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"Learning to Think on Paper: Why Writing Remains Essential in the AP World History Course"1

Erik Vincent


Writing means many different things to me but one thing it is not: writing is not the transcription of thoughts already consciously present in my mind. Writing is a magical and mysterious process that makes it possible to think differently. – Lynn Hunt ("The Art of History: How Writing Leads to Thinking")2

     Today, more than ever, students tend to view history as the study of concrete "facts" – undeniable truths that when pieced together constitute "the one true story of how things really were all those years ago," as one of my former students put it. Rarely, if at all, do they see history as constructed narrative, the product of interpretation that results from historians sourcing, corroborating and contextualizing evidence in an effort to make meaning of the past.3 Theirs is a "presentist"4 view of history, one devoid of emotion and any sense of historical imagination. To borrow Hunt's language, history, at least as our students see it, lacks magic and mystery.

     In part, this is not their fault. Traditional school history instruction often privileges memorization and recall of facts over investigation.5 Students are taught not to question, not to argue, and never, under any circumstances, to make their own meaning of the past after careful and thoughtful study of the evidence. The facts are sacrosanct; the textbook is sage wisdom, end of story. To think otherwise is heresy.

     Fortunately, the AP world history program, both in the past and now even further with the curriculum redesign, endorses a disciplinary view of teaching history that treats reasoning as its central goal and inquiry as its primary method. As Monte-Sano (2008) observes, this approach, by privileging analysis and interpretation of historical texts through reading and writing, engages students in the real work of history and helps to promote historical thinking.6 It can even add a little bit of mystery and excitement to what otherwise might be a dull discipline. "One of the best things about this course is that I get to be a detective," another student told me at the end of the fall semester. "Rather than starting by saying 'yes, this is true' or 'no, this is not,' I had to investigate the clues, weigh them, and come to my own conclusions. It required a different way of thinking about the facts and it's actually kind of fun." A third student reported that the process was akin to "being an anthropologist. You know, the ones who study people and try to figure out what they're all about." The detective-cum-anthropologist analogy is rather fitting considering Collingwood's (1943) observation that:

The historian never asks himself: 'Is this statement true or false?'…the question he asks himself is: 'What does this statement mean?' . . .It is the equivalent, rather, to the question 'What light is thrown on this subject in which I am interested by the fact that this person made this statement, meaning by it what he did mean?'7

     The case for writing in the history classroom, and its connection to learning, is strong. Research suggests that writing, especially essays, promotes content knowledge while "offer[ing] a path to deeper understanding […] through 'the transformation of knowledge already in the mind.'"8 By giving students opportunities to source, corroborate and evaluate historical evidence, writing allows students to work out their own interpretations of "how things really were all those years ago." To borrow again from Hunt, the process of writing (at its best) returns a little bit of magic to history by empowering students as creative agents in constructing historical narratives. Rather than merely reciting "facts" learned by route memorization via lecture or other direct instructional methods, students begin to see themselves as meaning-makers with the freedom (and audacity) to imagine alternative stories about the past. As one of my seniors put it looking back on her sophomore year, "Through writing I got to explore, discover, and re-write the story the way I understood it."

     Notwithstanding the value of writing, the reality is that most students enter (and at times exit) the history classroom under-prepared and ill equipped for the type of analytical thinking and writing that we expect of them. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (2007) writing study found that only 24% of seniors performed at or above proficiency. Only 1% performed at the advanced level with "advanced" defined as the ability to interpret an author's point of view, claim and defend a position, consistently provide supporting examples for conclusions, recognize an author's purpose in writing a document and make inferences from a text. The study also noted significant gaps in achievement level across gender, race/ethnicity, and institutional (i.e. public/private) status.9 The statistics are supported by anecdotal evidence:

Years of experience in the assessment and placement of entering students, as well as in composition and history classes, have demonstrated that our students frequently do not come to us with the necessary thinking skills necessary for creating and substantiating original arguments that take into account multiple perspectives on a topic.10

     Indeed the majority of students, as Wineburg (2001) observes, find the process of reading, thinking and writing like a historian to be wholly "unnatural,"11 hence the challenge for us teachers. Yet given their discomfort with the idea of treating the facts as anything other than, well, fact, how do we encourage our students to begin thinking and writing like historians? What combination of teaching methods and writing exercises best promotes the kind of "deeper understanding"12 that we want our students to possess by the time they leave our classrooms while at the same time sharpening skills?

