Methods for Contextualising History in Lessons


Very often, throughout the history of teaching social studies, there has been a lack of diversity when it comes to how social studies educators and teachers provide information and material to their students. Typically, educators rely on direct instruction and lecture style classroom settings in order to provide knowledge of curriculum and information to their students. While there is merit to this form of instruction, modern-day education and the changing world around us calls on educators to begin to look towards other strategies to assist students to better understand and make sense of events of the past, present, and future.

This study aimed to examine different ways in which social studies teachers can help student with contextualizing history in order for them to gain a greater understanding of a historical event, person, or theme. In order to do this, I drew from various sources of academic literature on the subject and integrated various forms of literature, primary, and secondary sources, paired with guided reading questions into lessons to facilitate students’ development of historical contextualization.

Literature Review

Ediger (2016) explains that typically, in social studies courses taught in high school, most curriculum is provided through direct instruction, textbook readings and worksheet activities, which often leads to rote memorization. It is argued that this form of instruction does not allow students to grasp and obtain abstract and theoretical perspectives of past events, as well as have the opportunity to look at history through multiple perspectives. Rather, it only allows them to merely memorize names of certain events, figures, as well as dates (Ediger, 2016).

However, other educational researchers have made other arguments in favor of using the direct instruction method in the classroom. Stein, Carnine, and Dixon (1998) argue that due to the fact many students in school have lower academic skills and less background knowledge, which stems from being economically disadvantaged, it can be difficult for them to engage in higher-order thinking. With higher order thinking and analysis skills at the center of text analysis and comprehension, these students will likely fall behind. In addition to this, researchers explain that the direct instruction model is popular with teachers because it “keeps the language of instruction clear and consistent and allows teachers greater opportunities to carefully monitor students while teaching.” (Stein et al., 1998, p.228) To effectively implement this strategy, teachers must identify the main ideas of the lesson, teach strategies to encourage understanding, implement forms of scaffolding, integrate the skills and concepts taught, then provide a form of assessment (Stein et al., 1998).

On the other side of the spectrum, Ediger (2016) argues that only implementing direct instruction leads to rote learning and memorization in teaching history, which is a trend of the past. They point out that educators are now seeing the value of in depth teaching that allows students to understand concepts, theories, generalizations, and historic trends. Added to this, Monte-Sano (2012) explains that by only using a textbook, it can cause students to believe history is completely objective, when in reality there are many viewpoints from which we can understand the past. This is very important for students to understand in order to have a full view of history and allows students to explore opinions and biases that construct history. One of the strategies that Ediger suggests implementing is cross-disciplinary instruction. In this form of instruction, vital concepts and generalizations are integrated and explained across several different fields, which helps students to better retain and develop knowledge for understanding. This also works to provide diverse learners with a set of options that work best for them.

Huijgen (2018) explains that a vital part of historical reasoning is having the ability to engage in historical contextualization. He states that historical contextualization is “the ability to situate phenomena and actions of people in the context of time, historical location, long-term developments or particular events to give meaning to these phenomena and actions.” (Huijgen, 2018, p.2) However, this can be a difficult skill for students in secondary school to easily utilize and master. Huijgen (2018) points out the reason for it’s difficulty is because students must also have the ability to identify gaps in their background knowledge, then create questions and conclusions in order to attempt to resolves any missing information. In order to bring historical contextualization from an idea into practice, I adopted Reisman’s (2016) “document-based lesson” framework for implementation in the classroom.

Document-Based Lesson Framework

In this study, I sought to effectively integrate various forms of literature into social studies curriculum using Reisman’s (2016) “document-based lesson” framework. This framework was chosen because it does not radically change the structure and style of traditional teaching. Instead, it works to integrate documents, literature, and other forms of sources into a lesson as supplementary materials. The document-based lesson framework includes three components: (1) giving background knowledge, (2) providing a source as well as multiple viewpoints, and (3) whole group discussion of central themes and ideas.

First, Reisman (2016) points out the importance of giving background knowledge on the historical topic of study in order for students to gain a general sense of what they are going to learn. Providing background knowledge can work to activate past knowledge that students may possess. In practice, is achieved by presenting information to students in a format familiar to them, such as a lecture, video, or textbook questions and readings.

