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Tuning  History: Redirecting History Surveys for General Education


New Approaches to Gen Ed History: Tuning the Introductory Survey Course for Non-Majors

Sarah Shurts


     As history educators, we face a common, fundamental question: What is our purpose in history education? What do we want students to gain from the study of history? This cannot just be a question that we contemplate when teaching history majors and graduate students. Much of the work of history departments across the country is not teaching these specialized courses and upper division seminars. Instead, it is teaching entry-level survey courses like Western Civilization, US History, and World History for students who take history as part of a Gen Ed requirement. Some will go on to be history majors, particularly if they had a rewarding experience at the introductory level, but most will never take another history course. So, if we believe history has value for all students, the survey course is often our one chance to share it. Unfortunately, Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, recently lamented, "We have not done a good job of teaching the intro courses …Teaching freshman- and sophomore-level classes has not had a high enough priority, and that has to change."1 Although Rawlings was referring specifically to intro courses in STEM programs, the same failing can be found in history education. In years past, history programs might have been able to ignore the survey courses with impunity, confident that they would continue to have a flood of history majors filling their more specialized upper level courses. However, more recently, the declining number of history majors across the nation has forced history educators to reevaluate how we identify and foster new majors and that, in turn, has led to a reconsideration of the introductory course.2 Whether our goal is to increase the number of history majors, or simply to give a better understanding of the value of history to the student body through general education, we should begin a conversation about redefining our introductory courses. The AHA's Tuning project can be instrumental in structuring these kinds of conversations.

Tuning the Introductory Survey Course: the Importance of a Broad Conversation

     The Tuning project was begun by the American Historical Association in 2012 with a gathering of over sixty history educators from across the country. Since that first meeting, Tuning, in all its incarnations at campuses nationwide, has been instrumental in making explicit the skills and proficiencies we expect of the history major at each stage in their progress toward the degree. It has created a set of core competencies that, while adaptable to the needs of each individual institution, provides a shared language of expectations for student learning that helps to "tune" or align our goals for history education in programs across the nation.3 It is time to turn this work specifically toward the non-majors and the entry level courses.

     Tuning is particularly needed here because these introductory courses are taught in so many different types of institutions that are often isolated from one another. Entry level college courses in US history, World History, and Western Civilizations can be taken at a four year college, a community college, or in the high schools as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or Dual Enrollment courses. Students can even earn college credit through the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams based on their sophomore or junior year high school coursework and never take a college level survey history class. As one of our colleagues recently wrote, "The line between K-12 and higher education is blurring, but that might be a positive development because it is forcing college and university faculty to rethink teaching."4 The blurring line is also making it increasingly necessary for history educators to have a nation-wide conversation about what we expect for student learning at the college level in these introductory courses.

     As a quick side note, I would like to suggest that while Tuning the major has remained primarily a post-secondary endeavor thus far, any effort to redesign or tune the introductory level survey courses should also include a conversation with the high schools. New ideas about history education, historical thinking skills and active citizenship are emerging there that will have enormous implications for how our students enter freshman level college classrooms in the coming years. I recently attended the National Council for Social Studies conference with two other members of the AHA Tuning Project where we learned about the C3 framework, a new initiative to redesign history education around the goals of college, career, and civic life. In many ways this initiative is remarkably similar to Tuning, particularly in its overarching goal of showing the value of history education for every student. C3 promotes history education as a way to develop all students, not just future history majors, into informed and engaged citizens and problem solving professionals. High school students who have been learning history in this new environment since elementary school will be arriving soon at our college doorsteps and we will need to know how they approach the study of history and understand its relevance if we want to continue to engage and challenge them in the post-secondary level. One particular point to note is the emphasis given in the C3 framework, as early as elementary school, to historical thinking skills like the ability to ask a good question about the past, the use of primary sources to answer those questions, and reflection on how those questions about the past are relevant today and can provide insight or instruction for modern society. Expectations and standards for the AP courses also have implications for how students come to our college level courses. Here too, despite the multiple choice content questions, there is a focus on analyzing and sourcing evidence, contextualization, questioning and interpretation.5 The world of primary and secondary history education is therefore promoting a new focus on historical thinking skills and practices that will be of great service as college educators attempt to redefine the survey level courses.

