Teaching with Primary Sources

Four examples of primary sources: letter, photograph, early bible, broadside.A couple of weeks ago I attended a workshop sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) titled Current Trends in Teaching with Primary Sources – A Hands-on Workshop. Not only did I learn a lot about the subject, but the workshop itself was a model for best pedagogical practices. Lecture format was kept to a minimum, formative assessment was used throughout, and the emphasis was on active learning in small groups. The workshop instructors, Matt Herbison (Archivist for Reference and Outreach, Legacy Center, Drexel University College of Medicine), Doris Malkmus (Instruction and Outreach Archivist, Pennsylvania State University), and Rachel Grove Rohrbaugh (Archivist and Public Services Librarian, Chatham University), were enthusiastic about both what they were teaching and how they were teaching.

The Innovative Instructor doesn’t sit on the other side of the podium (so to speak) very often, so it was exciting to experience the principles we preach in practice. The instructors condensed the lecture content to several short (ten minutes or less) segments and provided the participants with photocopies of the slides for reference. Each of the lecture sessions was followed by an exercise. We were organized into groups of three and four and given handouts – copies of newspaper clippings, letters, photographs, printed materials – accompanied by a set of key questions for the group to answer.  In this way we learned to identify and differentiate primary, secondary, and tertiary sources; how to evaluate these documents for audience and bias; and how to analyze documents using standard generalized and specific approaches. Since the goal of the workshop was to train the trainers, we were also given some background on teaching strategies, including the importance of developing learning objectives, knowing your audience, and assessment and rubrics. For our final exercise each group created a primary source activity for a specifically described undergraduate or high school class using a set of primary and secondary sources.

Why is it important for students to learn how to work with primary sources? A project called Students and Faculty in the Archives collected data between 2011 and 2013 on visits by faculty and undergraduate students to the Brooklyn Historical Society. “After visiting the archives, participating students were more engaged with and excited about their coursework, showed improvement in key academic skills, and achieved better course outcomes than their peers. Faculty participants learned newly-established best practices for archives-based teaching and became more thoughtful and effective instructors.” And from the Library of Congress web pages on teaching with primary sources we learn that “[p]rimary sources provide a window into the past—unfiltered access to the record of artistic, social, scientific and political thought and achievement during the specific period under study, produced by people who lived during that period. Bringing young people into close contact with these unique, often profoundly personal, documents and objects can give them a very real sense of what it was like to be alive during a long-past era.” Moreover working with primary sources engages students, helps them to develop critical thinking skills, and learn to construct knowledge.

If you are interested in integrating primary source research into your courses, it’s easy to get started. Here at Johns Hopkins we have librarians and archivists who provide instruction for students individually or to a class, either in the classroom or in the special collections areas. There are likely similar library, special collections, and archive resources on your campus. Don’t stop there. If you are in or near an urban area you and your students should consider the wealth of primary source material housed in public libraries, archives, historical societies, newspaper morgues, house museums, and other such institutions.

There are also a number of places online where you can find inspiration for learning activities to introduce or reacquaint your students to working with primary sources. The following resources were recommended by the MARAC workshop:

Brooklyn Historical Society, Teaching effectively with primary sources: http://www.teacharchives.org/

NYSED on Document Analysis: http://www.p12.nysed.gov/ciai/dbq/one.html

National History Day Resource Listing: http://www.nhd.org/ConductingResearch.htm

Key Concepts in Historical Thinking: http://canadianmysteries.ca/en/keyConcepts.php

DoHistory: http://dohistory.org

Library of Congress: Using Primary Sources http://www.loc.gov/teachers/usingprimarysources/

Document Analysis Worksheets: National Archives http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/

National History Education Clearinghouse: http://teachinghistory.org/

Historical Thinking Matters: http://historicalthinkingmatters.org

For further reading on the subject of teaching with primary sources, here are links to two bibliographies provided by the MARAC workshop:

1) Society of American Archivists Reference, Access, and Outreach Section
http://www2.archivists.org/groups/reference-access-and-outreach-section/teaching-with-primary-sources-bibliography

2) Zotero Groups – Teaching with Primary Sources
https://www.zotero.org/groups/teaching_with_primary_sources/items/collectionKey/2BKBRTH8/

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources


Image Source: Individual images from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/

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