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Essential Purpose

By completing a historical research project like National History Day, students are exposed to research skills that need to be learned and used to guide the historical research. Secondly, the students are exposed to a set of questions about every document a researcher uses when encountering a source.

New York Herald, April 15, 1912
American Memory, Library of Congress

Each year, National History Day uses a different theme. The theme is intentionally broad enough to allow a student the freedom to select interesting topics across time and from many different places. Once a topic is chosen, a student investigates historical context, historical significance, and relationship to the theme through researching primary and secondary sources. A student must evaluate historical sources for bias and credibility. After analyzing and interpreting his or her findings, a student chooses a method of presentation. The student must also make a very important choice: whether to work alone or in a group of up to five students.

Historical accounts of the same event, person, or idea may differ because historians have asked different questions of the same sources or because they have used the sources differently. Historical records just lie there. The factual information in them does not jump out without questions being asked. The questions help to determine the answers and therefore the conclusions. The well-armed student is aware that the phrasing of the questions underlying a research design influences the conclusions. After a few pages of a historical narrative, it is obvious usually where that historianís methods and original questions will lead. Now the student can assess how persuasive the argument is while realizing it is that historianís argument, not the last word on the topic.

A student undertaking research should begin with who, what, when, where, how, and why. Students should be advised and encouraged to continually investigate: become like detectives, keep asking questions; brainstorm new questions to ask, especially as answers are learned to the first few questions. The first thing to do is to get the simple facts straight. Use a secondary source such as a dictionary, biographic dictionary, or documents to establish a date, such as a personís life span or to discover elementary information that would put the person into a context in history. Students should think about what questions a historian might ask when researching a given topic. Students should formulate questions as often as try to find answers. The interpretative part of questions in history means that historical conclusions will likely be challenged sometime in the future as different historians ask different questions or find different sources.

Historical sources all mislead to a certain extent because they tell only part of the story from one perspective. As long as human beings generate documents, there will never be an unbiased document. Students must learn to recognize bias and understand why sources are biased. When a historian encounters any document, questions must be raised. Sometimes a document will seem perfect, but caution students to not get so thrilled about the contents of a document that you overlook necessary questions. What is the genealogy of this document? How did it come to be located in this archive or collection? Is the path from its creation to its location believable? Could it have been planted? Is the document out of character with other documents?

Students should continually question the trustworthiness and credibility of sources, particularly for online research. Anyone can start a website to say almost anything. Students at this grade level tend to trust or use the first site to appear in a search engine. A good rule of thumb for academic research would be to use websites from educational institutions -- universities, museums, archives, etc.

National History Standards

Historical Thinking Standard 4: Historical Research Capabilities

The student conducts historical research:

Therefore, the student is able to -

  1. Formulate historical questions from encounters with historical documents, eyewitness accounts, letters, diaries, artifacts, photos, historical sites, art, architecture, and other records from the past.
  2. Obtain historical data from a variety of sources, including: library and museum collections, historic sites, historical photos, journals, diaries, eyewitness accounts, newspapers, and the like; documentary films, oral testimony from living witnesses, censuses, tax records, city directories, statistical compilations, and economic indicators.
  3. Interrogate historical data by uncovering the social, political, and economic context in which it was created; testing the data source for its credibility, authority, authenticity, internal consistency and completeness; and detecting and evaluating bias, distortion, and propaganda by omission, suppression, or invention of facts.
  4. Identify the gaps in the available records and marshal contextual knowledge and perspectives of the time and place in order to elaborate imaginatively upon the evidence, fill in the gaps deductively, and construct a sound historical interpretation.
  5. Employ quantitative analysis in order to explore such topics as changes in family size and composition, migration patterns, wealth distribution, and changes in the economy.
  6. Support interpretations with historical evidence in order to construct closely reasoned arguments rather than facile opinions.

State/Local Standards

States should align these modules to their own state/local standards as appropriate.

Essential Questions

Essential Content

21st Century Skills

Summative Assessment

This summative assessment is a transfer task that should be reviewed with students prior to beginning Lesson 1. It does not assess the actual completion of the project, but instead examines the written evidence of the historical research Ė a process paper that explains how the project was conceived, planned, and created and an annotated bibliography that explains how each chosen source was used by the researcher. National History Day is used as a vehicle for the historical research project because it gives students a theme around which to base the topic. It sets the parameters for research.

Essential Questions Measured by the Summative Assessment

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Prior Knowledge
Now that you have learned about the best way to complete a research project, you are ready to use that knowledge to complete a National History Day project.

Now that youíve selected a topic to research and written a thesis statement, you need to find credible historical sources to provide evidence that supports or disproves your thesis statement. You need to prove where you found those historical sources and why you chose them as a basis for historical conclusions.

You are a researcher that is working on a historical research project like National History Day. Your goal is to create a written record that will show the depth and quality of your research and highlight your conclusions.

Product/ Performance
Submit a process paper and annotated bibliography for your historical research project.

A process paper is a description of no more than 500 words explaining how you conducted your research and created and developed your project. You must conclude your description with an explanation of the relationship of your topic to the contest theme.

An annotated bibliography should contain all sources that provided usable information or new perspectives in preparing your project. You will look at many more sources than you actually use. You should list only those sources that contributed to the development of your project. Sources of visual materials and oral interviews must be included. The annotations for each source must explain how the source was used and how it helped you understand your topic.

Criteria for an Exemplary Response
Be sure to include these items in your process paper:
  • A title page is required as the first page of written material. Your title page must include only the title of your historical research project, your name(s) and the presentation category (e.g. paper, exhibit) which you chose.
  • First section should explain how you chose your topic.
  • Second section should explain how you conducted your research.
  • Third section should explain how you selected your presentation category and created your project.
  • Fourth section should explain how your project relates to the theme.
Be sure to remember this about your annotated bibliography:
  • An annotation normally should be about 1-3 sentences long.
  • The National History Day Contest Rule Book states that the annotations "must explain how the source was used and how it helped you understand your topic." Do not recount what the source said.

Rubrics for Summative Assessment

Rubrics for each presentation category may be found at the NHD website.