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Hypothesis v. Thesis Statement

Monday, November 21st, 2011

From guest blogger Ali Kappes, Minnesota History Day.

hy•poth•e•sis/hīˈpäTHəsis/ Noun.

  1. A supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation.
  2. A proposition made as a basis for reasoning, without any assumption of its truth.

the•sis/ˈTHēsis/ Noun.

  1. A statement or theory that is put forward as a premise to be maintained or proved: “can you support your thesis?”.
  2. (in Hegelian philosophy) A proposition forming the first stage in the process of dialectical reasoning.

Too many times we see History Day students attempting to write a thesis statement too soon after choosing their topics. We’ve all done this at one time in some capacity. In college it was easy to cling to an idea of how you wanted to conclude your paper in an effort to either propose a new analysis on the topic or to solidify what others had already concluded.  It was a marvelous idea, until you soon realized that the resources didn’t exist to support your “new” analysis on the topic or you were referencing the same sources as those before you.

As a student who only participated in science fairs growing up, my view on research was skewed to look at a topic, create a statement/guess on why something happened, and then set out to prove it. And as I entered college I realized that though I had chosen to study history I was truly only trained in the scientific method. I lacked the skill of looking at a topic and creating a question to answer, rather than trying to prove a hypothesis.

It is vital for students to understand the differences between these two words. Too many times they become interchangeable. If a student is pushed to develop a thesis statement too soon they are much more likely to get frustrated during their research. Letting the research lead them to a thesis statement can be a fascinating process. When you see the light bulb go off, you know they made an important connection that will lead to a great thesis statement.

In science class students are usually expected to come to the same conclusion at the end of an experiment.  Whereas with historical research, two students, starting with the same topic, can develop two very different thesis statements and conclude with two very different ideas.

All By Myself, Or Not?

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

One of the big decisions students must make at the very beginning of their History Day process is if they want to work as an individual or as part of a group. This decision, maybe even more so than their topic choice, will have the biggest impact on their History Day process and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

I have watched students in many classrooms, when first presented with the History Day project and the individual/group options, immediately start craning their necks to look around the room, seeking out their friends and beginning that silent communication of finger-pointing to indicate potential group members. Understandably, most students latch onto their best friends. But for a project as monumental as History Day, it is always best (for the student and the final product) that a little more thought goes into that decision.

Few things can create or destroy friendships quite like History Day. It is a long, in-depth, challenging project that requires much communication and collaboration, and inevitably, some group members don’t hold up their end of the bargain or group members begin to butt heads when it comes to decision-making.

This is not to say that all group History Day projects are a disaster. Some of the best projects and most enduring friendships come from History Day partners who master the art of group work. But those successes come from students who are adept at doing the following things well: efficiently dividing up the workload, solving problems maturely, making decisions fairly, and communicating well throughout the whole process.

As your students are deciding their group status, encourage them to think about it before beginning the finger-pointing across the classroom. Who can you work with for long periods of time? Will you all do your share of the work? Will any personality differences get in the way?

Ultimately, students who feel nervous or uncomfortable about working in a group can choose to work individually. There are, of course, benefits and drawbacks to this decision as well, but it’s much harder to have a fight with yourself than with your History Day partner.

Put Those Letters Down! Starting with Secondary Sources

Monday, November 7th, 2011

Primary sources are often the most exciting part of a History Day project. When I was a History Day kid, my transformative moment came in ninth grade, when I discovered Civil War letters written by a couple from my hometown. Holding those letters and recognizing that real people had lived and walked where I lived and walked was the trigger that turned history from a passing interest into a lifelong passion.

The real “stuff” of history is intriguing for students for so many reasons, and oftentimes, students are anxious to jump right into the primary source research because it is the most fascinating. Letters and diaries and newspapers are compelling in a way that textbooks and history books are not.

But skipping right to primary sources can be a real roadblock for students’ History Day research. Reading primary sources requires a certain amount of contextual knowledge and if students head right to the archives to paw through boxes of personal papers without doing some preliminary reading, they might emerge confused or frustrated. Imagine trying to read the Declaration of Independence without knowing anything about King George, the colonies, or the various Acts that led to severance with Great Britain.

The best place for students to start research is to find general reference materials, such as encyclopedias or textbooks. Such resources will give them a little background information to lay a foundation of knowledge. Next, they can move on to history books or academic journals to flesh out their context. And once they understand the context from sources like those, primary sources will start to make some sense.

If your students are chomping at the bit to jump onto Google Images and start downloading primary images for their documentary, or begin browsing through the Library of Congress online holdings, pull them back a little and direct them to a library. Secondary sources are the best friend of the early research, and there will be plenty of opportunities for primary sources later on.