     In a (2005) study, Susan De la Paz identified five characteristics of best practice historical reasoning and writing instruction.13 While hardly surprising to those of us familiar with discipline-based teaching, the list bears repeating: 1) the use of document sets, specifically a combination of primary and secondary sources with contrasting points of view. In discussing the value of primary sources, Mr. Lyle - a twenty-year veteran U.S. history teacher whose classroom is the focus of Monte-Sano's (2008) study - put it this way:

I think it gets them to understand the motivation, the context of the document...[authors are] not writing this because they have a contract for a textbook, they're writing this because at a particular point, [...] they had something to say [...] I think you're giving them the head and heart of somebody back then in a way that if you don't have primary sources, then you've just got facts, no matter how well a textbook is written.14

     Cuplin (1984) notes that certain assignments, such as journaling, that allow students to "get in the head and heart of somebody back then" help them develop empathy with historical figures. Empathy, in turn, enables students to better "bridge the gap" between the past and the present, between reporting the facts and imagining creatively;15 2) the use of historical questions to focus inquiry. These questions, De La Paz notes, should be open-ended and defensible such that the answers become the basis for thesis statements in argumentative essays. As secondary school teachers and college faculty, we know the value of provocative questions. They can drive discussion, foster debate, or focus attention on key historical themes. Questioning, in general, is central to doing history, and a practice deeply rooted in the philosophy of the discipline;16 3) the use of scaffolding to model good writing. Delpit (1988) underscores the importance of providing students with explicit structure for written assignments,17 while good modeling, Monte-Sano (2009), argues "can display a degree of expertise, and demonstrate that even teachers learn by asking questions and pondering a text;"18 4) multiple opportunities to practice new skills. In his (1980) study, Breyer found that student writing improved when teachers assigned shorter papers on specific assertions rather than broad topics, with more than one draft and multiple opportunities to revise and rewrite. "The keys to better writing," he observed, are "frequent practice in small chunks with immediate feedback."19 Monte-Sano likewise endorses the use of "small chunks," acknowledging that shorter "mini-writes" help students think through a topic. "Since writing is thinking, a series of mini-writes lets students build their understanding in achievable stages, one document at a time. During this process, they become familiar with available evidence and deepen their historical understanding."20 It is a sentiment that Mr. Lyle shares, and a strategy that produces results. "So then when I want them to go back into their writing […] at least they know, 'ah yes, I have written about this, I have something to say here';"21 5) the gradual release of responsibility as the writing process moves from teacher modeling through guided group practice toward independent work. "There is an important element of trust involved in students knowing that a teacher will not throw them into the deep end with an assignment before they're prepared to tackle it" an English department colleague of mine remarked. "We have to bring them to the water, nudge them in, and show them how to swim. Only then can we even think about letting go."

     In our course, a team-taught AP world history and gifted world literature class of forty-five students in a large public high school just north of Atlanta, we use a combination of writing assignments to teach students historical content and redress the deficiency in critical reasoning skills that hinder our students at the college level: formal essays of multiple pages to mirror those required on the AP world history exam and the research papers typical of first-year survey courses and informal assignments to encourage critical thinking. Our approach is to create a series of tired writing assignments around a central concept or theme in each unit of study to move students from summary to analysis to synthesis. Each assignment incorporates informal "thinking out"22 work and inquiry-based activities. Our pedagogy is by necessity interdisciplinary, blending social constructivist methods with teacher- and student-led discussion and lecture. The year-long course culminates with a 10 page research paper requiring multiple smaller assignments such as a question submission, an annotated bibliography, a thesis statement and outline, as well as multiple drafts. Both instructors evaluate the material and provide feedback, my colleague on elements of grammar, style and argumentation and I on historical accuracy, use of evidence, and interpretive disagreement. Our goal is always to direct students back to the text(s) to read more carefully. It is an approach whose inspiration comes from Dotolo and Nicolay's (2008) experiment with a first-year "learning community" at John Fisher College in Rochester, New York.23

