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Author: Gina Hogue
Title: Using Computer Technology to Enhance Historical Thinking Skills in the United States History Survey Course
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 2001

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Source: Using Computer Technology to Enhance Historical Thinking Skills in the United States History Survey Course
Gina Hogue

vol. 4, no. 1, April 2001
Article Type: Report of Teaching Practices

Using Computer Technology to Enhance Historical Thinking Skills in the United States History Survey Course

Gina Hogue

"Using Computer Technology to Enhance Historical Thinking Skills in the United States History Survey Course" presents computer-assisted teaching strategies which challenge students to "think like historians" as outlined in the National History Standards. Teaching strategies which enhance historical thinking skills using Powerpoint Presentations and an Internet assignment using the Lewis and Clark web site at are explained in detail.

I use the computer in my United States History To 1876 Survey Course because students like computers. Since they like computers, I decided that I needed to integrate the computer technology into my course so that I can gain students' attention on the first day of class. After the first day, of course, it is up to my own teaching ability to sustain students' interest in my class.

I want my freshman and sophomore students to love the study of history as much as I do. I do not care if they are engineering majors or if they plan to coach high school basketball for thirty years. I must find a way to engage my students in the study of history so that they will want to read history books, so that historical documentaries on television will interest them, and that later in life they will plan to visit a few historic sites on family vacations. This probably will never happen in real life so if I cannot convince my students to love history I can at least assist students in developing skills which they can carry with them into their chosen careers.

Skills such as 'historical thinking skills" as outlined in the National History Standards benefit all students regardless of their academic majors. [1] These skills challenge students to read, think, and write critically. Historical thinking skills train students to challenge evidence and to investigate evidence to determine what really happened and why events transpired instead of accepting my words, or anyone else's words, for that matter. If I can encourage my students to develop an independent investigative mind, one that is often skeptical but not cynical, then I have accomplished my objectives. Maybe this "habit of mind" is far more valuable than learning all of the information I present in my course.

The "historical thinking skills" in the National Standards are: 1) Chronological Thinking which challenges students to think in terms of when certain events occurred in relation to other events in many different parts of the world, 2) Historical Comprehension develops students skills of understanding historical narratives which they have read and drawing upon visual information presented in charts, tables, and maps, to understand historical events, 3) Historical Analysis and Interpretation assist students in realizing that our job as historians is not only to determine what happened in the past but why events transpired the way they did. Students must recognize that many historians study the same set of facts and often develop conflicting interpretations, 4) Historical Research Capabilities is at the heart of the historical thinking skills. Students formulate historical questions and then proceed to research and gather information to answer the questions, and 5) Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making puts students in the shoes of individuals who lived in the past and helps them to see the alternative actions individuals could have taken. All of these skills are important skills for critical analysis which will benefit students in all walks of life. [2]

I use the computer in two different ways to develop historical thinking skills. First, I use Microsoft Powerpoint presentations to project an outline of key points I will be emphasizing in the lecture/discussion lesson. I also like to project the major historical questions which will be analyzed in the lesson on the screen. In this way, the entire class, at the same time, has a visual reinforcement of the important concepts and questions we are discussing. I learned early in my teaching career that students needed to hear, read, write, and express information orally many times before many of them could internalize information. The computer provides a visually appealing method of conveying important information. By using Powerpoint, I can control the pace at which I present information and ask questions. Before I used the computer, I utilized the chalkboard to convey key notes. When I turned to write information on the board, I lost valuable discussion time and also lost the students' attention. Sometimes I provide students with a copy of the information on the slides, other times I only provide a partial outline, and on some occasions no handouts are provided. I vary the amount of information I provide students based on the pace of the lesson, the complexity of the material, and the amount of discussion time I would like to have in a class session.

Students seem to pay closer attention to my lessons. They participate more and focus on the lesson for longer periods of time with the computer-assisted lessons than in previous semesters when I did not use the computer. This may be because I am better organized but I think the visual presentation is appealing to the students. They have expressed positive comments about the use of the technology in their evaluations of the class. I use Powerpoint presentations at the beginning of the semester and near the end of the semester because I want to gain the students' attention at the beginning and near the end, when everyone is tired, I think the increased use of visuals helps them to sustain their focus.