Second, when integrating the documents and literature, Reisman (2016) points out the importance of providing documents that maintain various points of view on a topic, which will lead to greater understanding. As mentioned earlier, history is subjective and it is important to teach this to students by providing them with multiple viewpoints on a topic. Reisman and Wineburg (2012) add that it may be necessary for teachers to modify documents to accommodate for struggling readers. They explain that it is vital to preserve the document’s original language, tone, and main ideas, however you can accommodate by simplifying vocabulary and sentence structures.

Lastly, Reisman and Wineburg recommend having a class discussion in order to assess student knowledge and to allow students to assert various claims they have created from the documents and material in the lesson (2012). Monte-Sano (2012) adds that teachers should guide these discussions by asking students what they thought of each text, what the author’s viewpoint was, as well as any opinions or questions that they may have.

Literacy and Comprehension Skills

Having a framework in which to incorporate literature into social studies lessons is very important, however it is also vital that students are taught and prepared to use certain sets of skills in order to effectively obtain a greater understanding of each piece of text that they read. Ediger (2012) explains that there are six important skills and practices students should learn and teachers should implement. For teachers to assist students, they should; 1) teach background knowledge, 2) recite new vocab words to the class, 3) allow students to choose literature to read related to the topic, and 4) practice self-efficacy. Students on the other hand should work to attach meaning to reading experiences and use context clues when reading.

Providing background knowledge to students helps establish a basic foundation of understanding for the historical content of the lesson and facilitates comprehension of the text that they will read. For example, reciting and explaining new vocabulary words is a way to introduce unfamiliar terms to students, which helps with reading comprehension. In addition, a teacher may present students with various pieces of literature related to the lesson and offer students choice so they may find a text that is interesting. Choice of readings is important for student motivation and to connect the learning experience with students’ lives. Lastly, by teaching students and pushing them to practice self-efficacy gives them the ability to take on a text and work through it in order to gain a complete understanding of the authors argument or view point.

Teaching history by only using a textbook promotes rote memorization and does not allow students to understand history as multifaceted. Viator (2012) puts forward that in order to teach students the complexity of history, they must be able to have the opportunity to piece together various sources from different perspectives. However, only providing students with sources does not automatically lead to thinking like a historian. Viator (2012) explains that in order to use these sources properly, students must be able to ask and answer essential questions and understandings related to both the texts and the overall lesson. Reisman and Wineburg (2012) also suggest that posing a central question is vital for students working with texts in a social studies class. By posing a central question, it works as a learning goal that students should attempt to work towards and achieve.

McCulley and Osman (2015) point out that as students move from elementary school to secondary school, it is expected that they will naturally transition from basic reading skills to literacy skills in a specific content area. However, the researchers explain that many students do not immediately possess command of both literacy and content knowledge skills which causes students to struggle. McCulley and Osman’s (2015) study of interventions in high school classrooms showed that there is a strong relationship between reading instruction and content acquisition. In order to help students who may struggle, they suggest teachers focus on explicit vocabulary instruction to promote content knowledge and reading comprehension. In addition to this, McCulley and Osman (2015) recommend to teach strategies that help students organize both prior knowledge and new knowledge taken from the text.

One strategy that Nair and Narayanasamy (2017) suggest is to have students use concept maps. They explain that many students dislike history because it is hard for them to visualize and organize information from the past, thus making comprehension of any historical event nearly impossible. Thus, by using concept maps when reading, students are able to document abstract information from text into a graphic representation which allows logical and meaningful learning. They studied the use of concept maps by conducting a study of two groups over an eight week period with one group using concept maps when reading and taking notes and a  control group that did not use concept maps. At the end of this study, Nair and Narayanasamy (2017) found that the group that using concept maps scored higher on multiple choice questions and enhanced their memory.

Wineburg and Reisman (2015) expand on the skills needed to gain a greater understanding of history by incorporating disciplinary literacy into the classroom. They explain that students need to be able to evaluate reliable sources, contextualize the information of a text, and use close reading to make sense of certain historical texts. Wineburg and Reisman (2015) explain that proper evaluation of sources is important so that students can question an author’s credentials, feel more engaged in the author’s view, and determine the position that the author is taking. The skill of contextualization is vital because it encourages students to question the political and social circumstances in which the text was written. This practice provides students with insights into the period of history they are learning. Finally, Wineburg and Reisman (2015) promote close reading as a strategy to encourage students to analyze differing viewpoints from the main text that they are reading.

