Tools for historical project work
On this site you will find tips how to carry out an historical research project for a EUSTORY competition. The work sheets are structured under four headings and can be downloaded either in German, English, French or Romanian.
"Planning a project": These work sheets provide tips how to define a topic for a historical research project. Furthermore, you will learn how to structure your work so that you won't get lost during the process of research.
"Searching for material": Where to find material for your historical research? The work sheets under this heading guide you through archives, libraries, the internet and help you to conduct interviews with contemporary eyewitnesses or experts.
"Interpretation of sources": How to interpret the sources that you collected during your research? These work sheets help you to evalute the material that your research is based on.
"Presentation": The work sheets under this heading give examples how to finally present the results of the research - be it a written contribution, an exhibition, an historical excursion etc.
Work sheets for download:
Planning a project
Searching for material
Interpretation of sources
Themensuche und Planung
Recherche de thèmes et planification du travail
Recherche de matériel
Analyse et critique des sources
Planificarea unui proiect
Interpretarea din surse
How to Start a Successful Competition
What is a history competition?
History competitions are independent from school systems and curricula as far as organisation, management and content are concerned. They encourage young people to learn how to deal with contemporary problems by looking at their past. They motivate them to find out and learn about forgotten or suppressed historical episodes and to start thinking in alternatives. The technique of learning by research is the central element of all research projects.
A general topic is announced at the start of a competition. The young participants then narrow down the topic and choose a related regional or local theme for their research project. They look for research material in archives and libraries, interview contemporary witnesses, skip through old newspapers or visit historic places, etc. As a result of such a research work the participants often find that conventional conceptions of history don't answer their questions. They realize that they need to develop their own explanations and interpretations. They are encouraged to concern themselves with the views of those who were actually involved in historical events - rulers and subjects, offenders and victims, local people and foreigners, old and young, as well as men and women in their historical roles. Their testimonies may vary greatly and even be contradictory. This enables young participants to deal with a variety of opinions and to realize that history can be interpreted in different ways. The acceptance of a multitude of perspectives is one major prerequisite for understanding and tolerance between people beyond the borders of their respective culture.
What might be the effects of a history competition?
With their research, their interpretations and conclusions young people may get public attention. It has happened in the past that they are even capable of stirring up trouble for authorities. Inflexible administrative structures are disturbed when students start asking questions, demand access to archives, or want to examine certain documents. Their research projects may Trigger discussions or changes and alter relationships between the people involved. Young researchers may also influence and change academic debates in the historical disciplines.
What do you need to start a history competition?
1. You need people/an organisation
An individual (i.e. a history teacher) may be attracted by the idea but before getting started he/she should try to find a group of people, who would be willing to carry out such a project. It should be made sure that the group has the necessary competence for managing the competition technically as well as supervising it academically. There should be a clear division of responsibilities and one person within the group should be the project coordinator. Of course, it is necessary to have some office facilities, with access to a computer, telephone, fax etc.. In many cases the organisers of the EUSTORY competitions are based at a History Teachers' Association (like in Estonia, Latvia, Norway, the Ukraine) . Or they belong to a NGO like in Poland and Russia (KARTA, Warsaw / Memorial, Moscow). In some countries there are private foundations which operate a history competition as one of their projects (Values Foundation, Bulgaria).
It has proved to be extremely helpful to have good connections to institutions where the future participants are going to be recruited, i.e. schools, academic institutes, and universities. Good contacts should be established with teachers and teacher training institutions (departments of education, institutes for further educational training for teachers, ...) because teachers can contribute greatly to the promotion of a competition by motivating young people to participate. Later, they can assist the research work as tutors.
2. You need a topic
Within your group you will first of all have to find a topic for a competition. There are a certain number of criteria, which can help you in this selection process:
- Attractiveness: A topic should be interesting and attractive for potential participants. It should be wide enough (though not too extensive) to fill the six months' time allowed for dealing with it. It should be easy to understand and open for different interpretations and ideas.
