Creating Historians: Giving Scholars the Answers

How allowing index cards on tests can empower critical thinking; part one of a series on approaching social studies as a group of historians.

By Mollie Moore

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As a high school social studies facilitator (at one of those schools that makes an intentional language choice against the title “teacher”…not a terrible choice and I’ll explain why I think so), I often found myself looking down a rabbit hole of granularity. Can you join me in this? Does it really matter if my kids have memorized the first ten amendments of the Constitution, or can recite the date President Roosevelt passed legislation to desegregate the defense industry? Is this the approach actual historians take? More importantly, is this the approach every young historian must take? Of course, historic details and objective content absolutely have a place in the social studies classroom, but modern best practices (as well as the Literacy in History/Social Studies Common Core Standards) are taking a more contextually based approach which I think we can find very exciting.

Facts and Figures are Forgettable

Personally, I have always been fascinated by the human behavior and evolution involved in studying history, but those facts and figures just don’t stick. As a high school student, I can recall a US history exam for which we had to list every president and vice president in the order they held office; a task I was only able to complete through a complex and nonsensical mnemonic device, which I promptly forgot upon writing the last name on my test. 

Taking the Focus off the Details

Whether good or bad, this natural inability bode well for my young historians because I never expected them to pour over their textbooks to mentally store intricate facts in preparation for a test. In fact, one of my favorite announcements of the school year was on the first day of class, when I told each class that for every test or quiz I assigned, they were allowed one 3x5 card- full of notes, front and back. 

There would be cheers at first, then the inevitable questions. “Can we type it in size six font and bring a magnifying glass?” Sure! “Will you always tell us if we can have a 3 x 5 card?” No- you just have to remember you always can. “Can we bring in a 2x6 card?” It’s time for a geometry lesson.

Of course, when the priority of a test is drawing on context to make critical conclusions about historical events through short answers and essays, an index card full of facts is hardly a ticket to an A, but I have found it serves a couple essential purposes.

  • I always included one section on the test which did require some hard fact regurgitation, and usually students who filled out a card used it only as a security blanket. Simply by creating the card, they had memorized most of what they needed to know.
  • For the big-ticket essay section of their tests, kids were able to use facts from the cards to back up their assertions. 

Watch Out for Resourceful Young Historians

If you haven’t tried this strategy yet, here are some hazards to anticipate so you don’t discover them like I did, on the day of the test:

  • Make sure kids know they can’t copy someone else’s card or copy text from online and paste it onto a card. This defeats the purpose of creating the card. For accountability, I have my pupils attach the card to the test if they use one. To recognize effort, I give negligible extra credit on all tests with a legitimate 3x5 card.
  • Kids are super smart and resourceful. I once had a ninth grader come in with a 3x5 card that had an 8.5”x11” piece of paper strategically folded and pasted onto it. The card literally opened up to become a piece of printer paper. Whoa!   

Index Card Notes Are Effective

The point is, we can redirect student focus from the tiny details and minutiae by essentially giving them these things for free during tests (if they are proactive, create a card, and basically learn the content in the process). It takes the power away from memorization and turns it to critical thinking and drawing conclusions like real historians. Sure, I do ask learners to define terms, match names to accomplishments, and fill in maps (with an index card, of course). But wouldn't we rather see them outlining whether Lyndon Johnson’s decision to increase US military involvement in Vietnam supported or undermined American ideals at the time? There is absolutely room for both, and I use index cards to ensure more brain power is spent on the latter. This, in my experience, is what it means to facilitate a class rather than teach it.

Encourage Healthy Study Habits and Critical Thinking in the Social Studies Classroom:

Study Skills Questionnaire

If you're approaching effective study skills, this could be a great way to begin. Kids analyze their own study habits by answering 30 questions and adding up their scores. They are rated on six areas of study, which could be used to start an interesting discussion about the value of each type once everyone is done.

Social Statement Puppet Show

Use performance art to give history a fun spin for older learners. They research a topic of their choice (or yours) and come up with a puppet show to express a social commentary. This could be applicable across a wide variety of social studies classrooms.

The Power of Music

If you're looking to appeal to auditory learners (and all learners, at that), consider playing an era-appropriate song during a test. Hand out the lyrics and ask kids to analyze the words, mood, rhythm, etc. within the context of the song. This resource offers a procedure with worksheets and a link to a virtual gramophone site for some potential song choices.