In another study, Reisman and Wineburg (2008) provide a more in depth discussion of how to teach the skill of contextualizing in history and offer three activities which they found to help students. Again, they suggest providing background knowledge, however they also suggest asking guiding questions and explicitly modeling contextualizing thinking. Reisman and Wineburg (2008) explain that implementing guided questions helps point students towards important information about an event or topic of study. To model contextualized thinking, the authors explain that teachers should have students verbally explain what they are thinking, doing, and feeling as they read. This will help them to create a mental picture of the imagry, audience, and inspiration for a text.

In sum, the literature reviewed in this study provided me with the resources needed to successfully implement literature and other sources into my history lessons. The document-based lesson was the framework in which the study was implemented, and the wide array of skills provided above were taught to students in order to ensure student comprehensions and understanding of each of the texts.



Research Questions

The aim of this study is to explore the effectiveness of a document-based lesson framework to assist students with historical contextualization in a social studies classroom. Two research questions guided this study: 1) How did students perceive learning using a document-based lesson framework to contextualize the historical event or theme? 2) What was my experience teaching the class while implementing a document-based lesson framework and did it lead to deeper student understanding of the historical event or theme?


The participants of this study included 22, high school sophomores, in an American history class. The learning ability level, average grades and test scores, as well as their interest in the subject of history was diverse amongst the entire group. My particular role in this study was that of the student teacher and researcher.


This study was conducted at a small high school, located in central Ohio. The class was a compulsory sophomore-level American history class. During the study,  I designed two weeks of lessons consisting of two different topics in American history. The first week of lessons covered America’s involvement in the Vietnam War from 1960 to 1975. The second week of lessons covered the era of social change in American society and culture in the 1960s.


To conduct this study, I created social studies lessons that consisted of direct instruction with a strategy known as the “document-based lesson”. In this strategy, I provided students with background knowledge typically in the form of direct instruction. For example, background knowledge was taught to students by presenting information through PowerPoint slides, writing main ideas and vocabulary word definitions on a black board or white board, and providing guided reading notes to students. In addition, students were presented questions during direct instruction to help engage them in critical thinking about the historical content. Then as an in-class activity, I chose various forms of literature, primary, and secondary sources for students to analyze independently and in groups. I followed the recommendation to create guided reading questions, drawn from the text, to assist students’ reading and comprehension the texts and encourage reading the text in its entirety. Having students read different forms of literature and sources allowed them to analyze history from different perspectives and promoted contextualization of history more effectively. After the reading activity, I led a class discussion where students discussed what they read, offered thoughts on the texts, as well as ask any questions they had.

During the first week, I taught students through a teaching style of lecture using direct instruction and powerpoint slides. Direct instruction followed the textbook provided by the school and aligned to Ohio Department of Education Standards. The content for the first week of lessons covered America’s participation in the Vietnam War. To help students to acquire new vocabulary words and assist with note taking, they were provided with a study guide that contained a list of essential vocabulary words as well as main ideas to look for during the lesson.  After one week of teaching using this method, I switched to the document-based lesson strategy.

During the second phase of the study, the topic of the lessons taught followed the era of social change, covering the social movements that took place in 1960s America. In the second week, I gave students background knowledge on the lesson topic using direct instruction and powerpoint slide shows. To help students acquire new and unfamiliar vocabulary words, I provided them with a study guide that contained a list of the vocabulary words and important main ideas to look for. During direct instruction, students were asked to write down definitions of vocabulary words and the main ideas from each lesson. I selected various forms of literature and sources for students to read and analyze including an article explaining both the origins and major events of the counter-culture movement (secondary source), a newspaper article from the 1960s (primary source), and an excerpt from a manifesto of a social/political organization from San Francisco called “The Digger’s” (primary source). For reading lessons, I alternated the reading activities; the first day students read independently, the second day they engaged in a group jigsaw reading activity, and the last day they read with a partner and answered guided reading questions. For each lesson I provided students with guided reading questions to analyze the text and make connections between the readings and direct instruction. The guided reading questions asked students to identify the type of source (primary or secondary), what makes the source credible, is the article biased, and what was the main objective of the author writing the article?  To end each of these lessons, I led a class discussion during which students would talk about what they read, the questions that they answered, any opinions they have on the texts, as well as any questions or misconceptions that they may have in regards to the overall lesson or material.