- Public interest: A topic should be able to attract public interest and not be discussed only by academics and history teachers. This can be achieved best with topics of contemporary relevance or socio-political perspective.
- Usefulness: The competition's goal should not be the mere accumulation of historical knowledge but to encourage young people to initiate a process of remembrance in their local community and to critically investigate their own origins. Ideally this will enable them to comprehend social change and to understand the position of others.
- Learning by research: A topic should allow students to learn by examining reality and solve existing problems. In their research contestants should work with original sources. On the basis of this material they will then decide on their own objectives and methods of investigation.
- ‘Real world quality': Topics which allow ‘hands-on' experience and relate to objects will attract more participation than topics with a focus on theory, biography or mentality.
- Too extensive - too narrow: A topic has been formulated too narrowly if it only allows the mere collection of facts, or the reproduction of established points of view. A topic is too extensive if it cannot be narrowed down for research on the regional or local level or if the time given is not sufficient to come to a satisfactory result.
- Topic is ‘worn out' or too intimate: A topic has to be considered ‘worn out' if there is nothing left to discover because the topic has been researched exhaustively. Whether a topic is too intimate has to be carefully discussed and decided in every individual case. One more practical aspect regarding the choice of a topic: in order to pursue their independent research, students need access to sources which are usually collected in libraries and archives. Therefore, it is advisable that organisers should check if source material is available and if libraries and archives are accessible for researchers. They should also get in touch with librarians and archivists and find out about rules and regulations concerning the handling of documents and other materials from the archives, and what they can do to prepare students and tutors for this part of their research work.
3. You need publicity
The topic has to be announced publicly and nation-wide. For example, brochures have to be produced describing the procedure. Posters are helpful as well to bring the competition to the attention of possible participants. The distributing channels of schools are always very effective. Contacts with journalists and related professions can be very fruitful for promoting and spreading the idea of the competition.
4. You need tutors
Teachers (and parents) may assist young people in their research projects as tutors. Normally they will need preparatory advice from the organisers. Some EUSTORY organisers, for example, offer regional tutors' workshops. In some countries, the department of education awards special credits to teachers for their commitment for extracurricular activities which will be counted towards promotion. Given good relations with the education department, organisers could suggest running a history competition could be included in the list of those activities.
5. You need a jury
After the closing date of the competition the judging process starts, for which you have to find jurors, who are willing to assess the contributions.
Jurors need common standards in order to correctly assess and evaluate contributions. These criteria have to be developed prior to the assessment process and will be given to the jurors in form of a written catalogue. Special importance should be given to criteria which are closely connected with the goal of the competition. Preferably entries should be assessed by more than one juror. The leading questions should be: has the contribution been researched and produced independently and is it authentic? The organisers have to consider who among historians and other experts could be asked to serve on the jury and assess research contributions.
6. The big day: the award ceremony
Following their hard work the winners of the competition are celebrated in a public event. The ceremony can take place in various venues: maybe in the town hall or in a university . The ceremony can be hosted by the mayor or the dean of the university. In some cases, where the competition is taking place under the auspices of a State President, it happens that the venue is the President's Palace. The prize winners, their families and tutors are invited and during the ceremony the prizes, which can range from cash prizes to prizes in-kind like books are handed over.
This ceremony also serves well as an opportunity to invite members of the press, the sponsors etc. to give the competition a wider range of popularity.
7. Competition schedules
Most of the competitions take one year from the announcement to the prize-giving ceremony and are usually run in compliance with the school year. In some cases, the contest is announced at the beginning of the summer holidays, allowing teachers to prepare for the topic and other details by taking special teacher qualification courses during the summer.
The time granted to students for researching their own project and producing a contribution should be sufficiently long - for example, six months. There should also be sufficient time planned for the assessment process.
How to Support and Supervise Your Students
It is not only investing additional work and time if you accompany young people during a history competition. Primarily, it is a chance to broaden your own knowledge of vivid history and to gather new experiences in co-operation of pupils and teacher.
