Overall, the results of this case study demonstrated two key findings, showing both the strengths and shortcomings of document-based learning through the eyes of tenth-grade history students.
On one hand, the study confirmed that, for at least some students, the major goals of document-based learning came across effectively. Students answers demonstrated some of the major intended benefits of DBL, such as:
- students reaching their own historical conclusions, and being challenged to figure out answers rather than simply memorizing information (“[I like] Being able to put things together like a puzzle and decide what side the author is on.“)
- interacting with primary documents rather than just a textbook (“You get to see the perspective of people right when it happened. It’s fresh in their minds“)
- interacting with a variety of (conflicting) opinions on the same topic (“You can read about a lot of different opinions and views by reading Documents.”)
Additionally, nearly half of students surveyed thought that document-based learning helped them learn “better” or “much better” than traditional methods such as listening to a lecture or copying notes directly from a textbook. This reflects previous research that DBL helps students not only in developing historical thinking skills, but also with better understanding and retaining content knowledge (Reisman, 2012).
On the other hand, the study revealed some frustrations and resistance that students have regarding document-based learning which could be addressed through further development and research. Students disliked and/or struggled with:
- the often repetitive nature of DBL, which made it difficult for some to focus (“It’s basically the same thing over and over again. You read some text, analyze it, then write down some answers.”)
- properly interpreting the documents, which could hinder overall learning (“Sometimes the documents are very confusing and are therefore hard to understand the overall message.”)
- the increased presence of engaged reading and writing present in DBL (I don’t like that DBL “Usually requires lots of reading.” or “writing a lot of stuff”)
Student expressions of difficulties with DBL encourage teachers and curriculum developers to add variety to document-based lessons, and to consider the best text format and difficulty level for particular groups of students. At the same time, since some students expressed dislike of the challenging nature of DBL, educators can consider this encouragement (at least in part) that students recognize how document-based learning requires more rigorous and critical thinking.
For a detailed breakdown of all student answers, see below. For further discussion of findings, click here.
The qualitative and quantitative results of the data I collected yielded the following findings. In some cases, answers fit into multiple categories, and percentages thus do not add up to one hundred.
Student Experiences with Document-Based Learning
Question 1: Document Based Learning is when you answer questions and reach conclusions based on your analysis of historical documents. Questions and conclusions can be based on a single document, or require you to use multiple documents. Briefly (one or two sentences) describe one time when you remember using Document Based Learning this semester in history class or for a history class assignment.
Of 40 responses:
19 (47.5%) positively identified an instance of DBL.
“Just a couple days ago we used political cartoons to find conclusions for that time frame.” / “We use it all the time mostly when we take quizzes he gives a document to read and we use contextualization to answer it.” / “When we looked over articles for the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and had to draw a conclusion for who’s fault it is.”
11 (27.5%) gave answers which did not clearly demonstrate whether or not they had positively identified an instance of DBL.
“we use document based learning at least once a week in history.” / “Every time in class, when he tells us to read something” / “The history readings and questions that we have been doing throughout the year.”*
10 (25%) did not positively identify an instance of DBL, with 7 (17.5%) identifying an activity that this study does not define as DBL and 3 (7.5%) unable to remember a time DBL had been used in class.
“last night reading for the homework” / “When we did the Stop Light Project.”**
*Some of the readings students have done throughout the year only require them to answer content-based multiple-choice questions from an online textbook (in order to build background knowledge).
**This project required finding reporting information from secondary sources, but not explicit practice of historical thinking skills like sourcing and contextualization.
Question 2: For what types of class assignments do you use Document Based Learning? (Choose as many as apply.)
Of 54 responses:
36 (66.7%) thought that DBL was used for class notes, 42 (77.8%) thought that it was used for class worksheets, 18 (33.3%) thought that it was used for multiple choice quizzes and tests, 30 (55.6%) thought it was used for short answer quizzes and tests, 33 (61.1%) thought it was used for essays, 41 (75.9%) thought it was used for homework assignments, and 34 (63%) thought it was used for projects.
The class’s teacher said that he used DBL for all of these activities except for homework assignments and projects.
Question 3: How often do you do Document Based Learning activities in history class?
