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Miller, Grant R. “Engaging Diverse Learners in Historical Thinking.” Ph.D. Diss., Boston College Lynch School of Education, 2007.


The overriding question guiding this research is: what happens when students engage in doing history utilizing the principles of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL)? The UDL offers a framework teachers in the United States can use to address the requirements of IDEA 1997 and 2004 amendments, providing students with special needs access to the general curriculum.

This study focuses on tenth grade student learning in accordance with the three heuristics that Wineburg (1991) identified historians as using: sourcing, contextualization, and corroboration. Working with a team of computer designers, the computer program Think Like a Historian was created to support the three principles of UDL (recognition, strategic, and engagement networks) and to facilitate historical thinking in students. The computer program and ‘intervention units’ developed around it provided students with a wealth of sometimes conflicting primary sources and a guiding research question such as “Who started the Battle of Lexington?” The research design included three stages of data collection: 1) pre-intervention data collection, 2) data collected while developing and team-teaching the intervention units; and 3) post-intervention data collection. Over the course of one semester 23 tenth-grade students from Lawton High School, a suburban school in a Massachusetts public school district, participated in three ‘Doing History’ intervention units.

This study explored the effect that UDL supports embedded in a digital learning environment had on tenth-grade students’ historical thinking. Major findings included: 1) performance scores and tallies of supports showed a positive relationship between the use of embedded UDL supports and student ability (i.e. to evaluate and corroborate sources); 2) performance scores indicated a drop between the first and second intervention unites; 3) interviews and survey data showed how intervention unites prompted a limited epistemological shift in students’ understandings about history and what historians do; and 4) interviews and surveys illustrated how Think Like a Historian was an engaging approach to history instruction for a majority of these students. Findings also indicated that this approach to learning history was engaging for students with and without learning disabilities. Students seemed to favor this approach to traditional textbook or lecture-based learning because using Think Like a Historian allowed them to construct their own knowledge.

This study includes a discussion of: relevant literature concerning history as something you do rather than something you know; Doing History with K-12 students; and findings resulting from the implementation of Doing History in a specific grade 10 History classroom.

Additional research is required to explore the effects of the supports embedded in Think Like a Historian. Findings indicate that there was a positive relationship between the number of times students clicked on these supports and their final performance, yet the nature of this relationship requires further study. Future studies with larger and more diverse samples should explore ways to encourage struggling students to take advantage of the supports provided and what scaffolds can facilitate students’ evaluation of non-written sources. Also, literature needs to be developed to include ideas for how to expand the process of historical thinking to include inquiry (i.e. scaffold students’ selection of topics, questions, and relevant sources) and ways to support this process for diverse learners.

Mary Chaktsiris