Using Weighted Hinge Questions (WHQs) to Assess Students’ Causal Understanding, pp. 5 of 10

When to use: This WHQ could be used before the teacher introduces a topic that hinges on students’ historical understanding of causation. Before the teacher displays the question to students, he/she should explain to students that there is no single “correct” response and that they should choose the option which best represents their current understanding. The teacher may also add that students’ responses would help him/her decide on the best way to facilitate their learning of the topic. The following table shows how these options correspond to the respective levels of understanding and summarizes our suggested pedagogical adjustments based on the responses of the majority of students in class.

Table 1: Correspondence of options to levels of understanding (Example 1)

WHQ Option

Level of understanding

Suggested Pedagogical Adjustment (when introducing a new topic)

(a) More details about Event X itself

1 - Explanation in terms of description

Start with details of the event, model a causal explanation by asking why the event happened

(b) Who made Event X happen and what they did

2 - Explanation in terms of agents and actions

Start with details of the event and its trigger, and ask why the event happened the way it did regardless of the intentions of the actors involved

(c) What sequence of events led to Event X

3 - Explanation in terms of causal chains and/or networks

Discuss the multi-faceted and variable implications of each event in the sequence

  • Why did the events happen in this sequence?

(d) What conditions allowed for Event X to happen

4 - Explanation in terms of conditions for actual and possible events

Pause after explaining conditions to ask if that suffices in causing the key event

  • What about the role of human agency?
  • Were there other potential triggers prior to the actual trigger?

(e) How circumstances and actions related to Event X are interlinked

5 - Explanation in terms of contexts as well as conditions

Adopt the conventional approach of examining each factor chronologically as presented in the textbook


If the majority of students in the class select Option (a), they are likely to perceive an explanation in terms of simple description (Level 1). At this level, students uncritically accept the story that is told and are convinced by sleek explanatory narratives that bury “causal complexities”. Most are led to think that “historical explanations are true or false in the same way that statements of fact are true or false” (Lee & Shemilt, 2009, pp. 43-44). This thinking coheres with common sense, but obstructs students from understanding causal explanations in history as constructed and provisional. To guide students to think critically about such explanations, the teacher could first describe Event X when introducing the new topic and ask why it happened to guide students to differentiate between descriptive and causal explanations. Through iterative questioning focused on causal thinking, the teacher could model the process of finding a causal explanation for the students.

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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