     Whether students take their college level introductory course in high school, community college, or four year institutions, there is always the hope that this course might lead students to eventually become history majors, in which case it is vitally important that they learn in these survey classes the historical thinking skills that they will be expected to use in their upper level coursework. However, it is more often the case that this survey will be the only history course that a student takes. The conversation about the introductory courses, therefore, needs to be one about the value of history for the general public and the body of knowledge, habits of mind, and set of skills we believe history provides for people in every walk of life. If we believe that the study of history is vital to engaged citizenship, productive careers, and lifelong learning, then what is it that we want them to know and understand about history at the end of the introductory course? What do we want every student to gain from the study of history and what are the skills and knowledge of history that we believe it is essential for them to learn? What should students expect from their introductory surveys and how could we re-envision the structure and methods of these courses in a way that makes these fundamental proficiencies in history the focus?

     The answers to these questions will not be the same in every history department, but it is a conversation worth having, not only within our own departments, but with other surrounding departments at various institutional levels. This article shares the experience, and in particular the debates we had when initiating the Tuning process at Bergen Community College in New Jersey. Our department is not a model of a perfectly tuned program, but rather one example of how departments can begin to ask important questions and rethink their courses. The questions we asked are ones that every department can begin by asking. How can we introduce the skills that are vital to the practice of history to entry-level students who have little or no background in the content of the discipline? How can "tuning" general education promote seamless transition of students between high school, community college, and four-year history classes?And, if our history class is the only course a student will take in history, what do we want them to take from the experience?

Tuning Debates within the Department: Content and Competencies

     When Bergen began incorporating the Tuning project into our AA program as a way to improve history education at the two year level this necessarily meant adapting Tuning's focus on the major to fit the introductory, survey level courses that make up the bulk of our course offerings and are filled more often than not with non-history majors. We faced, and continue to debate, many issues as we make this transition and the compromises we have made hopefully will show that even the most recalcitrant departments can make small shifts toward this new way of thinking about history education.

     The first of these discussions was about the transition from a content based curriculum to one that also encouraged development of skills. The Tuning Project core emphasizes historical thinking skills and competencies over knowledge of content in almost every one of its learning goals. In part, this was because we needed a language that could be utilized by historians of any field, but it was also a reflection of what we believed had meaning for students in the long term. Students will rarely remember the truckload of facts we try to dump into their heads, but they will remember the ways of thinking, asking and investigating questions, weighing sources, and interpreting and narrating these facts. The concern by many at Bergen about this shift in focus was that we often have students with very little background in US or World history, basic chronology, and geography. For many among us, addressing this significant lack of historical literacy is a priority too. And we also recognize that despite our desire to introduce all students to the methods and skills of historians, it is the stories we tell that really engage them and make them want to learn how historians work. The "content" of events and individuals and ideas and the way we bring them to life in the classroom is what engages students in the past, what provides joy in its study.

     The difficulty lay in finding effective ways to address both the traditional content and also incorporate this new prioritization of skills and competencies. We all taught the introductory survey course as we had been taught years ago at this intro level: the efficient lecture. Some among us introduced discussions of sources in class and assigned historical analysis papers, but too often time in class devolved into relating content with an occasional sprinkling of certain historical concepts. And yet, almost every study of student learning available tells us that while the "sage on the stage" approach is efficient, it is not effective for student learning.6 Instead, studies show practicing and doing, active forms of learning, are more conducive. In more active learning, utilizing skills of historians becomes a way to learn content and learning new content becomes a way to practice and apply skills. Our first step in addressing this issue was to redefine our program learning goals and their course equivalencies in every syllabus to reflect the skills and practices of history rather than content. For example, in 2010, before the Tuning process, our first program learning goal was to "Identify the leading figures, major events, and significant places in Western Civilization or US History." This content could be relayed by lecture and tested by a standardized multiple choice test. After our conversations and debates in 2012, the new learning goal was rewritten to read "Demonstrate, in both written and oral discussion, the ability to consider a diversity of viewpoints, construct and defend a thesis, and revise it effectively as new evidence demands." This learning goal cannot be tackled with a traditional lecture and requires active engagement by students in the work of history to show competency. It prioritizes the skills of history and yet cannot be successfully accomplished without a baseline of knowledge of historical content. While altering our learning outcome statements for the program might not seem a significant change, our assessment process requires that we assess student learning in at least one of these goals every year. In order to meet these institutional requirements, all the professors in the department had to develop assignments that addressed these skills in addition to the usual knowledge of content. Student learning was assessed for our department on these historical thinking, research, and writing skills, rather than, as they had been in the past and continue to be in other departments, simply on retention of information on a standardized test. Therefore professors had to begin to teach, at least some of the time, in a way that could support these new learning goals by emphasizing skills alongside content.

