One of the reasons that Students and Faculty in the Archives, the 3-year program which produced this site, was so successful in improving student engagement and performance was because it employed many of the high-impact educational practices advocated by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).
Taking students to the archives to do primary source research…
…Is Undergraduate Research
The AAC&U advocates for “students’ early and active involvement in systematic investigation and research.” This means not just consuming knowledge, but producing it. Exercises like this one, this one, and this one ask students to use archival research to complete a final project. Students gain knowledge and confidence by producing a polished record of their research.
…Creates a Common Intellectual Experience
Many campuses enact this high-impact practice through a summer reading program in which all incoming students spend time during orientation discussing a book they have all read. Similarly, taking students to the archives can create a common intellectual experience among students in a major, students in a course, or other cohorts.
Coming to the archives levels the playing field among groups of students with different skill levels and backgrounds. Some students might enter college as better writers; some might be better test-takers than others; some might have taken several advanced placement courses in high schools. But even more advanced students have likely never done independent archival research before. In 3 years, we did not have a single student already familiar with primary source research in the archives. This level playing field can improve class dynamics and increase student confidence.
Like any educational field trip, visiting the archives will be a bonding experience for students. In our experience, students enjoy venturing to a new building (whether it is on- or off-campus), meeting archives staff, and getting the privilege of handling original documents.
We found that having students work in small groups of 3 – 4 students works best in the archives. When students engage in dialogue around document analysis, they learn more than when they work alone. With more than 2 students, there can debate, disagree, and draw different conclusions. Students can even divide tasks, taking turns reading, transcribing, writing down answers on handouts, or photographing the document(s). When working with handwritten documents, group collaboration is particularly important. More than 5 students is usually too many at most document stations.
Many of the professors we worked with required students to continue to work in groups throughout the semester. In this exercise, students wrote their own papers, but continued to conduct research as a group. In this one, small groups collaborated to post their assignment online.
We Collaborated with High-Impact Courses
We worked with some courses and programs that were already incorporating other high-impact practices. Many of the courses that visited our archives were first-year seminars, learning communities, or writing-intensive courses. These already-established initiatives reinforced the effectiveness of our program.
Archival Research Is a High-Impact Practice
Bringing students to the archives, we have found, improves student learning and engagement so much that we suggest the AAC&U add “primary source research” to its list of proven high-impact educational practices.
Julie Golia and Robin M. Katz, “Visiting the Archives is a High-Impact Educational Practice,” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/articles/high-impact-practices/.