National History Day – What Does It Do?

Since 1974, National History Day has been engaging students in the act of “doing history”. By doing history, students investigate a topic and create a project on a topic, preferably local history. It all started at Case Western Reserve University. The concept was to get students involved and to change the way history was taught and, more importantly, learned.

Its original name was Cleveland History Day. The event was started by Dr. David Van Tassel. During the 1970s, Van Tassel saw history education as becoming too textbook driven and reliant upon staid methods of instruction. What began with only a few hundred students in 1974 boomed in the 1980s to over 150,000, and by the late 1990s its participation exceeded over 500,000. Last year over 700,000 students participated in National History Day (NHD) competitions all across the country.

So what does NHD do? According to its website, NHD:

…helps students develop the following attributes that are critical for future success:

* critical thinking and problem-solving skills
* research and reading skills
* oral and written communication and presentation skills
* self-esteem and confidence
* a sense of responsibility for and involvement in the democratic process

There has been some research, but not a lot, on NHD and its effects. As a teacher who has his students do NHD (In Illinois we call it history fair), it does do many of the things it professes over time. The key is over time. Students who participate in NHD don’t just magically become better students. If a student participates in NHD over the course of several years, the difference is markedly significant. Those participants become better readers, writers, and researchers. They also become better at making arguments, organizing information, and managing time in addition to the skills listed above.

I think the biggest effect I have seen is the effect it has on participants who go to college. For former NHD participants, college is a breeze. The skills taught by NHD crossover to skills needed by not just freshman level students, but upper level students. The ability to research, craft a focused argument using evidence from multiple perspectives, finding, evaluating, and then using information from primary sources are all keys to academic success in college and this is what NHD does.

For 16 years, my students have been participating in a local history fair as part of NHD. But you know the number one reason why my students do it? ….. It’s fun for them! They get to be in charge of their learning! They pick a topic they are interested in and they learn historical knowledge, how to analyze how the topic fits in with the time period and today, and they get to make a project of their choosing – an exhibit, media project, research paper, or performance. And finally, they get to show off what they have learned.

NHD and history fair have opened up a world I could not have imagined for my students. As a club we take field trips to local historical sites, and go down to Springfield for two days in May for the state history fair. All the while learning about history. Some students have even gotten to interview and meet some of their heroes. A few years ago, two students did an exhibit and website about The Axis for Justice, an organization started by Illinois native and Rage Against the Machine guitarist, Tom Morello. The two boys who did the projects got to interview Tom and ran an Axis for Justice booth at one of his concerts.

As this year’s fair slowly approaches, I am getting excited to see not only the projects my students produce, but what students at other schools produce. My students will spend lots of time each year checking out not only what other students learned, but also how they learned it and how they created their projects.

But in the end, NHD and history fair has been part of a shift in how history is taught and learned in this country. No longer is the subject bound to a textbook. It has gone from a passive to an active learning environment. The key has been the Internet. The Internet has opened up a world of sources, primary sources at that. Teachers, including myself, now scour the Internet looking for the latest database or primary source material to use in the classroom. Why? Primary sources provided a unique point of view to an event. In fact, one event can have several points of views and those sources detail history from a variety of angles.

Documentary film maker Ken Burns said of NHD

“I wish I had been able to participate in National History Day when I was in school. What a great way to get kids excited about history, research and the mechanics of composing a story. Students today are so sophisticated about their work. I might just have to snag a few of these young documentary experts for my next production!”

Every year, I wish I could have participated when I was a kid. Who am I kidding? I wish I could participate now.

For more information
Go to NHD’s Website
In Illinois, go the Student Historian Program



  1. Ahh, now I get it! You’re off for T-Day, which allows you time for all these posts… Just a quick note to say thanks. I enjoyed all of them, especially this one on NHD. As a former history major myself, I’m heartened to learn that your students are learning how yesterday affects today, in addition to the many life-long skills you outlined. Wonderful project! Kudos to you for having the energy and commitment to involve your students in it.


  2. Thanks for this post- a question my daughter is creating an exhibit and as part of that she wants to create an interactive experience incorporating an iPad into her board- her idea was to house the 3 minute interview and interactive time line on a WordPress website (also we were thinking of putting her resources their) – the reason to house this
    On a wp website / blog is so that these items are easily accessed by viewers- but can we use the blogsite as part of a board or would that break some kind of rule since they have a website category.

  3. I would recommend it as a source. However, I would not recommend you use it as part of the linked project. As a judge of media projects, I do not like viewing material not written by the student(s). The iPad, though, and interview is a very cool touch!

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