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Teaching Writing in a History Class

If your state is anything like mine, most of your students arrive in their college classes having done very little structured writing in high school. They know how to take a standardized test but writing an essay is something they have had little practice at since middle school.

I find myself teaching argumentative essay skills in my freshmen level survey courses every semester. I am not trained as a composition teacher but here is how I do it.

Structure is Key

Most of us over the age of 30 learned to write the five paragraph expository essay in middle school and wrote several of them every year after that. My current students might have learned the model but have had little practice. I show them both an example of a five paragraph history essay (I usually use a student’s A paper from the previous semester) and an outline of how the introduction, body paragraph and conclusion are organized. This outline from Bucks County Community College is similar to the one I use. I explain how the sample essay meets all of the parts of the assignment and rubric (has a clear thesis, uses primary sources to support that thesis, explains how those examples support the argument, cites the sources properly, and contains few or no grammatical errors).


I give students short (3-5) page paper assignments based on a set of 4-5 primary sources, a lecture or two and a textbook chapter. After reading the material, students are first asked to choose from one of three sets of questions guiding their topic.

Students the identify 3-5 examples from the primary sources (usually quotes of 1-2 sentences each) that speak to their topic.  Once the evidence has been collected, they sort it into three subtopics. They then draft their thesis statement by rephrasing the questions they have chosen into a single sentence with a three part response.  Students are encouraged to fill in the outline with their evidence before they begin writing.

From this point, the structure of the paper is very clear so students can focus on working on clear writing and analysis of their sources. 

Proofreading and Revising

I also provide students with a checklist of things to ensure they are not making common writing errors and grammatical mistakes. The checklist I use was developed by a colleague so I am not able to share it but it covers things like page numbers and formatting, common grammar and spelling errors, citation errors, and asking them to confirm that each body paragraph supports their argument and each example is fully analyzed (meets the “so what” test).

Teaching Undergraduate Research Seminars

For those faculty teaching undergraduate senior thesis or research seminars, finding material to help students navigate things academics do as second nature can be difficult. Here are some of my favorite resources. In addition to assigning students to read sections of Turabian’s Guide and Strunk and White, I’ve found these online resources helpful and accessible.

Choosing a Topic

Ben Franklin’s World Episode 66: How Historians Choose a Topic

Writing a Prospectus

Writing an abstract 

Finding Sources

Primary source collections like those published by Women and Social Movements make great starting points for students. They contain documents, an introduction written by a historian and a bibliography. If your library doesn’t have a subscription to the database (or your students aren’t interested in gender history), you can find other sets like these but without the nice introduction at the Digital Public Library of America in their primary source sets. When my students get really stuck, I’ve put together sets of 5-10 documents and a couple of books and articles to get them started.

Students can also search historical newspapers at Google Newspaper Archives (sadly no longer being developed). 

For secondary source searches, your university librarians probably teach classes on searching databases and the catalog. I also give my students a quick and dirty introduction to how to use JSTOR and Academic Search Complete like a historian.

Analyzing Sources

Doing History Podcast Episode on How to Read Historical Sources

Managing Sources

I use Zotero to manage my own research material and I find students find is easier to use than a lot of other systems. It is particularly useful because it does a good job formatting Chicago style footnotes.