Data Sources

The data collected for this study included a survey questionnaire (see Appendix A) that the students completed at the end of the two weeks of lessons. In this

survey, there were six open-ended questions that asked students which instructional methods were most and least effective, suggestions for change to the methods, perceptions of reading sources and questions to promote historical contextualization, perceptions of whether sources fostered meaningful connections to direct instruction activities, and whether instructional methods helped students visualize and contextualize periods of history under study. In addition, students were asked to rate their experience with the instructional methods on two questions that used a ten-point scale. It was articulated to students that this is an anonymous survey and that no names should be written on the surveys in order to ensure consistent results for the study. In addition, to the survey that assessed students’ perceptions of the effectiveness of the “document-based lesson” strategy, I also took field notes that documented my experience and perceptions of implementing the new instructional strategy as the instructor.


Data Analysis

To analyze these data, I read through and documented student responses to the survey questionnaire. For the first step, I calculated a numerical score of students rating for both instructional methods and reviewed responses to the survey questions for themes to determine student preferences and perceptions of instructional stratgies that promoted contextualization of the historical event(s)/theme(s) under study. Next, I constructed an initial coding scheme and sorted codes into possible themes. In the third step, I reviewed the themes and examples across the entire data set. Finally, I organized the findings for presentation in this manuscript.

To analyze field notes, I began a coding process to explore how I documented percpetions of student performance in week one and week two. I designed an a priori coding sheme that included the following categories: student attentiveness, student enjoyment, student questioning. Second, I analyzed field notes related to my personal experience with an a priori coding scheme with the following categories: implementation of document-based lesson strategy, time required to teach lessons,  and challenges and opportutnities teaching document-based lessons.


At the end of the second week of the study, the twenty-two students that agreed to participate responded to survey questions to gauge their perceptions of the effectiveness of each teaching strategy. To my surprise, the results were much different than what I had expected. Out of the twenty-two participants, only five stated that they preferred the second strategy of the document-based lesson and that it helped them to better understand the material being taught in the lesson. Fifteen of the student participants stated that they preferred the first strategy of direct instruction. Lastly, two of the twenty-two students stated that they learned effectively from both strategies, however they believe that utilizing a combination of both would be most effective.

Student Perceptions of Document-Based Lessons

The first question that this research aimed to study and answer was, “How did students perceive learning using a document-based lesson framework to contextualize the historical event or theme?”. To gain insight into how students perceived whether the document-based lesson did in-fact help them with contextualization, or did not, I searched for prevalent themes in the student responses survey questions. The questions assessed their perceptions of the effectiveness of the document-based lesson. Examples of the questions, also found in Appendix A, include: “Out of the two teaching strategies, which did you find more effective in terms of learning?, Do you feel that the document-based lesson allowed you to have a more in-depth understanding of both the topic being studied and the material?, When reading articles and book passages related to the lesson, do you feel that this allowed you to make better connections between each lesson, as well as the different themes and ideas that were discussed?, and Out of the two teaching methods, which helped you to better visualize and contextualize the events that happened in the past that you were studying?”.

The data are organized by three main parts in the findings section and explained using direct quotes from students’ responses. These sections are; student connections with document-based lessons, student disconnect with document-based lessons, and contextualization of historical events with direct instruction.

In addition to the written reponse questions on the survey, there were two questions that asked students to rate on a scale of one to ten their percieved effectiveness of both strategies. An analysis of the data indicate an average of 7.3 rating for the direct instruction strategy and an average of 6.3 rating for the document based-lesson strategy. As anticipated, data reveal that students who preferred direct instruction gave the strategy a high ranking while typically ranking the document-based lesson much lower on the scale. Likewise, students that preferred the document-based lesson ranked the strategy very high, however several in this group also ranked direction instruction at a high ranking.

Student Connections with Document-Based Lessons: Perceptions of Effectiveness

This subsection examined what students perceived to be effective about the document-based lesson. After analyzing their responses, there were four subthemes that resulted from the data.

Background knowledge.

Four students that preferred the document-based lesson and two students that preferred a combination of both strategies stated that they found the background knowledge portion, in which the teacher gave them notes via PowerPoint slides, to be imperative to gain an understanding of any lesson. As one student stated, “when the teacher gave us notes and lectured, it allowed me to know the basics of what we were learning. I gained the definitions of essential vocabulary words, and it helped to have the teacher explain ideas to me in their own words. Added to this, the other student explained, “while the teacher was giving us background knowledge, if we had any questions, it was much easier for them to explain it to us while they were lecturing.

Conversations started from documents.

Regarding the articles and documents that the students read, both students that preferred a combination of both strategies and two that preferred the document-based lesson said that they thought the different assigned readings allowed for excellent class discussions to start and led them to hear different thoughts and viewpoints. One student responded, “although there is a fixed idea that the author is discussing in a text, usually readers can find different perspectives from what they read. Due to this, I really enjoyed the class discussions that we had because I could hear the different thoughts that my other classmates had about each article. This allowed me to think about each topic in different ways”.

