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Learning Design Histories for Design Futures: Speculative Histories and Reflective Practice


The conceptual frameworks that influence historical accounts also influence speculation about the future. In this respect, history and futurology share a subtle affinity. They are both children of the moving present (Buchanan, 2001, p. 73).

The affinity between histories and futures has always been a central concern of my teaching, research and practice. I might use different terms according to the context—heritage and innovation in museums or design history and design futuring in education—but I share with Richard Buchanan a desire for a robust design culture in the present that makes a sustainable contribution to humanity’s future. This essay takes the form of a reflection on my own practice as a design teacher, and discusses the value of speculative history for design students, as well as a recent example in practice. The educational case study is based on a paper I presented at the first Teaching Design History workshop organised by the Design History Society in 2010, which coincided with the launch of the Design History Reader (2010) by Grace Lees-Maffei. Having taught design history, criticism and theory for seven years in the Design Studies Department at the University of Otago in New Zealand, it was gratifying to see a relatively comprehensive published reader that bore some resemblance to the various readers I had compiled for undergraduate courses. However, talking to the design history teachers, I became aware for the first time about a tension that existed in the UK between the teaching of design history and its relationship to studio practice. Since being made compulsory in tertiary education in the UK in the 1970s, design history had grown to be an established discipline (or, at least, sub-discipline of history), but there was a perception amongst students that it lacked relevance to studio practice, or at least had become divorced from it due to different methods of delivery and outcomes (studio vs lecture, design vs essay). While this did not necessarily coincide with my own experience, it did make me consider the relationship of history and practice in tertiary design education.

The relationship of history, theory and criticism to practice is frequently debated in design, as it is in many other disciplines with demanding professional practices. However, design’s prescriptive, projective and prospective orientation often sees history relegated to educational outsider status, confined to the lecture theatre and excluded from the studio. In other words, there is a perception that too much emphasis on descriptive, critical and retrospective analysis of design hinders innovation, and so an artificial divide is maintained: History is the object of formal disciplined and critical study, not the subject of practice. History is dead and inevitable; design is alive and unpredictable. There are, however, many notable examples where this is not the case: Design Studies was initially proposed by Paul Rand during a visit to Carnegie Mellon in the 1970s as a series of courses to help students reflect on and understand the principles of design; Philip Meggs’ monumental History of Graphic Design (1983) was researched and designed with his students, and in New Zealand, typographer Kris Sowersby of Klim Type Foundry is amongst those type designers who make extensive use of 18th and 19th century type specimens to refine and develop his remarkable 21st century type designs.

Reflective Practice In my case, the primary motivations of design history still remain: to create an adequate critical history of design in New Zealand as both a contribution to national history and global histories of design. However, my primary role as a design historian is not to educate the next generation of design historians, but to educate critical, creative and reflective design practitioners, as well as to sustain research-informed design practice within an interdisciplinary Design Studies undergraduate programme. It is for these reasons that I introduce design history as a fundamental design research process. If students can master the basic methods of historical scholarship, they are prepared for more advanced design research methods.

Speculative Histories Called by a number of different names—allohistory, counterfactuals, alternative, speculative or virtual histories—this particular method of design history proposes ‘what-if’ scenarios about the past. Anyone who has reviewed the finalists in a design competition after the winner has been announced will probably have begun such a speculation about what might have been. While the method gained academic credibility in the 1990s with the publication of Geoffrey Hawthorn’s Plausible Worlds (1991) and Niall Ferguson’s Virtual History (1997), many historians argue that considering alternative course of action available to historical actors at a given historical moment has always been a tacit part of historical analysis. In order for historians to develop arguments why certain decisions were made, they had to consider what other options were open to the historical agents. In practice, this means the basic research question changes from ‘What happened and why?’ to ‘What might have happened and why it did not?’, or in cases of individual design ‘could someone have acted differently?’

This mode of inquiry is premised on the idea that history is dynamic and contingent, and very few human decisions are inevitable. It also has the effect of returning a sense of agency to historical actors and facilitates empathy and deeper understanding of the historical choices made, as well as ethical consideration of consequences. However, it is important that the imaginative premise is supported by empirical means, and that some form of hypothesis has to be developed and tested against contemporary evidence of what alternatives were actually considered at a given historical moment. This entails identifying key decisions and turning points in the past, taking account of prevailing conditions, and providing plausible explanations for alternative courses of action. It is therefore a disciplined creativity that supports critical analysis and consideration of narrative structure. Steven Weber has also described speculative histories as “mind-set changers” (Weber, 1996, p. 270) in that they encourage open-mindedness to alternative historical interpretations and the implications of historical events.

Speculative Histories in Teaching Practice To some degree my motivation in introducing speculative histories to design education was to change students’ perception about the value and relevance of history and its methods. The method explicitly introduces a creative element into critical inquiry, encouraging students to consider and develop alternative interpretations. At a more fundamental level, reconstituting history in this way encourages students to reframe problems in general and be critical of assumptions, especially historical ones. As well as reimagining the past, it also affords design opportunities to visually represent the alternative history.

In 2009, I changed the Foresight (futures) assignment to Allosight (the prefix allo- is from the Greek for ‘different, other’). Students had already completed a piece of design history research (Hindsight), and had applied the basic principles and methods of design history (as set out in John Walker’s Design History and the History of Design). They were then asked to select a significant design, decision, incident or event from two general histories of design and one New Zealand design history, and write a short factual summary of 500 words supported by a single photograph, before creating a speculative history of 1500 words. What struck me was the enthusiasm for, and extra effort into the assignment and the diversity of topics chosen. These ranged from changes to the design of the Berlin Wall, a reversal of results in the 1954 World Cup football final, Al Gore’s election as President, America without Bauhaus designers, and our local cityscape without a controversial sports stadium. Each considered the effects of change, including the effectiveness of the design of the Berlin Wall in separating people, the effect of sport championships on brand value, sustainability, American design education, and public funding of sports stadia. Many assignments redesigned artefacts and media from the past to simulate accurate historical communication of their alternative history. Two particularly notable student examples can be highlighted: architect Richard Neutra’s modernist public housing project for Elysian Park Heights in Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles, and the early death of fashion designer Christian Dior. The first student’s interest in Neutra was sparked from his previous Hindsight assignment of Neutra’s Case Study Houses (1945–1966). By considering the plans for Elysian Park Heights and its implementation, he discussed a plausible gentrification and displacement of people it had been intended for. The second student considered what if Christian Dior had lived past 1957, and her Allosight project lead to a fourth-year dissertation on the importance of succession planning in fashion brand identities built around a single name.

In his book Design Futuring (2009), Tony Fry states that “Looking back teaches ways to think about how to project forward. It can be a way to formulate key questions and to create ‘critical fictions’, enabling the contemplation of what would otherwise not be considered” (Fry, 2009, p. 39). From my experience, speculative history is a challenging and sophisticated method which encourages design students to reflect upon about the nature of history, question received interpretations, identify and empathise with challenges faced by historical figures, simulate alternatives and develop coherent narratives. Below are summarised some of its core learning benefits for those interested in incorporating the method within their design teaching:

· Supports critical research and tests deductive reasoning skills; · Challenges the assumption of the inevitability of history; · Supports understanding of the significance of human agency; · Provides an opportunity to apply graphic design to history; · Requires careful consideration of narrative formation; · Introduces scenario building into design history, the relationships of driving 
forces, and the importance of plausibility as a test of scenarios; · The exploration of the past, discovery of alternative interpretations, and prototyping alternative histories relates well to the three stages (Exploration, Discovery and Prototyping) of participatory design as set out by Spinuzzi (2005) · Identifies social issues and analyses the ethical consequences of decision-making; ·  Provides an opportunity for disciplined creativity. In terms of my teaching, the main challenge lay in defining and selecting topics that are supported by a breadth of secondary research while, for students, identifying key turning points and evidence of historically plausible alternatives requires careful attention to the literature. In my experience, the benefits outweighed these challenges and the results aligned well with the first two levels of Futures Literacy as set out by Miller (2007), awareness and discovery. Awareness consists of developing temporal and situational awareness ‘that change happens over time, that people do harbour expectations and values, and that choices matter’ (Miller, 2007, p. 348), while discovery involves ‘consistently distinguishing between possible, probable and preferable’ futures to encourage a ‘rigorous imagining’ (Miller, 2007, p. 350) of possible scenarios to inform strategic decision-making. What I saw in students who used speculative histories was a greater awareness of their present-day assumptions and a genuine pleasure in the nuanced process of discovery the method entailed.

