A solution to student frustrations with history research tasks
"Why don't you make your students start their research by writing a hypothesis?"
I have been asked this question many times by other teachers. Their curiosity is driven by the fact that a vast majority of history educators, including myself, were taught during teacher training that it was important that students had a hypothesis written before they began gathering evidence from sources to support their argument.
After teaching high school History for almost nine years, I find that I teach the historical research process very differently to many of my peers. People want to know why that is, and so, this blog post is my attempt at explaining it.
I used to do it that way
As a new teacher, I did what I had been taught to do in teacher training: I told my students that they had to conduct background research on their topic before they tried to find sources. After their background reading and before they looked for sources, I forced my students to write down a 'tentative hypothesis': a statement or argument about their chosen topic. This would be what they were seeking to prove in their research essay. As a result, they were to then begin gathering quotes from historical sources to justify this argument.
However, it turned out to be an incredibly painful process, for both me and the students. I have found out over the years, that most teachers and students also find this quite an arduous process. Students genuinely struggle to write a sophisticated argument early in their research process. Even though they couldn’t articulate it at the time, it is primarily due to the fact that students are very much aware of their own ignorance on the topic. Even after doing extensive background research, they still don’t have sufficient knowledge in order to draw a conclusion.
In reality, most teachers press their students to write something down as a hypothesis, even if they are not entirely happy with it. These teachers argue that it is ‘fine’ to start with something that you’re not 100 percent confident in, as students should continually modify their initial hypothesis as they begin reading their historical sources.
What I discovered as a new teacher is that, after completing all their source research, students end up with a totally different hypothesis than the one they began with. This is due to the fact that when they actually read what good historical sources said, they were able to find more concrete information about their topic. As a result, after reading all of their sources, they finally create a hypothesis that had absolutely no relationship to their original statement.
A student identified the problem with this approach
This highlighted an obvious fact that was pointed out to me by a student:
"Why don’t we just wait until we complete all of our source research before writing our hypothesis?"
I had to admit, it was a good question. If they did this, they would only have to write their hypothesis once, and they would have all of the information they needed to construct a statement that they were confident in.
The following year, I decided to try this new idea. Instead of starting with a proposed hypothesis, my students were asked to start with a very specific research question, known as a Key Inquiry Question. It was only after they had completed all of their source research that they then had to create their hypothesis, which was, in reality, an answer to their Key Inquiry Question.
After completing their first research task using this new system, I asked my students for their feedback. To my amazement, they were glowing and enthusiastic with their comments.
Without exception, all of my students said they found this approach far easier, more logical, and gave them a more focused approach to their source research. As a result, even though I tweaked parts of the process, I have never gone back to the old system.
Other problems with an 'initial hypothesis'
Over the years, I have talked to dozens of other History teachers who have experienced the same frustrations that I did under the old system, but felt that there was no alternate solution. As a result of our discussions, a number of other problems with starting research with a hypothesis have become apparent:
1. It encourages confirmation bias
When students have to assume their answer before they read their sources, many tend to only look for and read sources which confirm their initial hypothesis. As a result, students struggle to find a wide variety of perspectives in their sources, as they proactively seek sources that support their preconceived ideas.
Consequently, this produces essays that have a heavy ‘confirmation bias’: using only those sources that agree with what the student assumed to be correct before they had begun their research.
2. It can waste a lot of time by leading students astray
If students created a particularly poor hypothesis, they can spend a significant amount of time trying to find sources that support their erroneous assumptions. This can lead to a ‘moment of crisis’ when, after hours of research, students discover that almost no sources agree with they said in their proposed hypothesis.
Teachers typically try and circumvent this by 'vetoing' hypotheses before students begin research. Usually this results in teachers guiding students back to doing more background research or teachers personally guiding students to writing an entirely new hypothesis. Unfortunately, teachers frequently end up doing the 'heavy lifting' when rewriting student hypotheses in order to avoid wasted time, and students proceed with their research, still ignorant about what they needed to do to create a better statement.
Other teachers try to avoid this by saying, “Then, students need to continually modify their hypothesis during their research". This then returns to what my student had mentioned all those years ago: that a final hypothesis is actually the result of a completed research process, which shows that actually reading the sources before drawing a conclusion is a far more logical and efficient approach.
3. It tends to minimise historiography
The entire academic field of history is predicated on the fact that we only know about the past based upon what survives in the sources. Therefore, we should not, in general, assume we know what happened in the past before we read the sources. We should encourage students to read the sources from the past first, with a critical eye, before they start drawing conclusions about what they know about the past.
The new approach
After eight years of asking students to only write their hypothesis after completing their research, I am very happy with their results. Now, I take the time to teach my students to have a very specific Key Inquiry Question before they begin their research. This question drives their source research and they use the information found in the sources to write a final answer to the question. This is what then becomes their final hypothesis.
While students will still take the time to refine their hypothesis based upon what they found in their sources, their answers tend to be more specific and detailed when done in this way. Furthermore, my students are far more confident in what they are arguing because they have written the answer themselves, based entirely upon their own research. There is little teacher interference in their research process and students tend to become truly independent learners.
To see how this process works, from start to finish, explore the 'Research' page on History Skills.
Are there any problems with this approach?
Just like any system, this approach is not perfect. Students find that they still struggle at various stages: writing good research questions, finding specific information in sources to answer their questions, and feeling confident that they have enough information to create a hypothesis.
However, I find that these struggles are now more personalised for each student, unlike the old system where almost all students found initial hypothesis creation to be a significant hurdle.
Why is this not a more popular approach?
Despite what I have said here, I have been surprised by how unwilling other teachers are to abandon the old approach. Even though I continue to talk with educators who vent their frustrations with how difficult it is to get students to write good hypotheses before their research, and how so many of their students struggle with the process, they still look with scepticism on this alternate approach.
I have wondered whether there is a case of 'the better the devil you know...' happening in their minds. Teachers have been taught for so long that their is only one way, and that they've seen most of their peers doing the same thing, that they feel more comfortable maintaining the status quo rather than trying out something new.
All I would say is, there is an alternative, and it's been a revelation for my students. Over my time as a teacher, I have picked up students who have only ever been taught under the old system and are shocked when they journey with me under this new approach. Every time, these students give me overwhelmingly positive feedback.
Finally, I think it is particularly telling that I have never had a single student tell me that they wanted to go back to the old way of doing things.
So what do you have to lose? Why not give it a go?