Students' attitudes towards history: Does self-identity matter?

Rhys Andrews, Catherine McGlynn, Andrew Mycock

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)


Background: In England, the promotion of 'national values' within the history curriculum has become an increasingly topical issue in the wake of recent debates about 'Britishness' and community cohesion. However, despite the swathe of policy statements and pronouncements, there is little empirical evidence linking young people's identities and their attitudes towards history. Purpose: Drawing on a survey of undergraduates, we explore young people's attitudes towards the history curriculum and how these relate to their ethnic, national and political identity. We anticipated that students ascribing to a strong sense of national identity may be particularly receptive to a traditional approach to teaching national values within history classes, while those with a strong sense of political identity would be receptive to a multicultural approach; and vice versa. Sample: The sample consisted of 353 undergraduates attending five universities in the North of England. The sample was composed of British citizens, the majority of whom would have recently experienced secondary education including discrete or cross-curricular teaching designed to promote 'British' national values. Design and methods: Students' attitudes towards history and their self-identity were estimated using a questionnaire survey asking respondents a series of questions about history teaching and identity. Exploratory factor analysis was used to reveal underlying patterns in students' responses to items assessing their attitudes towards history. Items gauging relevant dimensions of self-identification, such as the relative importance of their national identity, along with other individual background characteristics, were then regressed on to attitudes towards history. Results: We found that students' attitudes towards history were connected with two distinct factors: traditional/conservative and multicultural/liberal. The regression results revealed a positive relationship between a strong sense of national identity and a traditional attitude towards history, and, a negative relationship between a strong sense of national identity and a multicultural attitude towards history, even when controlling for students' background characteristics. Conclusions: Our exploratory research suggests that students' self-identity is likely to influence their attitudes towards approaches to history teaching. Educational policy-makers and practitioners must therefore pay careful attention to students' self-identity and the context in which this is formed when seeking to inculcate an inclusive national identity in history classes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)365-377
Number of pages13
JournalEducational Research
Issue number3
Early online date10 Aug 2009
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2009


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