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Researching Students’ Perceptions of the Middle Ages

There are many ways in which we all gain our ideas about the Middle Ages – films, cartoons, books, TV programmes, comics, computer games, visits to historic sites, heritage events etc– which raises the question ‘what kinds of ideas do students already have that they bring to the classroom’? We cannot assume that students come to lessons with no ideas about the period – some, for example, may have a picture of a dark, gruesome period while others may be aware of stories of ‘knights in shining armour’ and damsels in distress.

One small-scale study paints a bleak picture of students’ perceptions of the period. This study by Paul B Sturtevant, was part of his PhD research at the University of Leeds (2010) into the impact of feature films on perceptions of the Middle Ages. Nineteen undergraduates aged between 18 and 26 took part, none of whom had studied history beyond Key Stage 3. Dr Sturtevant concluded:

‘… many participants felt they were living in a time that was superior to the Middle Ages. A model of inevitable and successful progress was reflected in their derision towards the period for its perceived barbarity, lack of scientific advancement, and popular adherence to outmoded religious practices. There was consistent focus on the period as bloody, disease ridden, poverty-stricken and backward, and that is was a time marked by oppressive rulership. …

This is only one, very small-scale study but it does suggest one problem that could arise – if students picture a crude rather than a sophisticated society then they may find it difficult at GCSE and at A level to suggest complex reasons for actions or attribute positive motives to choices of behaviour. Thus negative assumptions may lead to over-simplified examination answers and lower grades. If we don’t help Key Stage 3 students think of the people of the Middle Ages in a more positive light at we will be continually fighting a rearguard action at GCSE and A level to counter negative expectations.

 

The starting point in addressing and challenging students’ preconceptions of the period is to find out what those preconceptions are at the beginning of a course, whether at 11, 14 or 16. This is just as important at GCSE and A level as at the beginning of KS3.

One of the aims of this project is to help teachers identify students’ preconceptions by

a) identifying some of the preconceptions that are generally held by students

b) providing a questionnaire that can be used with students

As part of this work, Dr Jason Todd of the University of Oxford Education Department has conducted a survey of students’ preconceptions during 2018 and will be reporting on his findings during 2019. If you wish to use Jason’s questionnaire Jason the links below provide the material – you will almost certainly want to adapt or omit some of the material according to your needs.

The survey questions which can be administered on paper in class in 10-15 minutes HERE …

The PowerPoint sequence which guides students through the survey, including the timing of each task HERE …

I will provide details about the results of Jason’s survey and how this can help teachers and departments as soon as the information is available.

For further discussion see the article on the issue of preconceptions published in Exploring and Teaching Medieval History HERE …

Exploring & Teaching Medieval History

Download it from the HA website HERE …

And see the contents pages HERE …