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Selecting Questions to Increase Student Engagement

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This is a guest post from Cheryl Lederle of the Library of Congress.

What’s the most frustrating part of teaching with primary sources? They’re often incomplete and have little context. What’s the most rewarding part of teaching with primary sources? They’re often incomplete and have little context.

“American Progress,” by George A. Crofutt, c1873.

Because primary sources are the raw materials of history, they are often incomplete and even contradictory. While that might sometimes be exasperating, it’s also an opportunity to foster curiosity and rich learning. Integrating what they glean from comparing primary sources with what they already know, and what they learn from research, allows students to construct content knowledge and deepen understanding.

The teacher plays a crucial role in this process by asking questions and helping guide students toward higher-order thinking and better critical thinking and analysis skills. To help teachers, the Library of Congress has compiled lists of effective questions to use with the most widely used formats.

Teacher’s Guide for Analyzing Photographs and Prints, from the Library of Congress

To start, first select a primary source analysis Teacher’s Guide that matches the format of the primary source to be analyzed. Then, keeping in mind your goals and objectives for the lesson, choose a few questions from each column to focus and prompt student thinking and discussion as they observe, reflect and question the primary source. Consider what prior knowledge your students bring to the analysis, what gaps or misconceptions they might have, and select questions that will guide them into careful observation and thoughtful reflection.

Prompts such as “Describe what you see” and “What do you notice first?” can help students look more closely at the primary source. Asking students to consider questions like “What do you think was happening when it was created?” and “What can you learn from examining this?” invites students to reflect more deeply on the importance of the item and its value to understanding history.

If students are new to primary source analysis, modeling the analysis process with the whole class gives them confidence before they work more independently in pairs or small groups. Students often need help distinguishing between “observe” – what they see or hear – and “reflect” – how they interpret the primary source based on what they observe or already know.  Some teachers find it helpful to have students draw a line to connect a reflection to an observation or indicate if it is based on prior knowledge. Often, a reflection will spark a question. While it’s important to know the difference between an observation and a reflection, the process is not linear, and students may move freely between the observing, reflecting and questioning.

After the analysis, help students shape questions for further investigation to direct research using additional primary sources or secondary sources, such as a textbook. Select one of the follow up activities listed on the teacher’s guide to assess or to deepen learning.

There are as many strategies for questioning as there are primary sources. Let us know what techniques you’ve used in the comments section.

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