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Teaching History at University: Enhancing Learning and Understanding

reviewed by David Hicks & John K. Lee - 2004

coverTitle: Teaching History at University: Enhancing Learning and Understanding
Author(s): Alan Booth
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415305373 , Pages: 202, Year: 2003
Search for book at Amazon.com

 “Secondary school history teachers are the product of their college training.  If a high school history teacher graduates ill-educated students, his history and education professors must accept part of the responsibility” (Burson, 1989, p. 60).


The whirl of influences impacting the education of teachers is highly complex and goes beyond their formal preparation in high school and college. However as history and social science teacher educators, we are often faced with preservice teachers whose image of what it means to become a history teacher reflects their experiences in high school and college. The result is that for many beginning teachers, teaching history involves little more than covering material by lecture and assessing material by multiple choice tests and the occasional paper. The establishment of the Department of Education’s Teaching American History Grants, and the recently released Benchmarks for professional development in teaching history as a discipline (2003) by the American Historical Association reflect the important role historians play in the preparation of history teachers. Booth’s timely text makes very clear that there is more to becoming a successful university and, we believe, K-12 history instructor than having good content knowledge and transmitting that knowledge to students.   Our motives, as teacher educators, for taking up this text were based upon a desire to foster collaborative discussions that focus on the scholarship of teaching and the preparation of future history teachers and historians with colleagues teaching history at our respective universities.


That we both found Booth’s book stimulating and useful constitutes a genuine recommendation in itself.  That we both felt that the text would be important reading for not just university based historians, but for teacher educators and those interested in improving the scholarship of university teaching in general constitutes a strong recommendation. 


Booth’s key assumptions in writing this book are: 1) That powerful, relevant, meaningful, active history teaching can and should be fostered at the university level by history scholars; 2) That a commitment to developing high quality student learning requires a recognition that teaching is a scholarly research based activity; and 3) That engaging in such scholarly research to improve classroom practices already mirrors the investigative and reflective processes inherent in the practices of historical research.  Layering his work within and through a developing international literature on teaching and learning history in both school and college contexts, Booth crafts a text that skillfully illustrates how theory and research can and should inform wise practices in the university history classroom.


For many readers the temptation may exist to jump directly to Chapter 6 Strategies for active learning in the history classroom in the hope of gleaning quick and easy teaching techniques.  This chapter is an excellent compendium of strategies/techniques to engage students, but Booth makes clear that the design of curriculum and learning experiences to facilitate an understanding of the desired historical knowledge and skills neither begins nor ends with the pedagogical classroom performance itself.


Keenly aware of the wide-ranging socio-cultural contexts that influence teaching and learning, Booth initially introduces and unpacks the concept of learning for understanding within the history classroom.  Detailing the research literature on student and teacher representations of understanding in history in addition to explicating the issue of progression in understanding at the undergraduate level, Booth contends that the accumulation of knowledge, while important, is not a sufficient measure of deep historical understanding.   Rather students must be provided with opportunities to pursue and apply historical knowledge as part of the sophisticated and systematic processes of historical interpretation. To this end, Booth highlights three key abilities that form the essential elements for developing historical understanding.  Teaching for historical understanding requires instructors to provide students with room to develop the abilities to: (a) critically analyze historical texts and other sources, (b) critically reflect upon one’s own perspectives toward the study of the past as well as toward the practices, concepts and assumptions running within and through the discipline and (c) imaginatively engage with individuals and events in the past while recognizing the contextual and temporal distinctiveness of the past.


The challenge to creating learning environments that cultivate students’ academic independence to foster autonomous, intellectual inquiry, and historical understanding requires a scholarly understanding of and sensitivity toward the range of variables that influence student learning. Booth clearly articulates the need for developing a scholarly reflexivity that requires an exploration of self, students, and the teaching context as a fundamental pre-requisite for fostering complex learning and developing historical understanding.      


Throughout his text, Booth is quick to recognize that is it is a mistake to assume a common understanding of what it means to teach and learn history.  Many factors including student characteristics, departmental traditions, size, expectations, collegial networks, resources and regulations will all impact how a history course or curriculum is developed and implemented.  While there is no universal template that can be applied for fostering progress in students’ historical understanding, Booth effectively illustrates that students learn best in environments that are:


relevant (aligned with students’ experiences and interests); enjoyable (recognize the importance of engaging and positive atmosphere); safe (supporting the open dialogue and trust necessary for the testing and sharing of ideas); participatory (encourage all students to be actively engaged); outcome orientated (clearly specify objectives in terms of intended learning outcomes); needs- focused (work from students’ existing knowledge and prior experiences); structured (with goals, teaching methods and assignments carefully sequenced and aligned); display interest (in students’ learning and progression to complex forms of understanding); varied (offer a variety of tasks and assignments); and have high expectations of students (p. 86).


Having laid a clear theoretical groundwork for enhancing understanding in the history classroom, Booth provides a number of powerful and relevant strategies, including debates, simulations, truth statements, case studies, counterfactuals and dyads/triads, to foster inquiry and independence in the history classroom. The inclusion of a short section on technology is both helpful and reflective of the field, yet ironically; Booth fails to clearly illustrate the potential of the World Wide Web to provide access to the types of historical sources that would engage actively students in the doing of history.


Throughout the text, Booth stresses the importance of connecting goals and outcomes to activities and assessment.  Developing a streamlined and connected curriculum is a complex task. Booth rightly situates assessment as the “most important influence on student learning” (p. 128).  His emphasis on formative assessment is very instructive as are the strategies he presents for gathering evidence of student learning, including the minute paper, discussion logs, and concept mapping.  However, while Booth clearly provides history instructors, even those teaching large lecture classes, with viable assessment options, he struggles at the last hurdle to demonstrate how to tightly weave assessment into the design process. This in part is due to the fact that assessment is relegated to the final piece of the puzzle in the curriculum design process.  In spite of stressing the vital nature of assessment the danger exists that many readers will continue to view assessment as simply a necessary evil that can be pulled together/added on at the last minute.  What is absent is a clear curriculum design framework, such as Wiggins and McTighe’s (1998) backward design process, that clearly models how instructors should begin the design process by thinking like an assessor in order to determine what forms of evidence will validate that the desired learning outcomes have occurred.  Only upon identifying the desired objectives and appropriate assessments, can instructors begin to choose relevant strategies to foster deep and enduring historical understanding.


In spite of this criticism, Alan Booth’s text is exceptional.  He has cogently argued for and modeled how to approach teaching history at the university in a scholarly manner.   His work is theoretically and empirically informed and his strategies for active and autonomous learning serve as exemplars for wise practice(s) in the teaching of history. We intend to share this book with our colleagues in the discipline of history as we continue to educate not only ourselves but also our students as they learn to become history teachers.




American Historical Association. (2003). Benchmarks for professional development in teaching history as a discipline. Retrieved June 20, 2002, from http://www.theaha.org/teaching/benchmarks.htm


Burson, G. (1989) A lack of vision: The Bradley Commission Report. The History Teacher 23(1), 59-71.


Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. New Jersey: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 8, 2004, p. 1538-1541
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11303, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 8:21:06 PM

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About the Author
  • David Hicks
    Virginia Tech University
    E-mail Author
    DAVID HICKS is an assistant professor of history and social science education at Virginia Tech.
  • John Lee
    Georgia State University
    E-mail Author
    JOHN K. LEE is an assistant professor of history and social science education at Georgia State University.
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