INTRODUCTION:  A common challenge that educators face from students is the question “Why do I need this class?”  Though we want to believe that students intuitively understand the importance of our subjects, often they do not.  Many struggle to relate our disciplines to their lives.  Without a sense of relevance, students experience a disconnection between our enthusiasm for our subjects and their experiences with it in and outside of class.  This disconnection can hamper self-motivation, engagement and meaningful learning.  Because of this dynamic, many of us now work to teach the relevance of our content disciplines.  After attending an On Course Workshop last year, I now employ a number of new tools in my history classes.  

With them, I have been enhancing what I call a “subject-value pedagogy” that encourages students to make meaningful connections between discipline-based skills/knowledge and other aspects of their lives.  In every way possible, I encourage my students to find personal value in the content of my courses.  My students know this approach as “Why History?” skills.  This article discusses how subject-value pedagogy can be used in any content area to increase students’ intrinsic motivation to learn it.


Beyond usual active-learning methods, I now ask students to own and be the creators of their “Why History?” experiences. Starting in week one, I employ activities that reveal history as a practical tool for self-empowerment in the present.  To be discipline specific, I adapted the wording of the On Course Principles to read:  “People from the past can role model for us how to take personal responsibility for our lives, have self-motivation, use self-management skills to get things done, be interdependent by working with others to achieve results, be self-aware about the ways we impact ourselves and others, look at life as a learning process, be realistic about managing our emotions, and believe in ourselves and abilities!”  Then via written assignments, surveys, and discussions students reflect upon the manner in which they already value and employ “Why History?” skills.  Though initially some do not see cross-pollination with other aspects of their lives, this approach sets a tone that shifts students’ perceptions of history from the impersonal and disconnected to the personal and connected.  


Here is a quartet of “Why History?” activities that I employ:

1. Quotations:  As a means of further prompting student thinking, a “Why History?” bulletin board displays quotations from and images of historical figures. For example, Philosopher Herbert Spencer reminds them that “The great aim of education is not knowledge but action”; while President Abraham Lincoln offers, “People are about as happy as they make up their mind to be.”  At mid-term, my students then add their own group-created “advice to the future” along with their pictures.  For example, one group metaphorically advised: “Today is homework for tomorrow’s exam.”  Another group offered: “People who dwell too much on the past may come to realize that they are preventing their future.”  During discussions, my students said this activity helped connect them to their role in shaping history.

2.  Mission Statements: To encourage semester-long engagement, another classroom bulletin board, displays inspirational “Why History?” quotes. After reading and reflecting on words like Paul McElroy’s “We are the living link through which will be transmitted to the timeless future all that will be preserved of value from the ageless past,” students create personal “Why History?” mission statements.  For example, one young man wrote:  “I will use the information from the past, so I can apply what I learn to help better myself as well as other people who may need help in their own lives.”   Another female student wrote: “I will strive to learn about the important events of history so I can relate past events with my choices, decisions, and ideas today.”   Such statements are placed on the bulletin board, and at various times in the semester students share their “Why History?” thinking with the class.   For fun, each person who shares places a star on his/her mission statement.   From this activity, I have witnessed improved individual ownership of the class as well as an increased interdependence amongst students.  This outcome has been anecdotally evidenced by their willingness to spontaneously offer “Why History?” thoughts and to ask others to share ideas.  For example, one student shared that as a result of studying World War II, she was able to make a personal connection with a veteran at the nursing home where she worked.  By asking questions and talking about what she knew, she felt she made a difference in the quality of his life.

3. Journaling:  Another important On Course technique that enhances subject-value pedagogy is journaling.  As part of a portfolio assignment, my students write about the ways in which they use “Why History?” skills in their lives.   For each entry they answer the prompt:  “Explain how the history you’ve learned has impacted your understanding of your life today personally, at work, or in the other subjects you are studying.”  They must identify the history to which they are reacting, but the majority of each entry is personal reflection.  The journals are a powerful way for students to embrace and demonstrate their ownership of “Why History?” skills.  After writing about how the history of civil rights issues had opened her eyes to racism in her family, one student told me that journaling helped her to see the personal value of understanding history. 

4.  Instructor Sharing:  In addition to the above structured activities, I frequently share my own “Why History?” moments or expand on a student’s statement or question to illustrate why I personally value history. For example, to one class I explained how I came to appreciate that my grandmother’s practice of washing and reusing plastic bags was the result of her experiences during the Great Depression.  These moments are often some of the most meaningful interactions and role-modeling opportunities, because they arise out of natural classroom dialog.


