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One of my primary objectives in my upper-level history classes is for students to develop their research skills. This involves the long, laborious task of sifting through primary and secondary sources to identify patterns and make discoveries.
But I often observe students rushing through the research process trying to find their sources quickly. This leads to poorly conceived research papers that demonstrate a lack of historical methodology, poor writing skills, or a deficiency in informational literacy.
I wanted students to “slow down” as they researched and wrote instead of merely try to get the project completed and move on to the next task. To achieve this, I implemented blogging in two courses: students would report on their research findings in an incremental way as they did their research, rather than as a single report at the end. This would get them focusing on the process of doing historical research, not just the product. Blogs are ideal for this purpose because they are constantly updated sets of reflections by their authors. Plus, the public aspect of a blog provides students with an opportunity to get continual feedback on the research process from both their instructor and their classmates.
For my History of the Civil War course, I directed students to the Valley of the Shadow website, which has digitized dozens of diaries and letters of both soldiers and civilians who lived in southern Pennsylvania and northern Virginia during the Civil War era. This provided the primary source material for their research. I assigned specific historic individuals to each student and expected them to blog about a different letter or diary entry written by their individual each week, analyzing the primary source by placing it within a larger historical context based on their research of a secondary source—either a scholarly article or a digital source.
The purpose was for students to constantly analyze and contextualize primary sources throughout the semester, learn how to look at primary sources within many different historical contexts, and develop their research skills in a thoughtful and deliberate way. Each week I made sure to reserve at least 30 minutes for students to work on their blogs, though they were also expected to work on them outside of class.
In addition, I assigned each student a classmate’s blog to comment on. Besides offering constructive criticism, students posed questions for further research and compared what they had learned from their own research to the research being documented in the blog they were commenting on. This proved enormously effective as it helped focus each student’s research. Meanwhile, as the instructor, I regularly provided feedback to students about their blogs through email. I purposely did not make my comments public, because they were generally corrective in nature, meant to ensure that students were properly following directions and being discerning with any websites they were using. With this constant, consistent feedback from their peers and their instructor, students demonstrated improvement in their research and historical thinking skills throughout the semester. Assessment results showed that by the end of the semester, 82 percent of students could properly source and contextualize primary sources.
With its success in my Civil War class, I implemented the research blog in another course I teach, History of Ethnic America. But here students were given specific topics to write about in each posting. Also, instead of focusing on a single individual, students in this course focused on an ethnic group and were required to find all the information on their own.
In the first posting, students introduced themselves, identified an ethnic group they wanted to research, and posed historical questions. In the second posting, students wrote about a website they found that discussed their group, explained what made the website legitimate for historical research, and shared what they learned about the history of their group from the website. In the third posting, students identified three or more primary sources available online related to the history of their group. They used these primary sources to answer the historical questions they developed in an earlier blog post. In this longer blog entry, they also contextualized their sources based on secondary sources they found online and offered a historical interpretation based on their sources. Finally, in their fourth posting, they reflected on what they learned about the history of ethnic America through their blogging activity and connected their research to one of the concepts or themes discussed in class.
As I did in the other class, I also assigned each student a classmate’s blog on which they would post comments that offered constructive criticism, posed questions, and made comparisons. I also regularly provided feedback to students about their blogs through email. For this research blog, students also had the opportunity to revise any of their blog entries based on the feedback they received; the vast majority of students took advantage of this opportunity. Assessment results showed that by the end of the semester, 67 percent of students were able to properly source and contextualize primary sources.
A comparison of the assessment results shows me that the regular practice of demonstrating historical thinking skills via a blog improved results in my Civil War class. That said, in both cases I observed that students improved their historical thinking skills over the course of the semester. By writing continuously about their research and receiving regular feedback, students focused their attention on historical methodology.
Daniel Kotzin, PhD, is an associate professor of history at Medaille College in Buffalo, New York.