In the southern hemisphere the students are completing their IB exams; those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are beginning the preparations for the IB, often including a draft of the Internal Assessment.

Students complete some form of internally assessed work in all of their subjects.  Students in Math Studies have their project; Economics students have a portfolio; Biology students have their labs (for now); and History students have the historical investigation.

The Historical Investigation can be the high point of a student’s career.  Teachers have tremendous choice when assigning the Historical Investigation: they can have students select from a list of topics (usually chosen from the IB syllabus) or allow students to choose the area of interest to them.  The topic is not necessarily important but the inspiration of passion is.  In my experience, students who like their topic are willing to take the time needed to create a successful investigation.

In the Historical Investigation, students create their own research question and then answer it using historical techniques of research, source evaluation and analysis of the evidence they have found.  In a 6-step process they link their question to the above sections and formulate a conclusion that, it is hoped, answers their question in a clear and consistent manner.

As teachers we need to instruct the students in proper methodologies and send them in the right direction but we can’t go too far: we need to have the students perform the work while we provide guidance of how to proceed and complete the assignment.  Most of our work is on the front end, and it doesn’t have to be done simply in this one assignment.  Before the students can create their investigation we need to teach them the a number of skills.  For my purpose, I am going to use Hitler – and his foreign policy – as the example here:

  • Taking a topic and formulating a research question: How many of us have had students tell us they want to write about Hitler?  Well, we need to teach them how to take this general subject and make it specific enough to write a relatively short analytical paper.  This means we need to work with them, ask them questions – what is it that really interests them?  What question do they have that may have more than one answer?  By asking questions, we can help them get to their question.  And if their question ends up as an evaluation of the extent to which Hitler achieved his foreign policy objectives by 1939, we have done a pretty decent job.
  • Searching for appropriate sources: Using the same example, many students will simply type ‘Hitler’s foreign policy’ into a search engine and come up with Wikipedia sites.  While Wikipedia is a good enough starting place, the research cannot end there, and a student should not in most circumstances cite Wikipedia in an academic paper.  Or the 20th Century World History Course Companion.  Once again, we need to take the time to explain to student what sources are considered acceptable to use when conducting research.  It is only with time and practice that we learned that; now it is time to pass along that expertise.
  • Selecting relevant material:  Most of us do a lot more research than what eventually ends up on paper.  Students really want to show us what they learned – whether it is relevant to the research question or not.  We need to keep them on track by explaining strategies of keeping their material on track.   Teaching them to outline their paper is a good way to show them how to stay on task.

To explain Hitler’s foreign policy a student does not have to provide biographical information on Hitler as a youth but that often ends up in a paper because students want to show us what they know. 

  • Proper referencing: There are a number of automatic reference sites and apps but students don’t learn how to reference by using these.  Instead, we need to have them do the work manually at least once so that they come to understand what is needed to cite material – and the order used by the method chosen.  The method of referencing is not important to the IB but proper, consistent formatting is.  Providing is not sufficient – it is the equivalent of telling the reader that the work was found on the second shelf of the Carnegie Library.  The entire citation is necessary, and knowing whether or not the information is still available (by providing a date accessed) is also important.
  • Source evaluation: Oh, the old OPVL you say to yourself.  You have done this a million times.  And every time you choose to use a source – or not – you go through this in your head.  This is an important skill all historians need and it becomes second nature to us.  However, we need to take the time to explain to students why these things matter.  The date of publication is short-hand for a lot of material, but the students need to be able to explain the short-hand to show that they understand it.  A speech by Hitler in 1925 means something very different from a speech by Hitler in 1936; student need to explain these points in the values and limitations.
  • Analysis of the evidence: This is the most difficult part to explain.  This is where they look at the evidence vis-à-vis their chosen research question and try to present a causal relationship in some way.  The significance of each point of evidence presented needs to be explained in a way that points towards an answer to the research question.  Simply describing the Anschluss of Austria does not explain anything.  Providing alternative views on why Austria was annexed in 1938 (not before or later) does.  And weighing interpretations against the evidence is even better.  Relevant importance of sources should also be presented.  This cannot be done with one assignment; it takes practice.

David Low’s commentary on Anschluss, 1938, and European responses.

  • The mechanics of a research paper: Failing to put sources in alphabetical order is the main reason students lose points.  Putting the word count on the paper is a requirement.  Learning how to write a title page is important.  Providing examples is key, but so is having students do the work, even if they only do it once.

Although the investigation does not look like a conventional history research paper students learn all the skills needed for a research paper.  That means, conversely, we can teach students how to write the Historical Investigation through research papers.  These skills must be practices to achieve a high level of performance, so we must grade their work and provide meaningful feedback.

The more front-end work we do, the more independent they can be with the actual IA, and the better they will understand our comments on their drafts.