Of 54 responses:
12 (22.2%) said “every class period,” 29 (53.75%) said “2-3 times a week,” 7 (13%) said “once a week,” 3 (5.6%) said “2-3 times a month,” 2 (3.7%) said “once a month,” and 1 (1.9%) said “less than once a month.”
The class’s teacher said that he used DBL “2-3 times a week.”
Question 4: What do you like most about Document Based Learning?
Of 54 responses:
9 (16.7%) enjoyed reaching their own conclusions rather than just absorbing the teacher’s perspective.
“Being able to put things together like a puzzle and decide what side the author is on.” / “Instead of just sitting and listening to a teacher explain their perspective on a thing, we get to read a real source about it.”
6 (11.1%) particularly enjoyed DBL with primary documents because it gave them perspective from the people who experienced the events.
“You get to see the perspective of people right when it happened. It’s fresh in their minds” / “It helps me get a perspective on that time period, especially if it’s a primary source.”
14 (25.9%) liked DBL because it was easy, simple, or fast.
“It is easy and quick to do.” / “It’s simple and straightforward” / “It’s easier because it gives an outline.”
8 (14.8%) simply described DBL as “good,” “helpful,” or another generically positive term.
“Get good info” / “That you learn a lot”
2 (3.7%) liked the divide and conquer, then collaborate approach that often accompanies DBL in their classroom.
“Everyone has a different document to work on.” / “I can talk to my table and all discus it”
2 (3.7%) saw information obtained from DBL as more factual or trustworthy.
“its true/ real” / “It contains real facts that I can trust and go back and use later.”
3 (5.6%) liked the variation of opinion found in documents.
“We can hear opinions from certain people based on a topic.” / “You can read about a lot of different opinions and views by reading Documents.”
8 (14.8%) had other reasons for liking DBL that did not fit into any of these categories.
“Reading” / “I like the originality of document based learning.”
2 (3.7%) did not have a reason for liking DBL.
“I don’t really enjoy it.” / “no idea”
Question 5: What do you dislike most about Document Based Learning?
Of 53 responses:
7 (13.2%) found DBL to be too boring, tedious, or “always the same thing.”
“It’s basically the same thing over and over again. You read some text, analyze it, then write down some answers.” / “We do it too often.” / “It can be boring sometimes, but only sometimes.”
4 (7.5%) found DBL too time-consuming.
“It takes time to find the info and sometimes is subtle.” / “that it is long work”
7 (13.2%) thought that DBL required too much reading, writing, or work in general.
“Usually requires lots of reading.” / “writing a lot of stuff”
7 (13.2%) said that it could be difficult to understand and interpret the documents.
“If you aren’t sure what the document is saying or don’t understand it, it can be hard to know what to think about it.” / “Sometimes the documents are very confusing and are therefore hard to understand the overall message.”
5 (9.4%) had other reasons for disliking DBL that did not fit into any of these categories.
“I don’t like when we have to do a document by ourselves and then share our questions or conclusions with our table groups because most of the time I have not read all of the document” / “It’s stressful sometimes” / “It’s not a very helpful way to learn. I find that it is almost like I am teaching myself compared to being taught the information.”
2 (3.8%) could not think of a reason that they disliked DBL.
“I can’t really think of anything I particularly dislike about it.” / “no idea”
Question 6: What is difficult or challenging for you about Document Based Learning?
Of 53 responses:
4 (7.5%) found that focusing was the most challenging.
“Sometimes if I read something that isn’t to interesting in my opinion, I get distracted and can’t remember anything.” / “Keeping focus, and remembering what I read. (I normally just stop paying attention)”
19 (35.8%) said that documents could be confusing or difficult to interpret, especially due to a lack of understanding of the historical context and language of the document.
“Sometimes the authors write in a fashion or use words that are confusing to understand.” / “The language/speech could be a little different or there would be things going on that I may not know about. I could potentially be missing out on something that would’ve been obvious to those in that time period.” / “Interpreting what the author is trying to say.”
3 (5.7%) found reading the most difficult.
“Reading things” / “All of the reading…”
4 (7.5%) found DBL too boring or monotone.
