Transforming Young Minds with the Magic of History: National History Day Program Proves Innovative History Education Works

History News magazine cover - Spring 2011This special History News: Your Turn feature complements the article by Kim Fortney and Cathy Gorn entitled “Transforming Young Minds with the Magic of History: National History Day Program Proves Innovative History Education Works” which appears in the Winter 2011 edition of History News.

[Read PDF of Full Article]

Kim Fortney

Kim Fortney
Deputy Director, National History Day

At a time when social studies is losing ground in American schools and the importance of studying history in a democracy is being ignored, National History Day (NHD) launched a national study of the effects of learning history through historical research. The multi-state study, conducted from 2008-2010, gathered empirical evidence on the impact of student-driven historical research on student achievement, not just in social studies but also in other core academic areas. The study also assessed what can and does work to improve the teaching and learning of history.

Cathy Gorn

Cathy Gorn
Executive Director, National History Day

NHD served as the model for the study, conducted by Rockman et al, because of its 30-year history of success and its recognition by Congress as a program of excellence. NHD annually engages more than 500,000 students in a rigorous study of the past and showcases their work and scholarship in professionally-juried contests. The program represents a curriculum reform movement that encourages students to learn history by doing history.

Ann Claunch, Director of Curriculum

Ann Claunch
Director of Curriculum, National History Day

Testimonials volunteered by participants have long indicated that NHD indeed kindles a lasting interest in history and gives students skills that serve them well in college and careers. To gather background data for the multi-state study and refine research questions, in 2008 Rockman surveyed some 200 past and current NHD participants, who reported that their participation in student-driven historical research had a marked impact on their knowledge of history, by:

  • instilling an interest in both the past and the present and in historical events and issues beyond those they themselves study (79.4% of respondents),
  • teaching them how to look beyond the first source found, scratch beneath the surface, put events in context, and see effects as well as causes (92.2% of respondents), and
  • motivating them to question, analyze, and refute evidence, all with carefully researched information (84.4% of respondents).

The background study pointed not only to evidence of the impact of historical research on students’ academic success but also to the need for a more comprehensive, independently conducted study to measure the impact on a broader and more diverse audience and on specific skills and competencies. School districts also need to see that the students who participate in historical research projects are positively affected, that the skills applied in the research improve reading, problem solving, and critical thinking skills, and that those students have greater motivation to excel in school and complete their schooling. School-site administrators, too, especially those who have responsibility for large numbers of at-risk students, must have confidence that this effort is not a distraction, but that it will result in improved academic performance and meet state standards.

In this edition of History News: Your Turn:

Key Findings:

  • NHD students outperform their non-NHD peers on state standardized tests in multiple subjects, including reading, science and math, as well as social studies.
  • NHD students in South Carolina outperformed their non-NHD peers on English and history assessments.
  • NHD students are better writers—they write with a purpose and real voice, and they marshal solid evidence to support their points of view. NHD students had more exemplary writing scores and fewer low scores than comparison students.
  • NHD has a positive impact among students whose interests in academic subjects may wane in high school.
  • NHD students learn 21st century college- and career-ready skills. They learn to collaborate with team members, talk to experts, manage their time and persevere.
  • NHD students are critical thinkers who can digest, analyze and synthesize information.

It’s Your Turn

What implications do you see the findings have to your institution? Jump in and share below.


Leave a comment
  1. Tim 29. Mar, 2011 at 12:05 am #

    I’m not surprised by these stats. I have judged the NHD competition for more than fifteen years and always leave inspired by the incredible research and analysis undertaken by the students. The structure of the program does more to encourage and teach critical thinking skills than any other program I know. It is interesting that there has been a recent effort by others to start a national history bowl and bee, along the lines of a geography bee and spelling bee. I think this study supports the fact that rote memorization does not foster the important life skills that solid research and analysis does. I would venture that maybe more students are turned off of history because of forced memorization than those that are turned on to history by teachers who encourage them to consider multiple perspectives, draw conclusions from evidence, and actually give them access to primary source materials. What do others out there think?

  2. Sue Funk 29. Mar, 2011 at 12:56 am #

    I have been using NHD in my gifted program at my middle school for 12 years now. I watch how the students progress in their ability from 6th to 8th grades. By 8th grade I am just facilitating their research. I have had many high school and now college students e-mail or write me telling that the skills they learned through the NHD process has allowed them to be better learners.

