Why can’t undergraduate historians read and write?

Based on some of the feedback I’ve had on Twitter about this post, I want to preface it by saying that – despite the Clickbait title – this article is not a criticism of undergraduate students, nor of schools, teachers or universities. Rather, it is a criticism of some of the systemic structures that surround us in history education, and how, by improving these, we might both improve the quality of experience of students at GCSE and A-Level and ease the transition to studying history at university for those who do so. 

Last week I sat on a panel at an event organised by the Royal Historical Society and the Historical Association. The event looked at the GCSE and A-Level reforms introduced over the last few years, and asked what the implications of this were for schools and universities. It was particularly good that the event was so well attended by academics: by my estimate the majority of the audience were academic historians, and both the RHS and the HA should be applauded for bringing the worlds of school and university history together.

I sat on a panel with two historians: Margot Finn and Jamie Wood. Our session looked at whether school history prepares students for university history. It wasn’t clear who was going to give their opening thoughts first, but I had my notes all ready to go. As it happened, I went last. What I found amusing, however, was that both Margot and Jamie pretty much said exactly what I was going to say. The biggest academic challenges students face at university, they argued, were reading and writing. In terms of reading, students struggled to make the transition to reading papers in scholarly journals and monographs, particularly in terms of ‘reading for argument’. In terms of writing, students struggled to construct extended analyses in their essays. I simplify Margot’s and Jamie’s points here, and they certainly did not aim to criticise students or teachers: rather, this was a recognition of what students found hard when they came to university.

It fell to me, then, as the school-history specialist on the panel to offer a view as to why this might be the case. I am going to summarise my points here. As I pointed out at the event, the following are not intended to be universal criticisms of how history is taught in schools: there are a great many history departments across the country taking numerous steps to ensure that the transition from sixth form to university is as smooth as possible. Just in the most recent edition of Teaching History, there is a lovely example by Carolyn Massey and Paul Wiggin setting out how they got their A-Level students reading more. Rather, I argued, the problems lie in some of the structures that surround history education: the books pupils read and the nature of the exams they sit.

Why do students struggle to read?

On the panel, I argued that this was down primarily to the diet of reading that sixth formers face. “With-it” history departments will get their A-Level students (and indeed younger pupils) reading serious works of historical scholarship, but, in general, the key source of reading for students is still the textbook. Now, I have argued before that textbooks are unfairly demonised in history teaching: I do not think the idea of a textbook is intrinsically bad. As they are currently written, however, textbooks are not argumentative prose. When reading a journal article or a monograph, we, as historians, need to keep an ear open for the ‘buzzing’. We need to get a sense of what kind of contribution is being made to the debate. We need to hear the author marshalling the evidence in advancing his or her arguments. School textbooks, in contrast, tend to bury the authorial voice under the language of neutrality. We can debate the extent to which historians aim for objectivity in their writing, but one thing I think all can agree on is that historians are not neutral. It is rare indeed for a textbook to advance explicitly a line of argument, which gives the impression that the textbook provides the neutral account of the past against which different arguments can be assessed. It is unsurprising that students, when they reach university, struggle to make the transition to reading argumentative prose.

A further issue arises in terms of the source material we ask students to read at GCSE and A-Level. I remember in my third day at university being asked to read the whole of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. By my second term I was being given large chunks of Thucydides, Herodotus and Plutarch. By term three I was trawling through the various versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Attenborough’s edition of early English law codes. By my second year it was expected that I would happily crack on and read Plato’s Laws, Cicero’s On Duties and Augustine’s City of God. Compare this to the diet of GCSE and A-Level students. I would wager there are large numbers of school history students for whom reading contemporary source material means reading a paragraph of 100-200 words. There is almost no incentive at GCSE and A-Level to read longer extracts, let alone entire texts, as this is not how students are assessed in those exams. The great irony here, of course, is that one of the principal justifications for including sources in exams is to get students thinking more like historians. I asked the audience at the event how many of them do their archival research by reading three 200-word pre-selected extracts with a sentence of contextual information and then write their latest paper from this. This question was met with some mirth from the audience, humour that was more tragedy than comedy in that a generation of students has grown up on this very approach.

