking has received relatively little attention from history education scholars in recent years.

In order to foster authoritative judgement research evidence is synthesized. Didactic principles for teaching substantive historical concepts were formulated based on insights from cognitive developmental psychology. By aligning the learning of historical concepts with insights about how the brain works, we can ensure that they are learned more effectively. Four design principles were described:

  • Making relevant prior knowledge available is a learning strategy that avoids cognitive overload when learning abstract historical concepts. This can be done, for example, by asking questions or by using advance organizers. Advance organizers can be used to activate relevant prior knowledge of students or to focus their attention on difficult concepts. By rehearsing previously acquired concepts, students do not have to use capacity of their working memory for this. Asking questions is another especially useful strategy as a learning activity when it concerns thinking questions to which students can find an answer themselves.
  • Explain abstract concepts with concrete or visual examples. Learning substantive historical concepts requires continuous consideration of the necessary degree of abstraction of the concepts to be learned. Factual knowledge and conceptual knowledge of historical concepts are both indispensable for historical thinking. Visualization of abstract concepts may add to understanding of abstract concepts.
  • Build conceptual schemas in long-term memory. A crucial task for history teachers is to think through which connections between historical concepts are the most relevant, and how these mutual connections are interpreted. To durably learn historical concepts, they must be stored in long term memory as mental schemas. Concept maps can be used to clarify the relationship between concepts. This ensures that retention of concepts and connections between them improves.
  • Make long-term memory concepts easily accessible. Rehearsing or reusing substantive historical concepts, helps to permanently store knowledge of these concepts in memory. By regularly activating prior knowledge it will be easier for the working memory to access prior knowledge. By analyzing concepts over time or across places, students gain a deeper and more long-lasting insight in history.

These principles stimulate insight in, and long-term memory of substantive historical concepts.

Four design principles for student learning of substantive historical concepts – a realistic review study by Wouter Smets (Erasmus University, The Netherlands) is published in History Education Research Journal, volume 21

Wouter Smets is an assistant professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam [The Netherlands] and a teacher educator at Karel de Grote University college in Antwerp [Belgium]. His research and teaching focus on the instructional design of history and social sciences teaching. He has a particular interest in teachers’ professional decisions to use cognitive and cultural aspects of diversity and heterogeneity among students.

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