     Again, these are the kinds of small steps that are accessible for every department and can at least initiate a new educational culture. We have not completely flipped our classrooms to have content learned at home and activities that teach research methods and historical thinking skills the only focus in the classroom, but we are taking initial steps toward prioritizing skills and historical thinking by utilizing them as a way to learn content and content as a way to apply and practice skills.

Tuning Debates within the Department: Coverage and Concepts

     The second debate, closely connected to the first, was whether an introductory survey course, by its very nature, demanded "coverage" or if coverage could be sacrificed for depth of understanding.7 While tuning doesn't explicitly dismiss coverage, in general the project favors a certain depth of understanding over skimming the surface because it encourages us to uncover and make transparent how historians "do" history. Scholars like Lendol Calder, whose work influenced this aspect of tuning, have transformed the way many of us view the need for "coverage" in introductory courses.8 However, at Bergen, considering this type of change was controversial and required compromise. Redesigning the introductory survey course to devote class time to exploring how historians ask and answer questions and building analytical and research skills would force aside the old goal of covering every event in every period. Many of us couldn't shake the feeling that we would shortchange the students or leave them ill prepared to move on if we didn't "get through the material," in a "Plato to NATO" or Around the World in 30 days approach. Survey textbooks and other teaching resources sometimes contribute to this fear that we are skipping important material if we don't make it through the book, as do the standardized exams like those for AP or CLEP that include questions on factual information from every period. But, this goal of "covering the material" has always been an illusion, even in the most specialized courses. As history marches on and as western civilizations courses become world history courses, even the hope of skimming across every important group or event is lost.

     In response to this, some of my colleagues outside of Bergen who teach introductory surveys have switched to independent modules that look at a few periods rather than survey texts, others have jettisoned coverage entirely and argue that the survey is not the best way to introduce students to history because of this race for coverage. Instead they prefer specialized courses at the freshman level that can teach skills and focus on the content of a single geographic area, period, or theme. Yet, not everyone agrees here either. When the tuners began listing accomplishments that indicated what a history major could do, one of them was to "Have a transcript that shows courses whose content ranges over time, space, culture, and methods." In this sense then, we decided that students of history should have a breadth of knowledge and exposure to different places and times before they graduated as majors. Perhaps there is value in a breadth of knowledge for introductory students too. Here again, as with the question about content, coverage itself should not be the only goal. Instead breadth of coverage provides the canvas with which we can illustrate the concepts essential to historical thinking. Andrews and Burke have written about what they've termed the 5 Cs of Historical Thinking: change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity.9 If we want our introductory students to learn these higher level concepts like change over time and continuity, complexity, or multiple causation and multiple consequence, some sense of the breadth of history can help them to see these concepts in action. Coverage has additional value, therefore, for its ability to more clearly illustrate the higher level historical thinking skills we want to introduce to all students, not just majors.