Why do students struggle to write?

GCSE and A-Level students write an awful lot. I suspect, however, that the vast majority of what they write is practice answers to exam-style questions. This is problematical for a few reasons. First, these are usually relatively short pieces of writing. It is I suspect relatively rare for GCSE or A-Level students to be set recommended lengths in the region of 2000-3000 words. Secondly, these answers are written for specific styles of question. It is a great shame, I think, that GCSE and A-Level exams questions are so predictable. It means we spent hours teaching students to spot different types of questions. It is a brave history teacher who sets students forms and styles of question that differ from those they will encounter in the exam. Then, finally, there is the mark scheme. Mark schemes encourage students to focus on ticking boxes. This is not to say that mark schemes are utterly limiting, but they do place a constraint on what students are expected to produce. If teacher feedback is then given against that mark scheme, then students get stuck in the mindset that there must be a set of criteria that specifically define what a ‘high quality’ answer looks like.

It is not difficult to see how this experience at GCSE and A-Level causes problems at university. At university, essays are likely to be longer and require an argument to be sustained over a long piece of writing. Although the plague of ‘question types’ is beginning to infect universities, I think most still have quite a variety of forms of question that students might encounter, and certainly more varied than what might be found at GCSE and A-Level. And, while universities do now increasingly have generic mark schemes, these tend to be far less specific and tick-boxy than what students had encountered at school. Feedback is less likely to be made against a clearly-defined set of criteria for a specific question type. As with reading, it is perhaps no wonder that students find this transition a challenge.

What can we do about it?

One answer to this problem is to make university history more like school history. More ‘neutral’ textbooks, more short source extracts, more common question types, more specific mark schemes, and so on. This is something I do hope that universities will resist. The alternative is to make what happens at GCSE and (especially) A-Level more like university. What follows are a few recommendations for how we might achieve that.

(1) Bring out the authorial voice in textbooks

In some ways, we need to over compensate for this because students are not used to reading for argument. In scholarly writing, argument is sometimes subtle. I would like to see school textbooks being far more upfront about is being argued in the text. Stylistically, it would be good to see more use of the first person pronoun, and more integration of the arguments of other historians within the text itself. Footnotes are an excellent way of making clear what source base and historiography a textbook author is drawing on.

(2) Require the study of lengthy sources and interpretations 

I shall write more on this soon, but I am increasingly convinced we have to move away, once and for all, from the last vestiges of “death by Sources A-F”. We would prepare our students better – which means we would make them better historians – if instead GCSE and A-Level specifications were to provide set texts for students to read, and on which they will be asked questions in the exams. If nothing else, students will get far more out of reading three or four of Churchill’s or Cromwell’s speeches in Parliament in their entirety. We generally expect students to have read whole books and plays in English Literature: it is not unreasonable to expect something similar in history.

(3) Make exam questions less predictable

I know this is an unpopular idea with teachers: we are control freaks and we like to have certainty about what sorts of questions will come up and how many marks these will be worth. As I have argued here, however, I would suggest highly-predictable questions do not prepare students well for university. And, for the majority who do not go on to study history at university, I am not convinced that spending hours working out the intricacies of a ‘b’ question or ‘a narrative question’ is a particularly good experience of school history.

(4)  Focus Year 12 on writing at length

I do not think the issue of writing at length can easily be resolved by changing the nature of exams. I do, however, think that the shift to terminal exams at A-Level has opened up an opportunity that has not existed since Curriculum 2000. Year 12s have now got time to  learn to write at length. In my last school, I saw my class for five hours a week (I was the sole teacher on the medieval history course) and, each week, I set an essay. Although some of these were exam-style, I did set – around every other week – a broader essay not in exam style. Over the course of an academic year, this tactic results in students writing around 40 essays. Quantity does not imply quality, but, particularly in terms of what we know about practice, quantity does matter.

