Paperless Possibilities for Deep Historical Research

When guiding students through a long term research project over the course of many months it is imperative that the teacher can:
  • assist with finding informative and reliable sources
  • help with proper citations
  • track student progress
  • give tons and tons and tons of feedback
  • provide encouragement when students get discouraged
But then what? Once the project is done, how will the world know what a monumental achievement your students have accomplished?  Going paperless helps them carry it out and then share it with the world.

My high school sophomore classes recently wrapped up a 3 month research project on the causes of the American Civil War.  The entire project was paperless.  Here's how we did it:

Step 1: Introducing the Project

Students learned that they would be researching an event, chosen from a list of options, and would be creating a scrapbook of primary sources.  The scrapbook would start with an introductory essay and would tell the story of the event and how it increased the tension between the North and South leading up to the Civil War.  They chose their small groups and topics and then started reading.

Keeping It Paperless

Students scanned a QR code posted in the classroom to get to a page on our class website where they could find everything they needed to carry out the project: list of topics, information on due dates, citation guide, sample projects, and even video tutorials.

Step 2: Due Dates and Drafts

Research Questions: About two weeks later they had to have a detailed enough understanding of their topic to develop a thesis question and several guiding questions that their project would answer.  They submitted this to me and I gave them feedback on how to make questions more or less specific, what to add or remove, and what wording to use.
Project Outline:  Three weeks passed and students had been reading and researching furiously outside of class.  They put together an outline that mentioned the people, places, events, and resources they intended to include in their project. Once again, I reviewed their work and gave feedback.  Most of the comments were helping them decide when to cut unnecessary information or add missed information.
Sources and Captions: The last rough draft due date was about three weeks after the outline.  This time they had to provide images of the sources they planned to include in the scrapbook with full citations and brief captions that explained each source's relevance to their topic.  A lot of my feedback in this case was help with citation formatting and caption content that really connected to their thesis.

Keeping It Paperless

Students put together their work in a Google Doc and added me as an editor.  I was able to use the comment feature to give them feedback on particular questions or on their work overall without just editing it for them. Normally students submit all their written work on a public blog for my class, but this was a different type of assignment.  It was a step along the way and wasn't meant to be a final product.  Rough drafts shouldn't be on blogs.  Google Docs enabled the interaction students needed with their teacher without making their mistakes public.

Step 3: Final Project

It was time to turn in the final project complete with introductory essay, scrapbook, and bibliography.

Keeping It Paperless

Students could create their digital scrapbook using any tool they wanted, as long as it met the requirements.  Check out the samples below.  They used Glogster, Prezi, Weebly, PowToon, and Google Drive.  Click the images below if you are interested in seeing some sample student work.
Click the image to see an example of a Glogster project.
Click the image to see an example of a Prezi project.
Click the image to see an example of a Weebly project.
Click the image to see an example of a PowToon project.
Click the image to see an example of a Google Drive project.

Step 4: Share

Instead of stopping here and teaching my students a unit on the causes of the Civil War so they could learn about the events they didn't research, I asked students to look through one another's work and create a timeline of the causes of war.  For each event their timelines included name and date of the event, a representative image from their classmate's project, and a brief explanation of the event's significance.

Keeping It Paperless

We used an app that's available on iPad or on a web browser called Timeline by ReadWriteThink.  The interactive app allows students to create free accounts, save their work and go back later, and email the final product to me and themselves in the form of a .pdf document.  Here are some examples of their work:

Step 5: Publish

OK, so they researched, analyzed, created, shared, and learned... but now what? How could they prove that they understood the reason behind the process? How could they prove that they had an appreciation for how they learned something because of their own hard work, rather than because a teacher had delivered the content to them?

Keeping It Paperless

As mentioned briefly in Step 2, all student work for my class is typically submitted through a public blog.  My students' blogs have therefore become a running record of everything they've learned in history class this year.  So, of course, they needed to add this to their record.

  • Paul discussed how the key to learning in this case was collaboration with classmates.
  • Leto did a nice job reflecting on her changing attitude toward history throughout the project.
  • Christina explained how this project served as a more intense learning experience than typical classroom units.
This blog post accomplished 2 goals: they had an opportunity to reflect on what they'd learned from doing long-term deep research, and they could record what they learned so they world could see and they could look back anytime to remind themselves.

In the end... 

I was thrilled that students were able to access all of their work throughout the process from anywhere because of the paperless elements.  No one lost any research note cards, no one missed an opportunity to ask me for clarification on my feedback, and I was able to monitor their work every step of the way... even between due dates.  Of course, the best part was that students learned from the process and from one another.  They are slowly, over the course of this school year, realizing that they are the most valuable resources for one another in the room.  I'm fading into the background and, more and more, they are taking center stage.


  1. AWESOME! HAve you tried using gClassFolders (add-on in drive) to manage workflow. It is working pretty well for me.


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