History Matters! Volume 20, Number 3 November 2007
National Council for History Education, Inc.
Ideas, Notes and News About History Education
History Research Papers
by Will Fitzhugh
Editor’s Note: [Joe Ribar] Few people have read more research papers written by high school history students than our author, Will Fitzhugh. He has made the celebration of scholarly work by high school students his life’s work. His message is that students can do the hard work of serious historical research and writing if they are expected to do it by teachers who challenge them. Furthermore, he knows that when young people tackle the challenge, they will come to take great pride in having done it in the same way that high school athletes take pride in doing the hard work of running, jumping, and hitting involved in meeting the challenges of football, basketball, or track. Will’s ideas will be valuable not just to Advanced Placement teachers, but to all who teach history.
High school history teachers know that having their students do research papers will encourage them to read more history on their own and will help them a lot in learning to think more clearly and to write better as well.
But many believe they are too busy to give their students this challenge. After all, the Advanced Placement program, unlike the International Baccalaureate with its required Extended Essay, does not call for a research paper in addition to the exam. Many may assume that Advanced Placement history teachers do not assign serious history research papers. But in fact, quite a few do.
How can they manage that, with all the other work they have to do in preparing their students for the AP exams? I believe they have a secret: they have the students do almost all of the work.
If students can spend the first semester reading on a topic or two of their own choosing in history, with one or perhaps two brief talks with their teacher while they do it, then by the end of the semester they are much more likely to have chosen a topic they can see their way to working on during the second semester.
My first point is, then, that students should do most of the work and that they should choose their own historical topics.
Next, I would urge teachers, especially those who have not had the experience of writing a serious history research paper themselves, to stop worrying about techniques of writing. The more a student reads history, the more likely they are to find something to write about. The more they think about what they are reading and learning, the better they will write about it. And if they read their paper aloud to a friend, they will discover all sorts of things about it that they would like to improve.
...The best writing emerges from a rich store of knowledge which the author is trying to pass on. Without that knowledge and the motivation to share it, all the writing techniques will not make much difference...
By the time they hand in the first draft of their paper to the teacher, it should already have some historical substance, and show the benefits of both thought and some re-writing. At that point, the teacher can make intelligent comments, for instance about other sources on the topic, and on sections of the paper that don’t make as much sense as they could. The teacher can suggest toning down any purple rhetoric that adorns the paper and pass along E.B. White’s immortal advice: “Omit needless words.”
The hardest part for the teacher whose students are writing 5,000-word history research papers will come at the end, when they have to be read and graded. When I was teaching, I used to call in sick at the end of term when the papers came in, but there are no doubt other strategies to use.
The benefits for students are enormous. They will have taken a history topic and made it their own, which is something they will take pride in, and which is wonderful preparation for college. For teachers, the benefits will come from a class full of students who have studied some history on their own, and, having come to understand one part of history in some depth, they will be more understanding of and interested in all the other historical topics the teacher must present. Without such an experience, too many students will go on to higher education lacking some valuable tools: how to read a nonfiction book; how to research a topic; and how to write (and re-write) a serious, non-fiction, expository paper.
Finally, I know it will be terribly tempting to seek out techniques of the writing process and the like, but I believe that such mechanics are poor substitutes for the hard work of reading that must go into preparing any serious history research paper. The best writing emerges from a rich store of knowledge which the author is trying to pass on. Without that knowledge and the motivation to share it, all the techniques will not make much difference.
Of course, good academic writing requires re-writing, but the motivation and energy needed for that re-writing are much more likely to come from the student’s desire to communicate the interesting history he or she has discovered in the research.
Who am I to talk about all this? I was a social studies teacher at the high school in Concord, MA, for ten years, but more to the point, in the last 20  years I have published 792 [1,011] history research papers by high school students from 35  countries, both public and private school students. These papers average 5,500 words, with Turabian [Chicago] endnotes and bibliography, and many of them have come from AP history classes.
One public high school student from Indiana wrote me that: “When a former history teacher first lent me a copy of The Concord Review, I was inspired by the careful scholarship crafted by other young people. Although I have always loved history passionately, I was used to writing history papers that were essentially glorified book reports...As I began to research the Ladies’ Land League, I looked to The Concord Review for guidance on how to approach my task...there was an excitement in being forced to think rigorously; in wrestling with difficult problems I knew I could not entirely solve...Writing about the Ladies’ Land League, I finally understood and appreciated the beautiful complexity of history...I would like to thank you not only for publishing my essay, but for motivating me to develop a deeper understanding of history. I hope that The Concord Review will continue to fascinate, challenge and inspire young historians for years to come.”
It is one of the oldest clichés, of course, but students really will rise to the challenge, and although it can be very hard work—especially for students who have never done a history research paper before, and for teachers who have not assigned one—writing such a paper will deliver much satisfaction and pride, and I can also guarantee you that after the first year you do it, other students will hear about it. They will anticipate your history class with some dread but also with great expectations about what they will accomplish, doing history papers on their own for your class.
Laura Arandes , who arrived at Harvard college as a Freshman a few years ago, had gone to a public high school in California where she never wrote more than a five-paragraph essay. When she got to Harvard she was shocked at how poorly prepared she was. She wrote to me:
“I had never written more than five paragraphs for any essay or paper in my entire academic career prior to entering university…Now, I tell you, I wrote one fine five-paragraph essay, but…no one ever thought to mention to me that college papers would be vastly different from the little expository essay with its introduction, conclusion and five body paragraphs.
I thought a required freshman writing course was meant to introduce us to college paper-writing…in reality, the course was a refresher for most of the others students in the class. At a high-level [university], too many of the students come from private schools that have realized that it would be an academic failure on their part to send their students to college without experience with longer papers, research environments, exposure to non-fiction books, and knowledge of bibliographic techniques…It is a failure…being perpetrated by too many public high schools across the nation.
It took me two years to gain a working knowledge of paper-writing…where I was constructing arguments and using evidence to support them…I am about to graduate with a GPA much lower than it should be and no real way to explain to graduate schools and recruiting companies that I spent my first semesters just scraping by.
This lack of forethought on the part of high school educators and administrators is creating a large divide among college graduates…Modern public high schools have an obligation not to simply pump out graduates at the end of the year, but also to prepare them for the intellectual rigors of college.”
Will Fitzhugh is Editor and Publisher of The Concord Review, a quarterly journal of scholarly history papers by secondary students. He also founded The National Writing Board, a unique independent assessment service for the history research papers of high school students. NWB reports can be used with their college applications. Both of these initiatives can be found at his website: