6 Skills Students Need to Succeed in Social Studies Classes

The C3 Framework.
The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History. C3

In 2013, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), published the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards also known as the C3 Framework. The combined goal of implementing the C3 framework is to enhance the rigor of the social studies disciplines using the skills of critical thinking, problem-solving, and participation. 

The NCSS has stated that,

"The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world."

In order to meet this purpose, the C3s Frameworks encourage student inquiry. The design of the frameworks is that an "Inquiry Arc" straddles all elements of the C3s. In every dimension, there is an inquiry, a seeking or request for truth, information, or knowledge. In economics, civics, history, and geography, there is required inquiry.

 Students must engage in a pursuit of knowledge through questions. They must first prepare their questions and plan their inquiries before they use the traditional tools of research. They must evaluate their sources and evidence before they communicate their conclusions or take informed action. There are specifics skills outlined below that can support the inquiry process.

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Critical Analysis of Primary and Secondary Sources

As they have in the past, students need to recognize the difference between primary and secondary sources as evidence. However, a more important skill in this age of partisanship is the ability to evaluate sources.

The proliferation of  "fake news" websites and social media "bots" means that students must sharpen their ability to evaluate documents. The Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) supports teachers with materials to help students "learn to think critically about what sources provide the best evidence to answer historical questions."

SHEG notes the difference between the teaching of social studies in the past compared to the context of today,

"Instead of memorizing historical facts, students evaluate the trustworthiness of multiple perspectives on historical issues and learn to make historical claims backed by documentary evidence."

Students at every grade level should have the critical reasoning skills necessary to understand the role that an author has in each of the sources, primary or secondary, and to recognize bias where it exists in any source.

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Interpreting Visual and Audio Sources

Information today is often presented visually in different formats. Digital programs allow visual data to be shared or reconfigured easily.

Students need to have the skills to read and to interpret information in multiple formats since data can be organized in different ways.

  • Tables use numerals or non-numeral data that is set in vertical columns so that the data may be emphasized, compared, or contrasted.
  • Graphs or charts are pictures used to make facts easier for a reader to understand. There are different types of graphs: bar graph, the line graph, pie charts, and the pictograph.  

The Partnership for 21st Century Learning recognizes that information for tables, graphs and charts can be collected digitally. 21st-century standards outline a series of student learning goals.

"To be effective in the 21st century, citizens and workers must be able to create, evaluate, and effectively utilize information, media, and technology."​​

This means that students need to develop the skills that allow them to learn in real-world 21st-century contexts. The increase in the amount of digital evidence available means students need to be trained to access and to evaluate this evidence before forming their own conclusions. 

For example, access to photographs has expanded. Photographs can be used as evidence, and the National Archives offers a template worksheet to guide students learn in the use of images as evidence. In the same manner, information can also be gathered from audio and video recordings that students must be able to access and to evaluate before taking informed action.

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Understanding Timelines

Timelines are a useful tool for students to connect the disparate bits of information that they learn in social studies classes. Sometimes students can lose perspective on how events fit together in history. For example, a student in a world history class needs to be conversant in the use of timelines to understand that the Russian Revolution was occurring at the same time that World War I was being fought.

Having students create timelines is an excellent way for them to apply their understanding. There are a number of educational software programs that are free for teachers to use:

  • Timeglider: This software allows students the opportunity to create, collaborate, and publish zooming and panning interactive timelines. 
  • Timetoast: This software allows students to make a timeline in horizontal and list modes. Students can design timelines in ancient history to the far-off future.
  • Sutori: This software allows students to make timelines and to examine sources through contrast and compare. 
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Comparing and Contrasting Skills

 Comparing and contrasting in a response allows students to move beyond facts. Students must use their ability to synthesize information from different sources, so they need to strengthen their own critical judgment in order to determine how groups of ideas, people, texts, and facts are similar or different.

These skills are necessary to meet the critical standards of the C3 Frameworks in civics and history. For example, 

D2.Civ.14.6-8. Compare historical and contemporary means of changing societies, and promoting the common good.
D2.His.17.6-8. Compare the central arguments in secondary works of history on related topics in multiple media.

In developing their compare and contrasting skills, students need to focus their attention on the critical attributes (features or characteristics) under investigation. For example, in comparing and contrasting the effectiveness of for-profit businesses with nonprofit organizations,  students should consider not only the critical attributes (e.g., the sources of funding, expenses for marketing) but also those factors that impact critical attributes such as employees or regulations.

Identifying critical attributes gives students the details needed to support positions. Once students have analyzed, for example, two readings in greater depth, they should be able to draw conclusions and take a position in a response based on the critical attributes. 

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Cause and Effect

Students need to be able to understand and communicate cause and effect relationships in order to show not only what happened but why it happened in history. Students should understand that as they read a text or learn information they should look for keywords such as "thus", "because", and "therefore". 

The C3 Frameworks outline the importance of understanding cause and effect in Dimension 2 stating that,

"No historical event or development occurs in a vacuum; each one has prior conditions and causes, and each one has consequences."

Therefore, students need to have enough background information to be able to make informed guesses (causes)  about what could happen in the future (effects).

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Map skills

Reading maps is only one of the many skills required in the C3 Frameworks for Social Studies.
Students using map skills. Anthony Asael/Art in All of Us/Contributor/Getty Images

Maps are used throughout the social studies to help deliver spatial information in the most efficient way possible.

Students need to understand the type of map they are looking at and to be able to use the map conventions like keys, orientation, scale and more as outlined in Basics of Map Reading.

 The shift in the C3s, however, is to move students from the low-level tasks of identification and application to the more sophisticated understanding where students “create maps and other graphic representations of both familiar and unfamiliar places.”

 In Dimension 2 of the C3s, creating maps is an essential skill. 

"Creating maps and other geographical representations is an essential and enduring part of seeking new geographic knowledge that is personally and socially useful and that can be applied in making decisions and solving problems."

Asking students to create maps allows them prompts new inquiries, especially for the patterns portrayed.

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  • National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History (Silver Spring, MD: NCSS, 2013).  
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Bennett, Colette. "6 Skills Students Need to Succeed in Social Studies Classes." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/skills-students-need-social-studies-classes-8207. Bennett, Colette. (2020, October 29). 6 Skills Students Need to Succeed in Social Studies Classes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/skills-students-need-social-studies-classes-8207 Bennett, Colette. "6 Skills Students Need to Succeed in Social Studies Classes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/skills-students-need-social-studies-classes-8207 (accessed June 10, 2023).