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National History Day: An ethnohistorical case study

Marilyn Louise Page, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The purpose of this study was to obtain a realistic portrait of National History Day (NHD)--a secondary school, history related program in which students research and develop presentations on a topic related to an annual theme. My goal was to determine: whether the positive claims for NHD were realistic; why and how the program grew from a local program with 129 students in 1974 to over 500,000 students in 48 states in 1991; and what implications there were for educational processes. For this ethnohistorical case study, which combined ethnographic and historiographic methods, I collected historical data through documentary material and interviews; perspectives of teachers and students through interviews and observations; and supplementary and validating data through interviews with state coordinators and former students. The study participants were the "founding fathers" and Executive and Associate Directors of NHD, 13 students and 4 teachers from 3 schools in different states, and 3 state coordinators and 6 former NHD students from corresponding states and schools. The data support the claims of superior cognitive, affective, and skill development through student participation in NHD. The data also show that the teachers and students in this study participated mainly because NHD provided opportunities for self-determination, self-comparison, close student-teacher relationships, community contribution, receiving recognition, and having fun. Furthermore, results indicate that these motivational dynamics account, at least in part, for the program's phenomenal growth. Additionally, findings suggest that for these participants competition was the driving force behind the level of involvement and calibre of work. While all study participants claimed major benefits and few drawbacks to the competition format, most considered the judging process to be inconsistent and a weakness in the program. Implications for educational practice revolve around how to incorporate the motivational components of the NHD process into the curriculum. The implications for the teaching and learning of history relate to methodology. The participants indicated that through the NHD process students gained a deeper comprehension of historical content and concepts and a greater ability to think critically and to develop their own knowledge than was possible in a traditional, teacher-dominated classroom.

Subject Area

Social studies education|Secondary education|History

Recommended Citation

Page, Marilyn Louise, "National History Day: An ethnohistorical case study" (1992). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9305878.