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Project-Based Learning with Primary Sources

By Kathleen Ferenz

Project-based learning engages students in meaningful tasks or challenges that connect academic content to real-world applications. Primary sources—original documents and objects which were created at the time under study—lend themselves perfectly to project-based learning’s focus on authentic activities. They provide insight into the ways in which people throughout history have applied their intellect and efforts to actual problems and events.

Project-based learning helps both students and teachers answer the enduring question of all learners: so what? Students are responsible for managing their time, organizing their academic work and collaborating. Teachers guide rather than dictate students’ processes of creating products or performances to build knowledge and skills, demonstrate learning and communicate the results.

What is project-based learning?

There are several variations on project-based learning, also called project learning. Each variation has a slightly different approach to instructional strategy and implementation. Such diversity in interpretation and terminology can be confusing, especially when paired with the common misconception that project-based learning is just “doing projects” in the classroom. So what are the essential characteristics of project-based learning?

Project-based learning has an organizing task or product that coordinates and directs learning, which typically:

  • focuses on authentic learning experiences;
  • demands in-depth inquiry;
  • fosters interdisciplinary thinking;
  • benefits from collaboration; and
  • includes ongoing assessment.

Why use primary sources to support project-based learning?

Supporting project-based learning with primary sources as well as secondary sources, such as textbooks, encourages students to engage in in-depth inquiry and analysis. Primary sources can provide students with direct access to the record of artistic, social, scientific, and political thought and achievement produced by people living in the specific time period under study, allowing students to develop and apply interdisciplinary thinking and skills. Since primary sources are often incomplete and have little context, students may encounter contradictions when comparing multiple sources that represent differing points of view, and discover the past to be as complex as the present.

To better understand how primary sources can support project-based learning, let’s consider each essential characteristic of this instructional approach, in greater detail, illustrated by a case study using digitized primary sources from the Library of Congress.



To be meaningful and worthy of extended study, a project must present students with a task or challenge with real world relevance. Primary sources provide students with unique opportunities to interpret meaning for themselves and to relate what they are required to learn in school to their own lives and the world.

Case Study

A high school U.S. history teacher is beginning a new unit of study on the rise of American industry during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and how political issues reflected resulting social and economic changes. She really wants to capture and sustain students’ interest, especially among those who complain that studying history is “boring” and “a waste of time” because it has “nothing to do with my life.”

The teacher starts the unit by asking groups of students to investigate a set of primary sources for clues to a problem from our nation’s past. For this activity, she has selected five photographs from the Library of Congress’s National Child Labor Committee Collection by the investigative photographer Lewis Hine, who documented working conditions of children in America for the National Child Labor Committee between 1908 and 1924. Using the Primary Source Analysis Tool for Students and Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Photographs and Prints, the teacher leads the class in analyzing one photograph to model the activity.

Students then analyze the remaining photographs in groups before discussing their findings as a class guided by their teacher. What challenges do students think these photographs document? What evidence supports their hypotheses, i.e., how do they know? What questions do students want to investigate further? The teacher prompts the class to expand their thinking beyond child labor.

Next, the teacher distributes the photographs’ bibliographic records, and this additional information prompts students to ask new questions about the work of Hine and the National Child Labor Committee. The class reads assigned secondary sources, including the Library of Congress’s National Child Labor Committee Background and Scope for historical context. Investigating primary sources serves as a springboard for students to dive deep into the challenges relating to the rise of American industrialization.

The class generates a list of political, social, economic, and environmental challenges related to the rise of American industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Then the teacher prompts them to think about and list challenges that they believe are related to the emergence of today’s global economy. She posts both lists of past and current challenges for easy reference in the coming weeks.

The teacher now poses the unit’s two guiding questions to students, which will be posted in the classroom throughout the project: How did citizens help solve challenges relating to the rise of American industrialization? How might we apply their strategies to meet challenges posed by globalization?


In-depth inquiry

Inquiry plays a critical role in project-based learning because it encourages students to identify which aspects of the overall topic they would like to investigate further. Students actively process information through investigative activities that promote questioning, analysis and synthesis of complex information and evaluation as they create and share their learning outcomes.

Case Study

Analyzing Hine’s photographs of child labor provided students with an entry point for the unit’s theme: the rise of American industry and its political, social, economic, and environmental implications. Through this activity, the teacher assessed students’ prior knowledge and students began generating related research topics based on their own interests.

The teacher prepares students for in-depth inquiry by reviewing the history of American industrialization using both primary and secondary sources. When students have gained sufficient historical context and understand the expected learning outcomes of the unit, they identify relevant research questions tied to the unit’s first guiding question: How did citizens help solve challenges relating to the rise of American industrialization? For example, a student interested in social history may want to research, “How did Mary Harris Jones (a.k.a. Mother Jones) influence the national labor movement?” A science-focused student might investigate, “What impact did Thomas Edison’s inventions have on the lives of American industrial workers?” A student interested in journalism asks, “What role did Upton Sinclair’s investigative reporting play in establishing U.S. food safety regulations?”

Students individually investigate their topics using a variety of primary and secondary sources with their teacher’s guidance. For example, she directs the student researching Upton Sinclair to the historic newspaper database, Chronicling America, where he discovers a series of 1906 articles about Sinclair’s writing of The Jungle.

The teacher models how to interrogate primary sources, using such strategies as thinking like a historian (i.e., sourcing, contextualizing, close reading, using background knowledge, and corroborating). As students begin to synthesize information and draw hypotheses, she challenges them to support their initial conclusions with evidence from primary sources.


