Do They Really Dislike Social Studies? A Study of Middle School and High School Students

Do They Really Dislike Social Studies? A Study of Middle School and High School Students

Chiodo, John J


Building on previous research conducted over the past thirty years, this study attempts to inquire about students’ attitudes towards social studies. Using a phenomenological research approach, two groups of eighth and eleventh grade students were interviewed. A total of forty-eight students were selected to participate in the study.

With teacher and learning variables, previous research, and the research questions in mind, there was an emergence of two dominant themes that related to the analysis of the information provided by the students. The first theme suggested active involvement and teacher enthusiasm led to positive images of social studies by middle and high school students. While the second theme suggested perceived utilitarian value or lack of it, was a major factor regarding both middle and high school students’ views of social studies. Generally, students were not as negative toward social studies as indicated in previous research studies.


Throughout the past fifty years, teachers and researchers have tried to understand why students either like or dislike social studies. Research studies have attempted to identify and measure student attitudes about social studies and predict relationships that influence their attitudes related to this area of curriculum (Corbin, 1994; Curry & Hughes, 1965; Fraser, 1981; Inskeep & Rowland, 1963; McTear & Blaton, 1975; McTear, 1978, 1979, 1986). Through the years, ongoing changes in curriculum design, teaching methodology, and administrative practices may have helped to improve students’ perception of social studies (Shaughnessy & Haladyna, 1985). However, an attitude still persists among many students that social studies classes are dull, boring, and irrelevant to their lives. If the curriculum in social studies is to continue to have support from school administrators, politicians, and the general public, it is desirable to have positive student attitudes towards the subject matter. For it is quite possible that negative attitudes toward social studies could ultimately result in a sharp decline in the allocation of resources for this subject area.

Unfortunately, previous research indicates that youngsters are not positive about social studies and find it irrelevant for future careers (Schug, Todd & Beery, 1982). Historically, when elementary and high school students were surveyed, the most dominant negative perception was that social studies was boring and had little relevance to their lives. Fernandez, Massey, and Dornbush (1975; 1976) conducted one of the earliest surveys regarding student attitudes towards social studies in the San Francisco Public Schools. Those researchers found that students in grades 9 through 12 ranked social studies last in importance when compared to other core subjects such as English and mathematics. The participants described social studies as confusing and having little relationship to their future.

In a more recent study, Shaughnessy and Haladyna (1985) captured the essence of why social studies is one of the least liked courses. They interviewed sixth and twelfth grade students in a Midwest school district about social studies subject matter and teacher preparation. The researchers concluded that:

It is the teacher who is key to what social studies will be for the student. Instruction tends to be dominated by the lecture, textbook or worksheets…. and social studies does not inspire students to learn (p.694).

A large portion of research related to this topic was conducted in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. For instance, studies completed by Hahn (1982) and Fouts (1987) examined the relationship between student attitudes toward social studies curriculum and achievement. However, in the past fifteen years, few researchers have investigated this topic. In light of the many curriculum changes that have taken place during the last 15 years and the changing attitudes of politicians and parents toward public education, it is appropriate to once again revisit this area of research.

As a nation we have also experienced several major socio-political events that have greatly affected our lives. The aftermath of Nine-Eleven and the war with Iran have thrust social studies into the forefront of our educational system. These events have caused a renewed interest in civic education and a concern for patriotism by various groups in our society. They have focused their attention on the social studies curriculum and social studies teachers. Therefore, we designed this study to investigate eighth and eleventh grade students’ perceptions toward social studies.

Research Study

Despite a wide variety of teacher resources, such as creative lesson plans, inservice training, parental support and school support, students often have a negative attitude towards social studies. Haladyna and Shaughnessy (1982) contend that three factors have a direct correlation with student attitude: the teacher, the learning environment, and preexisting student attitudes of motivation, selfconfidence, and the recognition of the importance of subject matter. Haladyna (1982) indicated that the teacher and learning environment plays a strong role in potentially shaping student attitudes toward the social studies. Teacher factors, such as commitment to help students learn, enthusiasm in the classroom and individual attention, are highly related to students’ attitudes toward subject matter. The teacher influence can create a positive learning environment in the classroom. Classroom climate and student attitudes can be modified through interventions to improve the image of social studies (Wheeler & Ryan, 1973).