Here you will find information about the general understanding of a tutor's role and main tasks to think about. The described situations are mainly for tutors who work with a group of more than five people. Nonetheless, the information is valid for tutors who accompany less or even only one person.
Basically, you are an adviser for problems and questions if needed or "a teacher in the background". Be aware of the differences between a teacher and a tutor. As pupils are used to you as a teacher it is helpful to prepare them for the different role you will have.
Central thoughts about the tutor's role:
- The pupils define their ideas, plans and aims. Leave them the space to decide and to get active.
- Especially for the pupils' motivation you need to be like an engine that initiates and keeps it running.
- Keep your personal interest and expectation in the background and interfere only if necessary.
- The level of your actual support is closely connected to the skills of the group.
- Training of techniques, which offer a frame and guidelines for the research, are essential for the pupils to reach their aims.
- Regular meetings of the whole researchers' group are helpful and important for the process of the teamwork
- The pupils have a right to understanding and care. Seek to find out more about your participants, their abilities and personal surrounding. And try to be constantly reachable for them. Altogether fantasy and courage is needed to guide a bunch of interested, young people from the first idea and enthusiasm through an up-and-down-process to the proud presentation of the finished issue of their research.
Planning and Organising
Pupils should plan the time of their research project and particular dates like interviews on their own. But:
- this is probably something completely new and unknown to them and
- they have to plan in a much longer timeframe than during a usual lesson Giving small tasks to everybody could be helpful for a faster process. But it might hinder pupils to see the complete context the work is done in. They neither can see a sense in the single working step they have done nor do they know why it had to be done at this exact moment and not later or earlier. Working steps tend to lose the connection to each other and to be without any relation to the aim. That's why it is necessary to plan this teamwork carefully.
To minimize a lack of orientation and communication at the very beginning of the project you could propose a structure of time which permanently follows the project's process. It is connected to a common concept with basic questions and important tasks. Talk about these concepts at each plenary meeting and check it for up-dates. They give a central theme for everybody, show achieved results and clarify the time remaining.
Keep in mind the following for dialogues about chosen topics:
- Don't choose a topic which is too difficult to research.
- Care for a connection between the topic and the surrounding of the participants.
- Talk about topics that fit to the pupils' age.
- Pupils should choose topics for which a realistic chance of researches is left.
- Formulate precise questions for the aim of the research. For these conversations a good knowledge of the local history
- and the pupils' personal background is of great advantage.
Don't forget about holidays and internships in between, when you do your planning. This may interrupt especially the time and content related continuation of the work. Participants may lose their clear view on the project after a longer break.
Motivation as a Key Task
As pupils are used to short term involvement it isn't easy to keep their motivation on a constantly high level over the whole period of the project. Create a long-time frame with regular meetings and possibilities to communicate. Give room for frustrations and feedback about the team, the whole group and the tutor as well.
A concrete question at the beginning helps to define the pupils' motivation and the topic within the motto of the contest they want to work on. These results constitute both a first sparkling interest and guidance through the following steps. At that time the pupils have to get clear about the practical meaning of exploring history through research. Explain the methods and contents of project work, its funny and serious sides.
The collection of sources can cause a decline of motivation as well. It might be a good idea if you visit archives and other places for possible researches before the young people start their work there. This can counteract unsatisfying experiences for them. Especially to the end of a project your intensive support will be needed. But it is not your job to do the work by yourself. There are many other moments and tasks which might discourage or demotivate the participants; be sensitive for those failures and support them to see their mistakes in relative terms.
Sometimes pupils want to achieve more than they are able to and frustration arises. In these cases they need support to have a break and distance from the project. Maybe it is even necessary to shorten the tasks to bring it to a successful ending.
If there is completely no motivation left it might be better to interrupt the project instead of doing the whole work by yourself. To maintain a small success and create a visible result at least the collected resources can be put together as a compilation.
Generally your expectations should fit to the pupils' abilities and not the other way round.