Back to the Future In both theory and practice, speculative histories provide a healthy challenge to orthodox thinking. Speculative histories reveal an important aspect of creative thinking that informs historical research—the importance of inquiry-led discovery, the active possibility of human agency, and the potential for the reinterpretation of history—and, in my experience, its application by design students encourages a more active interest in design historical research and a clearer understanding of its relationship to, and potential for design practice. It also offers a safe historical laboratory in which to test out and critically evaluate hypothetical scenarios and their consequences which brings us back to the present needs of design education and, in the case of New Zealand, the future of that country’s flag.

— Bibliography Buchanan, R. (2001) Children of the Moving Present: The Ecology of Culture and the Search for Causes in Design. In: Design Issues 17.1, pp. 67–84. Ferguson, N. (ed.) (1997). Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. London: Picador. Fry, T. (2008) Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice. Oxford: Berg. Gilson, E. (1938) The Unity of Philosophical Experience. London: Sheed & Ward. Hawthorn, G. (1991) Plausible Worlds: Possibility and Understanding in History and the Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Kaye, Simon T. (2010) Challenging Certainty: The Utility and History of Counter-factualism. In: History and Theory 49, pp. 38–57. Lebow, R. (2000) What’s So Different About A Counterfactual? In: World Politics 52, pp. 550–585. Levine, S. (ed.), (2006) New Zealand As It Might Have Been. Wellington: Victoria University Press. Levine, S. (ed.), (2010) New Zealand As It Might Have Been 2. Wellington: Victoria University Press. Miller, R. (2007) Futures Literacy: A Hybrid Strategic Scenario Method. In: Futures 39.4, pp. 341–362. Spinuzzi, C. (2005) The Methodology of Participatory Design. In: Technical Communication 52.2, pp. 163–74. Walker, J. A. (1989) Varieties of Design History. In: Design History and the History of Design. London: Pluto. pp. 99–152. Weber, S. (1996) Counterfactuals, Past and Future. In: Tetlock, P. & Belkin, A. (eds.), Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics: Logical, Methodological, and Psychological Perspectives. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 268–288.

— Essay originally published in Modes of Criticism 2  – Critique of Method (2016).

  [ + ]

1 The French philosopher and historian Étienne Gilson is widely attributed with saying “History is the only laboratory we have in which to test the consequences of thought.”
2 See: In: .
3 See: In: New Zealand Government.

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Design: A Very Short Introduction

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Design: A Very Short Introduction

2 (page 8) p. 8 The historical evolution of design

  • Published: June 2005
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The human capacity to design has remained constant even though its means and methods have altered, in parallel to technological, organizational, and cultural changes. ‘The historical evolution of design’ argues that design, although a unique and unchanging skill, has manifested itself in different ways throughout time. The diversity of concepts and practices in modern design is explained by the layered nature of the evolution of design. It is difficult to determine exactly when humans began to change their environment to a significant degree, or in other words to design. Whose interest will design serve in the future? How will design cope with challenges of operating in a more globalized space?

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How History is Made: A Student’s Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking in the Discipline

(2 reviews)

write a short essay on learning design in history

Stephanie Cole, Arlington, Texas

Kimberly Breuer, Arlington, Texas

Scott W. Palmer, Arlington, Texas

ISBN 13: 9781648160066

Publisher: Mavs Open Press

Language: English

Formats Available

Conditions of use.


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write a short essay on learning design in history

Reviewed by Ingo Heidbrink, Professor of History, Old Dominion University on 5/22/24

The book covers successfully the basic methods of historical research and writing. It has been prepared as a textbook for the methods classes at the University of Texas, Arlington (UTA) and therefore is focusing especially on methods that are of... read more

Comprehensiveness rating: 5 see less

The book covers successfully the basic methods of historical research and writing. It has been prepared as a textbook for the methods classes at the University of Texas, Arlington (UTA) and therefore is focusing especially on methods that are of importance to the historical course offerings at UTA, but also provides a highly comprehensive overview of the standard methodology taught at any department of history throughout the US and around the globe. Overall, it discusses the complete process of historical research from source selection, critique and analysis to the process of historical writing and preparation of other means of communication of historical research to academic and non-academic audiences. It needs to be highlighted, that the book begins with an introduction to the different types of reading as a critical skill for all historical research, but also includes some brief chapters on the use of GIS systems, oral history, data-bases etc. and thus covers the standard set of methods most historians will use today. Nevertheless, it needs to be mentioned, that specialised methods like for example the whole range of quantitative methods typically used by economic historians are more or less completely neglected, but this seems to be very much acceptable, as the book is written as a basic textbook for students of history regardless of field of specialisation and not as a dedicated higher-level methods publication for a particular sub-field of historical research.

Content Accuracy rating: 4

The description of methodology and writing practice follows the broadly accepted standards of historical research in the US. While the text is accurate, seems to be error-free, and unbiased, it needs to be mentioned, that all textbooks focusing on historical method will only present some but not all potential methods and that the selection of which methods are included or excluded is always depending on the authors and their take on historical research. But as the book is mainly dealing with the basic mechanics of historical research and writing on which nearly all historians agree, this is a minor issue.

Relevance/Longevity rating: 5

As the book is mainly dealing with the basic standard methodology of historical research and writing, the risk of the main parts of the book becoming outdated or obsolete is extremely low or to a certain degree not existing. After all, while historical method has improved substantially over the last decades, the fundamentals of reading, source critique and analysis, and historical writings remained valid. Some of the chapters dealing with specific methods like the use of GIS systems might become outdated at a certain time, but as they are presented as individual chapters, these chapters can easily be exchanged if needed. If the authors might decide that it would be useful to add additional chapters on other (new) methods, they can easily be integrated into the book and thus it is unlikely that the book will become outdated in the foreseeable future. When it comes to relevance at large, the book is covering a topic of utmost relevance, as it provides a comprehensive and easily accessible to the main methods and skills for any historian and thus a topic that is fundamental for the discipline and any student of history.

Clarity rating: 4

The book is written as a textbook with undergraduate students in mind as the target readership. Therefore it needs to be lauded that the amount of discipline specific jargon and/or discipline specific terminology is limited, but on the other hand, it can also be criticised that the amount of discipline specific terminology introduced in the book is limited. Analytical historical research regularly requires very precise wording and it would have been helpful if the book would have introduced more of the typical canon of terminology used by professional historians.

Consistency rating: 5

The text is consistent in terms of the terminology used throughout the book and it can be clearly seen that the authors and spend a lot of effort on generating this consistency.

Modularity rating: 5

The book has a certain degree of modularity and individual chapters can be easily assigned as a reading when using the book as a textbook. All individual chapters have a length that they can easily be assigned as a reading from one class session to the next. If the book might be assigned as an additional textbook in a thematic history course, individual chapters of the book that are of special relevance for this course can be easily assigned without the students needing to read anything beyond the chapter to understand the content that is required for that particular class.

Organization/Structure/Flow rating: 4

The book is basically organised along the flow of historical research, which seems to be the most logical approach for any textbook on historical methods and historical writing.