“The monotone nature of it.” / “It’s mostly just writing stuff down, and there isn’t really activity, so after a while it gets pretty boring.”
9 (17%) found it difficult and/or time-consuming to determine the important information in a document.
“Sometimes you have to read through the whole thing to find each question.” / “To be able to mark/ know whats the most important to remember.” / “Some of the questions can be hard to answer because you have to often go back and reread to find the answer.”
3 (5.7%) found that some directions and questions were unclear, or “trick” questions.
“Questions that are meant to play with your mind or trick you a little.” / “Nothing really besides unclear directions sometimes”
7 (13.2%) named other challenges of DBL that did not fit into these categories.
“sometimes i lose my notes and i have no idea what’s going on” / “It has documents”
2 (3.8%) did not find DBL challenging, and 2 (3.8%) could not think of an answer.
Questions 7 and 8: I feel like Document Based Learning makes me understand class material ____________ than taking notes directly from a textbook or listening to a lecture. (7); Why do you think Document Based Learning affects your understanding in this way? (8)
Of 54 responses for Question 7 and 53 for Question 8 (percentages based on Question 7):
24 (44.4%) thought that DBL made them understand class material about the same as taking notes directly from a textbook or listening to a lecture. To explain this choice:
7 did not have a problem with textbooks and lectures, and/or felt that they could obtain the same information from them as they did with DBL.
2 found DBL just as boring as the other learning approaches.
2 thought that any pros and cons balanced out.
6 did not give a definitive explanation (for example, simply writing “no”).
7 gave answers which suggested that DBL was at least sometimes slightly better. (“Because it’s a good different way of teaching a lesson.” / “I think that it helps me about the same as taking notes, but possibly better because instead of just reading and copying information, I have to come to the conclusion myself.”)
16 (29.6%) thought that DBL made them understand class material better than taking notes directly from a textbook or listening to a lecture. To explain this choice:
3 found DBL more interesting and less boring than textbooks and lectures.
3 found DBL easier to pay attention to.
4 liked that DBL is more interactive.
3 thought DBL forces them to participate more.
3 found DBL generally easier to understand.
7 (13%) thought that DBL made them understand class material much better than taking notes directly from a textbook or listening to a lecture. To explain this choice:
1 found DBL more accurate.
2 found DBL more interactive.
4 gave generic, non-specific, and unclear explanations (“It affects the way I answer the questions.”), or no explanation at all.
5 (9.3%) thought that DBL made them understand class material worse than taking notes directly from a textbook or listening to a lecture. To explain this choice:
2 found DBL less interesting and harder to focus on and understand.
2 said it did not fit their learning style well.
1 gave an explanation which seemed to indicate that s/he actually felt the opposite and considered DBL a better way to learn. (“You are reading a historical document that described what happened during the events of that time period. Sometimes they are from a person that was in that event of time or from someone that heard it from other people. You get a good depiction of what really happened”)
2 (3.7%) thought that DBL made them understand class material much worse than taking notes directly from a textbook or listening to a lecture. To explain this choice:
Neither student gave a legitimate explanation. (“Because it affects me.” / “It is fun”)
Question 1: Briefly describe what “sourcing” is in history.
The class’s teacher described sourcing as “Knowing more about the text and its origins: author, purpose, POV [point of view], context,” while the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) poster in his classroom describes it as, “consider[ing] who wrote a document as well as the circumstances of its creation. Who authored a given document? When? For what purpose?”
Of 53 student responses:
9 (17%) correctly defined sourcing and name three or more components of it (author, perspective, purpose, date, place, reliability, etc.).
“Figuring out who wrote the doc, when it was written, and what for. when doing this you look for facts that could potentially influence the writing.” / “Finding information about the document. The author, the POV, the time it was written or said.”
25 (47.2%) correctly defined sourcing but only named one or two components of it.
“sourcing is when you look at the author of the piece of writing or the person who spoke the speech and determine whether or not they had a bias. Also look at the date.” / “Seeing who the person is that wrote a document and seeing their point of view.”
9 (17%) appeared to correctly define sourcing but did not name any components of it.
“Sourcing is self explanatory; you look for the source of the document.” / “that you read over document sources.”
4 (7.5%) confused sourcing with citing.