Interdisciplinary Thinking and Skills

In project-based learning, what students need to know can spill over into more than one domain of content. As students engage in authentic problem solving, opportunities arise for them to apply, practice and acquire interdisciplinary thinking and skills.

Case Study

While planning this unit, the teacher collaborated with a language arts teacher so that students would focus on the same historic period and have time to work on their projects in both classes. In their language arts class, students read literature from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and examine a variety of informational texts, such as letters, journal entries, newspaper articles, and reports written during that period.

Students’ projects must include a written component incorporating information gained from their readings. For example, the student researching Upton Sinclair plans to compare descriptions of Chicago’s meatpacking industry from The Jungle to writings by critics, including President Theodore Roosevelt, who claimed that Sinclair exaggerated or lied about working conditions. The student wants to write an imaginary conversation between Sinclair and Roosevelt based on these texts.


Often facilitated in the style of a workshop, project-based learning is active and collaborative with the teacher and students engaging in ongoing dialogue about individual or group projects. In this classroom, the teacher (lead-learner) guides the learning toward the goals and outcomes identified originally in the curriculum. Students, in turn, help guide one another with structure and purpose to inform their learning.

Case Study

Throughout the unit, the teacher has assigned students to work in groups at key intervals, as a way to provide one another with feedback and support on their individual projects. She follows some common strategies to create a positive collaborative learning environment by:

  • setting guidelines for group work and interaction;
  • modeling for students how to work together;
  • shifting learning responsibility to the students; and,
  • creating diverse-ability working groups.


For one collaborative activity, the teacher asks student groups to host poster sessions showing their research to date. Each student presents key ideas, along with supporting evidence from primary sources, to group members. In turn, they challenge their peers’ findings and offer suggestions for additional evidence and investigative strategies that would strengthen their conclusions.

Later, each group will compile individual members’ research findings on how citizens helped solve challenges relating to the rise of American industrialization. Each group will develop a product or performance to highlight successful strategies from the late 19th and early 20th centuries with supporting evidence from primary sources.

As the culminating activity, the teacher asks her students to design a class project in response to the unit’s second guiding question: How might we apply these citizens’ strategies to meet challenges posed by today’s emerging global economy?

Students research the effects of globalization using primary sources created in the last several years, such as newspaper and magazine articles, news footage, blogs, or documentaries, to learn about some of the effects of the global economy. They use this greater understanding to revise the list of related problems that they created at the beginning of the lesson.

Students must work together to identify a specific challenge, select the most appropriate strategies to meet it and explain how they will adapt them using 21st century technologies. For example, social networks such as Facebook are ideal platforms for organizing large groups of people quickly. Imagine if Mother Jones had been able to harness the power of this technology for her activism!

Students return to their original list of current challenges related to globalization. They select the issue of greatest importance to them: global warming.

The class designs a plan (which may or may not be implemented) that promotes the development of local transportation alternatives in response to global warming. Students decide to focus on three major strategies: exposure (Hine, Sinclair), invention (Edison) and activism (Jones). To expose the problem, the plan calls for photographing roads without sidewalks or bike lanes, interviewing people who want local government to fund these improvements and posting this information to a website along with data about the global impact of auto emissions. The students' plan includes a recommendation that the city council sponsor a contest for designing a new system of biking and walking trails within local parks. Finally, the plan calls for citizens to organize and demonstrate in support of such measures to raise awareness and funds. The teacher guides students as they design this plan but allows them to decide which strategies to include and how.


Ongoing Assessment

The teacher’s role in project-based learning is to provide students with continuous feedback and guidance throughout the learning experience. Just as important, however, is ongoing self-reflection and assessment from peers. While not always possible, inviting observers from outside the classroom, particularly subject experts, to provide feedback and encouragement can also be a powerful learning experience for students.

Case Study

From the early planning stages of this project-based learning experience through its completion, the teacher has followed several assessment guidelines, specifically by:

  • clearly communicating the expected learning outcomes to students;
  • planning for multiple assessment points throughout the project (formative and summative);
  • using a variety of assessment techniques to gain the full picture of student learning in progress and its outcomes; and
  • building in time for ongoing feedback and revisions.

Throughout the unit, the teacher set up structures that enabled students to assume more responsibility for checking in with their group and with her. She established realistic project management deadlines and used project checklists, timelines, and, when possible, digital collaboration tools to make student learning more visible and easy to track. The teacher recognized that frequent checking for student understanding of the content under study is essential to project-based learning.


Through project-based learning, students can acquire a personalized understanding of new content based on their participation, inquiry and investigation of primary sources and other learning materials. They build and demonstrate new knowledge and skills through self-directed learning and active engagement with content.

Projects, by design, need to be worthy of the time required to complete them. Since projects can take a few days, weeks, or longer, planning is essential to success. Planning a project-based learning experience involves:

  • designing specific learning objectives and outcomes;
  • using primary sources often to support student interpretation and discovery;
  • providing students with ongoing and constant feedback;
  • helping students with time management;
  • using digital collaboration tools when appropriate;
  • allowing sufficient time for in-depth inquiry and project development; and
  • providing ample opportunities and encouragement for ongoing collaboration among students.

Kathleen Ferenz, a former middle and high school teacher, is an international consultant and college lecturer. She coordinates the Teaching with Primary Sources Mentors on behalf of the Library of Congress.