So, there we have it. Four suggestions for how we might resolve the issue of undergraduates not being able to read and write. Do add further ideas in the comments.

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5 Comments on Why can’t undergraduate historians read and write?

  1. Tom Burkard // 9 April 2018 at 00:35 // Reply

    Wherever you studied History, it was far more demanding than the Early and Late Modern English History course I studied at UEA just before modularisation struck in 1993, but anything more exacting would have overwhelmed most of my fellow students. Even though I was in my late 40s, had previously done a lot of undergraduate work at Michigan in my younger days and read voraciously since, I would have struggled too.

    I think your ambitions are unrealistic, even for Russell and Oxbridge. I recently read an account where lecturers were bemoaning that their students started playing with their smartphones whenever the subject bored them. That, along with what we now know about cognitive load, suggests that undergraduate work really must entail a substantial amount of direct instruction. My course at UEA did, and it was truly inspiring. One of my essays on Milton bemoaned the fact that my English Lit lecturers at Michigan expected us to deconstruct Paradise Lost with zero understanding of either the classics or the Reformation. Experts really need to understand that novices can’t think like they do.

    • So agree, Tom Burkard. My history degree did not much resemble that discussed either. There was a lot of direct teaching and close work in tutorials though. Much more useful to my understanding was the masters I did by research where I had one to one input on what I wrote and what I read. That sort of teaching is not on offer either for A level or most undergraduates. However, I do think the bittyness of some text books could be addressed and also the superficial nature of some GCSE textbooks. Perhaps an idea to get away from the tendency to over emphasize the twentieth century over the claims of earlier times. My daughter turned down a place at the local prestigious sixth form because it meant studying the world wars yet again – she preferred to stay in her school sixth form and study nineteenth century European political history, which turned to be very useful for the later study of constitutional law.

      • Tom Burkard // 9 April 2018 at 09:30 //

        Not having seen GCSE textbooks, I can’t really comment on them, but I do recall having seen a Letts Study Guide about 15 years ago, and under the guise of asking pupils to study an original source, it was nothing more than straight-forward post-modern bilge about oppression. However, the emphasis on the world wars is depressing. Considering the remarkable changes that brought about the modern age, one would think that it would be far more interesting to find out why they happened, and why the West outstripped Asian and Muslim cultures which had far outstripped in science and technology until the Renaissance.

    • I sympathise with the point, but I think the way we handle reading and writing in school history actually makes it *harder* by making it less explicit. Take sources. If we want pupils to be able to make sense of the sources they are given, then giving them less information actually makes it harder because it requires them to infer more about the text. By explicitly studying the text in advance, it means pupils will have been taught directly what kinds of analysis are sensible for that particular text. The same with textbooks. Generally we ask pupils to write argumentative essays, but we rarely have good models to follow for explicit teaching. So, to rip off Didau, I’m talking here about making the implicit explicit.

      • Tom Burkard // 9 April 2018 at 09:43 //

        I’m of two minds about writing argumentative essays and using texts written by practising Historians. I’ll admit I certainly enjoyed writing argumentative essays–my favourite effort was a hatchet job on Milton, whose only paid employment was acting as a censor for the Commonwealth. I contrasted him with Lilburne, a man after mine own heart. But then I was a grownup with fully developed prejudices, and I’d hate to think that young history students wouldn’t get a more balanced and nuanced view of Milton. However, I can see that your GCSE text with a balanced view could get a bit boring. If I taught history, I expect I’d introduce pupils to contrasting interpretations once they knew enough about a subject to make for interesting debates in class. That’s pretty much what happened in our seminars at UEA, and it’s one of the reasons why I found it so stimulating.

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