Being a historian: Using online source banks to research experience of historians in the A-level classroom

Robin Conway

The need for pupils to engage with sources has long been embedded in the National Curriculum and exam syllabuses. However, the fact that exam boards do not necessarily recognise nuanced work with sources that reflects historians’ practice, has tended to promote unhelpful misconceptions and led to poor teaching of a tightly scaffolded set of “skills”.  Students learn “about” working with sources, but it is very unclear, after decades of analysis in the history teaching community, that they really learn “to” handle sources effectively, even at A-level.

Robin investigated whether online source archives might provide a partial solution to some of these difficulties. Using carefully chosen archives he sought to more closely replicate for students the true experience of historical research: carefully selecting suitable research materials for students to use to test hypotheses and build insight into the past. Through open questions about students’ understanding of sources, he tested whether their experience of historical research shaped their thinking in ways that were more aligned to the practice of historians, rather than that of formulaic exam-takers. Results showed a high percentage of students’ answers increasingly resembled the thinking and approach of “experts” instead of “novices”.

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