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Assessing Historical Thinking

Posted by Scott Pollock
17 September 2015 - 8:01am

Late this summer, as I began to prepare for another year of teaching grades 10, 11 and 12 history, I sat down and set many goals for myself. One of them was to do a better job of assessing my students’ historical thinking skills.  I am not sure when, where or why I became interested in assessment.  I do know that when I attended teacher’s college assessment was rarely discussed and when I first started teaching it was usually the last thing I thought about (not surprising it was also something I did a very poor job of).

There are, of course, many reasons why assessment does not figure highly in the mind of a new teacher, who is struggling with (seemingly) more pressing issues such as classroom management and what to teach next period.  I suspect, however, that one of the reasons I paid so little attention to assessment early in my career is that I simply did not understand what assessment was.

This was likely because assessment can occur for many reasons, can take many forms, and can serve many purposes. So for example, an assessment can:

  • Focus on factual knowledge or thinking
  • Track individual development or attempt to rank students
  • Provide rich data or data that is easy to score

I first began to think seriously about assessment when I read Knowing What Students Know: The Science and Design of Educational Assessment (2001).  While this book discusses many, many aspects of assessment, at its core is the idea that “every assessment, regardless of its purpose, rests on three pillars: a model of how students represent knowledge and develop competence in the subject domain, tasks or situations that allow one to observe students’ performance, and an interpretation method for drawing inferences from the performance evidence thus obtained” (p. 53).

When I first read this passage I quickly realized that many of my assessments were not supported by all of these pillars. I thus began to try to find new ways to observe student performances, new methods for interpreting them, and new models for tracking my students’ development. A great leap forward in this quest came when I ran across the idea of historical thinking, which provides models of student development (see for example Seixas and Morton, 2013).  Experimentation with alternative methods of assessment has also allowed me to make many other steps forward. One aspect of assessment with which I still struggle however, is tracking, making meaning of, and using assessment data to further student development. 


Reflecting on this issue this past summer I made it a goal to develop and use a historical thinking tracking sheet (in the end I constructed a form that has a list of look-fors for each aspect of historical thinking and a small space for anecdotal comments).  My goal is to use the form to record observations and to also take a few minutes after each major assessment (e.g., a culminating project or unit test) to add to each student’s individual form.  If I can stick with this plan I should have a rich set of observations on which to base my assessment of student’s performances and to guide the development of subsequent lessons. I do wonder, however, if there is not a better, simpler, or more efficient way to do this.  So, what methods have you used for tracking assessment data?  What pros and cons have you found with them? Is anyone else experimenting with the assessment of historical thinking this year? If yes, what are you trying?


Pellegrino, J.W., Glaser, R., Baker, E.L , Baxter, G.P., Black, P.J., Dede, C.L., Ercikan, K., Gomez, L.M., Hunt, E.B., Klahr, D., Lehrer, R., Mislevy, R.J., Pearson, R., Silber, E.A., Thompson, R.F., Wagner, R.K., & Wilson, M.R. (2001). Knowing what students know: the science and design of educational assessment. Washington: National Academy Press.

Seixas, P., & Morton, T. (2013). The big six: historical thinking concepts. Toronto: Nelson.