     There is another argument for coverage as a component of this kind of equal preparation for life and learning. While the gap is found in high schools and four year colleges too, two year colleges see an overwhelming number of students who have come to the community college as first generation college students or because of financial hardship. We are constantly reminded that our students have often not had certain cultural and educational opportunities that students not facing these challenges often do have.10 As they move into the professional world where cultural references and analogies add new layers to our expression and understanding, not having these same reference points can continue to create barriers for them. One of the values of a history education is that it allows students to speak in ways that are rich with meaning because they reference the past in a way that has value for the present. To compare discussions on migrants to that during the Evian conference adds a new moral imperative, to speak of a war as a new Vietnam adds a tone of censure… but only for those who understand the references. We cannot compensate for all that our students have not been exposed to, but we can provide them with a wide range of important people and events and decisions that they can begin to weave into their understanding of the world and their conversations about it. In this sense, I believe coverage of content has real value in contributing to cultural literacy, particularly for those who do not have a strong foundation there before college.

     There is middle ground to be found in the introductory survey classroom between skills and content, depth and coverage, and the conversations Tuning provokes in departments can be instrumental in helping to locate it and open vital lines of communication about these expectations among high schools, two year and four year colleges. When we think about what we want General Education, non-major students to know, understand, and be able to do after an introductory history course, I believe there are four goals to keep in mind. Since the high school has developed the 3 Cs and Andrews and Burke have 5 Cs, perhaps there could be 4 Cs of introductory history surveys:

• Coverage

• Content

• Concepts (5Cs)

• Competencies (Tuning core)

Somewhere a balance exists for all of these and the more we discuss what we want our students to learn and then model our instruction to meet those goals, the better sense we will have of how we should reimagine the introductory survey course.

Tuning Debates within the Department: Scaling Expectations for General Education

     Our third debate at BCC was how to scale to an introductory level the competencies identified by our department and the tuning project as essential to the study of history. If we want every student to take away historical thinking skills in addition to knowledge of content and to emphasize how historians do history to add depth of understanding to appreciation for the breadth of the past, we need to make those goals for student learning central to what we do in every history classroom, even in the introductory courses. However intro students are not senior history majors, so we needed to scale or scaffold the expectations for student learning that were created by the Tuning Project for majors to better reflect the first-year survey needs.

     As one example, the Tuning Project's core competency to be able to "Generate significant, open-ended questions about the past and devise research strategies to answer them" has as learning outcomes the ability to use a variety of sources that provide evidence to support an argument about the past, to develop a methodological practice of gathering, sifting, analyzing, ordering, synthesizing, and interpreting evidence, and to identify and summarize other scholars' historical arguments. Aspects of these competencies and goals are achievable even at the freshman survey level in scaled form. Even survey level students who have had very little background in history can learn to distinguish between primary and secondary source material, compare and contrast their different perspectives, and consider the limitations of these sources. With consistent analysis of short excerpts from scholarly interpretations in class and as part of assignments, students can also learn to identify the main arguments of these pieces and summarize them. And, with some guidance, they can learn how to utilize both in an argument about the past. While these skills will not be mastered by the end of the semester, they will be recognizable learning outcomes for students. For many intro level students, however, the overarching goal of generating an original open-ended question about the past and devising research strategies could be elusive within the short space of a semester where knowledge of new content and document analysis skills was already overwhelming—particularly in the earlier weeks of the course. Instead, a scaled version for the intro survey could provide the question and suggestions for both primary and scholarly source material in the first assignment. This initial assignment would still require the sources to be sorted, summarized, analyzed, ordered and synthesized in an overall argument to address a question about the past. For the second assignment of the semester, students could start developing their own questions and identifying at least some of their own sources as part of the second tier of expectations.

     But seeing just a few examples of a good open ended question in the first assignment is often not enough to help students who are new to the study of history develop meaningful questions about the past on their own. Too often when left to their own devices and asked to apply their skills of document analysis to their own questions, I would get research questions like: "why was the holocaust worse than Cambodian genocide?" At the introductory level, these questions needed a lot of finessing and discussion with students. As a way to help introduce the skill of asking an open-ended question, I'm currently trying to redesign my introductory classes so that the content also becomes a way to model the questions that historians ask. Rather than a straight narrative on the start of WWI, and admittedly demonstrating narrative in a lecture has its own value for showing what historians do, we approach it as a series of questions that historians tend to ask: What were the origins of the war? Who bears responsibility for its outbreak? How was war understood by the soldiers and the public? Why did this change over time? For each question we look not only at a primary source but also a scholarly interpretation to see the kinds of questions historians ask, and then how they analyze sources, develop arguments and create narratives that answer those questions. By the end of the course, introductory level students will hopefully have a better idea of how to start asking their own open ended questions about the past. It is an effort both to model historical thinking and questioning skills and also to demystify the process of creating history for introductory students—to show its origins lie in a series of questions answered by grappling with sources and weighing interpretations rather than some immaculate conception of the formal narrative they find in a textbook or a traditional lecture.