Along with regular assessment and feedback activities, I qualitatively survey each class near semester’s end to determine the efficacy of subject-value pedagogy.  The survey’s results do not definitively indicate how each student came to value “Why History?” skills, and certainly additional quantitative assessments would be helpful. However, it has become evident that the survey itself is an important tool that encourages students to reflect on their use of “Why History?” skills.

Three open-ended questions ask students to document their experiences.   The questions asking for explanations are:  “1) Which units and/or assignments this term have helped you to see the cause-effect impact of the past on the present? 2) In what other course(s) and to what topic/event/person/etc. in that class have you applied historical analysis/thinking and how?  3) To what current topic/event/person/etc. in your daily life have you applied historical analysis/thinking and how?” In the responses, students revealed:  a motivation to connect their learning to other subjects, tones of self-empowerment, an enhanced capacity/desire to relate history to other situations, people and disciplines, and an expanded awareness of their abilities.  The following sample remarks are edited for space and readability but not for grammar. 

For the cause-effect impact, students offered: 

…the South unit really opened my eyes to the reasons for racial tensions today.

Now I see how much past affects future.  I’ve heard that the world isn’t ours; we’re borrowing it from our children, but who knew that really they meant our great, great, great, great, great grandchildren.

The Cold War unit helped me to see how the conflict in the Middle East has basically built the conflicts we are experiencing today.

 The aspects of each unit were eye opening and give some context to many of the political arguments that go on today, which I had only an observer’s interest before having learned some of the causes.   

The effects of the progressive era were really a surprise … so many of the things we consider to be normal were progressive ideas not too long ago.  It is cool to see how much a group of people can affect everyday life in the future.

Concerning their other courses, many students identified the more obvious uses of historical skills, especially in English, literature and social science classes.  But, these statements about other disciplines are fascinating.  

I am taking many computer classes.  I found it interesting/important to research about the beginning of computers and the technologies behind computers, networking. 

In my Trig class, I used historical thinking when I was trying to understand some of the laws and principles. We are using what historical people figured out for us. 

Recently I went to an Electrical-Coop conference.  While there I researched the amount of deaths and the different tools from the past.  It gave me a better understanding of where we have come from safety-wise in the last century. 

I had to write a paper for my business law class about the impact of e-commerce, so I research[ed] commerce before the Internet and how commerce was different. 

In music appreciation … I have used historical thinking to determine what stage the US was in when certain events and understandings had happened, for example, the impact of technology on musical devices. 

I was looking at the Forbes list of richest people, and I tried to see how and why they did the things they did rather than just what they did.  

Lastly, regarding how they have used historical skills in daily life, these responses are compelling. 

I started to think “If I do this, how will it affect my life and the people around me, in the future?” 

The history of labor unions has led me to discover as much as possible about what they are fighting for currently because my dad is a major player in the unions … and I’m trying to understand his beliefs more. 

I used to be bitter towards the Native Americans, but this class has helped me understand why. 

I have used it in explaining things to my children.  For instance, “When grandma was young, World War Two was going on, and they had to ration everything they had.” 

I have occasionally found myself evaluating my life outside of class when coming across different current national events.  I compare the rights I have to day to how this would be handled in past times, just to keep my life now in perspective.


Though further assessment is needed, the initial feedback from my students suggests that subject-value pedagogy has a positive effect on their motivation and the quality of their learning.  By creating an environment in which students from day one are asked to answer personally “Why am I studying this subject?” as well as “How am I going to empower myself by using the skills and knowledge it offers?” we foster student ownership of and engagement with our disciplines.  Thus, I encourage all content area instructors to create a subject-value pedagogy that actively identifies and incorporates On Course empowerment principles and learner-centered techniques. What a wonderful thing it will be when our students as life-long learners no longer doubt the relevance of the classes they take, but instead, understand “Why Algebra?” in an art course, “Why Philosophy?” at an accounting firm, and “Why Human Biology?” when confronting a family medical crisis.  In all cases, they will have risen above mediocre expectations of themselves and our disciplines to find those “Aha!” moments of learning that help to empower their lives today!   

–June Klees, Faculty, History, Bay College, MI

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