Interface rating: 4

The text is largely free from interface issues, but the pdf version is suffering from some issues with the few pages in landscape format. Navigation within the book is basic but functional and appropriate

Grammatical Errors rating: 5

The text does not seem to contain any major grammatical errors

Cultural Relevance rating: 4

While the book is using some examples that are inclusive of races, ethnicities, and backgrounds, it needs to mentioned, that the book is highly US focused. On the one hand this is not a major issue as the examples chosen does not really matter when it comes to a discussion of methods, but it might limit the usability or at least the attractivenes of the book outside the US.

Having taught historical methods class for two decades, I never found a textbook that fulfilled all my needs and. thus worked mainly with individually assigned materials and texts instead of a textbook. Although this book is also not the perfect textbook for me, I'll consider introducing the book to my methods classes as it comes as an open textbook and thus without cost to the students. Furthermore, it seems to me that this book is a very solid example or base for the development of department specific historical method textbooks at individual departments of history throughout the US.

Reviewed by Ramon Jackson, Assistant Professor of History, Newberry College on 11/4/22

This textbook was developed for HIST 3300, a history research methods course at the University of Texas-Arlington. The course doubles as a substitute for UNIV 1101, the freshman "College Life" seminar. The authors offer useful, comprehensive... read more

Comprehensiveness rating: 4 see less

This textbook was developed for HIST 3300, a history research methods course at the University of Texas-Arlington. The course doubles as a substitute for UNIV 1101, the freshman "College Life" seminar. The authors offer useful, comprehensive chapters on thinking, researching, writing, and performing historically as well as useful supplementary sections that offer tips for student success while in college. There are also excellent appendices that discuss how to develop and utilize databases in historical research. An issue is that the textbook was developed for UTA students which means that certain information will not apply to those outside of that university system.

How History is Made offers practical advice for undergraduate and graduate History students and continuing scholars alike. It accurately and concisely documents the evolution of the historical profession and outlines how students can utilize the training provided in History courses and programs as future professionals. The authors provide numerous examples of how race and ethnicity have shaped academic and Public History but sometimes fall short of providing readers with an understanding of how specific skills such as oral history may be more difficult to apply in Black and marginalized communities or the obstacles one may face as minorities within the profession.

Relevance/Longevity rating: 4

Substantial sections of the information offered in this textbook are timeless, specifically the sections that instruct students about how to think, research, write, and perform historically. The chapters on "Digital History" and Public History may need to be revised later due to increased participation and innovation in these fields. Instructors outside of the UTA system will need to supplement the use of this book with their own research and writing activities and versions of parts VI-VIII to provide skills, resources, and advice for future graduates that best reflect conditions on their own campuses.

The authors did a fine job of providing readers with an accessible, concise, and useful textbook that examines the history of the historical profession and provides useful strategies, skills, and resources for success in the field. Minor grammatical errors and occasional formatting issues obstructed the flow of specific chapters but, overall, the authors made a compelling case for the value of historical thought, research, and writing among undergraduate students and future professionals in every discipline.

Consistency rating: 4

The text is consistent and avoids jargon, slang, and other unnecessary mistakes that would distract or confuse readers. How History is Made is accessible for undergraduate and graduate students in History and other disciplines.

Modularity rating: 4

How History is Made is easy to follow and would serve as an excellent course textbook for introductory, special topics, and upper-level History courses that emphasize critical thinking, research, and writing as key learning outcomes or assign research papers or "Un-Essay" projects as final projects. This book is also useful for "College 101" or "College/University Life" courses offered to provide study skills and knowledge to freshmen and sophomores. I definitely plan to use this book to scaffold the research and writing process in my special topics and upper-level History courses. Certain sections may even be useful for providing introductory level History students with an understanding of the origins and evolution of the historical profession and/or knowledge about how professional historians utilize a variety of sources to craft arguments, interpret the past, and offer compelling and profound narratives about the relevance of our shared history to contemporary life.

Organization/Structure/Flow rating: 5

How History Is Made is organized in a logical, clear fashion.

The pdf version of the book contains minor grammatical errors and a few charts and lists that could distract or confuse the reader.

Grammatical Errors rating: 4

See the above comment.

Cultural Relevance rating: 3

One issue with How History is Made is the authors' assertion that the historical discipline is different than "history that everyone owns." This seems to detract from their efforts to offer students from all disciplines the skills and knowledge related to "thinking historically." Additionally, there are moments where greater attention to the experiences of historians from Black and marginalized communities is warranted, specifically the sections on becoming a professional historian and the chapter on oral history. If you decide to use this book, it would be a good idea to pair it with studies and interviews featuring scholars from diverse backgrounds to challenge and complicate some of the assertions made about how history is written and performed. One size does not fit all. Practitioners of digital history may not find this book useful due to the brevity of the information provided.

I enjoyed reading this book and plan to use it as a main or supplementary text to help my students learn to think, research, write, and perform historically. I look forward to seeing if it helps them to improve as researchers and scholars.

Table of Contents

  • About the Publisher
  • About this Project
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • I. Thinking Historically
  • II. Reading Historically
  • III. Researching Historically
  • IV. Writing Historically
  • V. Performing Historically
  • VI. Skills for Success
  • VII. UTA Campus Resources
  • VIII. Degree Planning and Beyond, Advice from the UTA History Department
  • Bibliography
  • Appendix A- Database Rules and Datatypes
  • Appendix B - Working With Multiple Tables
  • Appendix C- Database Troubleshooting and Coding
  • Appendix D- Database Design and Parts of a Database
  • Appendix E- Writing Criteria/ Example Rubric
  • Image Credits
  • Accessibility Rubric
  • Errata and Versioning History

Ancillary Material

About the book.

Learn what it means to think like an historian! Units on “Thinking Historically,” “Reading Historically,” “Researching Historically,” and “Writing Historically” describe the essential skills of the discipline of history. “Performing Historically” offers advice on presenting research findings and describes some careers open to those with an academic training in history.

About the Contributors

Stephanie Cole received her PhD in History from the University of Flordia in 1994 and has taught the introduction to historical methods, as well as courses in women’s history, the history of work, history of sexuality and marriage and related topics at UT Arlington since 1996.  Her most recent publication is the co-edited volume  Texas Women: Their Histories, Their Lives  (University of Georgia Press, 2015).

Kimberly Breuer received her PhD in History from Vanderbilt University in 2004 and has been at UT Arlington since 2004. She regularly teaches the introduction to historical methods, as well as courses in the history of science and technology and Iberian history. Her research centers on the relationship between student (team-based) creation of OER content, experiential learning, and student engagement; student mapped learning pathways and self-regulated learning; interactive and game-based learning.

Scott   W.  Palmer received his PhD in History from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 1997. From his arrival at UT Arlington in 2016 until Fall 2022, he served as  Chair of the Department of History. He  regularly teaches courses on Russian/Soviet History, Flight Culture and the Human Experience, and History of Video Games, along with upper level offerings in the History of Technology and Science.” “ He is author  of  Dictatorship of the Air: Aviation Culture and the Fate of Modern Russia  (Cambridge University Press, 2006),  co-editor of  Science, Technology, Environment, and Medicine in Russia’s Great War and Revolution  ( Slavica , 2022), and editor of the forthcoming c ollection  Flight Culture and the Human Experience  (Texas A&M University Press, 2023).

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write a short essay on learning design in history

Writing to Learn History: An Instructional Design Study

  • Lieke Holdinga University of Amsterdam
  • Jannet van Drie University of Amsterdam
  • Tanja Janssen University of Amsterdam
  • Gert Rijlaarsdam University of Amsterdam

This study reports on the design and evaluation of an instructional unit, aimed at improving secondary school students’ disciplinary writing in history. Central to this design was the replacement of conventional workbook exercises by evaluative source-based writing tasks which were co-developed with participating history teachers. Additionally, an instructional unit to teach students a discipline-specific reading-thinking-writing strategy based on previous research was designed. Two history teachers implemented the evaluative tasks and the strategy instruction in their 11th grade history classrooms in a trial intervention study with a switching panels design. Pre-, mid-, and post-testing consisted of evaluative writing tasks (ca. 200-300 words), which were analyzed on holistic quality, content quality, quality of structure, and text length. Results showed effects in the second panel for content quality.

