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Document Analysis with Students

Help your students think through primary source documents for contextual understanding and to glean information to make informed judgments. The first few times you ask students to work with primary sources, and whenever you have not worked with primary sources recently, be sure to model careful document analysis. Direct students’ attention to the procedures involved and the kinds of questions you ask about the documents. After several instances of modeling, ask students to work as a class to analyze documents, vocalizing the process as they go. Eventually, students will internalize the procedure and be able to go through these steps on their own every time they encounter a primary source document.
Remind students to practice this same careful document analysis for every primary source they see.
Learn more about introducing your students to primary source documents.
For any type of document — a written document, image, map, chart, graph, audio or video — move through the following steps:
  1. Before getting into the content of the document, look at it in a very general sense and ask basic questions. Consider the document’s type: “What kind of document are we looking at?” For example, for textual documents, is it a newspaper, letter, report? For artifacts, what material is this made of? For video, is it a propaganda film, cartoon, training video?
  2. Find unique characteristics of the document (which will vary depending on document type). Note any markings or special qualities. These characteristics will help students understand the document in context. For example: Are there any symbols, letterhead, handwritten versus typed text, stamps, seals, or notations? Is there a background, color, or tone? Are there facial expressions in photographs, or other telling features? Is there narration or special effects? Is there a key?
  3. Attempt to identify the creator and the content of the document. Break down the document by asking “Who, What, Where, When, Why and How?”
  4. Rephrase the document into plain language. Students should determine the content of the document and speculate for whom and why it was created. Help students understand the document in historical context.

Why teach with documents?

When we ask students to work with and learn from primary sources, we transform them into historians.…more

When we ask students to work with and learn from primary sources, we transform them into historians. Rather than passively receiving information from a teacher or textbook, students engage in the activities of historians — making sense of the stories, events and ideas of the past through document analysis.

Primary sources motivate students and pique their curiosity about history. Seeing familiar document formats like letters or photographs encourages students, while unique document characteristics capture their attention and prompt them to investigate further. Documents involve students in the process of historical inquiry when they ask questions, discover evidence, and participate in debates over interpretation.

Teaching with documents can engage students. They begin to see connections between past and present. Documents with signatures or notations personalize history. Primary sources give students opportunities to empathize with figures of the past and to understand history from varying perspectives. The varied nature of primary sources also provides students the opportunity to connect their historical understanding to other subject areas like geography or math, to a collective national heritage, and to their modern lives.

Primary sources often inspire students because they provide new avenues for learning about the past. Documents can illustrate abstract concepts or help students make connections between seemingly unrelated information. Students can begin their historical studies through graphical materials that they may be more comfortable with — photographs, maps, and posters.

Through their analysis of a variety of documents, students learn to find multiple perspectives in history. Primary sources guide students to the realization that all accounts of past events are subjective. Following practice with primary sources, students begin to recognize bias and question where historical information comes from. Students learn not only to question the reliability of sources but to reference multiple sources for information while doing historical research.

Primary sources encourage higher order thinking. As historians, students can link documents to see cause and effect relationships, fit historical pieces together to understand a whole story, understand historical events in context by relating primary sources to mathematical data or geographic locations, and assess primary sources as evidence to formulate interpretations about the past.

Sharing DocsTeach Activities with Students

Use DocsTeach activities for classroom demonstration, as full-class activities, as small-group activities, or as individual in-class or homework assignments.…more

Use DocsTeach activities for classroom demonstration, as full-class activities, as small-group activities, or as individual in-class or homework assignments. Manage activities in your account. Share both activities you find and those you create with your students on DocsTeach.

If you find an activity you want to share with your students or have created and published your own, simply provide your students with the unique web address for that individual activity. Students can complete the activity and email the results if desired.

You can also keep track of activities you create and your favorite activities in your account. Star activities that you like and want to share with your students, then find them in your account. If you have adapted an activity or created and published your own, find it immediately in your account and ready to share. If you’d like for your students to see or complete a series of activities, create a classroom within your account and share the unique web address for that classroom with students. Even create and name multiple classrooms to share different activities with different classes.

Correlation to National History Standards

Activities created on DocsTeach are categorized according to the National History Standards as outlined by the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California, Los Angeles.

For more information on teaching historical thinking skills, see the Historical Thinking Standards.

For background information on historical eras, visit the Standards in History.

Key to Use of Bloom’s Taxonomy

With flexible DocsTeach tools, you can create activities that vary according to their placement on Bloom’s Taxonomy — from Remembering and Understanding through Evaluating and Creating. Triangles graphically indicate correlation with Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy (Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001), adapted from Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom et al., 1956).…more

With flexible DocsTeach tools, you can create activities that vary according to their placement on Bloom’s Taxonomy — from Remembering and Understanding through Evaluating and Creating. Triangles graphically indicate correlation with Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy (Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001), adapted from Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom et al., 1956).

Remembering

A lesson that calls upon the skill of Remembering.

Understanding

It is also possible to create lessons centered on Remembering and Understanding for those students who are new to primary sources.

Applying

A lesson that calls upon the skills up through Applying.

Analyzing

A lesson that requires students to practice Remembering, Understanding, Applying and Analyzing but does not focus on Evaluating or Creating.

Evaluating

A lesson that requires students to practice all skills through Evaluating would be indicated with the following triangle, illustrating all the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy covere.

Creating

A lesson that requires students to practice all of the skills listed in Bloom’s Taxonomy: Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating and Creating will be indicated with an entirely filled-in triangle. An example is a lesson including extensive document analysis, evaluation of historical events, and the creation of an end product.

Bloom, B., Englehart, M. Furst, E., Hill, W., & Krathwohl, D. Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of
educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain.
New York, Toronto: Longmans, Green, 1956.

Anderson, L.W., & Krathwohl (Eds.). A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s
Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.
New York: Longman, 2001.

Teaching with Documents and the
National Council for the Social Studies

The National Archives has been encouraging teachers to use primary sources in the classroom since the late 1970s through the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) publication Social Education.