Mager (1968) indicated that attitude and perception is key to student success, for several reasons. First, attitudes towards a class or teacher are casually related to achievement. second, students who have a positive attitude toward a subject matter are more likely to continue their education in that subject area or possibly further their education via technical training, college, or graduate school. Third, students convey their attitudes about school to parents, teachers, and friends. If their overall attitude toward school is negative, this increases the likelihood that the student will convey a negative attitude about social studies to other people. Together, Mager (1968) and Haladyna (1982) show that the teacher’s attitude towards social studies and the students’/ parents’ commitment to education has unique and interactive influences on school curriculum.

Building on the previous research, we interviewed public school students to gain answers to the following question: What are the attitudes of eighth and eleventh grade students toward the social studies? In answering this research question, students were interviewed to gather information on the following related questions: a) How does teacher interest and enthusiasm affect their attitude towards social studies? b) How does teaching methodology affect their attitude towards social studies? c) Do they see any relevance between social studies and their present and future lives? d) What were their concerns or recommendations regarding the social studies curriculum and instruction? and e) Do the comments and concerns regarding social studies change between middle school and high school? By utilizing the findings of this study, educators will gain current information about students’ perceptions of social studies.

Design of Study

Understanding student behavior as being influenced by perception or personal meaning lias the potential to increase educators’ effectiveness in predicting learning outcomes and promoting students’ classroom learning (Byer, 1999). The students’ perceptions and involvement in classroom learning is an important dimension of classroom social climate that promotes academic motivation (Moos, 1979; Zevin, 1983). In order to capture the students’ individual perceptions of the social studies curriculum in rich detail, the study utilized a phenomenological research design. Phenomenological research can be traced to the philosophical roots of phenomenology in its emphasis on experience and interpretation (Merriam, 1998).

In the conduct of a phenomenological study, the focus is on the essence or structure of an experience and the assumption that there is a shared experience. “These essences are the core meanings mutually understood through a phenomenon commonly experienced. The experience of different people are bracketed, analyzed, and compared to identify the essence of the phenomenon” (p. 15).

For the purposes of our study we selected two groups of eighth (middle school) and eleventh (high school) grade students and interviewed them on their perceptions about social studies. These specific grade levels were chosen based on research on brain growth and development (Bosowski, 1981). For example, Sylwester (2000), concluded that cognitive development forms in a step-like progression with peaks in the third, sixth and ninth, grades. Investigative research in this study was performed on eighth and eleventh grade students in order to represent more stable periods of cognitive development.

The participants in the study were selected with the idea of creating a purposeful sample. Purposeful sampling is based on the assumption the investigator wants to discover, understand, and gain insight into a situation and therefore, must select a sample from which the most can be learned (Merriam, 1998). During purposeful sampling, subjects are selected because they reflect the average person, situation, or instance of phenomenon (Merriam, 1998, p. 62). Therefore, we purposefully chose to study younger (eighth grade) and older (eleventh grade) students.

The study was conducted in a southwestern state in the United States where schools are required to teach state objectives (Priority Academics Student Skills or P.A.S.S). Implemented by the state, P.A.S.S is designed to test students’ knowledge in the core areas of education. Within the social studies curriculum the southwestern state identifies social studies content as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology. The goal of the social studies curriculum is to promote civic competence among students. Local school districts are responsible for correlating their district goals, teaching strategies and scope and sequence of social studies curriculum to the F.A.S.S tests.

Both eighth and eleventh grade participants were located in a community with a population of one hundred thousand permanent residents. The community, which is considered progressive, has historically supported education. A large state university is located within the community.

