Primary Source Inquiries "Opportunities to Learn" Checklist

May 29, 2018

History teachers often are not concerned merely with teaching students about historical events, but also with helping them to learn the skills and practices of  authentic historical investigation. By interrogating primary-source documents, students can learn to see history as an ever-evolving interpretive process, rather than an agreed-upon and already-constructed narrative. As teachers develop inquiry-learning tasks that utilize primary sources, it is useful  to consider not just skill and content goals, but also the constituents of effective inquiry learning experiences for students.

The following checklist offers a set of  research-based criteria for assessing the quality of  an inquiry task in which students are exploring a question or theme using primary sources.  It focuses attention on the quality of students’ experience—in particular, whether they have opportunities to learn by doing nine things that empirical research and literature on effective practice suggest are important for learning.  It has been created to support teachers and curriculum developers in evaluating and improving the primary source learning activities they are designing for classroom use.  It is important to stress that no single learning task is likely to include all nine of the elements listed; however, the checklist can be a useful reference point in developing stronger overall lessons and inquiry learning tasks featuring primary sources.

In addition to definitions of each element, and positive and negative examples, we’ve included relevant literature and resources. Where possible, we have included links to information that is freely accessible, but we also point to academic articles (some of which are behind paywalls) where we felt they were useful.

This checklist was created as part of Education Development Center’s (EDC) ongoing work with the Library of Congress’s Teaching With Primary Sources Consortium Group. EDC has been working as a research and development partner with the Library over the past 20 years, helping it to make its historical documents available to classroom teachers in useful ways.