The two major discussions which emerge from this case study’s findings are:

  1. Student voice and language is crucially important in understanding how document-based learning (or any teaching approach) works in the classroom.
  2. Student responses concerning document-based learning inform what teachers and other educational professionals can do to clarify the purpose and process of DBL and improve its overall effectiveness.

Importance of Student Voice and Language

Student voice and language is crucially important in understanding how document-based learning works in the classroom.

Since document-based learning is intended to be a student-centered approach to learning history, asking students to express themselves on the topic is a crucial opportunity for understanding how students actually internalize the goals of DBL. The student opinions collected in this case study reveal a wide variety of viewpoints on document-based learning, reflecting overall a mixed degree of acceptance and eager engagement in DBL on the part the students in this case study.

What did students most like about DBL?

In this study, many of the intended benefits of DBL were reflected in student responses on what they like about the approach. For instance, any supporter of a document-based curriculum would be overjoyed to hear a student say that DBL “makes you feel smarter because you came to the conclusion by yourself or by inferencing and making educated guesses yourself.” Such a statement not only shows that this student recognized the conclusion-building aim of DBL, but also that he or she felt confident and happy about the historical skills that DBL helped her to gain. This positive attitude toward determining a perspective rather than simply repeating the teacher’s, shared by 16.7% of the survey’s respondents, indicates that DBL has successfully engaged these students more deeply and critically than a straight lecture or textbook reading would.

Student responses to what they like most about document-based learning also show how the approach has engaged some students with the mere inclusion of diverse historical perspectives. 11.1% of the students particularly enjoy looking at primary sources, as they offer the perspective of people who, in the words of one student, “actually witnessed the event we are studying.” While primary documents are not the only type used in DBL, they do exemplify the approach’s emphasis on questioning the development of a singular history from the real events of the past. Students who appreciate the more direct nature of primary sources will likely engage more deeply in them, and notice how they offer a variety of perspectives on the same event or topic. These students are thus more apt to challenge the historical accounts offered by textbooks and other secondary sources, knowing that such accounts are selective of the details that they include, and thus each contain their own biases.

In fact, another 5.6% of the respondents to this survey showed general appreciation for the variety of perspectives offered by DBL, with one student saying that he or she liked how “You can read about a lot of different opinions and views by reading Documents.” A further 3.7% particularly liked the general outcome of consulting multiple perspectives with the critical eye promoted by DBL—finding and developing more trustworthy facts and explanations of events. Their responses appear to indicate an interest in developing more complex, and thus more reliable, interpretations of history, which is one key goal of DBL in history.

Intriguingly, while document-based learning is in theory a more advanced approach to history, requiring more intense engagement and deeper critical thinking, the largest group of students in this survey (25.9%) said that their favorite thing about DBL was that it is easy, simple, and/or fast to do. At first glance, this statistic would seem to challenge DBL as a more advanced, critical-thinking approach to history. However, while this common opinion may suggest that some students in this case study would benefit from enriched instruction, it also reflects the benefits of making document-based learning a regular part of classroom activities. During my time in the case study classroom, I have observed how this teacher has created a common and standard procedure for document-based lessons. In this procedure, the documents contained in a lesson are divided up among the small table groups into which the class is arranged. Students in each small group take turns reading sections of the document aloud, then discuss and write down answers to guided questions concerning the source, context, content, and argument of the source. Finally, students report out answers to the entire class, allowing the whole group to corroborate their documents and form overall conclusions about the event or topic at hand. Within this procedure, students are still asked to develop deep analysis of documents and of historical events, but may find doing so easy due to the scaffolded and routine nature of document-based learning in their classroom.

Overall, students who shared most positively about their engagement in skills-based, complexity-accepting goals of DBL were also more likely to have correctly identified an instance of DBL in the first section of the survey. This suggests that with greater awareness of DBL, possibly resulting from deeper engagement in it, students are more likely to react positively to critical historical thinking.

What did students most dislike and find challenging about DBL?

Of course, while some of the positive reactions to document-based learning reflected how it had effectively reached at least a portion of the students in this case study, not all responses to DBL are positive. Fortunately, student expressions of dislike for DBL are still valuable for drawing conclusions on the effectiveness of the approach, and on how it could be improved in order to encourage more widespread and deeper student engagement.

In this study, the three most common complaints from students (each from 13.2% of respondents) were:

  1. DBL is boring, tedious, or “always the same thing.”

This first student concern confirms the teacher’s observations in the teacher survey that students “get sick of [document-based lessons] if I do too many in a row, as with any other activity; I know this because they complain. ‘More documents? Again?'” At the same time, the complaint that DBL is too repetitive reflects the presence of the same routine which prompted some students to respond positively that DBL was easy and quick. For some students, this routine caused frustration, as 7.5% of the survey’s respondents found the tediousness of DBL to be the most challenging part of it, and another 7.5% found focusing (as a result of boredom) to be the most difficult. Thus, in order to make the DBL routine more effective, one (perhaps necessary) solution to preventing student boredom with DBL is to break it up with other types of lessons.