Reading-based learning.

Two students that preferred the document-based lesson and two that preferred the combination mentioned that anytime that they get to the chance to read material on a subject, it always helps them to learn more about a subject. As one student explained, when I read more about a topic that the teacher already taught us, it helps me to better remember all the details, which allows me to do better on tests”.

Another student expressed, “the questions that the reading activities consisted of really made me think hard about the topic. It caused me to think critically about what the author was trying to convey in their writing, thus I gained a more in-depth understanding of the material”.

Contextualization of Historical Events with Document-based Lessons

This subsection examined how effectively students were able to contextualize the historical events while taught using the document-based lesson strategy. From the data collected there are three subthemes discussed below.

Making connections.

The primary theme that six students mentioned regarding how reading the different sources allowed them to make connections between lessons was that the sources all had similar themes. As one student stated, “Although each article focused on the topic of the lesson, there was always the underlying theme related to what we were studying the whole week. For this instance, the counter-culture movements and the era of social change in America. This allowed me to see all the different sub-groups that made up the counter-culture movement and really allowed me to make all these different connections”. The same student also mentioned how they had been taught using this strategy in other classes, however because many of the texts they read were not related, it made it difficult for them to make connections between lessons.

More details and information.

A second theme expressed by five students indicated extra details and information that the various documents and sources provided allowed students to make better connections. There were various reasons stated for this; the most prevalent was that information students read was related to the next day’s learning. As one student explained, “When we were learning about the counter-culture era of America during the second week of lessons, each article had a different focus, however once we got to the last day I could look back and see how each theme was related to another. This gave me a great understanding of the counter-culture movement in American history, as well as the ability to see the various viewpoint of individuals that lived through this time period”. Another student stated, “taking notes and listening to a lecture gives me the big picture of the lesson, however once I started to read the different texts/articles, I was able to learn about different details that the author gave, often from a different point of view”. This student said that this allowed them to think critically about the topic that was being studied. Still, other students expressed, “when I had to answer the questions while reading the documents, it forced me to re-read several parts of the document. This gave me the chance to fully understand what the author was stating, as well as having the chance to fully absorb all of the information need to gain a complete understanding”. In addition, one student mentioned that reading information on the topic from various perspectives allowed them to gain an “all-encompassing” understanding of the material.

Benefits of reading first-hand accounts.

For this subtheme, three students indicated they were better able to contextualize and visualize the historical events by having the opportunity to read first-hand accounts from people that lived through the event. One student, for example, explained “reading the words of someone who lived through the event we were studying allowed me to picture exactly what the person experienced”. In addition, students indicated that hearing a teacher lecture allowed them to gain a basic understanding. When coupled with the opportunity to read more information on the topic, students had a greater ability understand what really happened in the past.

Student Disconnect with Document-Based Lessons: Perceptions of Ineffectiveness

Datafrom fifteen participants out of twenty-two demonstrated that the majority of students did not find the document-based lesson to be effective. This section highlights four subthemes that were prevalent in these data: not enough time, dislike readings, teaching ourselves, and challenges with information.

Not enough time.

The first subtheme found in responses from twelve students suggested that there was not enough class time to properly read, analyze, and answer the guided reading questions. While guided reading questions are a major component of the document-based lesson, the time allotted for each forty-minute period left many students feeling rushed and overwhelmed trying to complete everything that was assigned to them in this short amount of time. One student explained that “I am a slow reader and even when I was paired with a partner, I could only answer a few of the guided reading questions.”

Students also stated that if there was more time to read the articles, answer the questions, then have a class discussion, they might have had been better able to engage in contextualization.

For example, one student mentioned, “I thought all the portions of the document-based lesson were great and helpful, however forty minutes just isn’t enough class time. By the time the teacher gave us background knowledge and notes, as well as answer any questions students had, we only had fifteen to twenty minutes to read a document and answer questions. I just always felt really rushed”.

When asked what recommendation for change to the lessons, four students suggested that if possible, it would be great if a lesson with a lengthy document be broken up into two days. The first day the teacher could give background knowledge and notes, as well as fully answer any questions students might pose. Then on the second day, students would read a document and answer the questions. This way, students would not feel rushed while reading, and there would be more time to have a full class discussion.

Dislike readings.

