The Perception of Primary Sources by College-Level History Students

Monday, January 5, 2015: 8:30 AM
Sutton South (New York Hilton)
Richard Barrett, Indiana University Bloomington
Alex Kirven, Indiana University Bloomington
Jessica Leach, Indiana University Bloomington
Primary sources are vital to the discipline of history and much of a historian’s training involves learning how to analyze and interpret them. It is not surprising, then, that scholars have come to see primary sources as essential to instructing students in history. There are quite a few studies and articles about how instructors use primary sources in their classes, but scholars have rarely examined how students view primary sources. Our study examined how students in history courses understood primary sources, the ways in which they interacted and interpreted them, and how they experienced them as college students.

We surveyed students in history courses using an online survey tool for initial data, and subsequently interviewed select students, in an attempt to shed light on how students view and engage with primary sources. Our results show that it is clear that students are attempting to engage with primary sources. However, there is a range of understandings of how to do so, as well as of more foundational issues, such as what primary sources are and why they are important. Also, the level of engagement depends upon what type of history courses the student is taking and how instructors frame the sources. This session will discuss our findings in detail as well as suggestions to increase student engagement with sources.