Skip to content

Select a set of documents for students to analyze and consider within the framework of two disparate historical interpretations. Students examine and evaluate each document to place on a scale according to the perceived weight of the document as evidence. Provide opposing historical conclusions or ask students to arrive at their own interpretations.

Learning Objectives and Historical Thinking Skills

Weighing the Evidence activities teach students to formulate interpretations based upon historical evidence. Create activities using the Weighing the Evidence tool to give students the opportunity to analyze, interpret, and evaluate historical documents to determine their credibility and validity as evidence and understand how historians combine evidence to arrive at historical conclusions.…more

Weighing the Evidence activities teach students to formulate interpretations based upon historical evidence. Create activities using the Weighing the Evidence tool to give students the opportunity to analyze, interpret, and evaluate historical documents to determine their credibility and validity as evidence and understand how historians combine evidence to arrive at historical conclusions.

Weighing the Evidence activities help students understand how to scaffold evidence in order to arrive at conclusions. A teacher can write in opposing historical interpretations within a Weighing the Evidence activity to have students choose which interpretation they believe each document supports. Students weigh the documents as evidence in light of all of the evidence in presented. Evidence can be given full weight by placing it further out on the scale, more or less weight than other evidence based on scale placement, or no weight at all by placing the document in the fulcrum. Students see a visual representation of where the evidence lies. Or a teacher can leave the historical interpretations at either end of the scale blank for students to fill in. In this case, students analyze each document in the activity and come up with two possible historical conclusions that the evidence might suggest, and place documents on the scale. For instance, students can examine a set of documents relating to the career of General Douglas MacArthur, then form their own interpretations about his leadership skills. They place the documents on the scale to show why they believe one historical conclusion about MacArthur over another. It is especially important to ask students to back up their opinions verbally or in written format if they have crafted their own historical interpretations based upon the evidence they have seen.

Weighing the Evidence activities facilitate students' understanding of the importance of a document's source. While a document's content is the focal point, Weighing the Evidence can also demonstrate to students how evidence can be relatively persuasive based on a number of factors. Choose documents to populate an activity based upon the position you want your students to understand about evidence. To show how historical evidence is more or less credible depending upon its source, choose a set of documents whose creators differ and ask students to focus on the credibility of the sources. Engage the class in a follow-up discussion about why certain sources might be more convincing or reliable than others. To help students understand how individuals can be swayed by evidence due to its format, choose a set of records with varying formats, including written documents, photographs, and media. Upon completion of the activity, ask students to reflect upon the following: What evidence did you consider most effective and place toward the end of the scale? Why do you think this was so convincing? Do you think you would have been as persuaded by this evidence if it was in a different format? An activity to help students focus on the difference between written testimony and video evidence, for instance, could include textual documents that describe warfare during World War II as well as video clips from World War II military action.

Teaching Tips

  • Consider the goals you have for your students before planning your activity. Choose documents and structure your activity based upon those goals.
  • Weighing the Evidence activities can be used to introduce primary sources to younger students and help them begin to understand how conclusions are supported by evidence. Construct an activity with simple written documents or photographs, posters, drawings or media; the teacher should fill in two basic but opposing historical interpretations. Walk students through analysis of each document, instructing them to first look at the document as a whole and then pay close attention to the details. Help students decipher what each document is, what it means, and if it supports a particular interpretation on the scale. It is important to model placing documents on the scale with younger students to help them grasp how different pieces of evidence can support an interpretation to varying degrees.…more
  • Consider the goals you have for your students before planning your activity. Choose documents and structure your activity based upon those goals.
  • Weighing the Evidence activities can be used to introduce primary sources to younger students and help them begin to understand how conclusions are supported by evidence. Construct an activity with simple written documents or photographs, posters, drawings or media; the teacher should fill in two basic but opposing historical interpretations. Walk students through analysis of each document, instructing them to first look at the document as a whole and then pay close attention to the details. Help students decipher what each document is, what it means, and if it supports a particular interpretation on the scale. It is important to model placing documents on the scale with younger students to help them grasp how different pieces of evidence can support an interpretation to varying degrees.
  • It is important to model careful document analysis for students. Open one of the documents in the activity before asking students to begin placing documents on the scale. Ask the class to look at the document in a very general sense and determine the type. Ask them to point out unique physical characteristics. Ask them to identify the date, creator(s), and content. Remind students to do the same with each subsequent document that they see before placing it on the scale.
  • Demonstrate for the students how the scale functions: placing documents at different places on the scale changes the tilt. The document is given more weight if it is placed at the end of the scale and less weight if the document is placed near the fulcrum. The document does not impact the scale if it is placed at the fulcrum.
  • Whatever your goals for your students regarding understanding evidence, be sure to choose documents that illustrate your point and to follow up the activity with a class discussion about what it means for evidence to be strong or persuasive. Finish activities by asking: Which documents were placed where? Why? Which documents were given greater weight? Why? What historical conclusions did you draw? Ask students to consider the source of information, its content, and its form. Remind students to consider their personal backgrounds as well as historical and societal impacts.
  • In many instances it is valuable to ask students to hypothesize about the content and persuasiveness of each document before formally beginning the activity. The exercise can act as a pre-assessment and can help to guide students' thinking. Once students begin to examine documents, they have a purpose for viewing them and begin to contextualize them on their first encounter.
  • Always ask students to explain their conclusions in order to reinforce that historical interpretation should be backed by substantial evidence.

Weighing the Evidence

Turn primary sources into historical evidence that students sort through and evaluate to draw historical conclusions.

Lessons Created Using this Template