I like to scan maps into Powerpoint and project them on the screen so students can analyze the maps as I ask questions about them. Sometimes the textbooks do not contain the maps needed for a particular discussion or the maps in the room are on maps stacks and it is not easy to flip back and forth between two maps for comparison purposes. For example, I like to use maps which show the locations of the European Empires in North America before and after the French and Indian War. By using Powerpoint slides I can easily move from one map to the next as we discuss the transition of power in North America.

Another example of the use of Powerpoint to enhance historical thinking skills is the use of photographs in the lecture on the Civil War. I like to ask questions and present key information and then show the students photographs from the Library of Congress. I then take students to the Library of Congress site to show them the historical photographs which are available for viewing online. Hopefully students will be interested and investigate many of the other fascinating pages at the Library of Congress. The address is . The photographs are at the American Memories page. [3]

The most important way that I use the computer in the survey course is in conjunction with a book review assignment. Students are assigned Stephen Ambrose's biography of Meriwether Lewis, Undaunted Courage, to read and review. My goal is for students to "think like historians" by critically analyzing an historical biography. I use the PBS web site on Lewis and Clark with the book review assignment so that hopefully students will read the book. It is located [4]

It is filled with very interesting primary and secondary information. Students can study about the expedition by viewing a time line in the "Archive section" of the site. The time line is very beneficial to the students as they read the book in understanding the actual length of time the Corps of Discovery spent on their journey. The maps of the journey located at the "Archive section" of the site are also helpful for understanding the geographic areas the Corps explored. Clark's maps are also displayed on the site so students can compare what Clark observed as he mapped the journey. I think the most valuable source of information about the Corps of Discovery's journey into the unknown are the journals which is also linked to the "Archive section." It is powerful to read the words of the men as they first traveled across the Great Plains or as they moved into the mountains and encountered unknown species of animals like the Grizzly Bear. The journals can be searched by date or topic or by one individual's writings.

The information on the Native Americans is also extremely important. This information can be accessed by clicking on the "Native American" link on the "Lewis and Clark homepage." The maps are helpful in locating the Native American settlements and learning more about each tribe the men met on their journey.

Students are asked to investigate the site very thoroughly and compare and contrast the information contained in the book with that on the web site. Since several historians' perspectives are displayed on the web site, students obtain a broader view of the story than that portrayed in Ambrose's book. For example on the "Living History" page students learn what historians thought about York's contributions to the expedition. In investigating this part of the web site, students learn about various historical interpretations of the journey.

On the "Inside the Corps" page students get a much deeper insight into the lives of the individual members of the expedition than what is provided in Undaunted Courage. For example, students can read about Sacajawea and Charbonneau's son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau and find out what happened to him after the Corps of Discovery completed their journey. This information always stimulates class discussion on the impact of the exploration on the Native Americans. After reading the information on the web site, students are then able to review the book more critically.

We explore the web site briefly in class before students begin work on the major assignment. After they have reviewed the book and completed the Internet assignment we have a lengthy class discussion. Based on the quality of their questions and the level of class discussion, the PBS web site seems to assist the students in understanding and evaluating the book effectively.

I carry the Internet assignment one step further in an attempt to further enhance historical thinking skills. Just as students critically review Ambrose's ideas about Lewis in the book review, I also want students to critically review information presented on the Internet sites. Students search the web by typing "Lewis and Clark" into a search engine like "Yahoo." They are asked to describe three additional sites and to compare and contrast them with the PBS site. I want them to evaluate the quality of the information and try to determine the purpose for the publication of the site. In this way students view web sites with a much keener eye. Once they have criticized the web sites then this helps them to critically analyze Ambrose's book.

The use of the computer raises the level of student interest in my class. The projects I tie to the computer are, I believe, very persuasive tools for increasing student interest in my class. My students may not love the study of history as much as I do but hopefully they will develop keen historical thinking skills which will allow them to thrive in a democratic society.


1. National Standards for United States History: Exploring the American Experience (Los Angeles: UCLA, National Center for History in the Schools), 7.

2. Ibid.

3. The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.,

4. Public Broadcasting Service, Alexandria, Virginia,

Gina Hogue