However, swerving from the DBL routine does not necessarily mean completely departing from document-based lessons, but rather finding more ways to vary them. Documents should not only be text-based, but should also include sources which promote visual literacy, like political cartoons and graphic novels. Students who are auditory or visual learners should have opportunities to interact with audiovisual sources, like radio and film clips, and kinesthetic learners should have opportunities to move around the room and examine different sources that have been spread out rather than remaining stuck at a single desk for the entire class period. Document-based lessons can also be varied in length, so that rather than always working with thick packets of documents, students sometimes practice focused historical thinking skills using less lengthy exercises (such as those found on the Stanford History Education Group’s “Beyond the Bubble” site).

2. It can be difficult to understand and interpret the documents.

On one level, this concern may reflect the struggles of students with lower reading levels, who may have difficulty decoding the vocabulary used in certain documents. This is the very reason that the teacher in this case study sometimes uses modified documents (such as those in the SHEG Reading Like a Historian (RLH) curriculum), which contain simplified and standardized vocabulary and syntax in order to allow students to focus more on the historical value of the texts than on the challenge of actually decoding the text (Wineburg, Martin, 2009). Since not all of the documents used in the case study classroom are modified to the extent that the RLH documents are, it is possible that the student who said “sometimes the documents are very confusing” was referring to times when more difficult documents were used. If this is the case, it might be helpful for history teachers who use DBL to keep track of which lessons and documents appear more difficult to read for their students, and to consider further modifying those documents in the future.

At the same time, just because students dislike or feel challenged by understanding the documents (35.8% found interpreting the documents the most difficult part of DBL) does not mean that DBL is not succeeding or must be simplified at all costs. Some level of challenge, of course, is good, especially considering that some of the difficulty that students reported with understanding documents in this case study came not from decoding vocabulary, but from understanding the historical context of the documents. As one student explained, “I could potentially be missing out on something that would’ve been obvious to those in that time period.” While building an understanding of this context may be difficult for students, students must be encouraged to confront documents which will require them to refer to background knowledge and contextualize what they are reading. Document-based lessons are not intended to always have easily, immediately understandable points, but rather to push students to employ close reading practices to pull out evidence of key points from a text. In a legitimate historical inquiry, forming conclusions should be challenging. Always reading documents with immediately clear points will not foster the depth of critical thinking that DBL aims to develop.

3. DBL requires too much reading, writing, or work in general.

The third most common student concern, as with the second, pits the practicality of giving students less demanding, easier and less time-consuming work with the critical benefit of engaging with challenging texts in both reading and writing.

On one hand, the students in this case study who disliked DBL because it required more work (and who share a similar perspective with the 7.5% who find it too time-consuming to engage in such close reading) are less likely to maintain the focus necessary for a document-based lesson lasting an entire class period. Teachers should keep this in mind in order to break up lessons into different activities and promote student engagement to the greatest extent possible.

On the other hand, the fact that a significant proportion (17%) of students surveyed found the amount and complexity of reading in DBL to be the most difficult part of the approach reflects how DBL properly challenges students to do more than scan a textbook for a content-based comprehension question. For instance, one student was frustrated that “Sometimes you have to read through the whole thing to find each question,” and another wrote that “Some of the questions can be hard to answer because you have to often go back and reread to find the answer.” If these students had been accustomed to single-answer, content-based questions in previous history classes, it is in fact encouraging that they feel challenged to engage more closely with the text—all of the “answers” are not immediately available to professional historians, and students should have to grapple with the same feeling of hashing out a less-than-obvious interpretation.

Clarifying and Improving Document-Based Learning

Student responses concerning document-based learning inform what teachers and other educational professionals can do to clarify the purpose and process of DBL and improve its overall effectiveness.

When students in this case study described document-based learning, what they had learned from it, and how well they had learned from it, they provided feedback which suggests how DBL might be improved to more effectively target student needs.

Did students recognize document-based learning and differentiate it from other approaches to learning history that they experienced in their classroom?

In their identification of document-based learning, it appears that many students honed in on the idea that DBL involves a variety of documents, but not on the key idea that it involves drawing their own conclusions on historical questions. As a result, only 47.5% of the respondents to the survey’s first question identified an instance of what their teacher, and this study, defined as document-based learning. This discrepancy has several potential explanations. First, the description of document-based learning included in the first question of the survey may not have been clear and specific enough to help students eliminate activities which use “documents” but do not necessarily focus on students forming their own conclusions. Second, because this first question was located at the bottom of a block of text, 14 out of 54 students did not provide responses, and it cannot be determined whether this group of non-respondents would have skewed the results toward or away from more accurate identification of DBL.