The second subtheme present in nine students’ responses indicated they disliked reading the articles and other sources that were provided to them. For example, one student stated that “they were boring and uninteresting to them.” Another student said that “if they [sic] were different articles or sources that they found interesting, then they may have preferred the document-based lesson strategy.” Adding to this sentiment, one student stated, “although I always try to read and articles or documents that are given to me, I feel like most of my classmates just skim the text to find answers to questions.” In addition, this student stated that, “if we work in groups, usually only one or two students will read the document and most of the others will merely copy answers.” Providing students with reading activities in a lesson for any subject can yield mixed results as some students may enjoy reading, while others may lack interest or connection to the reading.

Three students out of this groups also stated they felt some of the articles and other sources were often too long in length. One student explained, “I enjoyed reading everything that the teacher gave us, however the length of some of the texts made me feel like I had to speed read.” This student also explained that perhaps the lesson should be divided over two days, or the text could be modified. In addition, another student mentioned that while they did not have much trouble reading when given a short amount of time, they felt that many of their classmates did have difficulty.

Teaching Ourselves.

A third subtheme was prevalent in seven students’ responses: they felt that the document-based lesson strategy caused them to “teach themselves.” As one student stated, “I felt like I never really learned anything because we were only given a small portion of information through power point slides, then we had to read the articles and answer questions by ourselves. Although the teacher was there to assist us, I still felt that we had to do all of the learning by ourselves”. Another student mentioned that, “I feel that when I had to read and answer questions by myself, I had more trouble trying to find all of the correct information that would be on the test”.

In addition, five students responded they often felt lost while doing the guided reading activities with documents or other sources. In several responses, students explained that while they participated in this style of activity before, they had trouble finding the answers to the questions that were in the text. According to one student, “I sometimes have trouble reading and it was really hard for me to find the answers. I had to ask the teacher often to help guide me to where an answer might be.” Although enacting document-based lessons does encourage students to work independently and to be in control of their own learning, it is apparent from these responses that this was not effective for all students.

Challenges with information.

A subtheme found in seven students’ responses indicated that they believed the document-based lesson gave them too much information to handle or was too abstract. Some expressed feeling overwhelmed trying to make sense of all of it as one student explained, “I learned a lot when you gave the background knowledge on the PowerPoint, however every time we had to read the documents each day there was even more information that I had to remember. It started to give me anxiety because I felt overwhelmed trying to learn and remember what would be on the test.” One student stated, “I prefer to have information about the lessons given directly to me by the teacher. When I must read the articles, I start to get lost and I felt the information was not related to the other lessons that were taught during the week.”

In addition to this, several other students explained that they believed that the different lessons that were taught during the document-based lesson strategy week did not have enough topics in common with each other for them to make good connections. For the difficulties students experienced, they also identify the need for greater teacher assistance.

Contextualization of Historical Events with Direct Instruction

This part of the findings section focuses on students that felt they had the best ability to contextualize historical events under study through the direct instruction method. There were three subthemes found in the data: straight to the point, note-taking, and videos and graphics.

Straight to the point.

The first and most prevalent theme was that the direct instruction strategy got straight to the point of what they needed to know about the lesson. Out of the fifteen students that chose this strategy as the most effective, nine of the students expressed this theme as to why they found the direct instruction method to be most effective. For example, one student claimed, “I felt overwhelmed trying to read through the articles and answering the guided questions that I did not retain much knowledge.” In addition, several students expressed preference for having information given to them directly by the PowerPoint slides and verbal instruction. They felt the articles had extra information that was not relevant to the main idea of the lesson. As one student explained, “I understand the idea behind reading articles and other sources in order to assist with historical contextualization, however it just does not work for me.” Students also stated that when they were given an article with guided notes and a requirement to find information themselves, it led to confusion and interfered with retaining knowledge. Finally, students preferred direct instruction because they had concise notes that helped them study for the test covering the material from the lessons.

Take notes and work independently.

The second main theme from the survey question was that many students prefer to take notes and do work independently. This theme was present in the surveys of eight of the fifteen students. Several students stated that when they work in groups, they often are the ones that end up doing most of the work, so they prefer to work by themselves. One student claimed that “I often get anxiety working in a group with people that I am not familiar with” and preferred to work alone. Several other students mentioned that they do not retain much information or learn effectively from group work. One student, for example, claimed, “I often feel a bit overwhelmed when I am paired with another student or am in a group, and that it causes me to not learn properly and effectively”.

