User Research Considerations

As a historian who teaches and writes I always wanted to be mindful of my audience, however, that was only the case because I was deliberately thinking about a relatively narrow audience: scholars and aspiring scholars also interested in my work. However, the work of public history precisely requires that we expand that audience and thus think of the needs, interests, and even input of people who we would normally not include as part of our audience. 

My project is a site where students, teachers and scholars can gain access to primary sources and other resources to study the constitutional history of the Gold Coast. The first challenge for me was to separate these groups to understand their different needs. As a teacher and scholar, I understand what I would want and need in a site of this nature, but I did not necessarily understand what were the needs of my students or other teachers . So the first task was to check my assumptions.

I was not able to interview a high school teacher, but I did speak with two students, one who is currently in high school and taking an AP history course. The second is a sophomore in college taking a History major. The most important finding from these interviews is that students have a very limited familiarity with primary sources and even less of an understanding of what is the purpose of studying them. Their exposure to primary sources mostly comes from excerpts that appear in textbooks and other teaching materials such as published collections of documents. These give students the impression of a “finished” and established historical narrative that they need to confirm rather than question. This encourages memorization of historical facts and narratives and not critical engagement with questions and sources. In other words, it does not teach or encourage historical thinking.  

A key problem for students is to be able to discern between different kinds of sources so they can be properly contextualized. For example, something that I see with my students that was confirmed by the students I interviewed, is that they have difficulty understanding that a document included in a published collection is still a primary source, even if the publication itself is considered a secondary source. The distinction between primary and secondary sources has always been more complex in practice than in theory, but understanding it, and being able to discern between different types of sources is the bedrock of historical thinking and the first step towards being able to contextualize, read and interpret any given source.

This finding could have convinced me to organize materials in my site in a way that imitated an archival collection so as to sharpen student’ searching skills. However, I now think this should be one option of different options. Given students’ propensity to think of history as a finished narrative I now think it is more important to adopt a problem-solving or mystery-solving methodology that introduces historiography as an active dialogue in which students can participate. The reason for this conclusion is that it is clear from my interviews that students, for the most part, do not see a distinction between learning history (as learning things that happened in the past), and historical thinking (learning how to produce, understand and draw meanings from what we know about the past). Even though current curricula includes document-based- questions (DBQ), these require a very limited level of contextualization and students are never asked to evaluate or criticize the source itself. Moreover, the questions that students are given are also presented out of their historiographical context. This reinforces that idea that “the right history” has already been written and that students’ readings of the sources have little to contribute. 

For these reasons, I think it would be useful to produce a site that is organized around a series of questions or “mysteries” that have been or continue to be, debated among historians. This, approach, however, does present a significant challenge in that students and teachers do have limited time to get through the wealth of material which is included in the AP curriculum. After all, this is why they resort to what is included in textbooks and short DBQs. It would be unrealistic to imagine that teachers and students could read two to three articles of secondary sources as an introduction to the questions before they could start digging into the documents for some answers. I think a viable solution would be to offer a series of “dialogues” that can synthesize the most relevant questions. Ideally, I think it would be interesting so create some animated videos or re-enactments that can present these discussions, but I am sure this would be time-consuming and expensive. It may be more viable to create a series of short audio-clips to present the questions. Students could listen to these as they read the written synthesis. The site could also include links to the bibliography that is being synthesized so that students know where these questions have appeared and how they have evolved over time. 

The second question for me, as a designer is to figure out what is the best way to present the primary sources. Here, I think students should be given options. There should be access to the full collection, this should be searchable using the main concepts introduced in the historiographical syntheses. But I also think it is valuable to have smaller collections of documents related to a specific question or mystery. The main reasons for this, are again the time restrictions for students and instructors. However, by presenting a smaller number of documents, I will be able to focus more on creating the resources, assignments, and exercises that can guide students through the process of contextualization and interpretation. 

Overall, the user-research forced me to reconsider the scope and design of my project. I started thinking of this site as a means for students to gain “access” to primary sources. However, having spoken to some students, I realized that access alone is not sufficient to make the site relevant and useful. I needed to expand my understanding of what makes a collection of sources accessible to different populations. In the case of many undergraduates and high school students, accessibility should include an introduction to historiographical thinking and resources and guidelines for contextualization and interpretation; all in digestible units that will enable them to join in the elucidation of “historical mysteries.”

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