The school district serves 12,511 students of which 81.4% are white, 6.6% Native American, 6.0% African American, 2.6% Asian and 1.7% Hispanic. The middle school where fieldwork was conducted was one of four similar size middle schools within the district. Social studies content covered in the schools’ curriculum included early civilizations for sixth grade, geography for seventh grade, and pre-civil war history for eighth grade students.

The high school used during the research study was one of two located in the community. It had a student population of nearly 1800 students. Social studies courses there are diverse, allowing students a choice in levels of core courses and elective courses. Ninth grade students are required to take world history. Tenth grade students have choices between United States history, advanced United States history or Advanced Placement United States history. juniors and seniors are required to enroll in state history, government, and geography. Additional courses in sociology, current issues, psychology, and Advanced Placement European history are considered electives.

Methods and Sample Selection

This phenomenological study contained two bound systems (8th and 11th grade). Although the methods used to collect data were similar, they were not identical. In both cases, we interviewed, took notes, and audio taped interviews with each participant. The interviews were transcribed in the course of one school year for both the eighth and eleventh grade participants.

At the time that the study was conducted, two hundred and twenty-five students were enrolled in the eighth grade level, while six hundred and forty students were enrolled in the eleventh grade level. Based on input from the social studies teachers at the schools, we decided to select four classes from each school and then select students from each class to ensure a purposeful sample. A total of forty-eight students were selected to participate in the study. Twenty-four students (12 male and 12 female) were chosen, using a two-stage sampling from each perspective grade.

all interviews were conducted from February through March. The purpose of the interviews was to discover attitudes toward the social studies curriculum in a select group of eighth and eleventh graders. Rather than use predetermined items, a number of general questions derived from previous studies were used to initially guide the student interviews (Appendix A).

The student responses were probed and clarified for comprehension, and personal and self-perceptions were encouraged. The purpose of interviewing was not only to listen to the words, but also to derive meanings, motivations, and conflicts (DeMoss, 1998). Interviews were designed to discover how students’ viewed social studies and how these interpretations were used as the basis for their perceptions.

Interviews were tape recorded to ensure accuracy and later transcribed. Each transcript was verified for accuracy by listening to the audio-tape while reading the documentation. Analysis of data followed the Diener and Crandall’s (1978) model in social and behavioral research. Notes were taken for each interview describing nonverbal cues and posture within each bound system. Each interview was then coded and resulting themes were noted. Then, corroborating themes were established within the bound system (eighth grade) through triangulation with field notes. The same process was completed for the second bounded system (eleventh grade) and similarities and differences were noted between the two groups. In an attempt to minimize our bias’ as researchers we performed the fieldwork in schools where we were neither employed nor knew the student participants. However, we realize that do to the nature of our research techniques this may not been entirely possible.

Special attention was given to data that seemed to challenge previous studies. Each category from the first bounded system (eighth grade) was then compared to that of the second bounded system (eleventh grade) in order to trace the development of students’ attitudes toward social studies throughout the middle school and high school experience.

Research Findings

The purpose of this study was to explore in depth, middle school and high school students’ perceptions of social studies. With teacher and learning variables, previous research, and the research questions in mind, there was an emergence of two dominant themes that related to the analysis of the information. Themes were determined by terms, concepts and categories that we interpreted from the data. Themes were designed to answer both the research question and be neither static nor mutually exclusive. Themes were developed from the frequency of data and the uniqueness of participant feedback. Although individual students may have held a dominant perspective, careful analysis revealed that students also expressed qualities mentioned by other participants. As each bound system was analyzed, the two dominant themes emerged. The first theme suggested active involvement and teacher enthusiasm led to positive images of social studies by middle and high school students. The second theme suggested the perceived utilitarian value or lack of it was a major factor regarding middle and high school student views of social studies.

In their previous years in school, both the eighth grade and eleventh grade students have gained experience, knowledge and recommendations related to their social studies classes. Insight was comprehensive, and this insight could be felt and appreciated by their teachers and the researchers. The students’ insight came from years of social studies classes and numerous exposures to different teaching methodology, content, and evaluation.

