learner preconceptions


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What would a diverse group of people say if asked, “When you hear the word _________ (fill in the name of your field), what do you think it means?”

According to Susan Ambrose and her colleagues (2010), learners inevitably bring preconceptions, accurate or not, to all their courses—and those preconceptions can serve as both a contributor and a detriment to success. That finding begs a basic question, namely: At the most fundamental level, what expectations do students harbor about their fields of study? What do they expect to learn? And what might these expectations suggest about the ways their fields are, and perhaps should be, taught?

We decided to find out for the field of history, though we weren’t the first to do so. Most notably, Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen (1998) determined that survey respondents associated “history” with the dry facts taught in school, whereas “the past” elicited more personal associations transcending the classroom. We used this as a starting point to see how much had changed (or not) over the intervening years.

We employed a highly reputable operation, the Fairleigh Dickinson University Poll, to conduct the survey. Similar to Rosenzweig and Thelen, we cast our net widely over the general public, ultimately gathering data from a diverse sampling of 801 individuals across the state of New Jersey. We posed a version of the question above: “When you hear the word ‘history,’ which of the following best describes what you think it means?” This was followed by a range of answers to choose from, designed to see whether there was a gulf separating professional historians’ and laypersons’ most basic understandings of the field.

Despite the decades separating our survey from Rosenzweig and Thelen’s study, not much had changed from the public’s perspective. A clear plurality (46 percent) still viewed history as “names, dates and facts about what happened in the past.” Only about half that number (24 percent) saw history more as professionals would, namely as “an explanation of experiences in the past.” Fifteen percent viewed the field as “what people remember of the past,” with the remaining 15 percent seeing it as something else, having no opinion, or refusing to answer.

Drilling down into those results showed some interesting trends and discrepancies. For instance, there were no significant differences between men’s and women’s answers, while white respondents were more prone to a history-as-facts view (54 percent) than were either black (50 percent) or Hispanic (44 percent) respondents. Interestingly, rising income and education levels seemed only to reinforce the facts-first perceptions of the field: 59 percent with incomes over $150,000 held this view as opposed to 47 percent in the under-$75,000 cohort. Likewise, 55 percent who reported graduate-level education saw history primarily as a collection of facts, while only 46 percent with a high school education or less took that stance. Age disparities also proved significant. While in all age cohorts over 30 a clear majority displayed a facts-based understanding of history, those 18–29 were nearly equally split, 38 percent to 35 percent, between history as facts and history as explanation. Indeed, relative youth was the clearest determinant in one’s ability to perceive the field closest to how historians see it.

Even though we posed one simple question, there is a lot to unpack here, so our interpretations are still tentative at this early juncture. Yet some implications emerge. First, the dominant view of “history,” a term associated with formal education, is that it is primarily an accumulation of agreed-upon facts as opposed to an ongoing, evidence-based investigation prone to amendment. This is likely a product of the “coverage” model that Lendol Calder (2006) identified as the “signature pedagogy” of the field. Under that rubric, a history teacher’s job is to dutifully “cover” objective materials, often by way of textbooks, which are then memorized by students and faithfully reproduced on command.

We know little about what actually transpires in the tens of thousands of history classrooms across the country at the K–12 and college levels, but Joel Sipress and David Voelker (2009) report that what evidence exists suggests that the coverage approach is still very much alive and well. Our combined experiences as dossier reviewers on college personnel and hiring committees, whereby we have examined hundreds of syllabi, lead us to believe that coverage dominates in fields ranging well beyond history. It is thus little wonder that survey respondents who come of age in such educational circumstances harbor fact-centric views of the field, a tendency we suspect attaches to other domains as well.

We share our early history-specific findings with the diverse readership of the Teaching Professor because we believe the simple question we posed is one that could be profitably asked in many fields. It behooves educators to know what sort of gap exists between their own understandings of a field and the views of past and prospective students. In fact, it’s a question that could be asked of current students as they start a course and again at its conclusion to determine whether an understanding of what the field aspires to accomplish has taken root.

In our case, the marked difference in age cohort respondents’ answers may hint at some progress. Something seems to be driving younger people toward a conception of history as one more of interpretation than an assembly of facts, though the two are by no means mutually exclusive. Here, Sam Wineburg’s (2001) pioneering “historical thinking” approach might be exerting some influence. Wineburg adduced evidence that an ability to understand and grapple with the past is not so much a function of raw factual knowledge as it is an ability to ask meaningful questions, to contextualize, and to empathize, among other attributes. The historical thinking school exerts an ever-increasing influence, even undergirding Advanced Placement curricula in high schools.

Yet, Wineburg’s own research with his Stanford History Education Group reports that college-level history students perform poorly at basic interpretation of historical artifacts (Wineburg, Smith, and Breakstone 2018). If progress is happening, it seems not to be attributable solely to curricular reforms. Nevertheless, our findings suggest that younger demographics are primed to encounter historical studies that are more authentic than that experienced in coverage environments. We wonder if this might be true in other fields as well.

In a recent column in Faculty Focus, Matthew Vickless (2019) writes of the importance of meeting students where they are lest they succumb to the “terrifying disorientation they are likely to experience in any given class.” We agree with that sentiment insofar as non-coverage educational settings challenge basic assumptions about the very nature of history and other fields. We therefore must determine what the general public knows about our disciplines, and why it holds those views. The present study is merely one stepping-stone on a long path toward that destination.


Ambrose, Susan, Michael W. Bridges, Marsha C. Lovett, Michele DiPietro, and Marie K. Norman. 2010. How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Calder, Lendol. 2006. “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey.” Journal of American History 92 (4): 1358–70. https://doi.org/10.2307/4485896.

Rosenzweig, Roy, and David Thelen. 1998. The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. New York: Columbia University Press.

Sipress, Joel, and David Voelker. 2009. “From Learning History to Doing History: Beyond the Coverage Model.” In Exploring Signature Pedagogies, edited by Regan Gurung, Nancy Chick, and Aeron Haynie, 19–35. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Vickless, Matthew. 2019. “Preparing for the Students You Actually Have in Class—Without the Assumptions.” Faculty Focus, October 16, 2019, https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/course-design-ideas/preparing-for-the-students-you-actually-have-in-class.

Wineburg, Sam. 2001. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Wineburg, Sam, Mark Smith, and Joel Breakstone. 2018. “What Is Learned in College History Classes?” Journal of American History 104 (4): 983–93. https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jax434.

Pete Burkholder, PhD, is professor of history at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he served as founding chair of the faculty teaching development program from 2009 to 2017. He is on the editorial board of the Teaching Professor, is a consulting editor for College Teaching, and serves on the national advisory board of the Society for History Education.

Krista Jenkins, PhD, is professor of politics and government at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she is also the director of FDU’s survey research center, the FDU Poll. Her research interests include gender and politics, youth and politics, and American political behavior more generally.