In this paper we elaborate on the design of this strategy and the instructional design, as well as the design principles underpinning these. Based on the trial study, we present recommendations for redesign in order to optimize practicality and effectiveness of the instructional unit.

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19 Standards of Historical Writing

In this chapter, you will learn the basic expectations for writing an undergrad history research paper. At this point in your college career, you’ve likely had a great deal of instruction about writing and you may be wondering why this chapter is here. There are at least three reasons:

  • For some of you, those lessons about writing came before you were ready to appreciate or implement them. If you know your writing skills are weak, you should not only pay close attention to this chapter, but also submit early drafts of your work to the History Tutoring Center (at UTA) or another writing coach. Only practice and multiple drafts will improve those skills.
  • Those of you who were paying attention in composition courses know the basics, but may lack a good understanding of the format and approach of scholarly writing in history. Other disciplines permit more generalities and relaxed associations than history, which is oriented toward specific contexts and (often, but not always) linear narratives. Moreover, because historians work in a subject often read by non-academics, they place a greater emphasis on clearing up jargon and avoiding convoluted sentence structure. In other words, the standards of historical writing are high and the guidelines that follow will help you reach them.
  • Every writer, no matter how confident or experienced, faces writing blocks. Going back to the fundamental structures and explanations may help you get past the blank screen by supplying prompts to help you get started.

As you read the following guide, keep in mind that it represents only our perspective on the basic standards. In all writing, even history research papers, there is room for stylistic variation and elements of a personal style. But one of the standards of historical writing is that only those who fully understand the rules can break them successfully. If you regularly violate the rule against passive voice verb construction or the need for full subject-predicate sentences, you cannot claim the use of sentence fragments or passive voice verbs is “just your style.” Those who normally observe those grammatical rules, in contrast, might on occasion violate them for effect. The best approach is first to demonstrate to your instructor that you can follow rules of grammar and essay structure before you experiment or stray too far from the advice below.


Introductions are nearly impossible to get right the first time. Thus, one of the best strategies for writing an introduction to your history essay is to keep it “bare bones” in the first draft, initially working only toward a version that covers the basic requirements. After you’ve written the full paper (and realized what you’re really trying to say, which usually differs from your initial outline), you can come back to the intro and re-draft it accordingly. However, don’t use the likelihood of re-writing your first draft to avoid writing one. Introductions provide templates not only for your readers, but also for you, the writer. A decent “bare bones” introduction can minimize writer’s block as a well-written thesis statement provides a road map for each section of the paper.

So what are the basic requirements? In an introduction, you must:

  • Pose a worthwhile question or problem that engages your reader
  • Establish that your sources are appropriate for answering the question, and thus that you are a trustworthy guide without unfair biases
  • Convince your reader that they will be able to follow your explanation by laying out a clear thesis statement.

Engaging readers in an introduction

When you initiated your research, you asked questions as a part of the process of narrowing your topic (see the “Choosing and Narrowing a Topic” chapter for more info). If all went according to plan, the information you found as you evaluated your primary sources allowed you to narrow your question further, as well as arrive at a plausible answer, or explanation for the problem you posed. (If it didn’t, you’ll need to repeat the process, and either vary your questions or expand your sources. Consult your instructor, who can help identify what contribution your research into a set of primary sources can achieve.) The key task for your introduction is to frame your narrowed research question—or, in the words of some composition instructors, the previously assumed truth that your inquiries have destabilized—in a way that captures the attention of your readers. Common approaches to engaging readers include:

  • Telling a short story (or vignette) from your research that illustrates the tension between what readers might have assumed before reading your paper and what you have found to be plausible instead.
  • Stating directly what others believe to be true about your topic—perhaps using a quote from a scholar of the subject—and then pointing immediately to an aspect of your research that puts that earlier explanation into doubt.
  • Revealing your most unexpected finding, before moving to explain the source that leads you to make the claim, then turning to the ways in which this finding expands our understanding of your topic.

What you do NOT want to do is begin with a far-reaching transhistorical claim about human nature or an open-ended rhetorical question about the nature of history. Grand and thus unprovable claims about “what history tells us” do not inspire confidence in readers. Moreover, such broadly focused beginnings require too much “drilling down” to get to your specific area of inquiry, words that risk losing readers’ interest. Last, beginning with generic ideas is not common to the discipline. Typical essay structures in history do not start broadly and steadily narrow over the course of the essay, like a giant inverted triangle. If thinking in terms of a geometric shape helps you to conceptualize what a good introduction does, think of your introduction as the top tip of a diamond instead. In analytical essays based on research, many history scholars begin with the specific circumstances that need explaining, then broaden out into the larger implications of their findings, before returning to the specifics in their conclusions—following the shape of a diamond.

Clear Thesis Statements

Under the standards of good scholarly writing in the United States—and thus those that should guide your paper—your introduction contains the main argument you will make in your essay. Elsewhere—most commonly in European texts—scholars sometimes build to their argument and reveal it fully only in the conclusion. Do not follow this custom in your essay. Include a well-written thesis statement somewhere in your introduction; it can be the first sentence of your essay, toward the end of the first paragraph, or even a page or so in, should you begin by setting the stage with a vignette. Wherever you place it, make sure your thesis statement meets the following standards:

A good thesis statement :

  • Could be debated by informed scholars : Your claim should not be so obvious as to be logically impossible to argue against. Avoid the history equivalent of “the sky was blue.”
  • Can be proven with the evidence at hand : In the allotted number of pages, you will need to introduce and explain at least three ways in which you can support your claim, each built on its own pieces of evidence. Making an argument about the role of weather on the outcome of the Civil War might be intriguing, given that such a claim questions conventional explanations for the Union’s victory. But a great deal of weather occurred in four years and Civil War scholars have established many other arguments you would need to counter, making such an argument impossible to establish in the length of even a long research paper. But narrowing the claim—to a specific battle or from a single viewpoint—could make such an argument tenable. Often in student history papers, the thesis incorporates the main primary source into the argument. For example, “As his journal and published correspondence between 1861 and 1864 reveal, Colonel Mustard believed that a few timely shifts in Tennessee’s weather could have altered the outcome of the war.”
  • Is specific without being insignificant : Along with avoiding the obvious, stay away from the arcane. “Between 1861 and 1864, January proved to be the worst month for weather in Central Tennessee.” Though this statement about the past is debatable and possible to support with evidence about horrible weather in January and milder-by-comparison weather in other months, it lacks import because it’s not connected to knowledge that concerns historians. Thesis statements should either explicitly or implicitly speak to current historical knowledge—which they can do by refining, reinforcing, nuancing, or expanding what (an)other scholar(s) wrote about a critical event or person.
  • P rovide s a “roadmap” to readers : Rather than just state your main argument, considering outlining the key aspects of it, each of which will form a main section of the body of the paper. When you echo these points in transitions between sections, readers will realize they’ve completed one aspect of your argument and are beginning a new part of it. To demonstrate this practice by continuing the fictional Colonel Mustard example above: “As his journal and published correspondence between 1861 and 1864 reveals, Colonel Mustard believed that Tennessee’s weather was critical to the outcome of the Civil War. He linked both winter storms and spring floods in Tennessee to the outcome of key battles and highlighted the weather’s role in tardy supply transport in the critical year of 1863.” Such a thesis cues the reader that evidence and explanations about 1) winter storms; 2) spring floods; and 3) weather-slowed supply transport that will form the main elements of the essay.

Thesis Statement Practice

More Thesis Statement Practice

The Body of the Paper

What makes a good paragraph.

