I try to engage students with assignments designed to foster active learning. I often revise assignments. It depends on student needs and changing course content/learning outcomes. But feel free to borrow, alter, or find inspiration in these assignments for your own courses! Maybe you’ll find these useful!
Primary Source Analysis Assignment
I provide students with primary sources to analyze. One is a written document. The other is an image/cartoon. They use questions from the National Archives Primary Source Worksheets in class. These documents are always related to each other in some way. I typically pair them based on an event, a person, or a time period. Students work with an assigned partner in class to complete the worksheets. I choose the partners because I want students to be exposed to new perspectives. There is also a take-home portion of the assignment. Students use the worksheet information to individually write an analysis in short essay form. They conduct a sort of comparison/contrast between the types of sources. I also ask them to consider the following questions:
- Who wrote/created the source? How does this influence the content/context of the document? If the author/creator is unknown, do you have any guesses (age, race/ethnicity, social class, occupation, etc.) as to the type of person who might have created it? Why?
- Who is the audience (both intended and, perhaps, unintended)? How might audience impact the document?
- What does the historical record, authorship, and audience tell us about the possible biases or problems with reliability?
- Are there any words or items that offer symbolism, metaphor, etc.?
- How does this document help you to better understand the event/person/time period?
This assignment serves as practice for their final project. That assignment features examination of 7 primary sources based on their chosen topic.
Historical Film Review
In this assignment, I ask students to review a historical film. Students choose one of the films we watch in-class. If we didn’t watch a film, they choose another related film. They can also choose to compare/contrast multiple films. I often provide a list of possibilities. Students take notes on a Film Study worksheet I provide. I am happy to share this. They use these notes to compose a critical review of that film. Students do not necessarily have to use all of the worksheet questions in their review. They use knowledge gained in the classroom as well to help in their critique. They should reflect on historical accuracy, entertainment value, and impact. Some questions I ask them to consider include:
- What would they change to improve the film/program?
- How much do historical films affect our ability to educate the public on history?
- How do we determine fact from fiction?
Students should also look at professional critics’ film reviews. This will help them to craft a thoughtful review of their own.
Final Project Assignment
While I prefer that students craft unique final project assignments, I offer them two options. Option A is “visual” project designed for the public. Here they engage both academic and public history. I sometimes let students work in pairs. That’s done on a case-by-case basis. I also offer Option B: a traditional argumentative research paper. We do project/paper check-ins every couple of weeks. We usually start in Week 4 (for a traditional 15/16 week semester). I talked a bit about Option A in a Tedx talk I gave in 2017. You can find that post here.
Option A: Public History Project Assignment
This purpose of the assignment is to get students working with both primary and secondary sources. The assignment also introduces them to the field of public history. Students are allowed to choose their own topic. But it must be related to the course themes. They are encouraged to choose a topic that is of interest or that matters to them. I ask them to take their hobbies, interests, and majors into consideration. Each project is accompanied by an “Artist Statement.”
Options vary widely, but project suggestions include:
- an interactive collage (such as Prezi, http://prezi.com)
- a museum exhibit (using design software, PowerPoint, etc. to show how that exhibit would be set up and include objects/artifacts/items that would be present)
- a pamphlet (like those used for historical tours)
- an interactive and explanatory historical timeline (such as Tiki-Toki, http://tiki-toki.com)
- a public history blog
- a “live-tweet” series of an event on Twitter
- a hand-written, “aged” diary or series of letters
- a video (such as CrashCourse or Drunk History style or showcasing their topic; a student created a video of dances he choreographed inspired by his research on the history of dance; another student created a historical tourism commercial)
- creating an article of clothing
- cooking food
- building an object (like a house, ship, architectural piece, etc.)
- protest signs/memorabilia
- digital or traditional marketing material (a student once created marketing material for each group involved in one of the Crusades)
- designing curricular materials (education students have created “ABC Books” of their topics, planned curricular assignments for engaging K-12 students in research, etc.)
- campaign materials
- video/board/card games
- creative writing (short stories, a novella, poetry, etc.)
- artwork (paintings, anime, sketches, photography, etc.)
- political cartoons/newspapers
- maps (traditional, artistic, or even something like TripLine, https://www.tripline.net)
A key element of this project is using their sources to create a compelling public history product.
Option A Project Assignment Guidelines
These guidelines are general. They are not intended to be a one-size-fits-all. Because there can be great variation between project types. I don’t expect students to become an expert on their topic. They should present the topic material clearly. The public should be able to easily understand. This assignment is more about their ability to select a topic and research it. They need to identify, locate, and examine primary sources (a minimum of 7). Students also need scholarly secondary sources (a minimum of 4). Option A is in two parts. First is their “visual” element (Prezi, PowerPoint, Tiki-Toki, booklet, map, etc.). Second is their written element (“artist explanation”).
For the written portion, the format is usually as follows:
- Intro: background/explanation of the topic and what the student learned about it; historical context (1-2 paragraphs)
- Description/explanation of the “visual” (or type of project) the student chose; why did the student think it was the best format for explaining the topic (1-2 paragraphs)
- Annotated explanation of the primary sources (of which there should be a minimum of 7): who was the author/creator? Who was the intended audience(s)? Why was it created? How did that source best represent the information the student wanted to convey about their topic? (approximately 1 paragraph per source; so a minimum of 7 paragraphs)
- Conclusion: what did the student learn about creating accessible history for the public? Does it differ from traditional history? If so, how?
Option A Grading
I grade projects on the following criteria. I am happy to share my rubric.
“Artist Statement Portion”
- Topic Background/Explanation of Medium
- Use of Evidence
- Clarity and Style
Option B: Argumentative Research Paper
Students also work with primary and secondary sources in Option B. In this option, the student writes a traditional 5-8 page academic paper on a topic of their choice. It also should relate to the course themes. A key element of this project is using both primary AND secondary sources to create a compelling historical argument. Due to the nature of this option, it does not allow for work in pairs/small groups.
Option B Paper Assignment Guidelines
The paper should contain:
- an introduction (including a thesis statement)
- primary (minimum of 7) and scholarly secondary sources (minimum of 4) in support of that thesis
- counter-evidence to demonstrate the validity of their argument
- a strong conclusion.
I grade papers on the following criteria. I am happy to share my rubric.
- Overall impression
- Argument (thesis)
- Use of Evidence
- Clarity and Style