     When we begin to think about building these kinds of historical skills and competencies beyond the introductory level courses to create scaffolding for potential history majors, new debates emerge. At community colleges, the idea of scaling within a course leads to the question of scaling the courses themselves, but this too remains divisive. For some, the role of the community college is to provide surveys as introductory level courses only. This decision is based on the assumption that the first two years of a college history major's schedule are filled with these foundational, introductory level courses. With this in mind, at BCC, all courses are currently numbered in the 100 level and taught without any prerequisites. However, others argue that by the end of their two years, students in a History AA program should be taking sophomore level coursework that has been scaled as 200 level courses with 100 level prerequisites to require more advanced understanding of these research methods and more developed thinking skills. They believe this is more in keeping with the trajectory of four year colleges that are often requiring sophomore methods courses and expecting a more advanced skill set before the junior year.

Tuning Debates within the Department: Ending the Transfer Gap

     This hesitation about what to do for General Education, introductory level students who, after taking this first course, now intend to take additional history courses leads to the final debate about the introductory surveys. One of the main goals of Tuning is to provide some common expectations for the skills and knowledge that history majors gain in any program nationwide. But, how do we provide a similar sense of equivalency in skills and knowledge for all those who are taking introductory survey courses at any of the different types of institutions? For history majors, there is usually a capstone class, a methods course, or a senior thesis that can be tuned to align with the expectations of other institutions and shows program learning goals at the end of the degree. However, there has been no real conversation about how to align the learning goals for the high school AP or CLEP exams, the community college course, and the four year course. There is also no single survey course that can be pinpointed for this kind of tuning. Instead, if we want to encourage our general education students to consider more courses and even the major, we need to give them the tools to be successful in these later courses. And, we need to look at the entirety of the survey offerings and make an effort to reach these learning goals in each course.

     At BCC, we have primarily been concerned with providing seamless transfer from the community college to the 4 year institutions where our surveys are accepted for credit in the major. We want to make sure there is no "transfer gap"11 and that "course equivalency" between two and four year institutions means the skill sets, knowledge base, and expectations for student learning, not just the credit hours earned or the title of the course. A very preliminary study that Peter Burkholder and I ran for our students at BCC and Fairleigh Dickinson, a local four year private college whose history department is also involved in Tuning, shows promising results. Survey students at both institutions were asked to rate their confidence in a series of historical thinking skills. In particular, the questions focused on the students' confidence in identifying and analyzing primary and secondary sources and constructing a thesis. In these areas, students in both schools felt confident in their abilities. However BCC students were less confident that they could find their own source material, a skill I only emphasize in my honors courses. This study was based only on their confidence in their own abilities and will need to be expanded to possibly include a joint grading session to better assess whether these learning goals were really met and a parity in skills really exists. But it gives us a sense that students transferring from one college to the other will be prepared, not with the exact knowledge of content since my course is Western Civilization and his World History, but with some of the basic skills and expectations they would need to do well should they take another course or decide to pursue a major. However, these kinds of individual connections and conversations should become much larger ones that involve multiple 4 year institutions, community colleges that send them transfer students, and high school educators as well. We should all enter into a dialogue about what we expect from students in these survey courses and what we want them to take from our courses. What knowledge and skills should they enter with as college freshmen, what should they be reinforcing in survey coursework, and what should they be able to show mastery of in these early introductory years? In short, what do we want our survey level students to know, understand, and be able to do when they leave our course?

