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Eight Steps of Historical Research

The following is excerpted from A Guide to Historical Research Through the National History Day Program. A team of ten veteran teachers provide their best practices in managing NHD in the classroom. The book is formatted to take teachers step-by-step through a school year, from topic selection to research presentation complete with ready to use worksheets.

Step 1: Developing a paperwork management system

Organization is a key factor in successful research. The teacher should encourage students in the beginning stage of research to select a paperwork management system.

Step 2: Selecting a Topic

Teachers should work with students to select a topic related to the annual theme. Brainstorming ideas or looking through the history textbook are great ways to begin thinking about potential topics. For ideas on theme connection and topic selection please see the NHD annual theme book.

Step 3: Background Reading for Historical Context

In the excitement of getting started students sometimes skip one of the most important steps, building historical context for their research topic. Take time to support students in reading widely about their topic. Look at several different history books about the time period in which the topic takes place.

Step 4: Narrowing Your Topic

Selecting a National History Day topic is a process of gradually narrowing the area of history (period or event) that interests the students. For example, if the student is interested in equal rights and the theme is Leadership & Legacy in History, a natural topic would be leaders of equal rights movements. After reading several texts and journals about equal rights, the process might look something like this:

  Theme: Leadership & Legacy  Interest: Equal Rights  Topic: Leaders of Equal Rights  Issue/Leader: Martin Luther King Jr.

Or, if the student expressed an interest in Women's Rights and the theme is the Individual in History, the student might consider voting rights. After a library search and reading several texts about the era, the students might narrow the topic to the women's suffrage movement, and then a leader in the struggle for the vote, Alice Paul. In this case, the process looks like this:

  Theme: Individual in History  Interest: Women's Rights  Topic: Suffrage Movement  Issue/Individual: Alice Paul

Or if a student is interested in science and the theme is Innovation in History, the student might research medical discoveries that changed the world like the discovery of penicillin or isolating DNA. Resources to support the research might be in libraries, excellent websites (link on evaluating websites), and History of Science Museums. The process for narrowing the topic and connecting with the theme might follow this sequence:

  Theme: Innovation in History  Interest: History of Science  Topic: Medical Discoveries  Issue/Discovery: Penicillin

For more topic ideas related to this year's theme, Leadership & Legacy download the sample topics.

Step 5: Gathering and Recording Information

To be responsible researchers, students must credit sources from which they gathered information. To begin the process, however, it is important for the student to collect the critical information from each source as they read: the author's name, title, publisher, and date of publication, and page number for quotes.

Citations/bibliographies

To record the information the two acceptable styles of writing for NHD projects are Turabian and MLA. Historians use Turabian but we know that many classes in middle school and high school teach the MLA style. It does not matter which of these two styles the student uses, but it is important to be consistent. For help with questions about citations, you can check Turabian or MLA guides from your local library.

For help with Turabian: http://www.libs.uga.edu/ref/turabian.html

For help with MLA: http://www.library.cornell.edu/resrch/citmanage/mla

Annotated bibliography

An annotated bibliography is required for all categories. The annotations for each source must explain how the source was used and how it helped the student understand the topic. The student should also use the annotation to explain why the source was categorized as primary or secondary. Historians do sometimes disagree and there's not always one right answer, so students should use the annotation to explain why they classified their sources as they did. Students should list only those sources used to develop their entry. An annotation normally should be about 1-3 sentences.

  • Source (example)
    Bates, Daisy. The Long Shadow of Little Rock. 1st ed. New York: David McKay Co. Inc., 1962.
  • Annotation (example)
    Daisy Bates was the president of the Arkansas NAACP and the one who met and listened to the students each day. This first-hand account was very important to my paper because it made me more aware of the feelings of the people involved.

Step 6: Analyzing and Interpreting Sources and the Topic's Significance in History

Historians do more than describe events. They analyze and interpret information gathered from their sources to draw conclusions about a topic's significance in history. Students should do the same. Therefore, teachers should help students to ask questions of their topic and their research, considering the following:

  • Elements of change and continuity
  • Historical context: economic, political, social and cultural atmosphere of the time period

Encourage students to interrogate their sources:

  • Who created the source?
  • When was the source created?
  • What was the intent or purpose of the source?

Step 7: Developing a thesis

The thesis statement is usually one sentence that presents an argument about the topic. The body of the paper or website, the script of the performance or documentary, the headings and captions in an exhibit then are used to support the thesis using evidence from the research.

A good thesis statement:

  • Addresses a narrow topic
  • Explains what the researcher believes to be the historical significance of the topic
  • Connects the topic to the National History Day theme

Step 8: Finalizing an NHD research project

When research is completed and ready to present to an audience, ask students to review whether their work includes:

  • Analysis and interpretation
  • Significance and impact
  • In depth research
  • Historical accuracy
  • Historical context
  • Adherence to the theme