Finally, however, if the results from the survey’s first question are at least approximately indicative of the students’ ability to identify document-based learning, they indicate that some students may not be particularly aware of how DBL asks them to draw their own conclusions rather than simply summarizing or answering content-based questions. This is a concept which I have seen the class’s teacher communicate to students in the past, and he is clearly aware of the advanced nature of DBL. As he stated in the teacher survey, document-based learning is the “highest level of authentic historical investigation and literacy instruction.” While, for several reasons previously discussed, DBL generally cannot compose the absolute entirety of class activities, history teachers should communicate clearly to their students (revisiting the topic as needed) that the conclusions reached through DBL represent their own interpretations, and thus particularly reflect their advancement as genuine historians.

Thus, when setting learning objectives for document-based learning and communicating them to students, I suggest that the student-centered and skill-developing nature of DBL should be emphasized. If teachers give such emphasis, it is my hope that students would be more able to differentiate skills-based DBL from other, more content-based activities. For instance, a clear explanation of the objectives of DBL could address the discrepancies of the survey’s second question, in which only 55.6% percent of respondents thought their teacher had used DBL for short answer questions on quizzes and tests (which he had), whereas 75.9% thought he had used it for homework assignments (which were always content-based readings for building background knowledge). Additionally, only the bare majority of students (53.75%) accurately identified the frequency of DBL in the case study classroom as 2-3 times a week, with the second-most chosen answer (“every day” at 22.2%) being certainly incorrect. (The class’s teacher does not do this many DBL lessons in a row, as he has noticed student frustration with looking at documents too frequently.)

Overall, this statistical disagreement does not necessarily indicate that document-based learning only helps or best helps students to develop historical skills when they are acutely aware of what DBL is. However, the hope is that by clearly communicating the objectives of DBL, and doing so often, students will be able to articulate what document-based learning is and how it pushes them to develop and hone important historical thinking skills.

How confident do students feel with class material learned through DBL as opposed to other approaches to history? How should student confidence or lack of confidence guide teaching strategies related to DBL?

Overall 87% of students in this case study said that they felt they understood class material equally as well or better through document-based learning compared to more traditional methods like listening to a lecture or taking notes directly from a textbook. Of these students at least 42.6% said that DBL made them understand material better or even much better than traditional methods. Even if students do not always feel that they are learning better through DBL, the fact that they feel at least equally confident for the most part means that DBL is not hindering their comfort with class material. Knowing that students are comfortable with the class material that they learn through DBL, teachers can also feel confident in using the approach. This is especially true considering that research shows that DBL in fact helps students to master not only content material, but also the thinking skills which are vital to the study of history and to the development of a critically thinking mind (see Reisman, 2012, and other research from the References page). Additionally, the teacher of the case study classes reports that his students really do remember the events and people included in document-based lessons (more than in a lecture or video), and that he has seen progress in their historical thinking skills (sourcing, contextualization, etc.) after repeated practice.

Those students who thought they understood class material worse through document-based learning can also help guide teaching strategies related to DBL. Judging by this study, these students are few (only 13% of the sample, with 4.6% of the entire sample not offering a legitimate justification for saying that the learned worse through DBL). Those students who gave reasonable explanations for their response said either that DBL made it harder for them to focus, or that it did not fit their learning style. Knowing that these problems may prevent students from feeling confident about class material encourages teachers to adjust and vary DBL in ways previously mentioned—by keeping activities varied in length, incorporating different types of documents for students of different learning styles, etc.

How well did students know some of the key historical thinking skills targeted by document-based learning? What does this mean (or not mean) about the effectiveness of DBL?

The ability of this case study to answer this question is limited, considering that it asked students only to define key historical thinking skills and did not measure student success in actually using them. However, some conclusions can still be taken from student responses.

When asked to define four skills /components of historical thinking (sourcing, contextualization, corroboration, reliability/credibility), the majority of students were able to correctly define every term except for contextualization.* This suggests that students in the case study recognize these terms and are comfortable with them, which is an important step to thinking and speaking like a historian.

Even the responses of students who could not correctly identify these terms inform DBL teaching strategies. For instance, 26.4% of respondents thought that contextualization meant using context clues to understand (the vocabulary in) a document and be able to interpret it correctly. Using context clues is a vital skill for student literacy, and can definitely be addressed through DBL, but knowing that students sometimes confuse the skill with contextualization encourages teachers to more explicitly differentiate the two. The same is true for corroboration, which 15.4% of students in this study confused with collaboration. Again, collaboration is a vital skill, and one that these students employ in class quite often. However, bringing the exact term “corroboration” into class consistently could help more students to incorporate it into their own vocabulary. If combined with effective practice of the skills themselves (using strategies previously define and suggested), confident knowledge of these terms will push students to become better historians.

*It is worth noting that on the whole, students who had positively identified an instance of DBL in the first question of the survey were more likely to correctly define the historical thinking skills.

What are the implications of this discussion?