20 April 2021 Blogs, Academic, Community College, K-12, Faculty, Librarian

The Pros and Cons of Teaching with Primary Sources

Study Reveals the Challenges of Using Primary Sources at the Undergraduate Level – and Why It’s Worth the Effort

In collaboration with Ithaka S+R, ProQuest recently had the opportunity to survey faculty at a variety of colleges and universities to learn how faculty are using primary sources for teaching and learning with undergraduate students.

Our findings were fascinating and multifaceted.

From the challenges of sourcing credible, reliable materials and developing student acumen, to such advantages as improved engagement and critical thinking skills, educators were candid about why using primary sources in the classroom is essential – and where they could use more help.

The benefits of teaching with primary sources 

Most of the faculty we interviewed were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the advantages undergraduate students gained from experience with primary sources.

Faculty who incorporate primary source materials in their teaching provided abundant examples of how doing so helps students develop skills and gain experience that not only supports learning success in class but also beyond. Practice with primary sources early in a student’s academic career prepares them to meet expectations as they advance to upper level studies, as well as prepares them for life after graduation, both personally and professionally.

The benefits and positive learning outcomes generally fell within 6 categories:

    1. Critical Thinking: Being able to draw independent conclusions based on evidence
    2. Information Literacy: Knowing how to evaluate resources for credibility
    3. Understanding Context: Awareness of the interconnection of events from the past, present and future
    4. Taking Action: Benefits for students that extend beyond the classroom
    5. Research Process and Acumen: Experience with primary sources can support future academic success
    6. Student Engagement: Primary source materials “help spark students’ passion” and “help make history interesting”

The challenges of teaching with primary sources

One of the most-repeated obstacles for teaching with primary sources was simply uncertainty about how to do so. We heard educators mention again and again their frustration with the lack of opportunity to collaborate with colleagues on ways to effectively incorporate these materials into the classroom.

This is one of the many ways our report can be a valuable resource for faculty and librarians. Educators who are strong proponents of using primary sources in teaching undergraduate students gave us inspiring, concrete examples of how they involve content like newspapers, archival documents, photographs and other artifacts into their course design.

Another critical theme that emerged in our interviews was the demand for digital resources to support remote teaching and learning. While the global coronavirus outbreak and subsequent shift to online-only teaching and learning unfolded after our faculty interviews concluded, the on-going challenges of adapting to the digital classroom weighted these issues with a deeper urgency during our analysis.

We also learned about how curricula is evolving to prioritize more diversity, social justice and human rights studies – with courses in these topics increasingly being required at many colleges and universities. As we heard in several of our faculty interviews, primary source materials are uniquely suited for research and learning in these areas; and that finding resources to support studies in these areas is often difficult.

In response to these concerns, ProQuest was able to share our perspective as content providers about how we can work together in providing vetted, reliable materials to better support diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, as well as insights and information on emerging topics where content might be scarce.