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Tutorials - Using Guiding Questions to Teach Research Skills

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Depending on how much information you offer students about a source or a topic ahead of time, the guiding questions can help make explicit the process and challenges of historical research.

Historical research and writing can be thought of as a "looping" process in which historians use primary sources and secondary sources in tandem. They move from primary source to secondary source (or vice versa) and then loop back again-and again in order to draw meaning from the source and develop a solid argument about the topic or theme they are exploring.

When working with primary sources historians refer to secondary sources (including reference sources) all the time. They do this for a number of reasons: 1) to fill in holes in their knowledge about a source (e.g. What does a certain word mean? What is that symbol referring to? Is there a standard definition for this term that appears again and again? When was the artist in Moscow?; Who is this "John Brown" the author refers to?) 2) to learn about a new topic that arises in the course of their investigation and 3) to see what other people have said about their topic or source in order to situate their sources and their interpretation within the existing scholarly "conversation." This process of back and forth also helps historians think about/identify other sources that they may need to look at in order to flesh out their study, make their argument or illuminate the topic at hand.

In the classroom, guiding questions be used to create opportunities for students at any grade level to engage in the process of historical research, a process which, in general, involves moving back and forth between a particular source and the broader context or existing knowledge again and again.

Here are a couple of ideas for using guiding questions to build historical research skills at all grade levels.

1. Elementary/Middle School: Basic research skills; Teaching the usefulness of using primary and secondary sources in tandem to "do" history

Prepare cards ahead of time with information that your questions ask for but which cannot be gleaned from the source directly and which is important for interpreting details and/or using the source to understand a larger concept or topic. As you lead students though the observation and interpretation/contextualization phases of your questioning, have a card ready with background information or a standard scholarly interpretation for each question that the students cannot answer through observation alone, or which might have more than one answer. You might hand a card to a different student each time and ask him or her to read the additional information to the class. The class can then consider how this new information might alter the view they were developing or assist them in continuing their analysis. For older students, you could have reference books or secondary sources available instead of prepared cards.

2. Middle/High School: Getting students to ask the questions; Teaching the usefulness of using primary and secondary sources in tandem to "do" historical research.

For older students you might consider using this activity as a precursor to student research projects. In addition to the skills listed above, you would help students see all of the many nuances and twists and turns in historical research, research project development and/or thesis statement writing. Drawing on their knowledge of a particular topic (from classroom instruction) the students would identify a source they wished to use for a research project related to that topic. Students would then begin asking questions of the source, following the guidelines for guiding questions. They should keep a separate list of questions that cannot be answered without further research. At specific intervals, they should try to find answers to those questions by doing more secondary research. Each time they answer a question, they return to the source and, with new information in hand, reassess the meaning, significance or utility of the source for their project. This activity might also be done in groups.