The Challenges of Learning History: What Students and SOTL Tell Us

by Mary Jo Festle

How do we get our students to take on—and better still, embrace—the challenges we pose? Should we just be thankful when we have students in class who seem to be “wired that way,” or can we actively foster a positive and persistent approach toward learning history?

I believe that knowing what students find challenging and connecting what they tell us to the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) about mindsets and motivation may help us become more effective (and happier) teachers. Recently historians have been unpacking precisely which ways of thinking are “unnatural” for students new to the field and where they commonly get stuck.[1] Because much research on history “bottlenecks” has been done in introductory level courses and at large universities, I was curious about the experiences of undergraduate history majors at my smaller, liberal arts-based comprehensive university.

I posed a handful of questions to the fifty-six upper-level students who took our capstone research seminars during five recent semesters.[2] One question asked, “What’s the most challenging thing about studying history? How do you feel about that?” Students responded anonymously to the prompt by free writing informally for four to five minutes.

What Students Found Challenging

While my analysis of the 131 challenging aspects of studying history that students mentioned (they often said more than one) is not scientific, certain themes emerged. Almost all the responses fell into one of four categories: challenges related to the research and writing process (fifty-two), the nature of the discipline of history (other than research and writing) (sixty), the time studying history takes (twelve), and the department’s requirements, curriculum, or professors (five). I’ll focus here on the two categories with the most responses.

Students who said that doing research challenged them pinpointed different parts of the process. Eleven mentioned difficulty finding sources, sometimes because they were not readily available and sometimes because they felt unsure how to effectively search for them. As one put it, “I have a difficult time finding different ways in which to phrase my searches to find the information that I need. I know that it has to be out there somewhere.”

For others, the most difficult stages came later. “Once I have all this information…I often feel overwhelmed,” reported one of the fourteen who said they struggled with developing an argument. Some got stuck because they couldn’t make up their minds what to argue or because they worried their interpretation was unoriginal. For others, it was the more holistic challenge to “craft a coherent argument and outline a paper that flows logically around that argument with ample amounts of evidentiary support.”

I was not surprised by students’ struggles with the research and writing process. After all, they were in the middle of a research seminar, and the History Education Project scholars noted “constructing and evaluating arguments” was a common bottleneck. [3]

More interesting to me were the many student responses that seemed more epistemological and were sometimes affective. For example, a dozen grappled with the impossibility of fully understanding the past. “There is no way to fix that situation,” one lamented. They cited the passage of time, limitations of sources, or cultural and language differences as barriers to explaining motivation and causation. As one student put it, “In order to understand the true complexities of [history] one must delve deeper than is possible.”

Fifteen responses dealt with the interpretive nature of history. “Many well renowned historians can have different interpretations of the same event—and all of them can be right to an extent,” explained one. Another eleven related to bias. Because “many different eyes see many different events,” it could be difficult to “wade through all the spin and bias that pervades nearly every historical document.” They tried to recognize and “put aside” their own biases. “It takes a concer[t]ed effort to…not use ‘loaded’ words when discussing an event that I feel passionately about. Seeing a photo of someone being lynched, I cannot, with a clear head, write something that isn’t opinionated.” As that quote implies, critically analyzing sources could be both an intellectual and an affective challenge. As one student put it, “Research becomes personal.”

Learning about unsettling events posed another affective challenge for a handful of students. One, who said s/he had “an aggressive sense of right and wrong,” was exasperated by inequality, warfare, and slavery and concluded, “Stupid people fulfilling stupid ideals…that’s a lot of history.” Another noted it was hard to learn that “something you thought was right turns out to be completely wrong! A lot of myths about events become circulated.” Another echoed, “It’s frustrating to learn about American history and realize, wow America was horrible and unfair and we never learned that part in high school. It’s heartbreaking and frustrating and angering.”

How students felt about the challenges

Words like “heartbreaking,” “frustrating,” and “angering” confirm Joan Middendorf’s observation that history students experience emotions that are worth exploring. [4] I tried to characterize student responses about their feelings about the challenges they’d described. Almost one-third didn’t answer that part of the prompt or used neutral terms. Of those who did describe a feeling, about one-quarter used terms that I’d characterize as negative, such as “overwhelming” “scary,” “daunting,” or “discouraging.”

Their responses provided a few hints about why they had negative feelings. Occasionally it seemed due to a lack of confidence: “It is frustrating because you never feel 100% [sure] about your topic or your ability.” Another answered, “[Doing history] takes a lot of time and good writing skills. I don’t like that because I am not a good writer.”

In a couple of cases, their negative reaction seemed to result from feeling forced to do something they were unmotivated about, such as focusing on a very narrow subject, “writing hundreds of pages on topics you aren’t interested in,” or length requirements making them “put loads of useless information in papers.” Another disliked “always having to provide evidence for any statement we make. I know this doesn’t specifically have to do with the study of history but rather my experiences as a history major, but I find this extremely challenging and at most times annoying.” As this quote suggests, some students felt frustrated by things they did not understand were normal parts of doing history, such as adjusting one’s questions and going back to find more sources and learn more. As another noted, “It is…discouraging…to look back over information that I thought would be relevant in the beginning of a research process and realize that I wasted my time in reading it because it really has absolutely nothing to do with what I ended up writing about.”

However, about three-quarters of the students who described their feelings did so in positive terms. “I like the challenge because it forces you to think critically,” said one who typified those who saw challenge as something that promoted growth. Some seemed proud because they had already improved at a task: “I can confidently say that I [now] know how to read enormous amounts of text quickly and efficiently.” Others did not yet feel accomplished, but believed they were going to improve “down the road.” A student who had described a challenge as “FRUSTRATING!!” reported in the next breath, “It’s a skill I have to build. I’ll get better @ it the more history I ‘do.’”

