Teaching history in the 2020s: how can Subject Benchmark Statements help?

The QAA’s Subject Benchmark Statements can help guide the teaching of specific disciplines. Elaine Fulton explains how to use the recently updated statements to enhance history teaching in a decade fraught with challenges

Elaine Fulton's avatar
University of Birmingham
21 Apr 2022
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Woman perched on a pile of old books representing the traditional view of history teaching

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Not easy, is it? Crisis after crisis at a global level affects our day to day, including in our lectures and seminars. It is so hard to know how best to teach students in an age when mental health difficulties seem endemic; the future is radically uncertain; and we’re trying to do our jobs, and do them well, in a political environment that feels distinctly unfriendly towards academia in general, and the arts and humanities in particular.

This piece will not make those challenges go away – would that it could – but it might make you feel a tiny bit better. The source of relief comes in the somewhat unexpected form of the QAA – the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education – which last month released a tranche of 14 significantly revised and updated Subject Benchmark Statements, with a further 13 undergoing work now for release next year.

Every academic discipline has one of these: by their own definition, benchmark statements do no less than “describe the nature of study and the academic standards expected of graduates in specific subject areas. They show what graduates might reasonably be expected to know, do and understand at the end of their studies.” They have been described as “QAA’s best kept secret” by QAA standards and frameworks officer Alison Felce, and more recently by Wonkhe’s David Kernohan as “squaring the quality circle in a world of fashionable metrics and moral panics”. Subject Benchmark Statements may be somewhat obscure documents, but unfairly so: they reveal the beating heart of undergraduate and master’s degrees in the UK, and that heart is strong, vibrant, and fit for the day.

So, how can reading the new, hot-off-the-press history benchmark statement help you teach history in what already feels like the “Long 2020s”?

1. Remember who wrote it. The benchmark-writing process is facilitated by the QAA, but the statements themselves are written by subject specialists – in other words, your own peers. The history subject benchmark brought together lecturers at various career stages from across the UK and working in all parts of the sector. These are people who know the reality of teaching history in UK higher education right now, as you do: the possibilities, the limitations, the exasperations. They know the tricky areas (assessment, anyone?) and areas where we know we need to do better, especially around accessibility; equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI); and sustainability. As a result, the statements are simultaneously realistic and aspirational, reflecting what we do, day in, day out, and also what excellent practice looks like. The revised statements even have sections devoted to sustainability and EDI for the first time.

2. Let it remind you of the unparalleled power of a history degree. The history benchmark lists no fewer than 30 skills and attributes that a history degree fosters, 12 of which are specific to the discipline. Take this section: “History…provides a distinct education by cultivating a strong sense of the past, an awareness of the development of differing values, systems and societies, and the fostering of critical yet open-minded attitudes…”. Or this one: “History is not a comfortable subject…In particular, history has the capacity to create a balanced understanding of the past through examination of non-dominant and traditionally marginalised cultures”.

History may be seen as a “traditional” subject, but it can also be empowering, disruptive and transformative, and is ours to teach.

3. Use it to silence the sceptics. We’ve all had to field questions as to what the value of a history degree is for employability. One of our greatest impacts as teachers of history is in the outstanding graduates we help produce; this was attested to by the employer representation on the Statement Advisory Group. The revised statement now notes: “Many employers are especially interested in history graduates because of their particular training and approach, based on robust questioning, rigorous evidence-gathering, and applying multi-perspectival approaches in coming to reasoned and reasonable judgements.” The same section notes that the “agility, flexibility and independence promoted by historical study promotes career resilience”, something invaluable for unpredictable futures. Use this at open days, at applicant visit days, with students in class. Help students articulate for themselves the value and applicability of their degree because it is immense.

4. Benchmark statements don’t tell you what to do (well, just a little). Imagine that in contemporary higher education: a document that doesn’t scold, doesn’t prescribe, and creates lots of room for local initiative and adaption. There are, certainly, some broad parameters within which to work: history degrees should, for instance, include what the statement refers to as “time depth”; geographical range; primary sources; the development of critical awareness; exposure to a diversity of specialisms; and there should be an extended piece of independent work in some form. Beyond that, though…it is up to you and your institution. Innovate. Collaborate. Involve your students. You have agency here: use it, to develop the best history courses possible for your students and indeed with your students.

Reality is hard these days, in all kinds of ways, and higher education is no exception. But in the Subject Benchmarks you have a reminder of the heart of what it is we do, what it means, and why it is important. They are well worth a read.

Elaine Fulton is director of education, College of Arts and Law, and a professor of history education at the University of Birmingham. She served as chair of the QAA Subject Benchmark Statement Advisory Group for History.

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