How should we assess them as historians? Part 1

I’ve given a lot of thought to how we assess our students in history recently. By getting rid of the National Curriculum levels the door has been opened to a host of opportunities, releasing the shackles of restrictive level descriptors. I’ve thought long and hard about whether the assessments I give my students actually work and importantly whether they are actually assessing their progression as historians.

The short answer is possibly not. In my department we have a series of very good Assessments (and I am purposely using a capital A). They brilliantly assess whether students are progressing in terms of the second order concepts (causality, interpretations, significance, etc.) as laid down in the old National Curriculum levels. But they are snap shots and as such fail to really assess (now with a lower case a) how they are progressing as historians as a whole.

For example, this term my Year 8s have learnt about changes in power over the 17th century by studying James I, Charles I, the Civil War, Cromwell, the Restoration and ended up at the Glorious Revolution. The Assessment on this unit gets the students to write to Professor Hutton at Bristol University (we genuinely send the best off) to challenge his interpretation of Cromwell. It’s a winner of an Assessment and they produce great outcomes as a result. But it only assesses them at one tiny part of being a historian and only on one tiny part of their learning. This does not mean that I want to get rid of this Assessment or even tweak it. It is a perfect vehicle to allow them to challenge themselves in terms of interpretation and get their heads stuck in to a piece of history that is manageable, achievable and allows them to succeed. However, restricting the Assessment to this one topic means I have never really assessed how they have progressed as historians on the whole this term – what extra stuff they know, what their understanding of the bigger picture is and how their knowledge of substantive concepts have progressed over all the topics we have studies. Obviously, I know this to some extent as I constantly assess my students by questioning them, doing discussion work and marking individual pieces of work in their books. But if I am honest I have come to the realisation that I am not sure that I ever really do this formally enough to allow me to push them as far as possible as historians or to see if I am actually teaching them everything I had hoped.

If we want our students to become excellent historians we need to assess whether we are doing this. Decent historians (in my humble opinion) will do the following (in no particular order):

  • Know lots of facts (stuff – dates, names, events)
  • Improve their understanding of substantive concepts (war, power, monarchy, empire, etc.)
  • Develop big picture overviews of the past
  • Enhance their understanding of second order concepts
  • Build a chronological framework
  • Become more analytical and critical when working with evidence

How often have you assessed if your students can do all this? I haven’t done it as much as I’d like to. As I said above, I’ve done it on a micro level in a lesson but I have never really properly done it on a macro level to assess learning over a longer period of time.

So what I am proposing? Current Assessments at our school work. Whether we like it or not, they periodically provide the numbers that school want and that SLT pour over. They also very competently provide excellent snap shots at how students cope with extended learning tasks that prepare them for and give an indicator of performance in examinations. Plus, in a world where children are obsessed with grades they give them this piecemeal. I won’t change this. I can’t, and our SLT, like many others nationwide, won’t yet allow it. However, I am not so interested in Assessments, I am really interested in assessments. To summarise the important difference.

  • Assessments – big one off snap shot pieces that produce a number/level/grade.
  • assessments – small tasks that allow you as a teacher to evaluate students on all the other bits and bobs that make a decent historian.

So the question is how do we do the second bit? And importantly how do we integrate it so that our lessons aren’t made dull and our students don’t feel even more tested than they already are? I’m not sure I completely know the answer yet but that’s why I am interested. It’s also why this will form the focus of my practice this year, along with a number of other Bristol history teachers who have formed an assessment working party.

However, this term I have already tried out a few different strategies, some have worked better than others! They are detailed below:


Timelines to test big picture

I want to know that my students have the ‘big picture’, how all the little events and individuals add up to explain a larger narrative. This is the case in KS3, KS4 and KS5. This term I tried out giving students a timeline test in Year 11. I gave them a blank timeline from 1919 to 1933 and asked them to annotate it to explain how Hitler came to power. I told them I didn’t just want a list of events, but for them to explain, in order how you get from 1919 to 1933.

Some were superb and really showed they understood the topic:


Some took a more thematic approach and definitely showed they understood it:


And some showed they had obvious gaps in their knowledge and understanding:


It took ten minutes and even less time to mark but allowed me to really evaluate the extent to which they understood this fundamental narrative. As a result I would definitely do it again both in KS3 and KS5.


‘Big questions’ about the big picture

Following my concerns above about Year 8 I decided I would give them a ‘Big Picture’ question. So unaided I gave them the question “How  has the nature of power changed in these 100 years [the 17th century]?” I told them to think about monarchy and parliament and left them to it. A few did get it and produced answers that showed they had a developed understanding of the big picture I had intended on them getting from this term.

big question 1

big question 2

However, the majority (no photos sorry!) had very little clue. They had great knowledge of the discrete units I had taught them e.g. Cromwell and the Civil War, but lacked an understanding of how these events tied together. I was surprised at this. In class they had shown an understanding in discussion, or so I thought, but maybe I was relying on those few who like the examples above did get it. Either way this has highlighted that I have some work to do. This unit needs to be heavily tweaked to ensure there is a narrative thread running throughout these discrete units so that I can produce better historians at the other end. A very worthy exercise.


 Substantive concepts questions

 Year 9 have studied WW1 all term but I wanted to know what they had learnt about the nature of warfare more generally. How their perceptions about this substantive concept had changed and how they thought their learning had progressed. So I got them to write this down. Simple. The results were fascinating:

substantive 1

substantive 2

substantive 3

I have picked a few of the best above but it was a genuinely worthwhile activity. It allowed me to easily assess whether they had ‘got it’ this term and importantly for them allowed them the space to reflect on their learning and actually consider why they thought they had progressed. Again it took a few minutes but was hugely worthwhile.


This theme will be returned to each term in this blog so do check back in again to see where I have got to. Also if you have any better ideas or would like to comment on this please do, it’s something I know I need to work on and the more collaboration the better.


p.s. Thanks to Ian Dawson and Sally Thorne who I have bored witless about this in last few weeks. Your advice was invaluable as ever folks.

One thought on “How should we assess them as historians? Part 1

  1. Pingback: How should we assess them as historians? Part 1 – Radical History | The Echo Chamber

Comments are closed.