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Assessing Historical Thinking Skills Using Library of Congress Primary Sources

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When we ask teachers how they use primary sources, they often have rich and creative answers about how they hook students’ attention, deepen understanding, and even review concepts and content. We hear less about assessment, and most of the responses are questions about how to construct assessments using primary sources.

The Stanford History Education Group has created formative assessments using primary sources from the Library of Congress. With these tools, teachers can gauge students’ historical understanding and ability to apply critical thinking skills by evaluating their analysis of primary source materials. The Spring 2013 issue of the TPS Journal, an online publication focused on pedagogical approaches to teaching with the Library’s digitized primary sources in K-12 classrooms, looks at how a teacher can assess not only content knowledge, but also critical thinking skills.

painting of the first Thanksgiving
The first Thanksgiving 1621

Best news? The assessments are purposely designed to save teachers time while providing specific information about students’ learning.

Learn about the guiding principles behind constructing your own assessments as well as using those that are readily available. For example:

  • Ask students whether “The First Thanksgiving 1621” would help historians understand the relationship between the Wampanoags and Pilgrims in 1621. Teach them to ask basic questions such as: When was the painting made? When was the first Thanksgiving? Invite them to think about the gap in time, and why that might be important to keep in mind. (More detailed directions are available.)
  • Letter from Daisy Bates to Roy Wilkins
    Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine

    Ask students to compare this letter to another from the Civil Rights Movement, decide which was written first, and explain their choice based on evidence from each letter. Students themselves as well as teachers can immediately identify gaps in their understanding of key concepts and events of the time. (More detailed directions are available.)

Explore the Archive of previous issues for even more research-based Learning Activities, and let us know which will be most valuable for your students.

Comments (2)

  1. I have used these assessments for 4th grade and am amazed by the kids responses. I did change/help with some vocabulary for my ESOL students but will use them again.

  2. I always give my high school students some type of assessment or Exit Card for the primay document classes I give in the library. I find that they take the lesson more seriously since they are out of the classroom and sometimes think of library time as a free period. One of the general assessments I have used is for them to do a Reflection on the use of primary versus secondary documents. Another assessment that has worked well is for the students to write a description of contemporary primary sources that they think will be of use in the future for a specific topic. I have, also, found the LC Primary Source Anaysis Tool used individually to be an effective assesment.

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