National History Day


Michael Simpson and Steven S. Lapham

Like many social studies educators, we have always believed in the virtue not just of “teaching students history” but also of teaching students to be historians. After a stint as judges in this year’s National History Day contest in June, we have an even richer appreciation of the excellence with which middle and high school students can perform challenging tasks requiring original research.

National History Day has become a grassroots phenomenon in schools throughout the nation. In the 2000-2001 school year, more than 700,000 students and 40,000 teachers participated in the contest at the district, state, or national level.

National History Day projects emphasize the importance of primary sources. Students delve into libraries and archives in search of original documents relating to their chosen topic, and, where possible, seek out eyewitnesses of important historical events for direct interviews. The outcome of their research is a contribution to one of a number of National History Day categories of project. Students can write a paper about a historical topic, or, alternatively, construct an exhibit, present a dramatic performance, or produce a documentary, such as a videotape or slide show. This allows students with different kinds of skills to participate in National History Day, selecting the category that best suits their talents.

National History Day activities are open to students in grades 6 through 12 (grades 6 through 8 are grouped in a junior division and grades 9 through 12 in a senior division). Some states also organize a History Day contest for students in grades 4 and 5. Applications to enter the competition are made during the fall. Most students participate at the district level, where contests are usually held in February or March. Winners at the district level then submit their entries (which they have a right to revise) for a state-wide contest, usually held in April or May. The top two students in each category at the state level are then eligible to compete for a national award (once again, with a revised version if they wish) in the final stage of the contest held in June at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Each year’s contest has a general theme. In 2001-2002, it is “Revolution, Reaction, Reform in History.” Last year’s theme was “Frontiers in History: People, Places, Ideas.” The broad scope of these themes permits a great variety of topics to be covered. The entries by students that were honored in June 2001 dealt with frontiers in the fields of medicine, science and technology, transportation, economics, energy, armaments, mass media, law, social values, and art, as well as
geographic and political frontiers. Names like Margaret Sanger, David Sarnoff, Amelia Earhart and Jane Goodall, featured along with those of Lewis and Clark in these contributions.

As judges of papers in the national contest, we were greatly impressed by the high quality of the entries that reached the final round in both the senior and junior divisions. In particular, we found it striking that the middle school papers, as well as the high school entries, were written at the quality level of college term papers.

During the process of reviewing papers, we realized that it would be helpful if we shared some tips about what to do and what not to do with teachers who advise student participants (especially teachers who are new to National History Day). In the boxes accompanying this article, we have outlined five key “dos” and five key “don’ts.”

National History Day projects have a lasting impact on both the students who engage in them and the teachers who guide them. Vaughn Dailey, who teaches at Peters Township Middle School in Houston, Pennsylvania, notices a big difference between students who participate in National History Day and those who do not: “When students participate, studying primary sources gets into their blood and they re-enter the contest year after year. They end up being light years ahead of their peers in their research abilities.” Joan Williams, a teacher at Putnam County Middle School, Milledgeville, Georgia, also likes the broad set of skills that are encouraged by the projects: “attention to issues, perceiving relationships, global thinking, higher order skills, analysis and interpretation, writing skills, and computer skills.” Participating students are required to have oral interviews with judges about their projects, and in Williams’s experience this can greatly enhance their oral communication skills.

Gloria Remijio, who teaches at Del Valle High School in El Paso, Texas, finds that her students are often willing to invest very substantial amounts of their own time in projects and to stay after hours to work on them. One aspect of the contest that appeals to her is that it accommodates multiple intelligences and students can choose which contest to enter—papers, exhibits, documentaries, or performances—according to what they do best.

National History Day also has an effect on the way teachers teach. Cynthia Mosteller, who is a teacher at Alice Deal Junior High School in Washington, DC, told us that her experience with National History Day has led to her using primary documents as basic elements in the classroom, not just as supplementary materials. This focus on primary documents provides students with the necessary training to accomplish their own National History Day research. With this approach to teaching, teachers can become guides to their students, instead of being the “fountain of all knowledge,” which is the characteristic role of the teacher in classes based simply on lectures and textbooks.

At a time when teachers are already under a great deal of time pressure, it can be a challenge to integrate a National History Day project into the classroom. Some schools require participation in National History Day as part of their curriculum. A survey of students in the national contest in 2000 found that about half of them studied in schools where participation was required. A significant 37 percent of students, however, were voluntary participants who used their own time either to accomplish their entire project or to develop a more limited class assignment to the level required. Their teachers, likewise, volunteered their time as advisors.

Because National History Day is a rigorous program, “it requires more effort on the part of teachers and students,” acknowledges Cathy Gorn, the program’s Executive Director. She believes, however, that the overwhelming view of participants is that the extra effort is worthwhile. Although the debate about how to teach history is sometimes cast in terms of whether to require students to acquire information or to develop research and analytical skills, she points out that National History Day projects do both.