     Somewhat surprisingly for this author, it is the informal work that has proven to be most effective at teaching historical writing as a process. Journaling, for one, has proven very effective at helping our students process historical content and practice the skills needed for more formal written assignments. Students in our course are required to keep a spiral notebook divided into two main sections. In one section, students write lecture and reading notes, dialectical journal entries, responses to study questions, document "wind sprints" during which students write for 5-10 minutes without pause about a primary source, and all other "testable" material. In the other section, students write informal reflections, generate questions about course material, draw doodles to visually represent connections between course themes and content, etc. We encourage students to treat this space as their own, to "free write" and rough out their ideas, whether that take the form of thinking out formal paper topics, developing a thesis statement, or, simply, exploring a thought. If this sounds like a modified version of the History Alive notebook that many elementary and middle school teachers may be familiar with, it is. We have simply adapted its use to the requirements of our course.

     Most students enjoy journals, in part because they are ungraded, but also due to the sense of ownership it provides them and the feeling of being given a protected space that is sheltered from prying eyes. As one of our students put it recently, "It's nice to have my own place to think, to write down my thoughts, to just think or, or…to draw. That's pretty cool. And I don't have a teacher looking over my shoulder and grading me on my thoughts. I'm not really sure how they'd do that anyway." The value this student places on having "my own place to think" mirrors what Steffens (1987) has said about journals as an instructional tool. "Journals are ideal for such 'thinking out' work…for they provide a place to think and a tool to think with."24

     Outside of journaling, we use informal writing to help students developing historical reasoning skills, such as comparative analysis. During our study of colonial Spanish America, for example, we have students read sections of Bernal Díaz's Conquest of New Spain and Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala's Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno and reflect on different views of conquest and colonization in the form of short paragraph-length summaries. Paired with additional selections from Bartolomé de las Casas' A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda's Letters, scanned images of the Codex Mendoza, clips from the film "The Mission" as well as some historical fiction, we scaffold student writing toward a final formal essay on colonialism during the Early Modern Period that integrates source analysis, discussion and debate.

     Specifically, after the preliminary journal work and summaries, we conduct a roundtable seminar on the subject of "Atlantic world encounters." We organize the class into groups of 4-6 students and select one group at random to lead the discussion. (Responsibility for leading subsequent seminars rotates between groups as we move through each unit, but each time the selection is random. This is necessary to make sure that each student commits themselves to the readings). Each member of the lead group is responsible for writing an informal paper of 1-2 pages in length as a summary and analysis of the assigned readings. We allow one day for groups to meet to share their papers and solicit feedback from the group on ways to strengthen arguments, clarify evidence and deal with difficult primary sources, floating around the room to help answer questions and spot check rough drafts. The lead group then reads their papers aloud to the class during seminar the next day and responds to questions from their peers. Rarely do we have to step in to jump-start a stalled discussion. Most of time, by contrast, the discussion is lively and intimately connected to the readings, with students often challenging the presenting group with alternative interpretations of the sources or competing narratives of how the "story" of colonization played out and affected different groups.

     Students report that the informal work allows them to use their imagination and to empathize with the indigene (and on occasion, the colonizer) as they build toward an understanding of the larger historical processes at work during the time period. The casual, ungraded format of the journaling is often the most popular part of the process, as it allows students to "write without pressure." However, students also come to appreciate the shorter tiered writing assignments and frequent feedback, if only grudgingly. "I really didn't like all of the paragraphs at first. I mean, why did we have to write that much? But I guess it helped later because when we got to the final paper I had all of this stuff I could use. Some of it was in my journal and the rest of it was in those papers. It was a little like, like piecing a puzzle together, but in the end I think I understood it better." Some find the random selection of the lead group frustrating – "why did I do all of this work and not even go to the table?" – but concede that the process still pays benefits. "…but then again, I had a draft of my paper to use for the essay. So it turned out OK." These responses, at least anecdotally, suggest that informal writing helps ease students into the process of writing historically. Or, to borrow my colleague's phrasing, it helps bring them to water, nudges them in, and teaches them how to swim.