While an engaging introduction and solid conclusion are important, the key to drafting a good essay is to write good paragraphs. That probably seems obvious, but too many students treat paragraphs as just a collection of a few sentences without considering the logic and rules that make a good paragraph. In essence, in a research paper such as the type required in a history course, for each paragraph you should follow the same rules as the paper itself. That is, a good paragraph has a topic sentence, evidence that builds to make a point, and a conclusion that ties the point to the larger argument of the paper. On one hand, given that it has so much work to do, paragraphs are three sentences , at a minimum . On the other hand, because paragraphs should be focused to making a single point, they are seldom more than six to seven sentences . Though rules about number of sentences are not hard and fast, keeping the guidelines in mind can help you construct tightly focused paragraphs in which your evidence is fully explained.

Topic sentences

The first sentence of every paragraph in a research paper (or very occasionally the second) should state a claim that you will defend in the paragraph . Every sentence in the paragraph should contribute to that topic. If you read back over your paragraph and find that you have included several different ideas, the paragraph lacks focus. Go back, figure out the job that this paragraph needs to do—showing why an individual is important, establishing that many accept an argument that you plan on countering, explaining why a particular primary source can help answer your research question, etc. Then rework your topic sentence until it correctly frames the point you need to make. Next, cut out (and likely move) the sentences that don’t contribute to that outcome. The sentences you removed may well help you construct the next paragraph, as they could be important ideas, just not ones that fit with the topic of the current paragraph. Every sentence needs to be located in a paragraph with a topic sentence that alerts the reader about what’s to come.

Transitions/Bridges/Conclusion sentences in paragraphs

All good writers help their readers by including transition sentences or phrases in their paragraphs, often either at the paragraph’s end or as an initial phrase in the topic sentence. A transition sentence can either connect two sections of the paper or provide a bridge from one paragraph to the next. These sentences clarify how the evidence discussed in the paragraph ties into the thesis of the paper and help readers follow the argument. Such a sentence is characterized by a clause that summarizes the info above, and points toward the agenda of the next paragraph. For example, if the current section of your paper focused on the negative aspects of your subject’s early career, but your thesis maintains he was a late-developing military genius, a transition between part one (on the negative early career) and part two (discussing your first piece of evidence revealing genius) might note that “These initial disastrous strategies were not a good predictor of General Smith’s mature years, however, as his 1841 experience reveals.” Such a sentence underscores for the reader what has just been argued (General Smith had a rough start) and sets up what’s to come (1841 was a critical turning point).

Explaining Evidence

Just as transitional sentences re-state points already made for clarity’s sake, “stitching” phrases or sentences that set-up and/or follow quotations from sources provide a certain amount of repetition. Re-stating significant points of analysis using different terms is one way you explain your evidence. Another way is by never allowing a quote from a source to stand on its own, as though its meaning was self-evident. It isn’t and indeed, what you, the writer, believes to be obvious seldom is. When in doubt, explain more.

For more about when to use a quotation and how to set it up see “How to quote” in the next section on Notes and Quotation.”

Conclusio ns

There exists one basic rule for conclusions: Summarize the paper you have written . Do not introduce new ideas, launch briefly into a second essay based on a different thesis, or claim a larger implication based on research not yet completed. This final paragraph is NOT a chance to comment on “what history tells us” or other lessons for humankind. Your conclusion should rest, more or less, on your thesis, albeit using different language from the introduction and evolved, or enriched, by examples discussed throughout the paper. Keep your conclusion relevant and short, and you’ll be fine.

For a checklist of things you need before you write or a rubric to evaluate your writing click here

How History is Made: A Student’s Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking in the Discipline Copyright © 2022 by Stephanie Cole; Kimberly Breuer; Scott W. Palmer; and Brandon Blakeslee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Since the Association was founded in 1884, the Association’s presidents have addressed the annual meeting on a topic of interest or concern to the profession. Since there is no set topic, the subjects treated have ranged widely from the role of history in society to the best practices of historians as writers, teachers, and social scientists. Each in their unique way represents a microcosm of the interests and concerns of the profession in various stages of its development over the past century.

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Providing access to hundreds of newspaper editorials detailing the shifting tides of emotion and opinion in the 16 months leading to southern secession and the American Civil War, this collection is intended primarily as a teaching resource, to enrich students’ exploration and understanding of the period and assist history teachers by expanding the available primary sources.

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How student-designed video games made me rethink how I teach history

write a short essay on learning design in history

Professor of History, The University of Texas at Austin

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Imagine you’re a young samurai in Japan in 1701. You have to make a difficult choice between an impoverished life in exile, or the prospect of almost certain death while trying to avenge the death of your dishonored lord. Which do you choose?

“ Ako: A Tale of Loyalty ,” a video game built in 2020, takes players along a difficult journey through early modern Japan filled with decisions like this one. It’s become an essential component of my classes on Japanese history, but it wasn’t developed by a professional game studio. Instead, it was created by a team of four undergraduate history majors with no specialized training.

Loading screen for black-and-white video game

Designing a video game may seem like a strange assignment for a humanities classroom, but as a professor who teaches a range of courses in East Asian history I have found that such exercises provide an engaging learning experience for students while also generating new educational content that can be widely shared.

The gaming revolution

Nearly two-thirds of American adults play video games, and that figure rises steadily each year. Fueled by stay-at-home orders and social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, global gaming sales rose to nearly US$180 billion in 2020.

Among university students, video games are utterly pervasive . When I ask my classes who consumes video game content, either as a player or via streaming services like Twitch , it’s rare that a single student’s hand is not raised.

Schools and colleges have rushed to respond to these trends. Programs like Gamestar Mechanic or Scratch help K-12 students learn basic coding skills, while many universities, including my own, have introduced game design majors to train the next generation of developers.

History professors, however, have been slower to embrace video games as teaching tools. Part of the problem is that the historical content contained within games is often, with some exceptions , repetitive and superficial.

Artwork from video game

While there are many games focused on Japanese history, for example, the majority reinforce the same tired image of the heroic warrior bound by the rigid code of “bushidō,” a code that scholars have shown had very little to do with the daily life or conduct of most samurai.

Designing humanities games

In 2020, I asked four undergraduate history majors to design a fully functional video game with a clear educational payoff built around a controversial episode in Japanese history.

I was motivated by two ideas. First, I wanted to move beyond a standard reliance on academic essays. While I still assign essays, many students find them fairly passive exercises which don’t stimulate deep engagement with a topic.

Second, I was convinced that university professors need to get into the business of producing games content. To be clear, we’re not going to design anything even close to what comes out of professional studios. But we can produce compelling games that are ready to be used both in colleges and – equally important – K-12 classrooms, where teachers are always looking for vetted scholarly content. A conventional academic essay is intended for just one person, the professor. But a video game produced by a group of committed undergraduates can be played by thousands of students at different institutions.

Video game artwork of two Japanese women

At first, I worried the task I had set was too big and the technological barriers too high. None of the four team members was enrolled in a video game design program or had specialized training. It quickly became clear that such fears were overblown.

The team decided to work on a visual novel game, a genre that originated in Japan and can best be described as interactive stories. The design process for such games is facilitated by programs such as Ren’Py , which streamline development.

Learning by design

The team’s first task was to design a believable central character. Successful games push players to emotionally invest in their characters and the choices they make. In the case of “Ako,” the design team created a young samurai named Kanpei Hashimoto who was grounded in the period but also easy to relate to as a young person struggling to find his way in a complex world.

From there, the team created branching storylines punctuated by clear decisions. In total, “Ako” has five possible outcomes depending on the choices a player makes. Numerous smaller decisions along the way open up additional ways to navigate the game.