Teamwork and Social Learning
Teamwork has several advantages:
- Pupils get to know a different way of working and learning than in school lessons.
- It fosters their creativity and social competence.
- The work to be done can be divided in several sections. Each participant has got small pieces of work and responsibility.
- By dividing the work it is easier for everybody to keep the overview over the full amount of tasks. Nevertheless the small groups need support to structure their time and work especially as they work mainly independent from the tutor. Frequent plenary sessions are important to ensure the communication between the small groups especially to keep group dynamics running by common reflection and evaluation. To guarantee a sound research the exchange of resources, experiences and ideas should be a fixed part of the plenary sessions. Sometimes it can be even difficult to transfer a feeling of teamwork to pupils who are used to work on and for themselves. But step by step and through learning by doing you can guide them to this new method. Besides all these advantages there are some limitations to teamwork.
Within project work the pupils can avoid completely to learn something new. They have got the possibility to choose what they know and can do best. This isn't a big problem for those who participate in the research, evaluation and creation of tasks and questions. But those who type and work on practical things won't learn a lot about historical research and interpretation. For both groups the benefit of learning is rather questionable.
Before the group starts with its research some essential questions have to be clarified
- What is the concrete topic we want to work with for our research?
- What do we want to find out?
- How can we find it out?
A general discussion about the contest's topic connected with a brainstorming may help to answer the first question. It could be helpful, if you do pre-researches to contribute some of your knowledge both to the discussion about the topic and to find suitable institutions for the research. But nevertheless the pupils have to be responsible for the decision about the topic and for finding their sources.
If not the pupils but you as their tutor choose the topic, it is extremely important that they collect and formulate the guiding questions to achieve a real access and motivation for their project.
Offer some organizational and content related frame for the research itself and participate in meetings or interviews if needed. Well established contacts to newspapers, institutions etc. are a big help as well.
Also some pre-information is useful, for example, to emphasize historical contradictions which pupils don't see during their search but gives them motivation to work on them.
Structure and Writing
After the pupils have collected all their material it has to be brought into a structure and the texts must be written. Here again intensive support is needed. Existing researches can be helpful demonstration material and older pupils or former participants can support the pupils as well.
If you tutor a big group it would make sense to organise a seminar of two days including in-puts concerning the function of e.g. introduction and conclusion of the text; such a seminar gives a lot of motivation and reduces the pupils' stress. But it also needs time to be organised and done.
Support for a detailed time-planning is definitely needed at this stage especially concerning the additional work the pupils have to do for school. But even with a schedule last minute experiences e.g. finishing the issue in the copy shop aren't completely avoidable.
There are some important things you should think about if you proof-read finished texts. Apart from grammatical, spelling or data problems there are some things which are more difficult to solve. If, for example, ...
- ... there is a lack of interpretation of central sources which mixes up a clear statement about the historical events.
- ... the author has got basic language problems which lead to incoherent descriptions.
- ... the text is written in such a dry style that there is no vividness and excitement left.
- ... a red line is missing because of logical and language deficits. In these cases it is not your job to rewrite the research or to suggest concrete improvements. Try to make the pupil aware of the weak points and a need of reworking. Your reasons for the criticism must be transparent and the pupils must be willing to take the consequences.
Nevertheless it can also be a success and enjoyable to read the written researches and sometimes it is even just the finished issue which you receive as a thank you.
How to Write a Good Research Paper
Looking for ideas and information?
It is good fun to research on your own and discover something new. But the beginning can be very difficult. Here you will find out, where and how you can start your own investigation:
Organise your impressions: brainstorming
What are your immediate connections with the subject? Listen around! Think for example of:
- newspaper articles and books, films and television documentaries.
- streets, places, monuments or festivities which refer to an apt chapter in history.
- photographs, diaries and letters from your family – here you can sometimes find the most interesting ideas.