The challenging aspect often was integrally related to students’ enjoyment of history. “The reward at the end of the paper is great because we know we put in a lot of work,” said one. A student who reported struggling with finding persuasive evidence added, “If you come across the fact that you need it is the best feeling in the world.” A student who noted that we can never be certain about motivations of people in the past reported, “That is one of the most interesting things.” Another who cited forming your own opinion as very challenging also said it was one of the most fun parts of studying history.

The “positive” students found their efforts to be worthwhile. They understood why they should persist; as one noted, it’s a “necessary part of studying…history.” About the need to keep finding and evaluating more sources to get as full a view as possible, another commented, “I get why it’s like that.” One who was unsettled by history’s uncertainties reflected, “Although this can be frustrating…,it is actually beneficial because this means historians…will always go back to things like this and to ask questions, constantly studying it.” A student who was distressed by unsavory aspects of U.S. history also felt motivated by them: “It makes me feel like I have the opportunity to bring light on a subject so that high schoolers stop thinking that Columbus was a wonderful person who founded America.” A student who struggled with trying to be unbiased said, “I feel it is difficult, but a challenge we must face, and not even just in history but as…people.”

Connecting Student Writings to SOTL Research

Recent scholarship in human learning helps us make sense of what I heard from our history majors. Those students who described how they felt in more positive and hopeful terms sounded like those who psychologist Carol Dweck describes as having a “growth mindset.” She contrasts them with those who have a “fixed mindset” and believe that their intelligence is finite and unchangeable. As a result, when those with a fixed mindset experience difficult tasks, they doubt their intelligence, give up easily, avoid challenges, and respond negatively to feedback. When students have a growth mindset, they tend to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as eventually paying off in a path to mastery, view mistakes as part of the learning process, and learn from constructive criticism. Dweck believes that students can be encouraged to develop a growth mindset by instructors who stress the learnability of skills and concepts in their discipline. [5] One of my undergraduate professors successfully reassured me when she told our Constitutional Law class that reading Supreme Court opinions was like eating mushrooms; you might struggle with it at first, but after a while, you develop a taste for it.

Psychologists also suggest that it’s wise for us to find the optimal level of challenge for our students. If the tasks we pose are too easy, students aren’t pushed to improve and may become unmotivated; but if tasks are too difficult, students struggle, make many errors, and may give up. Marilla Svinicki says that this level of challenge that is “just right” (which psychologists call the “Goldilocks Principle”) makes for effective learning, but she also notes that that it can be good to pose tasks that require somewhat more effort if our goals are to help students transfer skills and knowledge to new situations. [6] We all hope that if we teach students how to interrogate primary sources or grapple with historiography in one course that they will be able to apply those skills in another.

Research on learning suggests that it’s not enough to pose appropriately difficult tasks; we must also provide students with clear and well-structured assignments and low-stakes opportunities to practice difficult skills. We should provide formative feedback on their performance before we remove the “scaffolding” that supports them and give high-stakes exams or projects. [7] When students experience growth in their skills and improvement in their performance, it improves their “expectancy,” which is a crucial component of motivation.

Positive expectancy makes no difference, however, if students do not see value in the tasks we are assigning. [8] Experts in teaching remind us that we need to teach things that are “worth learning.” Asking intriguing questions, studying important problems, and introducing topics that respectfully require students to rethink their assumptions or consider who they are, all lead to engagement with history and sometimes transformative learning. [9]

Historians are good at teasing out the nuances, assumptions, and implications of statements from historical actors in the past; we can do the same with our students’ words. Whether they are excited, frustrated, complaining, or hopeful, students will give us clues about what challenges them. When we combine them with SOTL lessons about motivation and mindsets, we can find ways to help students persist through difficult patches so they learn meaningful lessons from the past.


[1] Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (2001); David Pace, “The Amateur in the Operating Room: History and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,” American Historical Review 109 (2004): 1171-92; Arlene Díaz, Joan Middendorf, David Pace, and Leah Shopkow, “The History Learning Project: A Department ‘Decodes’ Its Students,” Journal of American History, 94 (March 2008), 1211–24.text

[2] Departmental colleagues Peter Felten and Mike Carignan helped me craft the questions.

[3] Joan Middendorf, David Pace, Leah Shopkow, and Arlene Diaz, “Making Thinking Explicit: Decoding History Teaching,” National Teaching and Learning Forum, 16 (Feb. 2007), p. 3.

[4] Joan Middendorf, et al., “What’s Feeling Got to Do with It? Decoding Emotional Bottlenecks in the History Classroom,” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 14 (April 2015), 1–4, 12.

[5]Carol S. Dweck, Gregory M. Walton, and Geoffrey L. Cohen, Academic Tenacity; Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning (2011), 5–6.

[6] Marilla Svinicki, “The Goldilocks Principle: ‘Just Right’ and Beyond,” National Teaching and Learning Forum, 24 (May 2015), 11–12.

[7]Svinicki, “The Goldilocks Principle, 11-12; Susan Ambrose, et al., How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (2010), 124–52.

[8] Kenneth E. Barron and Chris S. Hulleman, “Is there a formula to help understand and improve student motivation?” Essays from E-xcellence in Teaching, 6 (2006), 34–38, accessed at

[9] David Perkins discusses “generative topics” as ones that figure centrally in the discipline and resonate with both the learners’ and the instructor’s interests and concerns. David Perkins, Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching can Transform Education (2009), 58–62. See also Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do (2004), 18; Charity Johansson and Peter Felten, Transforming Students: Fulfilling the Promise of Higher Education (2014), 20–21.