“This place is great! I want to go to Towson University for college now!”

That was the excited reaction given by a Baltimore City middle school student who was walking from TU’s Albert S. Cook Library to a campus dining hall for lunch in November 2018. The student and 35 of his classmates had come to Towson University for our first ever History Day Research Day, a program in which we partnered with Maryland Humanities and Baltimore City Public Schools to provide middle school students with focused research training. Three of our librarians taught sessions on finding and reading primary and secondary sources in order to help prepare the students to present about a historical event for the annual History Day competition.

Middle school students from City Springs Middle School learn about primary and secondary sources as part of TU’s Cook Library History Day Research Day.

That student’s excitement for Towson University made me proud of the educational opportunities we had provided that day, but it also raised a number of questions too. Specifically, what had the students learned and how could we do even better the next time we hosted a History Day Research Day?

Capturing the impact of partnerships

Capturing the impact of partnerships and evaluating their effectiveness are some of the most challenging aspects of community engagement work. At times, they have seemed overwhelming to me because I was fearful that I would fail to capture some key component of the work that would be vital to enabling the program to continue. I knew I needed to evaluate History Day Research Day somehow, but what was the best way?

TU librarian teaching City Springs Middle School students about primary resources as part of History Day Research Day.

I decided to fall back on the experiences I have evaluating the library instruction I provide to TU students and I ultimately settled on a short paper-based survey.

To create the survey, I first had to figure out what I wanted to know. I determined that I needed data demonstrating the impact that the program had and what should be changed. I decided to adapt the minute-paper format that I had used to evaluate my teaching. This is a short survey, given at the end of a class, in which students briefly respond with what they learned and what might still be confusing.

I ultimately decided to ask three questions:

  1. How helpful will today’s session be as you work on your History Day project? (This is a Likert scale with one being not at all helpful to 5 being extremely helpful)
  2. What is one thing you learned today? (This is an open-ended question)
  3. What is one thing that is still confusing? (This is an open-ended question)

I felt these three questions made the survey short enough that it wouldn’t be burdensome on middle school students, but the data would still be useful. For example, if I wanted to quickly communicate what the impact of History Day Research Day was, I could give the average response to the first question. If I wanted to know what we did well and should continue to do in the future, I could look at the responses to the second question. Also, if I wanted to see what lacked clarity and what could be improved upon for next time, I could look to question three responses.

TU librarians assist Baltimore City middle school students with research as part of History Day Research Day.

We first deployed these surveys at the end of the first Research Day in 2018 and that helped us to tweak the program when we offered it again in 2019. For example, based on student feedback, we added extra time for finding primary sources to our lesson plan.

In early December, 30 students from City Springs Middle School came to TU for our second History Day Research Day. At a teacher’s request, I swapped out a session about reading primary sources for one about locating and interviewing experts. I spent the bulk of the session giving students the opportunity to locate scholars who had taught or published on their History Day research topics. When I looked at the evaluations for the second Research Day, I saw that many students said they learned about interviews for the first time in my session and they found that to be valuable. This is wonderful, but it made me realize that I need to give my interview session more context the next time I teach it. Students need to know why interviews matter before they explore how to conduct them.

Ultimately, I will probably never be able to completely capture the impact that History Day Research Day has on the students who participate, but I do feel like I have some useful information to move the program forward. Because of the short survey I created, I am able to demonstrate that the program is valuable and uncover how I can make it even better each year. So now I can say with confidence that not only is Towson University great, but so is History Day Research Day.