Our Teaching Philosophy
Our Teaching Philosophy

We created this site to showcase our groundbreaking approach to archives-based learning.

We designed and directed a 3-year project that brought over 1,100 students unfamiliar with primary source research out of the classroom and into the archives. Based on this experience, we honed a teaching philosophy that encourages instructors to:

  1. Define specific learning objectives for the visit to the archives
  2. Thoughtfully select individual documents (the fewer the better)
  3. Design tailored small-group activities
  4. Model document analysis through directed, specific prompts

We have trained professors and professionals in this effective method. TeachArchives.org now shares it with the world!

Introduction: Students New to the Archives

Early college students have long been an underserved audience in archives and museums. Fortunately, projects like ours are starting to change this.

We quickly realized we needed to address very basic skills to engage students with little or no experience with primary sources. Forget about these students posing research questions, identifying and requesting materials, or navigating entire archival collections. Focus instead on an initial encounter with one document.

Students do not walk into a reading room knowing how to analyze an original source. They first need be taught how to read closely, to observe, and to summarize. These skills are the building blocks for inference, deeper analysis, contextual research, and scholarly use.

Our goal is not necessarily to train future historians and archivists. Instead, we believe that guided interaction with primary sources builds critical thinking and information literacy skills, making students more engaged learners and better informed citizens.

Although we worked primarily with early undergraduates, our approach should be used to introduce the archives to students of any level. The resources on this site can therefore be adapted for use in a wide range of courses, from middle school to graduate programs.

1. Why Bring Students to the Archives?

This website provides digital resources on teaching with primary sources, but we encourage teachers everywhere to seek out real archives and collections nearby.

We’ve found that bringing students to the archives (versus using reproductions of primary sources in the classroom or as homework) has a positive effect on student engagement, performance, and, in some cases, student retention.

Visiting an archives introduces students to cultural institutions they might not have interacted with otherwise. It encourages them to seek out resources beyond their school library system or public library branch. Students recognize the need to draw on multiple institutions and resources to support what is often called the “constellation of scholarship.” “There is no one-stop shopping in research,” we tell them.

Let’s take for granted that you want to expose your students to the joys of primary sources. What teacher doesn’t? That desire, however, is not a specific enough idea around which to shape a visit to the archives. Instructors should be able to justify a trip to the archives by crafting and articulating specific objectives for each visit, and by explaining how the archives activities relate to overall course objectives.

To make this work, instructors should make sure that the archives they collaborate with has collections that support the content or format needs of the course. For example, if you are designing an exercise on 19th-century photographic techniques, make sure the archives has daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, cartes-de-visite, or other formats that would make such an exercise work.

2. Less is More

In-archives activities for beginning students should focus on item-level document analysis. The exercises on this site demonstrate how fewer documents make for richer student learning in the archives. In only one exercise on this site do students even encounter an entire folder from an archival collection, and that is after previous visits based on one document.

Instructors should select only a few documents to use with students, and they should also plan to give them a generous amount of time to interact with those documents. In our most effective archives visits, students spent upwards of 45 minutes working with only 1 – 2 documents, and they needed every minute of the time allotted. The faculty with whom we worked learned through experience that “less is more,” and they all agree that using even fewer documents than you think students can tackle will make for a better learning experience.

3. Small Group Work

We encourage instructors to craft well-designed exercises in which students work collaboratively. Working in groups allows students to puzzle through difficult passages together, which promotes a sense of community among classmates. It also reinforces the fact that different students can offer disparate analyses of the same document – and that there is room for disagreement among researchers.

For most regularly-sized documents, the ideal group size is 3 – 4 students. With more than 2 students, there can be some real dialogue and even a division of labor. In most cases, 5 or more students would be too large.

4. Specific and Directed Prompts

At the heart of our teaching philosophy is a specific and directed approach to modeling document analysis. Archives visits should not be “show and tell” sessions in which students are introduced to many documents and are given little time to read closely and analyze. Nor should instructors assume that students know where to begin when sitting in front of an original document in the archives.

We believe that the generic document analysis prompts advocated by many other organizations – including this one from the National Archives and Records Administration – do not do justice to the fine-grained differences between various sources. Questions like “what is this document?” or “who created this?” may not apply to many primary sources. Nor do such questions model the nuanced and sometimes idiosyncratic nature of document analysis. Furthermore, these generic prompts often do little to tie document analysis back to specific learning objectives or course goals.

Instead, we advocate creating specific and tailored prompts for each document that your students will examine. This best demonstrates the way that experienced researchers tailor their analysis to the unique content and format of each individual document, and to their particular research questions.

Tailored prompts are effective because instructors should already have a reading in mind when they select a document for students to study. A professor of architecture, a history teacher, and a photography instructor might all show their students the same photograph of a city street, but each will use that image in remarkably different ways. Why, then, would they use the same generic document analysis questions?

Conclusion: Collaboration is the Key

Designing an excellent archives visit for students takes time, practice, and revision. Our project was ultimately successful because it fostered meaningful collaborations between faculty, who designed curricula and learning objectives in their fields of expertise, and archives staff, who provided necessary guidance in archives-based pedagogy and their institution’s collections.

To cite this page:
Julie Golia and Robin M. Katz, “Our Teaching Philosophy,” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/articles/our-teaching-philosophy/.


Julie Golia
Historian / Founder and Editor, TeachArchives.org
Brooklyn Historical Society
view bio + contact info >
Robin M. Katz
Archivist / Founder and Editor, TeachArchives.org
Brooklyn Historical Society
view bio + contact info >