Plug-and-Play Instruction Modules

By Cynthia Bachhuber

Those of us who teach with primary sources may feel like we operate in a very specialized arena. Our class sessions seem necessarily unique to each group with little that transfers from one to another. The class on mid-20th century Chicana activism simply can’t use the materials and lesson plan developed for the class on economic history in the early American colonies…except maybe it can. Developing universal class material is well worth the effort. The work that goes into creating one really good lesson plan or worksheet pays dividends when you can effectively teach many classes with little custom prep for each.

Students gather around a book during a class session at the Wisconsin historical Society

While the collection materials used in these classes will differ greatly, the skills needed to find, understand, and integrate their information with other research remain quite similar. And ultimately, while I love marveling at our collections and sharing them with students, my goals (underpinned by the Guidelines for Primary Sources Literacy) address fairly universal needs:

  • Logistics of using archives/special collections
  • Comprehension of primary source materials

Over the past year or so, I developed a handful of short lesson plans or modules that are ready to plug and play. The topics of the modules bubbled up organically based on instruction sessions I had on my calendar and realized would be good candidates for reusable activities. These modules have worked well with high school through undergraduate students, though one needs to adjust for different audiences and the level of understanding they bring in with them. The modules created so far address:

  • What are primary sources? What are archives? 
  • Finding primary sources from a footnote
  • Guided intro into using documents like a historian
  • Finding aids and how to use them
  • Intro to visual literacy

To be clear, I did not create anything in a vacuum. I used resources already available: the old TPS Resource Bank, Past or Portal, Using Primary Sources, and other readings have helped me enormously as a teacher. The modules listed above came out of the ideas in these readings mixed with my institution’s collections and the particular instruction that I do.

Here, I will further discuss a module that teaches students techniques for using footnotes in secondary sources to find the primary source cited. Faculty I work with often want their students to use this method of research, and most undergraduates I see lack the necessary skills.  By spending time giving students practice in making the connections between secondary and primary sources, I better equip them to effectively use the archival collections and other primary source material that I love to crow about.

Module: Tracing Footnotes

I want to guide students through the process of finding a footnote: from understanding what kind of source is cited and where to search for that source, to ultimately accessing the item themselves. Naturally, I also want them to search successfully, so I use Selma of the North by Patrick D. Jones, a book that cites our collections extensively, and so works very well for this exercise. Selma describes civil rights activity in nearby Milwaukee, fitting well into both local and Civil Rights Movement histories –  strong parts of our collection. Many classes I see will at least touch on these topics, and even if they don’t the subject has enough interest to catch attention.

Materials set out for a class visit to the Wisconsin Historical Society

Depending on the background of the students, I sometimes start the instruction sessions with an introduction to primary sources and/or archives, and other times skip that part. I often begin the module proper with a regular circulating book sitting at each student’s seat. I choose books tied to the subject of their course and that have a good notes section or bibliography in them. I ask students to pick up the book and flip through it. I remark that they are all probably familiar with this technology – they’ve had loads of experience and understand how it works. I ask them to find the bibliography section and explain to me what it is. After a few responses, I ask how they could use this information for research on topics discussed in the book. Much of the time, students haven’t considered using citations to find sources, or they thought it was cheating. I establish that tracing citations is, in fact, a really valuable skill, and then set up the students to practice it.

I hand out photocopies of two pages of notes from Selma of the North. The students form pairs and begin to look at certain notes in the packet. They put brackets around secondary sources, underline primary sources, and highlight archival sources. Additionally, I ask them to  determine the kind of material cited (book, newspaper, website, etc). After roughly 7 minutes, I gather the class back together and we discuss their findings. I ask questions about how they made their determinations and we pick apart citations to better understand the information they contain.

Much of the time, students haven’t considered using citations to find sources, or they thought it was cheating. I establish that tracing citations is, in fact, a really valuable skill, and then set up the students to practice it.

Then, I ask them to track down these sources, all of which are in the library catalog. I assign one source per pair and ask them to figure out how to access that item. I choose a book, a government report, a newspaper article, and an item in an archival collection as the sources to search. The pairs work together and I circulate around the room to answer questions and provide hints. They find some sources easily, while others tend to pose more problems. Throughout this work time I reassure students that experimenting and reflecting on the process is more important than racing to be the first group done. Each group then reports to the class about their experience. Some groups find their item, others don’t. Again, I emphasize process and use this as a time to remind students that we expect them to have questions.

This module lasts about 20-25 minutes and creates a solid bridge from library research that students may be more familiar with, to a new skill and different kinds of resources. It serves to both introduce students to the process of mining primary sources from contemporary publications and prime them for working more deeply with those sources. I often move from this module into working with archival collections – either the one cited in Selma or others that are on-topic for the class. In this way, when planning a class that includes the footnote tracing module, nearly half of class time is already prepped and the second half can be customized to the individual class needs.


A student uses a magnifying glass to read materials at the Wisconsin Historical Society

Having these modules ready to go allows my conversations with faculty to run quite smoothly. After learning about their class and their goals, I can offer a menu of hands-on learning activities that address at least one of their objectives. Of course, we may not do any of these modules and I create something from scratch, but even in those cases I find having talked through examples of what we can do helps both of us think more creatively about how to use students’ time in the archives as effectively as possible.

As I mentioned above, I developed these modules based on the instruction needs of classes already on my calendar. More specifically, I created several of the modules while developing a course in which I served as the embedded archivist. With as much time and energy as I was putting into the class, it only made sense to create re-usable activities. 

Finally, I’d like to address assessment briefly. During my embedded archivist experience, I had access to all the material that students created, allowing me to do formative assessment over the course of a semester. Although I have not developed a comprehensive assessment program, the modules include built-in assessment activities such as identifying types of sources and successfully tracing a footnote. I also follow up with instructors to get a sense of their takeaways from class sessions and make adjustments based on that. My hope is that these small activities and assessment moments lay the foundation for faculty to bring the learning done during a library session more fully into their assessment plans.

To conclude, I find creating reusable, skill-based lesson plans or modules very worthwhile. While the effort takes a significant amount of time initially, having modules ready cuts down on prep time for individual classes. Additionally, even if I don’t use any premade modules for a class, they can help guide my discussion with the instructor and clarify what will and won’t serve the class goals. In all, reusable modules are one way I can offer hands-on, sustainable, high quality instruction.

Have any thoughts about this piece? Share them in a forum thread.

Cynthia Bachhuber is the North American History Librarian at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin.

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