For some teachers, organizing National History Day projects that conform with state standards is a challenge. Reflecting this concern, a National History Day publication offers teachers guidelines on how to fit the program into teaching based on national standards, which have been incorporated in many state standards.1 National History Day, Gorn maintains, “is a very effective tool for helping students meet standards.” National History Day projects may not help students train for the kinds of standardized tests that, in the words of Vaughn Dailey, “seem to want to find out whether students would make good game show contestants.” But the program clearly inspires students with an enthusiasm for history that results in a great increase in their knowledge and the development of important research skills that will benefit them later.



1. This publication, “Meeting the Standards: NHD in Today’s Classroom,” is also available on the National History Day website.


Michael Simpson is editor of Social Education. Steven S. Lapham is editor of Middle Level Learning and associate editor of Social Studies and the Young Learner.

5 things to aim for in a National History Day project

1 Students should draw from a range of sources, which could include books, journals, newspapers, oral histories, museum collections, audio and video recordings, and credible websites.

2 It is best to blend facts and numerical data into the project, and to use the information presented to help tell a story. For example, national statistics about errors at polling places might be reinforced by the retelling of one person’s experience of being denied the right to vote.

3 Students should cover all sides of the issue if there is any controversy in the topic that they have chosen. It is fine to form an opinion, clearly state it, and provide evidence to back it up, but the merits of other points of view should also be described. Students might benefit by asking themselves: “Would a reasonable person who holds the opposite opinion think that my presentation was accurate and fair, even if he or she disagreed with my conclusion?” They should remember to examine topics not only from a historian’s viewpoint, but also from the perspectives of participants in the events studied (e.g., “winners” and “losers”).

4 When students use websites, they should clearly identify the sponsors or creators of those sites.

5 Students should relax during their interviews. As judges of history papers, we did not want to interrogate each student about his or her topic, but rather to hear about how sources were found, difficulties overcome, and conclusions reached. Disappointments, wrong turns, and dead ends are part of the adventure, as are “hot trails,” unexpected discoveries, and sudden insights. The interview is a chance for students to back up their work and tell about their adventures as historians.




5 things to avoid in a National History Day project

1 Relying heavily on a single source, however knowledgeable that source may be, narrows a student’s historical vision. Early in the research effort, students should seek a variety of avenues to explore. It is important to look not only for facts but also for links (by asking people and searching reference lists, for example) that will lead students to other, different sources—maybe with opposite points of view. Beware of relying too heavily on Internet sources.


2 Reams of quotes, one after another, may convey information to the reader, but they can break up the narrative of a paper, performance, or documentary, and they can make an exhibit too cluttered. Even if students have found very eloquent sources, they are the authors or producers of their projects and must tell the story in their own words, reaching their own conclusions. Quotes are a bit like spices in food: it is best to use them for accent.


3 Including a lot of borrowed graphics in a project is not advisable. If an already-published image will help the reader to understand a point, then students should include it. But cutting and pasting images from websites is not as challenging as it is for students to create their own charts or graphs.


4 An overly broad title or topic can lead to a project that tries to cover too much ground and becomes excessively general or superficial.


5 Students need to place their topic in a historical context, but a conclusion that goes beyond the information presented in a project weakens the argument. For example, if a student has researched a local event, it might be appropriate to say that similar events were happening all over the country, but it might be difficult to show that people were thinking the same things and feeling the same way in every community across the land.


These tips are based on the authors’ experiences as judges. National History Day offers a detailed set of guidelines in a curriculum book that it publishes for each year’s contest.

Years a Student Has Participated in NHD

Number of Years

1 54.0%
2 24.0%
3 12.0%
4 5.0%
5 3.0%
6 1.4%
7 0.7%

Source: National History Day; random survey of 1416 students in the year 2000, henceforth described as NHD survey, 2000



School Participation Information

Type of participation Percentage of Schools
Required 52%
Extra credit 5%
In place of another assignment 6%
Voluntary 37%

Source: NHD survey, 2000


Ethnicity of Participating Students

Ethnicity Percentage of Students
African American 17%
Asian American 11%
Caucasian 64%
Latino 5%
Native American 1%
Other 2%

Source: NHD survey, 2000


School Size of Participants

Size Percentage
1-500 30%
500-1,000 37%


2,000-3,000 6%
3,000+ 2%

Source: NHD survey, 2000


Location of Families of NHD Students

Location Percentage of Families
Rural area 32%
Small city 12%
Medium city 7%
Major city 20%
Small city suburb 8%
Medium city suburb 7%
Major city suburb 14%

Source: National History Day, random sample of NHD parents, 2000. A small city is defined as having a population of 30,000-60,000; a medium city one of 60,000-100,000; and a large city one of more than 100,000.