Several students also felt that when they wrote more notes given directly by the teacher, it was easier for them to understand the topic. In addition, these students stated that the extra reading of texts did not help. As one student offered, “When I write notes I continually look back at them when the teacher is lecturing. The combination of the teacher talking and note taking greatly helps me to understand what the lesson is about”. Although the document-based lesson did have a portion of direct instruction with note taking, it is apparent that these students prefer the entire lesson to be structured this way.

Videos and graphics.

When teaching the first week of lessons with the direct instruction method, I incorporated several short videos related to the lessons, as well as many images in the PowerPoint slides. Eight students claimed that the videos and graphics greatly helped them with visualization and contextualization. A student explained, “Some of the videos really made me feel like I was there” and that “the pictures that were on the slides were always closely related to the information that was being presented, so it acted as a great visual aid.” Although short videos and photos can always be incorporated into the PowerPoints for teaching background knowledge during the document-based lesson, it can also be difficult to incorporate videos due to the short amount of classtime. This is particularly true gven that students need to have sufficient time to read their assigned texts and answer the guided reading questions during document-based lessons.

Reflection on my Experience Implementing the Document-Based Lesson

This section will be comprised of a reflection on my field notes that were taken while conducting this study. There are three main themes were identified: 1) how well was I able to implement and use the document-based lesson strategy, 2) was there enough time in each lesson to teach and use all portions of the strategy, 3) what did I find challenging and find effective about the document-based lesson.

Implementation of the document-based lesson.

Before conducting this study, I felt that there would be some difficulty implementing the

document-based lesson into my class, since this is a new instructional style my students were not familiar with. Prior to me taking over the class and several months before the study, my mentor teacher shared he had never utilized documents or other various sources in his lessons. He always relied on direct instruction and note taking to teach all of his lessons. Due to this, I believed that it was likely many students would either not like the new instructional strategy or may have difficulty learning this way.

As soon as I starting teaching using the document-based lesson, I noticed that many students in the three classes did not enjoy this way of learning. Several students complained to me that they did not want to read any documents, or they thought the documents were boring. Others said that they just wanted me to give them the information that would be on the test and they did not want to know “all of the details.” Depsite the resistance, I did enjoy teaching using this new strategy. I believe that it is very important for students to read historical sources. It gives them the chance to view topics from different perspectives, as well as the opportunity to see an event from the eyes of some who was there. However, each day that I used this strategy, it was often difficult to get all of the students ready and excited to learn about the topic of the lesson.

Time constraints.

The biggest issue that I had while implementing the document-based lesson was the time

constraints of having forty minutes in each class period. I would use the first couple of minutes to explain to students what the lesson of the day was going to cover, as well as asking them if they had any questions or misconceptions about the previous lesson. Soon after I would deliver background knowledge to students and they would take the notes. By this time, there was typically only fifteen or twenty minutes left and by the time everyone started reading, I always felt that the students were being rushed to read through the articles. During several lessons, students expressed this to me and asked if there was any way that I could change the lesson for this week or the week after.

Challenges and effectiveness.

The main challenges that I faced using this new strategy was predominately the time

constraints from forty-minute class periods, as well as getting students used to a new instructional strategy.To overcome the time constraints, I made sure to not waste any time during transitions from different parts of the lesson. Before any students walked into the classroom, I made sure that I had all of the supplies that I needed, exactly where they needed to be. I would place the study guide, reading source, and guided reading questions on each student’s desk so that I did not have to waste time passing them out during the lesson. In addition, all of the PowerPoints would be set up ready to go as soon as all of the students were in their seats.

However, it was difficult to get students used to a new strategy, let alone enjoy learning from it.  I tried my best to select various sources related to each lesson that I thought might be interesting for them. In addition, I always made myself present while they were reading. I would walk around the classroom and if any students had any difficulty on a section of text, I would always be there to help them interpret what they were reading.

In terms of what was effective, I thought that it is great to always have students read historical texts whenever possible. Not only does it help them to improve their reading and comprehension skills, it allowed them to dig deeper into the topic that they were studying. Added to this, although as the teacher I can give them excellent information that they can they take notes on, I still believe that it is important for them to hear different viewpoints of a topic. Also, it helps to hear a topic explain in other ways, which can greatly help them with comprehension.