“Telling where you got your information from to give the source credit for the info they gave you” / “Citing where you got your info from”
1 (1.9%) confused sourcing with simply referring to a document (using evidence).
“Sourcing is taking a document and referring to it.”
4 (7.5%) did not know or gave an answer that merely repeated the term.
“sourcing is when you source the source.” / “No idea”
Question 2: Briefly describe what “contextualization” is in history.
The class’s teacher described contextualization as “Knowing the larger setting for a particular text or event: what else is happening? What are the larger trends occurring?” while the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) poster in his classroom describes it as, “locat[ing] a document in time and place and to understand how these factors shape its content.”
Of 53 student responses:
21 (39.6%) correctly defined contextualization.
“Figuring out when the doc was written to see if there is something happening in that time period that could change the author’s perspective.” / “Figuring out what is going on in that time period in history in context to your document.”
14 (26.4%) confused contextualization with simply understanding a document (using context clues).
“Using context to figure something out that you couldn’t otherwise.” / “Reading the document and trying to understand what it means”
3 (5.7%) described sourcing (the step preceding contextualization) but did not explain the next step of considering how that context changes the reader’s understanding of the content.
“Finding the author and date it was written.” / “The basic idea behind contextualization is finding out where, when, and why the document was written as well as who wrote it.”
1 (1.9%) confused contextualization with making connections to his/her own life.
“To connect life problems with what you are studying”
9 (17%) gave an unclear definition, generally relying on the word “context” to explain.
“using the context to figure it out.” / “when you find the context that the article is writen”
5 (9.4%) did not know.
“Idk” / “I don’t remember”
Question 3: Briefly describe what “corroboration” is in history.
The class’s teacher described corroboration as “Testing reliability or trustworthiness by comparing and contrasting different sources on similar events, taking into account the variety in background for each source,” while the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) poster in his classroom describes it as, “consider[ing] details across multiple sources to determine points of agreement and disagreement.”
Of 52 student responses:
23 (43.4%) correctly defined corroboration, referring to both the comparison of multiple sources and using that comparison to determine reliability and/or the true sequence of events.
“Taking information from several documents and being able to make a claim or learn something based on all of them.” / “It is comparing different documents to see whats reliable.”
10 (24.5%) gave a partial definition of corroboration.
“comparing 2 things to each other.” / “Evidence that supports the text.”
8 (15.4%) confused corroboration with collaboration.
“When you work with other people to make sure that you understand the document well” / “Working well with others.”
11 (21.2%) gave an incorrect answer (not a common misconception), simply repeated the word from the prompt, or stated that they did not know or could not remember the answer.
“corroboration in history.” / “dealing with something.” / “I dont remember”
Question 4: Briefly describe what “reliability/credibility” is in history.
The class’s teacher described “reliability/credibility” as “How useful a document or text is in answering a given question. This might relate to the author directly. What parts of the background of the text give you a healthy dose of skepticism? How does the text interpret “the past” to make it “history”? What is the source’s perspective and biases? How can we as historians take those into account?”
Of 53 student responses:
26 (49.1%) recognized that “reliability/credibility” in history was a measure of how trustworthy a source was, but did not connect this measure to sourcing or another historical thinking skill.
“how trustworthy a source is” / “how much you can depend on it’s accuracy, if it is credible then it is mostly accurate and can be trusted”
10 (18.9%) correctly related reliability to sourcing or otherwise analyzing the background of the document.
“How much you should trust a source, depends on their perspective, bias, etc.” / “Reliability and credibility are things that determine if the source can be trusted. ‘Were there prejudices in that primary source?’ ‘Was that newspaper liberal or conservative?’ ‘Is this person just trying to make himself look good?’”
4 (7.5%) connected reliability with their own success in using proper citations.
“I reliable source and to credit that source.” / “giving someone credit or recognition for something they might have written or done to help in something”
4 (7.5%) gave a non-history-specific definition of reliability.
“reliability is to trust someone or something; credibility is when you trust the government” / “Being believed by or trusted by.”
8 (15.1%) simply repeated the term in their definition or stated that they did not know or could not remember the answer.
“the reliability and credibility of the source.” / “No”