    I have taught school for 32 years now and I have never seen a better program to help my students develop higher level thinking skills.

  3. Janet Mulder 29. Mar, 2011 at 4:49 am #

    I taught all levels of students in middle school for 20+ years and they were ALL successful with National History Day. No they did not all end up at the County, State or National competition, but they all learned important research skills and how to present them to show what they learned, utilizing those important critical thinking skills when called upon to defend their research and their conclusions to adult judges! One of the most important aspects is that the students choose their own topic but it must adhere to the theme and they are forced to learn to do some strong analysis in order to be competitive! I am now a History Day judge and work with students from all age groups, encouraging them to reach their highest potential, and National History Day provides the perfect vehicle! We need to encourage Congress to continuing funding this fabulous program and remove it from the classification of an “earmark”!

  4. Renee McClendon 30. Mar, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

    DITTO to both Tim & Sue! I facilitated NHD for a small school in Northwest Iowa, 10 years. Now serving as a fulltime volunteer for NHD in Mississippi, NHD is my life!! Thanks, Indiana History Day, for posting this article on facebook!!

  5. Debbie 30. Mar, 2011 at 5:23 pm #

    Rockman’s findings validated and confirmed what we all have know in our hearts all along. In my neck of the woods, there’s a huge campaign to fight childhood obesity. It connects to legal mandates around physical education offerings. I think we may want to look to some of the present-day issues around which historical understanding could have been especially beneficial – and use those as a dramatic rationale for demanding that students not be allowed to be ignorant of the world around them.

    There’s lots of talk about adding more tests to ensure that history gets taught in public schools. I think we might also want to consider another avenue – required minutes of instruction (a la PE) at ALL grade levels.

  6. Nathan Doerr 30. Mar, 2011 at 7:52 pm #

    Here at our regional history museum, we strongly support National History Day. Due to a decline in classroom teachers incorporating History Day into their lesson plans, however, we began offering a History Day Club last year through our museum. The Club is promoted to area educators and their students and we get a great group of participants. I serve as the coach and we meet once a week for 3-4 months leading up to the regional competition. It is amazing to see these students take time out of their regular school and personal activities to participate in History Day. Some of them do receive extra credit from their social studies teachers, but that’s not why they are participating.

    Prior to our History Day Club, our museum was active in History Day by serving as judges (including museum staff, volunteers, and board members), doing trainings in classrooms on how to put together a good project, etc. We also serve as a resource for projects that have a local focus… which we try to encourage because of not only the applicability but also the availability of primary sources. We also offer a special award at the regional competition for the “best” entry on a local topic.

  7. Melissa Craig 31. Mar, 2011 at 1:04 am #

    I agree with the findings of this article. I have been involved with NHD for 16 years, and The skills that my students have obtained are invaluable. When they come back to visit they remind me of their projects and what they ment to them. They continue to inform me that in high school they were the ones used as the example because they could research and write. In college they felt better able to organize and deal with the loads they had whereas their peers seemed overwhelmed. NHD is not just about learning history, it teaches life lessons and self confidence. No matter how far a student advances they gain so much.
    Sometimes teachers feel they don’t have enough time or that history fair takes up too much time. These teachers think they are doing their students a favor by only stressing whats on the test. This concept couldn’t be farther from the truth. It is time well spent and invested in our future.

  8. Jeff Hawks 06. Apr, 2011 at 9:06 pm #

    With so much focus on math and science we sometimes forget that most students will not grow up to be mathmaticians and scientists. They will, however, all grow up to be citizens, eligable to vote, and 21st century workers. They will *all* need critical thinking skills, they will all need to be information literate in a world where the internet gives them easy access to more bad data than good data, as well as all the other skills we now can show that students learn from National History Day.

  9. ann claunch 27. Apr, 2011 at 1:56 pm #

    NHD students outperform their non-NHD peers on state standardized tests in multiple subjects, including reading, science and math, as well as social studies.

    The correlation between NHD and improving other academic areas is powerful. As an administrator at a school I would pay very close attention to this finding because of its implications across the disciplines. In essence, schools implementing NHD improves the overall academic health of the school. Anyone use this finding in talking with schools or museums about NHD? What were the results? I am curious.

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