     These questions are all just ways of trying to measure the much larger question that sometimes seems daunting to ask but should be a the root of what we do, particularly for the survey level non-major: What is the value of history for our society? What do we want every citizen to appreciate and understand about the past? What habits of mind and knowledge do we feel are unique to history and essential that we as history educators share with our students as part of their general education? I don't have the answers to these, but the historian in me hopes that I have at least encouraged us to start asking questions worthy of debate.

Sarah Shurts is Associate Professor of History at Bergen Community College in New Jersey where she teaches Western Civilization, Modern European History, and Genocide and Holocaust history. She received her Ph.D. in Modern French History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2007. Her recent publications include pieces on French intellectual engagement in Historical Reflections/Reflexions Historiques (2012), European History Quarterly (2013), and French Politics, Culture & Society (2014) and on Tuning in The History Teacher (forthcoming 2016). She is on the governing council of the Western Society for French History and co-editor of The Journal of the Western Society for French History, and has served on AHA's James Harvey Robinson Prize Committee and the Tuning Committee for the past four years. She is currently writing a collection of resources for Oxford University Press to accompany a new textbook, The West in Question, by Kurlander and Reiter that addresses historical thinking skills and historiography in the intro level survey course. She can be reached at


1 Richard Pérez-Peña, "Colleges Reinvent Classes to Keep More Students in Science" The New York Times (December 27, 2014) A10.

2 "During the 2010–11 academic year, the number of undergraduate students earning degrees in history dropped—albeit by a small percentage—for the first time in a decade, even as the number of students earning degrees in all fields continued to rise. As a result, the history discipline's share of degrees earned in 2011 declined to the lowest level in 10 years" Robert B. Townsend, "Data Show a Decline in History Majors" Perspectives on History 51:4 (April 2013).

3 More information about the Tuning Project can be found on the AHA website under Teaching and Learning at

4 Trinidad Gonzales, "Open Road: Dual Enrollment Signifies Possibilities, not lack of Rigor" Perspectives on History 53:6 (September, 2015) 43.

5 The AP exam's new framework provides "admirable promotion of historical thinking skills—the discussing and weighing of alternate interpretations of the past, investigating sources through close reading, contextualizing sources, analyzing source reliability, and corroborating sources" according to Jonathan Burack, "The AP US History Wars: Is a Peace Process Possible?" Perspectives on History 52:9 (December 2014).

6 For example, Craig Lambert claims "Though it remains the dominant form of instruction in higher education and can sometimes become a real art form, the lecture may be on its last legs" by citing evidence from Harvard University student learning data. Craig Lambert, "Twilight of the Lecture" Harvard Magazine, March/April 2012. Full text available at

7 For more discussion of the debate over coverage, consider the article by Dave Eaton, "Taking Cover: Explaining the Persistence of the Coverage Model in World History Surveys" World History Connected 13:1 (February 2016). Eaton explores the reason that the coverage model endures in World History survey courses despite evidence, according to Eaton, that Calder's uncoverage model is a better learning tool. He finds some real impediments to dismissing coverage, including the fact that new instructors themselves often need a coverage model to learn the material they are teaching and that coverage is more likely to include those groups like women and pre-colonial African societies that are inadvertently ignored without it. The full text of the article is available at

8 Lendol Calder, "Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey," The Journal of American History, volume 92, no. 4 (March 2006), pp. 1358–1369.

9 Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, "What Does It Mean to Think Historically?" AHA Perspectives on History, 45:1 (January 2007).

10 Consider Gloria Crisp and Anne-Marie Nunez, "Understanding the Racial Transfer Gap: Modeling Underrepresented Minority and Non-Minority Students' Pathways from Two- to Four-Year Institutions," The Review of Higher Education 37: 3, Spring 2014, 291–320.

11 For more information on the potential transfer gap between two-year college graduates and the expectations at four year universities, see "New Report Ranks States Based on Colleges' Performance in Helping Students Transfer to Four-Year Universities and Earn Bachelor's Degrees: Research Shows Many Community College Students Failed by Current System of Transfer" The study was compiled by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, The Community College Research Center at Columbia Teacher's College, and the Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program. The full report is available at

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