     "Mr. Lyle," Monte-Sano (2008) concludes, "used class time to train students to read and think like historians – to ground their thinking in evidence, to pay attention to source information, to contextualize and to grasp historical perspectives. In learning to read and think historically, students had a better chance of developing a solid understanding of history."25

     We, as world history teachers, can learn from Mr. Lyle. His example is one of discipline-based teaching in which reading and writing are integrated together and deeply grounded in historical content. He understands the value of writing, and the challenges of teaching it. Writing is, after all, a process, learned and improved over time. Mr. Lyle appreciates this, and knows which tools to use to teach that process. He uses documents, he questions, he models, he scaffolds, he provides substantive feedback and opportunities to revise, and gradually lets his students assume more responsibility—all best practices and strategies we should use in our own classrooms. But more importantly, Mr. Lyle never forgets that like the historian, it is the student's curiosity, his imagination, that drives him to "think on paper," and neither should we.


1 With gratitude to Kathleen A. Tobin of Purdue University Calumet whose paper inspired the title of this essay. See K. Tobin. "To Think on Paper: Using Writing Assignments in the World History Survey," The History Teacher 34, 4 (2001): 497-508.

2 L. Hunt. "The Art of History: How Writing Leads to Thinking (and Not the Other Way Around)," Perspectives on History (February 2010),

3 B. VanSledright. "Confronting History's Interpretive Paradox While Teaching Fifth Graders to Investigate the Past," American Educational Research Journal 39, 4 (2002): 1089-1115. See also Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).

4 VanSledright, 1090.

5 R. N. Paige, Lower Track Classrooms (New York: Teachers College Press, 1991).

6 C. Monte-Sano. "The Intersection of Reading, Writing and Thinking in a High School History Classroom: A Case of Wise Practice." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New York City, March 25, 2008.

7 R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1943), 275.

8 C. Bereiter and M. Scardamalia. The Psychology of Written Composition (Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1987), 179.

9 National Center for Educational Statistics (2007). "The Nation's Report Card: Writing 2007." Available online at Accessed May 2010.

10 F. Dotolo and T. Nicolay. "Approaching History Through Literature: Generating Knowledge Through Writing and Inquiry in a Cross Disciplinary First-year Learning Community," The History Teacher 42, 1 (2008): 25.

11 Wineburg, 5.

12 Bereiter and Scardamalia, 179.

13 S. De La Paz. "Effects of Historical Reasoning Function and Writing Strategy Mastery in Culturally and Academically Diverse Middle School Classrooms," Journal of Educational Psychology 97, 2 (2005): 139-56.

14 Mr. Lyle, interviewed by C. Monte-Sano on October 13, 2004, in Monte-Sano, 16.

15 C. B. Culpin. "Language, Learning and Thinking Skills in History," Teaching History 39 (1984): 24-25.

16 G. F. W. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History. Translated by J. Sibree, M.A. (London: George Bell and Sons, 1902).

17 L. Delpit. "The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children," Harvard Educational Review 58, 3 (1988): 280-98.

18 C. Monte-Sano. "Writing to Learn History: Annotations and Mini-Writes.", 4 May 2010.

19 B. K. Breyer. "Using Writing to Learn History," The History Teacher 13, 2 (1980): 171-72.

20 Monte-Sano, "Writing to Learn History."

21 Mr. Lyle, interviewed by C. Monte-Sano on December 8, 2004, in Monte-Sano, "The Intersection of Reading, Writing and Thinking," 21.

22 J. M. Curry and J. D. Tracy. "Informal Writing in Comprehensive History Survey Courses: An Experiment in the Use of Informal Writing Assignments in 'Introduction to Western Civilization' at the University of Minnesota." Technical Report No. 24, Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of Writing, University of Minnesota (2003): 6.

23 Dotolo and Nicolay, 25.

24 H. Steffens, "Journals in the Teaching of History," in T. Fulwiler, ed., The Journal Book (Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook, 1987), 220-21.

25 Monte-Sano, "The Intersection of Reading, Writing and Thinking," 28.


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