- talk to other people, classmates or your grandmother and grandfather, they may give you hints and ideas. Moreover, while listening and explaining you will realise which subject really interests you. Your first spontaneous thoughts should definitely be kept in mind, for example in form of a cluster/mindmap.
Reading books: libraries
Go to public libraries (or to the school library) and take a look at:
- local chronicles
- books dealing with local and regional history. Make notes while reading!
Settle on one subject now and consider whether you can do it in the given time frame:
- Do you have enough primary sources and are they available to you?
- Can you clearly outline the subject so that you are able to concentrate on single aspects and do not suffocate under heaps of material?
Looking for primary sources: archives and historical societies
While searching for information on your subject, get in touch with one of the local or regional archives close by, in order to research files, ancient regional newspapers or maps.
Looking for primary sources: interview contemporary witnesses:
You ought not only study literature and files, but also talk to people who experienced history themselves.
Create a (time)plan
The organisation of your investigation is very important. Therefore, it is helpful to create an overview:
- Which aspects belong to your subject, what kind of information have you already got, what is still lacking?
- Who are your fellow investigators?
- How much time can you spend on your research and when are other activities – e.g. excursions, exams or holidays – more important? From seeking a subject until presenting the result: This is a suggestion of what a time-plan can look like, and here you can check your plan by checklist.
Describing your topic
You have found a subject, created a time-plan, gathered first information. But how do you continue now?
What you need above all now is: good questions! Consider what you want to find out in your investigation.
Structure your story
You have found answers to your questions and you have gathered historical information. Now it is important to get an overview and organise your material by structuring.
You can choose between two main options of structuring: the chronological structure or the systematic structure.
you could depict – for example – the history of an organisation from 1920 until today, during a period of time based on the general history of your country. It is also possible to emphasise radical changes within the organisation itself as turning points of your chronology. However, it is very important to stress the contents of your chapters! "1945" as a heading does not mean anything. Therefore, you should add information regarding content.
a systematic order is the best method when dealing with problems. If you write about "starting an animal shelter in our town" you could – for instance – describe the function of the owners in one chapter, in order to go into more detail with the "customers", the governmental authorities, the animals, etc. in the following chapters. Thus, you show that you examined the subject from several different angles.
Why did history happen like this? Explain what you have found!
Primary sources from the past cannot tell neutrally "how it really was"! Primary sources give a more or less visible subjective view of the events, therefore you should be careful and critical:
- written sources: examine their origin and its background as well as their intention and ideological tendency.
- Reports from contemporary witnesses: they may have gaps in their memories or a blurred view.
Get different opinions!
Different heads, different opinions: the proverb is true! Look for a second source, which takes a look at the subject from another point of view.
What does it all mean?
You have depicted and critically examined the facts and sources. Now the central question has to be asked: What is the importance of each source and the conclusion of the whole investigation?
A mass of opinions from different perspectives – and you are in the middle.
- Consider and explain why one source judges the situation from a different point of view than the other source. Which approach seems to be more reasonable?
- Consider what speaks in favour of the one and of the other approach in your opinion. If you have found a contradiction that you cannot explain, describe it.
Evaluate your results!
You have found the historical traces of your subject, depicted it critically and you have given explanations. Now the evaluation is still missing. Generally you should ask yourselves the following questions:
- What was positive and what was negative within the history that you examined?
- Has the example that you studied had any consequences and has it changed anything?
- Does the result of your investigation have any meaning for today?
- What was most surprising and remarkable to you?
Present your results!
The main importance of a study is certainly the gathering of information along with their analysis and evaluation. But, nevertheless, the result should be presented in an appealing way. But remember to choose a way that meets your competition criteria.
Most common are brochures or books in foolscap.
But you may want to make use of a completely different form of presentation, for example:
- a cartoon or collage
- an historical sightseeing tour of a city
- a model
- a board game or quiz
- an historical role-play
- a slide presentation or photo exhibition
- a radio play or video
- a CD-ROM
If you decide to use one of the alternative forms, don't forget to write an instruction, explaining in detail which historical discoveries your study is based on.