Using Weighted Hinge Questions (WHQs) to Assess Students’ Causal Understanding, pp. 3 of 10

Second, WHQs are “diagnostic questions”, not “discussion questions” (Wiliam & Leahy, 2015, p. 89). The objective of asking WHQs is to quickly check for students’ understanding to inform the teacher on how he/she should proceed with the lesson. Because WHQs and their options are intentionally crafted to uncover students’ understanding of a historical concept on which “the lesson hinges”, teachers should be able to accurately interpret a student’s response on its own without additional explanation from the student (Wiliam & Leahy, 2015, p. 88).

Third, unlike conventional multiple-choice questions, WHQs do not only have one “correct answer”. The objective of crafting other plausible options is neither to “snare students” nor to engage them in “a game of intellectual hide-and-seek” where they guess the expected answer the teacher is fishing for (Wineburg, 2018, p. 18; Beghetto, 2007, p. 265). Instead, the options presented to students correspond to different levels of students’ historical conceptual understanding as informed by research-based progression models (VanSledright, 2014). Good WHQs elicit students’ responses that accurately correspond to their respective levels of understanding.

Uncovering students’ levels of historical conceptual understanding is crucial to improving assessment practices in history classrooms. While history education researchers may not agree on what primarily constitutes “historical thinking”, they have collectively emphasized how thinking historically in general is fundamentally different from ordinary, common sense thinking. Wineburg (2001) characterised “fundamental” historical thinking – which is, to him, viewing the past as “discontinuous” with the present and thinking about it on its own terms –  as an “unnatural act” (p. 109). Levisohn (2017), while critical of Wineburg’s characterization, argued that students of history need to develop “domain-specific practices” to “speak the language of the discipline of history” (pp. 629, 626). Since the established consensus is that historical thinking is not intuitive, research-based progression models supply “scaffold[s] for the teaching and learning of history” by disaggregating historical thinking into key historical concepts and outlining the development (or a “progression”) of actual students’ understanding of the respective concepts (Lee & Shemilt, 2003, p. 113). Viewing the development of students’ ideas as a progression in historical understanding suggests the possibility of looking at these initial ideas as “constructs” that allow or inhibit the kinds of thinking moves students are able to make (Lee, Ashby & Dickinson, 1996).

Three caveats are in order at this point. First, progression models, while organised into levels of understanding, are not prescriptive “learning path[s] for individuals” (Lee & Shemilt, 2003, p. 16). Rather, they outline “ideas likely to be found in any reasonably large group of children” and “the pattern of developing ideas we might expect” (Lee & Shemilt, 2003, p. 16). Teachers should use these models to find out how students currently understand a particular historical concept and trace their developing historical conceptual understanding across content topics, but should not intentionally teach, for instance, a Level 2 idea just because a student’s understanding is at Level 1.  Second, learning gaps between each level of understanding may vary. We do not attempt to suggest a timeline for specific levels of historical conceptual understanding to be met for “the average pupil” beyond that in the Ministry of Education’s History Teaching and Learning Guide (Lee & Shemilt, 2003, p. 18). Third, progression research has largely centred on students in England. The few studies conducted outside of the UK, however, suggest progression models developed in the UK could, to a large extent, apply to students elsewhere. For instance, regarding students’ understanding of historical accounts, Afandi’s (2012) pioneering progression research in Singapore yielded largely similar findings when compared to research undertaken by British researchers who worked with students in England (Lee & Shemilt, 2004).

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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