Historical document analysis, especially of primary sources but also of diverse secondary and tertiary sources, represents an exciting initiative in history education. Long embedded in AP History curriculum and testing, the DBL approach is now used in a variety of History classes for a variety of purposes. These purposes include both formative and summative assessment, the development of deeper, student-produced understanding of content, and the foregrounding of historical thinking skills. In the field, there has been a movement to use online resources and to make DBL available to all teachers—in some cases even freely. The Stanford History Education Group and the DBQ Project are just two such resources used by classroom teachers. Recent research, however, has highlighted (and only just begun to address) the current lack of studies that examine what document-based learning looks like in “real-classroom studies” (Reisman, 2012). Furthermore, very little research has focused on accessing and analyzing the student perspective on DBL. As a result, student feedback remains absent from the majority of DBL literature and resources.
This small case study is an attempt to begin to address this gap in research on document-based learning. It provides insight into some common student responses to DBL, as well as into the effectiveness of DBL in promoting the development of key historical thinking skills. Combined with insight from the teacher of the students surveyed, this study aims to identify both successes and areas for improvement for implementing a document-based approach in a way that most effectively engages students and promotes student learning. Finally, it suggests areas for further study which will help to further illuminate and analyze student responses to DBL, and to develop DBL as a an effective student-centered approach to teaching history.
Because this case study involved analysis of only one classroom, without a control room or specifically controlled variables, it does not purport to a definitive comparison of student responses to document-based learning as opposed to more traditional approaches in history education. Its insights are also limited in their representation of a singular demographic, and in my inability to run more than a single round of student surveys or to engage in focus interviews. However, as an introductory study on student responses to DBL, it breaches a topic which merits extensive exploration, and pinpoints potential angles for further investigation.