Which Tasks Improve Historical Reasoning?

Scholars do not know the influence of specific task structures on students’ writing or historical reasoning. Historical reasoning is defined as analyzing evidence, understanding the meaning of evidence, and using evidence to construct and explain historically plausible accounts of the past (p. 291).

Do all argumentative writing tasks provide students with the same opportunity to develop their historical thinking or writing? Are some ways of framing questions to promote historical thinking and writing better than others? Can the structure of a writing prompt influence student outcomes? This study suggests YES. The type of task explained 31% of the variance in the quality of students’ overall historical reasoning.

Much of the research on history writing has focused on how students draw on multiple sources in constructing essays. Some attention has been given to comparing argumentative writing in comparison with other genres such as narratives, summaries, and explanations. Almost zero research has been done on what we ask students to write and how that affects their thinking and writing.

In developing arguments, writing is often complicated by patterns of thinking and working with evidence. The use of evidence indicates aspects of disciplinary reasoning, including recognizing biases in sources, comparing evidence, situating evidence in its context, and taking into account different perspectives and multiple causes. Historical interpretations rely on the public display of evidence to substantiate claims – a claim cannot stand without evidence.

In defining approaches to historical texts, Sam Wineburg identified discipline-specific ways of reading and thinking. For historians, primary documents are regarded as excerpts of social interactions. They have to be reconstructed with context added to make the documents meaningful.

Providing writing prompts that require close reading and consideration of the author’s perspective supports historical thinking and greater understanding. So, perhaps the structure and focus of the writing prompt affects the quality of students’ historical reasoning? These researchers sought to find out how.

The authors created four reading and writing tasks using the same documents and randomly assigned one task to each student. Each task presented the same background information adapted from the social studies textbook. They worded each prompt differently to frame the issue of Cold War causes from a variety of historical angles. The situated prompt encouraged students to imagine they heard these speeches and write as though they were living in 1947. The sourcing prompt encouraged students to focus on the motivations of each author in making their respective speeches. The document analysis prompt encouraged students to identify similarities and differences in the documents. The causal prompt asked students why Churchill and Truman spoke out against the Soviet Union and communism directly. At the end of each prompt, the researchers asked students to write “M.E.A.L.” (main idea, evidence, analysis, and link to thesis) paragraphs.

The sourcing, document analysis, and causal prompts were associated with higher student scores. The situated prompt had the lowest mean score of all the tasks. Results indicated that the writing prompts centered on sourcing, corroboration of documents, and causation were more likely to focus attention on historical perspectives than prompts that asked students to imagine themselves as historical figures. Because so much of history relies on evidence-based thinking, prompts that focus students directly on sources may be more likely to promote historical reasoning.

Unfortunately, when most history teachers assign writing, the focus is on summarization. Because interpreting history relies on reconciling multiple sources of evidence, this focus inhibits historical reasoning. So, the key takeaway from this study is – how can high school history teachers create prompts that emphasize corroboration, sourcing, and causal analysis into their classroom practices?


Monte-Sano, C., & De La Paz, S. (2012). Using writing tasks to elicit adolescents’ historical reasoning. Journal of Literacy Research, 44(3), 273-299.

This week our discussion board will focus on developing prompts like these and integrating them with your lessons that are already in progress. Please describe the grade, level and subject you are teaching, the focus of your lesson, and identify an idea for an essay that could that emphasize corroboration, sourcing, and causal analysis. The community will chime in and suggest ideas for documents, scaffolding, and fine-tuning. Follow the rule, give one to get one.

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