Generally most students were open, and they expressed an interest about social studies classes. Other issues mentioned in the interviews such as school spirit, clean campuses, and discipline did not alter students’ perceptions of social studies. Rather, the students’ immediate concern, within social studies, was focused on teaching methodology and the value of civic participation as a part of social studies. As a result, students spent a large amount of time describing experiences and possible recommendations for change.

During the interviews, students often expressed the importance of participation in the learning process. Active learning, teacher enthusiasm, and relevancy of material led to positive images and perceptions of social studies by both middle and high school students.

The teacher needs to be excited about learning. When the teacher is excited about the material, I tend to have more interest in the stuff being taught. If the teacher doesn’t make it exciting, and it’s something I can’t understand, then how am I going to like it, and study it? (interview with Erika)

Both middle and high school students mentioned times of boredom and uncertainty when the teaching methodology was primarily an expository form of instruction.

I think the drawback when my teacher lectures is the fact that we have no idea what the class is doing unless she writes an agenda on the board. Otherwise, the class is lost and sometimes struggles to keep up. (interview with Heather)

Eighth grade students saw the need for alternative methods of instruction, where students were allowed to perform group projects, group work, debates, and simulations. Middle school students viewed expository instruction as repetitive and often predictable. For the eighth grade students, their initial concern with listening to the teacher lecture, reading from the book and completing worksheets was the loss of interest over subject matter. The students’ opinions reflected Stiler’s (1988) belief that teachers who use only one teaching style day after day often deny students the opportunity of a variety of teaching techniques. As a result, the students become bored and perceive the subject matter as uninteresting when the cause of the boredom is not the subject matter, but the teacher’s instructional style.

High school students also viewed the importance of using a variety of teaching methods. Eleventh grade students placed a heavy emphasis on classroom discussion and debate as beneficial for post-high school success and improved communicating skills.

It is important to give the students a chance to debate or even argue as long as it doesn’t get out of hand, over the material covered in class. I think it shows the teacher that we have listened, but also gives us a chance to see what other students think, (interview with Kristin)

Students described most of their social studies classes as still being dominated by the traditional textbook and by a subject-centered emphasis on acquiring knowledge. Ellis, Fouts, and Glenn (1992) agree that the social studies teacher generally relies on the text, lecturing, videos, worksheets, and traditional tests as methods for learning.

It would seem that the students support Hess’s (2001) argument that teaching with discussions and allowing student feedback means helping students improve their ability to think. The outcome of class discussion is that students may become skilled debaters. Furthermore, teaching with discussion enables students to develop an understanding of a specific issue, enhance critical thinking skills and to improve interpersonal skills. Students expressed the importance in lesson variety to retain knowledge of social studies facts and concepts, supporting the idea that students who are subjected to involvement on activities, small group interaction and cooperative learning are more successful in social studies classes (Bonwell & Eison, 1991; Mills & Durden, 1992; Slavin, 1991, 1994).

In addition, we also observed teacher enthusiasm and creativity as a way to improve students’ performance in school and perception of social studies. Both bound systems revealed the importance of teacher “excitement”, “trust”, and “ability to make it fun”. all students realized the importance and need for teachers to enjoy and be enthusiastic about their curriculum. Students described how they were excited to learn material when the teacher expressed a sincere, genuine interest in the subject matter even if the material was initially labeled as boring or dull.

I’ve had teachers before where they make learning fun not because the material is interesting, but because they are excited about it. If they are excited it makes me what to hear what they have to say or do the class assignment and learn the material, (interview with Alex)

Students expressed a sense of joy when teachers were enthusiastic about material presented. Furthermore, students suggested a teacher’s enthusiasm brought a sense of belonging and motivation to learn.

In addition to teacher enthusiasm, students indicated the importance of teacher professionalism. Although they recognize the importance of creativity, spontaneity and creative activities, students did express the desire for teachers to treat them with respect and credibility.

