There is Nothing Traditional About the Traditional Research Project (Part 2)

[Part 1 and Part 3]

Few will deny that the expansion of web technologies has drastically transformed our classrooms.  It has allowed me to do things in the classroom that I could only dream about just a few short years ago.  That said, in the end my usage of this technology has enhanced and improved my ability to achieve certain goals rather than transform the goals themselves.  Let me explain.  I love primary sources.  My courses are built around a belief that the best way for students to understand the past is for them to engage the available primary sources.  I want them to learn to analyze sources, appreciate perspective and develop interpretations that form the foundation for classroom discussions and debates as well as various written assignments.  Yes, I give my students every opportunity to display their understanding in various ways, but at the end of the day I want my students to develop their critical writing skills.

They even write a substantial research paper over the course of two months.  I hope you are not too surprised to hear this, but unfortunately, more and more history teachers are ditching the traditional paper.  That is unfortunate because there is nothing traditional about writing formal papers given the online tools now available.  If you are my age you probably remember writing research papers that were almost, if not entirely, based on secondary sources.  The teacher took the class to the library and we spent our time reading encyclopedias, books, and maybe a few magazines.  The goal was to synthesize what other had written on the subject.  In the case of my library most of the books were old, which I now understand was a significant problem.  Such a project left very little room for original thought because there was no access to the relevant primary sources.

Because there is now a wealth of primary source material available online I can teach the kind of essay that allows students (echoing the words of Carl Becker) to be their own historian.  A two month process allows students to experience the entire research process from gathering materials, formulating a thesis, outlines, and rough drafts.  So, the most important websites for me are those that function as online repositories such as the Richmond Daily Dispatch, Valley of the Shadow, and Library of Congress.  While secondary sources aid my students in understanding the outline of their subject their essays are built from the ground up with online primary sources.  They gather their online sources using social bookmarking sites like Delicious that allow them to tag and organize their sources.  What I like about Delicious is that it allows users to network with others with similar interests.  The more sophisticated may find Zotero to be helpful in organizing sources.   Every stage of the writing process is done on Google Docs.  First, it makes it much easier to follow and comment as the teacher, but it also allows other students to read and comment on their peers’ work.  I think this helps to foster community as well as an appreciation for the communal aspect of research.  Students can also take advantage of programs such as Noodle Tools for the proper citation form of their sources.

In the past I’ve had students print out final drafts, but from now on I am going to find ways to make them accessible to the general public as an archive.  I am committed to continuing this in the future.  It’s an incredible amount of work and demands a great deal of responsibility on the part of the student.  There is simply no way around spending the necessary time collecting and thinking about evidence.  The project allows students to put into practice skills that have been emphasized throughout the year and it also reinforces online literacy skills that I discussed in the previous post.  I can’t tell you how many students have contacted me after graduation to thank me for this assignment.  My students are prepared for most college classes that includes a paper.  In some cases they are the only students in the class who have any idea of what is involved.  But beyond this I am convinced that in having finished this project my students have a fairly sophisticated sense of what it means to do history as well as the nature of historical knowledge.  In short, they can think critically about the past.  I can’t think of a better example of the way in which I utilize web technologies to improve and enhance the central goals that I set for my history classes.

2 comments… add one
  • Adam Arenson Jul 14, 2010 @ 11:12

    Kevin —

    This is a great post, and one that meshes well with my morning spent updating my Civil War Battlefields research course for college seniors (

    I agree the research, outlining, writing, and revising skills offered by the traditional research paper remain crucial to success in universities and in many career fields. I can skill remember doing the work with note cards in the local university library in 8th grade, when my science teacher required a background research paper for our science-fair projects. That was probably the single most valuable assignment of my entire K-12 education.

    Thanks for mentioning a few tools for research, and a few sources for primary sources, here; finding resources on the writing process can be even harder, but I have found the website created by Bill Cronon and his students to offer a great approach to the research, writing, and revision:

    In terms of submissions and publication, I save trees by taking student papers electronically and commenting on them; a few from my past class are now online, with the students’ permission. Of course, other teachers need to be vigilant that students do not copy these papers and claim them as their own work, in future classes.

    I look forward to hearing what more suggestions you and others have.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 14, 2010 @ 12:00


      Nice to hear from you. Glad to know that you enjoyed the post and thanks for the links. It’s always nice to see what others are doing.

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