Summary of Findings

After conducting this study and analyzing all the survey data, it is apparent that a majority of the class preferred to learn through the direct instruction method. Although there were various reasons that they gave in the surveys, the underlying reason seemed to be that they preferred information given directly to them by the teacher. Many students did not want to read various sources, search for information, and use it to answer questions that were a part of class activities. According to the students’ responses, they can contextualize and visualize the information best when they can take notes and reflect on them. When they are given more information through various sources, it can lead to confusion or overwhelm them with information.

As mentioned in the findings section, not all of the students in this set disliked the document-based lesson. However, they said that they felt that they had the best ability to contextualize when only taking notes and listening to a teacher’s lecture. For students preferred to learn through the document-based lesson, they stated that they had the best ability to contextualize when they were given various historical sources to read. Students gave various reasons for their preference of this instructional strategy. Several students mentioned that it greatly helped them when they could read the first-hand experience of someone that lived through the historical event that they were studying. They were able to “put themselves in their shoes”, which allowed them to better contextualize and visualize what they were learning.

Other students explained that it was beneficial to hear different perspectives on each topic that they studied. As mentioned in the literature review, history is multifaced, meaning there are always many view points that any historical event or topic can be view and understood from. Therefore, it is important that when teaching students history, the educator provides students with these different sources to read, analyze, and draw conclusions from. When giving students this ability, they have a greater chance to visualize what took place in the past, leading to a greater understanding of any historical event.


Implications for Practice.

In my opinion, I found aspects of both strategies that were tested in the study to be of great value for helping students to contextualize historical events and themes. I suggest that if an educator wishes to help students with contextualization, as well as to learn history more effectively, they should implement a combination of both strategies that were tested in this study. The first strategy of direct instruction is very valuable in presenting students with background knowledge that they are unfamiliar with. It gives them to opportunity to take notes and ask questions about information when they have misconceptions. However, only employing this strategy does not allow students to gain a different perspective or greater understanding of the topic in focus.

While conducted this study, it was clear that many students preferred the instructional strategy of direct instruction. I found that some students disliked the readings and activities that were assigned to them, others felt that they had to teach themselves instead of learning from the teacher, and there were issues were students had trouble making connections between the different sources provided to them from the various lessons. However, there were other students who felt that document-based lesson gave them the opportunity to learn the topic more in-depth, have the ability to start good class discussions, and felt there was a positive outcome from reading first-hand accounts of individuals that lived through the historical event that was being studied. Due to this finding, when I create future lessons I will take these students’ responses into account and create a hybrid lesson, using parts of the direct-instruction method and the document-based lesson, while implementing the strategy over a several days period. Doing so, will ensure that students that prefer either strategey will have the opportunity to learn.


I have found that implementing the document-based lesson gives students the ability to read about a historical event or theme from a firsthand perspective, which can help with contextualization and should be utilized in a social studies classroom. However, due to time constraints caused by short class periods, there can be great difficulties employing this strategy in every lesson taught, especially for students that are struggling readers. Due to this, a combination of both strategies should be implemented to properly help student with contextualization.

From this study, I believe that the first several days of a unit should be spent giving students background knowledge, vocabulary words, and main ideas that are needed to understand the topic. By doing this, students are provided with foundational knowledge they can build upon. It also gives students the opportunity to have the proper time to take notes needed and ask questions when they have misconceptions. Then, the last several days before a summative assessment should be spent applying literature, primary, and secondary sources for students to read. This gives them the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of the topic and to view the topic from different viewpoints. The guided reading questions are also important because it helps students to find the main ideas that are in the text, as well as gives them a reference that they can use to study for the summative assessment.

When implementing a document-based lesson, it is important to keep in mind several issues that students brought to attention in this study; student dislike of reading, students teaching themselves, as well as challenges with information. It is likely that some students in a history class are not going to have a deep passion for the subject, however that does not mean that literature, articles, and other sources cannot be found that are tailored to some of their personal interests. I believe that it is important to know the various interests of your students, and if possible, provide them with a range of sources that are both related to the topic that is being studied and their own interests. In regard to issues with students feeling like they had to teach themselves and challenges that they had with information, it is vital that the teacher is present to students to assist them with any misconceptions.



In conclusion, I found this study to be of great benefit for understanding and learning various ways to help students with contextualizing history and to learn history in general. As mentioned in the previous section, I believe that a combination of both strategies, used over the period of a certain unit in focus would be of the best use and help to students. It is important the current and future social studies teachers study and make use of these new strategies when teaching in their classroom. In the changing and growing world that we live in, basic instructional strategies are becoming trends of the past and it is vital that we educators stay up-to-date on the most effective strategies to ensure student success.


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