Even though I do think all my classes should be interesting, I also want them to treat us like young adults. I think some of my best classes I have taken is when the teacher was cool and treated us with respect. I think most of the students in that class in return treated the teacher better. (interview with Ryan)

Fouts (1987), Fouts, Chan, and Biao (1993), Mager (1968), and McGowan, Sutton, and Smith (1990) suggested that positive attitudes toward social studies may be more affected by classroom environment and teacher interest rather than by method of instruction. Furthermore, Ellenburg and Miller (1972, 1981), Wheeler (1972), Wheeler and Ryan (1973), and Fisher and Fraser (1984) found that classroom teachers have the power to elevate their students’ perceptions of selected classroom environments. Students enjoy it when teachers are enthusiastic about subject matter, knew the subject matter, were committed to help every student learn, individualized the lesson for each student, demonstrated fairness in the classroom, and used praise and reinforcement on a regular basis.

There was one area of the study that did not seem to be a concern for a majority of students in either the eighth or the eleventh grades. That area was the negative perception of social studies in middle and high school. Informal student conversations and an interview question with both grades validated this. After a few short moments during the interviews, it did not take long for us to realize that most students did not have a negative perception of social studies.

Discussions with both grades revealed that thirty-four students expressed the view that social studies was productive and important in their education (utilitarian value). Fourteen out of the twenty-four middle school students revealed that they were pleased with the content taught in the eighth grade. They also revealed they learned good citizenship skills and history better prepared them for high school and college requirements.

I know taking government and history are required, but I think by talking these classes, I have become more aware of our political system and our history. I know it was hard now, but I think it will help me when it comes time to vote, and help me when I go to college, (interview with John)

Because the scope and sequence of the local district from where the students were selected requires pre-Civil War and a detailed study of the constitution, this may have a direct impact on the importance of citizenship education and participation. Students indicated their interest in social studies increased as they progressed through both elementary and middle school grades. This contradicts researchers’ findings which suggested elementary and middle school students find social studies having little relevance, boring and student interest dropping with every grade level (Greenblatt, 1962; Haladyna and Thompson, 1979; Herman, 1965; Jersild, 1949).

High school students also expressed the utilitarian value of social studies. Students indicated the importance of gaining an understanding the political process and civic duties and responsibilities. Twenty-two of the twenty-four high school students described the importance of government and United States history. Students described these classes as having a direct relation to their lives and gaining knowledge in civic responsibility was not a waste of time, but rallier important building blocks in their lives.

Government has help me understand our country’s political system and I think, after talking in class and hearing guest speakers, I now know the importance of registering to vote, voting and expressing what I think is right and wrong with our country, (interview with Emily)

This contradicts Fernandez, Massey and Dornbusch (1975) who found that most students failed to see social studies as relating greatly to life, relationships, or careers. Rather, students appeared to have higher levels of civic development and a possible willingness to participate in community service activities. Niemi and Chapman (1999) concluded that this leads to increased political knowledge and stronger sense of understanding politics.

In this study 10 high school students out of 24 and 22 middle school students out of 24 ranked social studies as one of their three favorite classes. Both middle and high school students often selected mathematics, science and English as first or second choices because of their value in future careers, supporting Schug, Todd, and Beery’s (1982) survey which asked students to rank their favorite subject.

One tiling was clear during the interview process; middle and high school students had a variety of perceptions toward social studies. In talking to all of the participants, we have come to view students’ perceptions and opinions about school as complex, cynical and informative, even though most students have the same social studies classes. To try to describe all forty-eight participants’ perceptions, even if those perceptions are only general categories seems somewhat simplistic, and cannot be done.


Based on the interviews, students expressed a utilitarian value for social studies. While students did not necessarily believe that social studies was their favorite choice among classes, students did believe social studies was needed in school curriculum. Factors such as teacher enthusiasm, previous experiences, technology and content methodology were all influential in the development of student choices.