The next step was dialogue. A typical academic essay is around 2,500 words, and students often complain about how difficult it is to fill the required pages. In contrast, the “Ako” team wrote over 30,000 words of dialogue. It required extensive research. What would a samurai family have eaten for breakfast? How much did it cost to buy a “kaimyō,” or posthumous Buddhist name, for a deceased parent? How long did it take to make the oiled paper umbrellas , called “wagasa,” that many poor samurai sold to survive?

Video artwork of monk

Finally, the students developed historically accurate artwork. The game has four chapters with 30 background images and 13 characters. Making sure everything was consistent with this period in Japanese history was a huge undertaking that stretched both me and the students.

Ultimately, the team learned more about samurai life and early modern Japan than any group of students I had worked with across a single semester. They read a dizzying array of books and articles while working and reworking the overall design, dialogue and artwork. And they succeeded in developing a fully functional video game that has already been used in other classrooms across the country.

Most importantly, I believe their experience provides a template for how student-designed video games can transform the humanities classroom.

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How to Write Your First Undergraduate Essay

Jeremy Black prepares readers for the rigours of university history.

Well done! You have got into university to read history, one of the most interesting subjects on offer. One reason it is very interesting is that there is a clear progression from the challenges at A level to the requirements of a degree. And that is your problem. You have been set your first essay and you are not clear about these requirements.

The first rule is a simple one. The questions may look the same but your answers must be different. One can be set the identical question, say ‘Why did the French Revolution occur?’, at ages 12, 14, 16, 18, 20 or, if you are an academic writing a paper, 50 or 60, but a different type of answer is required.

In what way different? Not primarily in terms of more facts, because university history degrees are not essentially a test of knowledge, not a question of remembering dates or quotes. It is certainly appropriate to support arguments with relevant information, the emphasis being on relevant not information, and, when you deploy facts, do get them right. To get your facts wrong risks undermining the impression you create because it suggests that you do not really know the subject.

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But history is what you remember when you forget the facts. It is a habit of thought, an attitude of critical scrutiny and exposition, a method of enquiry. These should underlie your reading for your essay and should guide your preparation, and it is in their light that facts are to be assessed. They must contribute to the critical argument, and that requires an ability to engage with three elements if the essay is to be a good one:



  • Historiography.

I will go through all three, but do not worry. At this stage, for most students, these are an aspiration and not an achievement; but the aspiration is important as it shows you, first, how your degree course is different from A level and, secondly, what you will be expected to be able to do by the end of your university career. To do well, you should make an effort to begin including each of these elements in your essays.

Many questions relate to key concepts in history. For example, if you are asked ‘What were the causes of the French Revolution?’, the key concepts are causes and revolution. What do you mean by the French Revolution? Is it primarily the violent challenge to royal authority in 1789, the creation of a new political order, a marked ideological discontinuity, the process of socio-economic change, or, if a combination of all of these, which takes precedence and requires most explanation? What do you understand by causes? Are we talking primarily about long-term, ‘structural’ factors that caused problems, or about precipitants that led to a breakdown of the existing situation? These issues need discussing explicitly, out-in-the-open. That is key to a good essay at university level. They should not be left unspoken and unaddressed; and your discussion of them should reflect your awareness that issues are involved in the analysis, and that you are capable of addressing them. You also need to be aware that there will be different answers and this should guide your handling of the concepts. This leads into Methodology.

In this section, you should explicitly address the issue of how scholars, including yourself, can handle the conceptual questions. This follows the previous point closely. What sources should scholars use and how should they use them? Do you put a preference in studying the French Revolution on the declarations made by revolutionaries, on their public debates, or on what happened ‘on the ground’, including the violent opposition they aroused? If you discuss the latter, you underline the fact that the Revolution led to civil war, and that the causes of what you present as the Revolution were not a mass rejection of the existing system. You also point out that in 1789 few people envisaged what they were expected to support in 1792 (a republic and the trial of the king) let alone 1793 (the Reign of Terror). The Revolution is thus presented and studied as a dynamic, changing process, which requires different explanations at particular stages.


A key feature of university work is that you need to address explicitly the degree to which historians hold different views, and why, and to show that you understand that these views change, and can locate your own essay in their debates. For the French Revolution, we see a tendency among French scholars to stress socio-economic causes, among American academics to emphasise the conceptual inconsistencies of the French ancien régime , and among British writers to underline short-term political issues.

Ten Key Things To Do

  • Read the question and understand what it is asking.
  • Work out your approach.
  • Write a detailed essay plan, with different points per paragraph.
  • Have an introduction in which you reveal your understanding of the current debate in interpretations.
  • Remember to handle the concepts in the question and in your answer clearly.
  • Remember to introduce the relevant historical methods explicitly.
  • Engage with the historiography, the views of different historians.
  • In doing so, show how your work is part of the debate.
  • Have a clear conclusion that brings out the relevance of the topic and your answer for wider historical issues.
  • Include a reading list and a word count.

Sounds difficult? Well, these approaches add interest and understanding, and help make your degree a worthwhile process of education and exposition.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History at the University of Exeter. He is the author, with Donald M. MacRaild, of Studying History (Palgrave, 3rd edition, 2007).

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Why essay-writing remains central to learning history at AS level

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Richard Harris challenges those who play down the essay in their teaching of the new AS Level. He argues that essay-writing embodies historical thinking and that it is therefore an essential tool for developing students’ understanding of history as an opinion-forming, judgement making process. Students need to practise developed, evidential substantiation, otherwise all they offer are ungrounded and unhistorical ‘viewpoints’. The extended thinking required by the construction of an essay-shaped argument is fundamental to this. Richard describes how he recently transformed his own practice in the teaching of essay-writing at sixth form level, and explains why he sees this as integral to progression in historical thinking, regardless of whether the examination places emphasis on it or not. His concern is with securing deeply-rooted, enduring improvement in examination performance and argues that this comes about through thorough professional reflection, first, on the nature of history and, second, on the nature of student difficulty. It is not achived by excessive emphasis on predicting and replicating the precise, surface demands of shorter exam answers. Paying tribute to work on writing that is being carried out in the lower secondary years, Richard argues that the history teacher’s first duty is to secure progression from this, building upon it, rather than allowing students to drift backwards. This article is also noteworthy for the emphasis placed on reading. Richard discusses the role of critical thinking, classroom discussion and debate during the reading process. He actively develops his students’ confidence in more extended reading, early in Year 12.

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How to Write a Good History Essay. A Sequence of Actions and Useful Tips

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Before you start writing your history essay, there is quite a lot of work that has to be done in order to gain success.

You may ask: what is history essay? What is the difference between it and other kinds of essays? Well, the main goal of a history essay is to measure your progress in learning history and test your range of skills (such as analysis, logic, planning, research, and writing), it is necessary to prepare yourself very well.

Your plan of action may look like this. First of all, you will have to explore the topic. If you are going to write about a certain historical event, think of its causes and premises, and analyze what its impact on history was. In case you are writing about a person, find out why and how he or she came to power and how they influenced society and historical situations.

The next step is to make research and collect all the available information about the person or event, and also find evidence.

Finally, you will have to compose a well-organized response.

During the research, make notes and excerpts of the most notable data, write out the important dates and personalities. And of course, write down all your thoughts and findings.

It all may seem complicated at first sight, but in fact, it is not so scary! To complete this task successfully and compose a good history essay, simply follow several easy steps provided below.

Detailed Writing Instruction for Students to Follow

If you want to successfully complete your essay, it would be better to organize the writing process. You will complete the assignment faster and more efficient if you divide the whole work into several sections or steps.

  • Introduction

Writing a good and strong introduction part is important because this is the first thing your reader will see. It gives the first impression of your essay and induces people to reading (or not reading) it.

To make the introduction catchy and interesting, express the contention and address the main question of the essay. Be confident and clear as this is the moment when you define the direction your whole essay will take. And remember that introduction is not the right place for rambling! The best of all is, to begin with, a brief context summary, then go to addressing the question and express the content. Finally, mark the direction your essay about history will take.

