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The Research Paper: Developing Historical Questions

Photography, working on a research paper, 5 April 2011, Mike Nantais, Flickr CC
What Is It?

A way to teach students how to develop historical questions. This is the beginning of a multi-step research paper process that encourages sophisticated historical thinking.

Rationale

It’s no secret that high schools across the country are turning away from the decidedly “old-school” research paper in favor of shorter writing assignments or a variety of “new-school” technology based projects like blogs or webpages. While these types of assignments are great for building historical thinking skills, we firmly believe that the research paper has been around for a long time for a reason: it’s the best way to engage students in sophisticated historical reasoning and prepare them for the academic world beyond high school. We have developed a comprehensive process with clear steps that walk the students through the creation of a research paper. The first step is for students to create a context-based historical question, giving their research a solid foundation and focus.

Description

Our research paper process guides students using a system with a seven-part structure (more detail on the entire process can be found here). In the first part, rather than simply asking students to choose a topic, we ask them to start with a topic of interest, narrow it down to possible subtopics, choose a subtopic, and develop an open-ended historical question to guide their research.

Teacher Preparation

Identify and model the qualities of good historical questions, as described in Handout 1, throughout the course (e.g. as lecture openings, test essays, class discussions, and at the beginning or end of structured debates). As they gain understanding, have students develop good questions as part of classroom activities. When the students seem to have grasped the fundamentals of historical writing, (i.e. thesis, claim, logic, evidence) begin the research paper effort.

Sequence in the Classroom
  1. Each student develops a list of subjects about which she is interested (e.g.     music, politics, arts, family life). The student then browses reference     sources such as textbooks and encyclopedias to identify broad topics of     interest.
  2. The student reads reference sources to establish the basic facts about the     broad topics (who did what, where, and when).
  3. The student narrows the broad topics into manageable subtopics for     which evidence (documents, images, etc.) is likely available.
  4. The student chooses the subtopic that interests her the most but keeps     other subtopics on a list in case the chosen subtopic does not have     sufficient evidence.
  5. The teacher models creating good historical research questions. Students     practice improving weaker historical questions using Handout 2.
  6. Students develop historical questions about their chosen subtopics. They     work in small groups to improve their questions.
  7. Students write a passage that identifies the historical context and the     historical question. These are turned in to the faculty member for     feedback before moving on to locating primary and secondary sources.     Remember: questions can and will change as the student does more     research.
Example

As part of preparing students for Step 7 of the process above, show kids Handout 3 so that they can see a completed template.

Common Pitfalls
  1. Some students will skip the preliminary research step. You can usually tell     that this happened when their topic description is lacking in detail and     specificity. This often results in overly broad questions that will confuse     students later. Don’t hesitate to send students back to Step 2 above and     reinforce the importance of following all the instructions.
  2. Some students will develop cultural history questions that may capture     their interest, but which are difficult to answer with clear evidence. An     example is: “What effects did popular music of the 1960s have on U.S.     foreign policy?” Many students choose this because they like the music of     the '60s, find the anti-war movement interesting, and assume there is a     connection between the music of the era and the choices the U.S. made in     Vietnam. However, if held to a strict standard of evidence and logic, only     the strongest students are going to be able to convincingly argue any     connection between the two. Although it can be a time-consuming     process, requiring students to edit and resubmit Step 7 until it works is     worth it over the long haul. Even slight changes in the wording of a     question will help students avoid dead-ends in their research and     ultimately write a better paper.
  3. Students can be drawn toward modern topics that veer into other social     science disciplines and lack a historical perspective. For example, a     student might come up with the question: “What is the status of women     in U.S. politics?” You might recommend an alteration of this question that     connects to the original topic: “What are the origins of the feminist     movement in the U.S.?” or “What were the effects of the women’s suffrage     movement?”
For more information 

Fischer, David. Historians' Fallacies: Toward A Logic of Historical Thought. London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1971.

Furay, Conal, and Michael J. Salevouris. The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 2000.

Schmidt, John, and Jeffrey Treppa. Historical Thinker.

The Concord Review, an organization that publishes students’ history research papers.

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