Using the information from this study teachers and administrators need to reinforce the utilitarian value of social studies, and explore different teaching methods, to create and enhance the overall perception of social studies. Students revealed that teachers continued to utilize expository teaching and textbooks as a means of instruction. These two methods of instruction are inherently designed for passive learning, transmission of facts and ideas rather than active involvement of learners in the pursuit of knowledge. Many themes, topics and terms were covered, but few were developed in detail. The “matter of fact presentations” of content, which avoid or gloss over controversy tended to fill both middle and high school social studies classrooms.

In addition, educators need to understand the complexity of students learning styles. Teachers should realize that every student is not created equal when it comes to learning styles. Some students prefer to learn independently, while others like to work in groups, or read from books, or learn from lecture. Because of these differences, a successful teacher must use a variety of teaching strategies and evaluate these strategies to suit the needs of their students. Teachers should become aware of Gardner’s (1983) theory of intelligences and structure lessons and activities that would engage different forms of learning for students (Chuckley, 1997).

It is known that attitude can be measured. Previous studies have measured the attitudes and perceptions of students towards social studies. When student attitude in these past studies was measured, it reflected negative feelings towards social studies. It is important to realize the teacher is one of the keys to students’ attitudes and perception of social studies. When the teacher uses a variety of teaching methodologies to improve the learning environment, it is possible that a positive perception of social studies will increase (Stiler, 1988). The implications of failing to recognize and implement change may lead to a decline in the positive perception of social studies. As a result, social studies educators should continue to pursue research and school change that will examine the attributes that shape the attitudes and perceptions of our students towards social studies.

Summary and Conclusion

Although we believe that the experiences of these participants depicted in this study represent what could happen to any middle or high school social studies student, additional research is needed to add to the body of knowledge related to this topic. The fact that both bound systems come from the same school district could be a potential deficiency. Further studies, therefore, need to explore and compare participants from a variety of school districts. The atmosphere, expectations, scope and sequence, may not be the same from different school settings. The attitudes of the students, teachers and school district, as well as parents may all vary. There is no doubt that a majority of the participants in this study enjoyed and recognized the importance of a social studies education. However, it is possible that the perceived concerns, recommendations and support for social studies is different in other school districts. Indeed, these two bound systems (8th and 11th grade students) may be the exception and not necessarily the rule.

It is also possible that school district’s scope and sequence and state guidelines are influential in developing students’ opinions in this study. Thus, students from other locations in the state, or the nation, need to be researched.

The events of September 11th and the war may have also affected the attitudes of the students who participated in this study. The surge of patriotism nationally as well as locally certainly needs to be considered. Students may now see a greater importance of social studies in their present and future lives as citizens.

We also realize that the previous research studies we cited were generally conducted using a quantities research design. Differences may have occurred in our findings simply do to the research techniques.

Since this research study was designed and conducted utilizing a phenomenological method of qualitative analysis, quantitative methods should also be encouraged. Although we are comfortable with the facts and findings, the limitations of qualitative studies are recognized. A broad quantitative survey may further contribute to the understanding of students’ perception toward social studies. Qualitative and quantitative research could work together to further research and unveil data dealing with students’ perceptions of social studies.

Considering all the limitations found in this study, the researchers still believe that the findings add to our understanding of students’ perceptions of social studies. As we said in our introduction, students’ perceptions need to be analyzed on a periodic basis to insure that we are making progress in helping students acquire the knowledge, skills, and attitudes related to the social studies curriculum.

We have found through our research that two themes have emerged: active involvement coupled with teacher enthusiasm led to positive attitudes towards social studies; and the perceived utilitarian value or lack of it affected students’ views of social studies. These themes need to be shared with all social studies teachers so that they considered them when designing their social studies lessons.

Having analyzed the data for this study, we could never overemphasize the complexity and difficulty of being a student. The success of being a student relies not only on his or her teachers, but the support of the school district, community, parents, and personal motivation to succeed. Further studies, therefore, are not only necessary, but crucial in providing further insight into these factors which in turn will be important in further understanding students’ perceptions regarding social studies.


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John J. Chiodo, University of Oklahoma

Jeffery Byford, Indiana University

Copyright University of Northern Iowa Spring 2004

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