Its quality depends on how clear you divided the whole essay into sections in the previous part. As long as you have provided a readable and understandable scheme, your readers will know exactly what to expect.

The body of your essay must give a clear vision of what question you are considering. In this section, you can develop your idea and support it with the evidence you have found. Use certain facts and quotations for that. When being judicial and analytical, they will help you to easily support your point of view and argument.

As long as your essay has a limited size, don’t be too precise. It is allowed to summarize the most essential background information, for example, instead of giving a precise list of all the issues that matter.

It is also good to keep in mind that each paragraph of your essay’s body must tell about only one issue. Don’t make a mess out of your paper!

It is not only essential to start your essay well. How you will end it also matters. A properly-written conclusion is the one that restates the whole paper’s content and gives a logical completion of the issue or question discussed above. Your conclusion must leave to chance for further discussion or arguments on the case. It’s time, to sum up, give a verdict.

That is why it is strongly forbidden to provide any new evidence or information here, as well as start a new discussion, etc.

After you finish writing, give yourself some time and put the paper away for a while. When you turn back to it will be easier to take a fresh look at it and find any mistakes or things to improve. Of course, remember to proofread your writing and check it for any grammar, spelling and punctuation errors. All these tips will help you to learn how to write a history essay.

write a short essay on learning design in history

write a short essay on learning design in history

A Guide to Teaching Essay Structure

Red pen marking student essay

Prevent students from 'telling a story' in their essays by helping them understand how arguments work

Essays are an important assessment type in subjects like History, and the skills required to succeed in essay writing are also foundational to other assessment pieces as well. As a result, both students and teachers need to invest significant time in understanding how to craft them.

When you first teach essay writing to students, it is important to demonstrate the core elements of structure first. Since the structure of History essays is foundational to the success of the argument and, by definition, the success of the essay itself, it is the most obvious place to start.

Here are the crucial ideas that students need to grasp about the argumentative structure of History essays:

  • An essay’s hypothesis must be a 'genuine argument'
  • The topic sentences of each body paragraph must be drawn from the hypothesis
  • Each body paragraph needs to be supported by good evidence

write a short essay on learning design in history

In order to teach these ideas, I find that it is best not to use a historical topic as your first example. Most students struggle to understand the contestability of historical arguments, so using one as your first example could only confuse students more as they will already be working hard to understand essay structure.

Therefore, I tend to find that more ‘real world’ examples work best when teaching essays for the first time. These ‘real world’ examples can be based upon your students’ own interests. For example, create an example argument about who the best sports team is, or who the most influential global personality is, or whether homework is important to academic success. The more interesting the topic, the more the students will care about the argument.

Alternatively, you could prepare a number of these example topics for your class and even get them to choose which one they would like to use.

Once decided, use it to proceed through the following steps.

1. An essay’s hypothesis is a 'genuine argument'

One of the most common mistakes that students make when writing essays is that they simply present a ‘story’ about a historical event or person. As a result, they fail to understand the purpose of a hypothesis .

A hypothesis is a statement about what the entire essay is arguing .

When an essay is nothing more than a narrative story, there is no argument.

Crucially, then, the first concept that needs to be understood is that each essay needs a hypothesis that is a 'genuine argument'. A ‘genuine argument’ means that what the essay is trying to prove could be challenged by someone else, or that the opposite of the hypothesis could be used in a different essay.

For example, a student could argue that:

“Homework is detrimental to the social, emotional and physical wellbeing of students”

If this is a genuine argument, the opposite of it could easily be used by someone else for their own argument. For example, another student could argue that:

“Homework is beneficial to the social, emotional and physical wellbeing of students”

This is one of the reasons that a ‘narrative’ essay fails to create good hypotheses: it doesn’t create a genuine argument. For example, a simple ‘story’ essay could say that “World War One saw a tragic loss of life as millions of soldiers from many countries died between 1914 and 1918”. Clearly, there is no argument here: it is just telling a story. One way of demonstrating the lack of an argument is to show that there is no way to argue the opposite of this.

2. Topic sentences of each body paragraph must be drawn from the hypothesis

The second key concept helps build upon the first. As a hypothesis presents the argument that the entire essay is going to prove, then students must make sure that they’re proving it throughout their body paragraphs .

Students can easily get lost in writing their body paragraphs and forget that they are supposed to be proving the argument they presented in their hypothesis.

To highlight that there is a direct relationship between their hypothesis and each of their body paragraphs, it is worth showing students that a good hypothesis can be ‘sliced’ into three parts that each of their body paragraphs will prove.

For example, the hypothesis that “ Homework is detrimental to the social, emotional and physical wellbeing of students ” has three clear elements that need to be proven: the social , emotional and physical impacts. As a result, each will become a topic sentence for their body paragraphs.

Be aware that once students notice the three elements, they will try to take the ‘path of least resistance’ in making their topic sentences. So, using the example above, they might try to make the following topic sentences:

  • Homework is detrimental to the social wellbeing of students
  • Homework is detrimental to the emotional wellbeing of students
  • Homework is detrimental to the physical wellbeing of students

It is important to stress that each topic sentence needs to be expanded to provide a specific reason. Most of the time, students will need to know what evidence they’re using in order to successfully provide specific justifications. For the sake of the above example, here are three improved versions of the topic sentences:

  • Due to the extra time required that could otherwise be spent developing friendships, homework is detrimental to the social development of students
  • Homework is detrimental to the emotional wellbeing of students because of the additional daily stress it adds to students who are already overloaded with assessment pieces.
  • Homework is detrimental to the physical health of students because it requires extended periods of student inactivity.

If the students find that they cannot identify three separate components from their hypothesis to prove in each body paragraph, it may indicate that their hypothesis was not developed enough. However, if you are introducing essays to your students for the first time, ensure that you provide example hypotheses that have three clear elements in order to help students grasp this step easily.

3. Each body paragraph needs to be supported by good evidence

Another common mistake made by students is that they feel the need to fill their body paragraphs with as much historical knowledge as possible. Consequently, students often fall back into the ‘tell a story’ mode which provides a series of people and events about the topic, rather than using the paragraph to present information that helps prove their argument.

The crucial step for students to understand is that whatever they said in their topic sentence needs to be shown in the sources from which they quote in their body paragraphs. While students will have to demonstrate historical knowledge of people, places, dates and event in their work, it should only be used as a way to help show how their sources prove their topic sentences.

If you’re doing your example essay which was based upon a ‘real world’ argument, this can be a great time to let students conduct research to find their own evidence. For example, if students are arguing for their favourite sporting team or their most inspiring personality, they can find facts and figures to justify their argument. (Also, this might be a great time to teach referencing of their sources, if you have time).

Once students then have their sources, they can begin crafting their body paragraphs in order to use their chosen evidence to prove their topic sentences. (You can read more about how to write essay paragraphs here , as I don't have the space to expand upon this part of essay writing in this blog post).

The end result

By the end of their example essay, students should have a better understanding of what makes a good hypothesis, how each topic sentence is drawn from the argument and how evidence is used by body paragraphs to help prove the argument.

Once you have built the example essay as a class (about a sports team or homework, etc.), working as a class to deconstruct a pre-written History essay to identify each element can be enormously beneficial for the students. Furthermore, if time allows, following the same steps to then begin writing their own History essay will often be the moment when the ‘lightbulb moment’ occurs for many of your students.

The entire process I have outlined may take as much as three or four lessons. If you have this amount of time, here is a potential approach:

  • Lesson 1: Example ‘real world’ essay construction
  • Lesson 2: Deconstruct a pre-written History essay
  • Lesson 3-4: Plan and write a class History essay

Also, if you're looking for a more detailed guide to academic essay writing, particularly for senior students, I cannot recommend the book  A Short Guide to Writing About History enough (pictured to the right).

write a short essay on learning design in history

Final thoughts

Essay writing is an art that can only truly be mastered by continual practice. Don’t expect students to produce academically sophisticated essays straight away. However, if they can master the key structural elements of how an argument works through the hypothesis, topic sentences and evidence, they can avoid the simplistic errors found in the ‘narrative’ essay.

I hope that this has helped spark some new ideas for your own teaching of History essays. I would be very interested to hear from other teachers about what they have found works for them. Please feel free to add your thoughts below so that we can all benefit from the accumulated wisdom of other professionals.

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Hi guys! I wrote a short essay on the life-changing aspects of learning design. I was a dropout student who tried my hand at design. And it was one of the best decisions in my life. Immersion in the new world of design was such a powerful experience that shaped me and gave me an almost new identity.

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  1. How to Write a History Essay (with Pictures)

    write a short essay on learning design in history

  2. Extended reflective essay 322b

    write a short essay on learning design in history

  3. 😝 What is history essay. What Is History Essay Examples and Topics at

    write a short essay on learning design in history

  4. Importance Of Reading History Essay

    write a short essay on learning design in history

  5. Writing an Essay

    write a short essay on learning design in history

  6. A level History, Tudors: essay plan on Henry VII's use of government in

    write a short essay on learning design in history


  1. Short Essay On Holi Festival

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  3. 10 Lines Essay On Importance of Parents in Hindi ! Essay On Importance of Parents ! Essay On Parents

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  1. Learning Design Histories for Design Futures ...

    They were then asked to select a significant design, decision, incident or event from two general histories of design and one New Zealand design history, and write a short factual summary of 500 words supported by a single photograph, before creating a speculative history of 1500 words.

  2. The historical evolution of design

    An initial problem in delving into the origins of the human capacity to design is the difficulty in determining exactly where and when human beings first began to change their environment to a significant degree - it engenders continual debate that shifts with (page 9) p. 9 each major archaeological discovery. It is clear, however, that in this process a crucial instrument was the human hand ...

  3. PDF Design Research

    relevance to the history of design precisely because design theory evolves, questions, and reshapes the idea of what design is - it redefines the subject matter of design history" (King, 1995, p.75). Design pedagogy is also an area of interest, with the same potential for redefinition: various speakers explore specific teaching and learning ...


    Ø Apart from those disciplines that explicitly recognise creativity as a central feature of their identity (like the performing arts and design), creativity is largely implicit in discussions about teaching and learning. However, teachers do value creativity, originality, flair and imagination in their students' learning.


    a learning goal that writing could support perfectly. Historical writing entails that students must use historical evidence, drawn critically from primary source documents, to write well ...

  6. Writing to Learn History: An Instructional Design Study

    In this paper, we have reported on. the design process, which conta ined three phases: (1) an analy sis and exploration. phase, (2) a design and con struction phase, and (3) an evaluation and ...

  7. Using Writing to Learn in History

    refine better analytical tools for making They begin, in short, to develop. 6. Use writing to advance the study of readily be used to facilitate study and ple, the concluding sentence of a first draft to test data presented in texts and lectures, for further reading and study.

  8. How History is Made: A Student's Guide to Reading, Writing, and

    How History is Made is easy to follow and would serve as an excellent course textbook for introductory, special topics, and upper-level History courses that emphasize critical thinking, research, and writing as key learning outcomes or assign research papers or "Un-Essay" projects as final projects.

  9. How to write an introduction for a history essay

    1. Background sentences. The first two or three sentences of your introduction should provide a general introduction to the historical topic which your essay is about. This is done so that when you state your hypothesis, your reader understands the specific point you are arguing about. Background sentences explain the important historical ...

  10. Writing to Learn History: An Instructional Design Study

    Two history teachers implemented the evaluative tasks and the strategy instruction in their 11th grade history classrooms in a trial intervention study with a switching panels design. Pre-, mid-, and post-testing consisted of evaluative writing tasks (ca. 200-300 words), which were analyzed on holistic quality, content quality, quality of ...

  11. Standards of Historical Writing

    Typical essay structures in history do not start broadly and steadily narrow over the course of the essay, like a giant inverted triangle. If thinking in terms of a geometric shape helps you to conceptualize what a good introduction does, think of your introduction as the top tip of a diamond instead.

  12. Why Study History? (1998)

    Histories that tell the national story, emphasizing distinctive features of the national experience, are meant to drive home an understanding of national values and a commitment to national loyalty. Studying History Is Essential for Good Citizenship. A study of history is essential for good citizenship. This is the most common justification for ...

  13. PDF 79 Short Essays on Design

    Seventy-nine short essays on design / Michael Bierut. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-1-56898-699-9 (alk. paper) 1. Commercial art—United States—History—20th century. 2. Graphic arts—United States—History— 20th century. I. Title. II. Title: 79 short essays on design. NC998.5.A1B52 2007 741.6—dc22 ...

  14. How to write source-based history essays

    If you understand how each part works and fits into the overall essay, you are well on the way to creating a great assessment piece. Most essays will require you to write: 1 Introduction Paragraph. 3 Body Paragraphs. 1 Concluding Paragraph.

  15. PDF Strategies for Essay Writing

    Harvard College Writing Center 5 Asking Analytical Questions When you write an essay for a course you are taking, you are being asked not only to create a product (the essay) but, more importantly, to go through a process of thinking more deeply about a question or problem related to the course. By writing about a

  16. How student-designed video games made me rethink how I teach history

    Designing humanities games. In 2020, I asked four undergraduate history majors to design a fully functional video game with a clear educational payoff built around a controversial episode in ...

  17. How to Write Your First Undergraduate Essay

    Remember to introduce the relevant historical methods explicitly. Engage with the historiography, the views of different historians. In doing so, show how your work is part of the debate. Have a clear conclusion that brings out the relevance of the topic and your answer for wider historical issues. Include a reading list and a word count.

  18. Designing & Teaching US History Thematically in 5 Steps

    4. Select your focus skills. This is a bit of a bonus step that I firmly believe belongs in a thematic unit design. Around the time I gave up on trying to teach all the content, I also realized that trying to hit all the skills in every unit led to the same effect of inch-deep outcomes.

  19. Why essay-writing remains central to learning history at AS level

    Article. Richard Harris challenges those who play down the essay in their teaching of the new AS Level. He argues that essay-writing embodies historical thinking and that it is therefore an essential tool for developing students' understanding of history as an opinion-forming, judgement making process. Students need to practise developed ...

  20. History Essay: A Complete Writing Guide for Students

    Well, the main goal of a history essay is to measure your progress in learning history and test your range of skills (such as analysis, logic, planning, research, and writing), it is necessary to prepare yourself very well. Your plan of action may look like this. First of all, you will have to explore the topic.

  21. A Guide to Teaching Essay Structure

    The entire process I have outlined may take as much as three or four lessons. If you have this amount of time, here is a potential approach: Lesson 1: Example 'real world' essay construction. Lesson 2: Deconstruct a pre-written History essay. Lesson 3-4: Plan and write a class History essay.

  22. 7 Ways Teaching Writing in History will Empower Your Students

    No student had ever made that exact argument before, and because it was his personal position, it was 100% right. Action Tip: Write open-ended essay questions to allow students' unique perspectives to shine. Communicate that the only right answer is theirs, so long as it's well-supported and argued.

  23. Hi guys! I wrote a short essay on the life-changing aspects of learning

    Hi guys! I wrote a short essay on the life-changing aspects of learning design. I was a dropout student who tried my hand at design. And it was one of the best decisions in my life. Immersion in the new world of design was such a powerful experience that shaped me and gave me an almost new identity.

  24. Welcome to the Purdue Online Writing Lab

    The Online Writing Lab (the Purdue OWL) at Purdue University houses writing resources and instructional material, and we provide these as a free service at Purdue. Students, members of the community, and users worldwide will find information to assist with many writing projects.