Our Findings
Our Findings

Between 2011 and 2013, Students and Faculty in the Archives (SAFA), the project that led to TeachArchives.org, brought 18 faculty and over 1,100 undergraduate students to Brooklyn Historical Society to conduct archival research. By several important measures the project was a clear success.

After visiting the archives, participating students were more engaged with and excited about their coursework, showed improvement in key academic skills, and achieved better course outcomes than their peers. Faculty participants learned newly-established best practices for archives-based teaching and became more thoughtful and effective instructors.


The SAFA project was born out of the idea that interactions with primary sources are inherently beneficial to students. But it quickly became clear that simply sitting down with an original document in a reading room does not automatically improve student learning – better pedagogical design does.

With this is mind, SAFA faculty and staff continuously designed, tweaked, and redesigned courses. Project staff crafted a widely applicable teaching philosophy and created a rigorous faculty professional development program. Faculty learned to plan and facilitate effective in-archives exercises in order to better model document analysis skills for students.1 Our findings therefore reflect both faculty and student growth.


Independent evaluators from Education Development Center, Inc. (EDC) collected evidence of student engagement, student performance, student skills, student retention,2 and faculty learning. Methods of gathering qualitative and quantitative data included the following:

Pre-visit/post-visit assessment
At the beginning and end of each term, students took an online assessment in which they analyzed a primary source document (such as Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph “Migrant Mother”) along with brief contextual information. The assessment gauged whether participating students showed improved document analysis skills after visiting the archives. Students also reported on their experience in the archives.3
Classroom/in-archives observation
For most of the 18 participating instructors, evaluators observed at least 1 visit to BHS and 1 classroom session back on campus.
Evaluators interviewed selected students and faculty from all campuses.
Evaluators periodically solicited written reflections from all faculty over the grant period. They also examined class blogs produced by each participating course.
Campus assessment data
Evaluators obtained anonymized grade and enrollment data from each campus’ Institutional Data office. Evaluators compared student academic performance in SAFA courses and in comparison courses based on 4 metrics: the percentage of students completing the course, the percentage receiving a passing grade, the percentage receiving a grade B or better, and the percentage re-enrolling in college the following academic year.4

Student Engagement

Virtually all students found their study of archival documents engaging — often much more so than their typical academic work.

To assess engagement, evaluators asked students about their levels of interest and satisfaction via pre- and post-visit assessments. 98% of students (n=199) said their work in the archives was unique and rewarding. They described the experience as “a glimpse into the past” and “a chance to touch history.”

Student involvement and interest was also gauged by interviews, class observations, and analysis of class blogs. Evaluators highlighted 3 important ways in which these high levels of student engagement can be attributed to experiences in the archives. Students felt that:

  • hands-on access to archival materials was a revelatory experience.
  • working in small groups in the archives created a spirit of collaboration and camaraderie.
  • intensive interactions with primary sources gave the course content new relevance.

Almost none of the participating students had ever been in an archives before. They were surprised and excited to learn that institutions like BHS make original documents available to the public, and that they, as undergraduate students, were able to closely interact with them. They also appreciated that staff members were available to help them use and understand the documents.

“Visiting BHS was a different experience for me. I never did hands-on research before. I actually looked and touched documents from centuries ago. When I usually do research it’s from the Internet, textbook or a book.” — second-year student at City Tech

“This experience was sort of unreal. It was amazing to see documents from so long ago and tie it together with what I’ve been learning all semester … Not many people can say that they’ve touched a part of history, but I can.” — first-year student at SFC

The project opened students’ eyes to a range of cultural institutions that could benefit their academic and professional careers.

In SAFA courses, and in archives visits, students often worked together in small groups. By and large, students found collaborating with their peers in the archives to be a powerful and rewarding experience. An architecture student remarked:

“We actually did critique each other’s work … we would incorporate other groups’ work [into ours]. We’d see how they wrote their paper and how they found out their information compared to ours and tell them what they could do better and [learn] what we could do better.”

As seasoned educators, participating faculty and staff were amazed by the level of student engagement. They observed that students would remain in the archives even after class was dismissed – often until they were asked to leave to make way for the next class. Several instructors reported fewer absences overall in their SAFA courses, especially on days they would visit the archives.

“Compared to other sections of the same course, I found that the class that participated in SAFA … had more focused projects and … the students were more interested in hearing about the work of their peers.” — City Tech professor

Finally, students remarked that hands-on engagement with primary sources imbued new meaning and relevance into the course. They found it personally meaningful, and observed that it helped them better understand how knowledge was created. In an interview, a student remarked:

“I thought this was just a regular history class when I started. I would read the background material the night before the visit, and think, ‘Okay – but why do I need to know this?’ And then we’d go to BHS the next day and really have something to work with. We’d have to really analyze it, because we have substantial evidence to contend with. We weren’t just in mechanic mode, just reading stuff because, you know, knowledge is good. We’re understanding this knowledge.”

Student Academic Performance

SAFA courses were more demanding and difficult than comparable first-year courses because they included extensive reading and research, encounters with challenging primary sources, and substantial independent writing assignments.

Because of the difficulty of these tasks, evaluators were prepared to find that students in SAFA courses were dropping out in greater numbers or earning lower course grades than students in comparable sections or courses.

This was not the case. Across all campuses, students in SAFA courses achieved passing rates and earned grades that were as just as high, if not higher, than their peers in non-SAFA courses.

At 1 of the 3 campuses, St. Francis College, students in SAFA courses demonstrated substantially better academic outcomes than their peers on 3 separate measures: higher course grades (as measured by the percentage of course grades of B or better), higher rates of course completion, and higher course passing rates.

Across all 3 campuses, evaluators observed higher course grades and passing rates in courses where instructors employed the set of best-practices for archives-based teaching described in this site’s teaching philosophy, in other articles, and in “Faculty Learning” below.

Student Document Analysis Skills

Early on in the project, SAFA staff recognized that students initially lacked 2 foundational document analysis skills: observation and summarization. During archives visits, on student blog posts, and in the pre- and post-visit assessment, students showed improvement in their ability to observe and summarize. At the end of their SAFA semester, students were more likely to a) notice details, and b) use the details to support their ideas.

Perhaps even more encouragingly, evaluators also found evidence that students moved away from unquestioningly accepting the contents of a document. After their SAFA experience, students adopted a more critical approach to primary source analysis.

Students themselves reflected that observing and summarizing secondary sources pushed them to read and study in new ways – to slow down, to notice more, and to make more meaningful connections with the past.

“We looked again and again at the same documents. Actually, it made me look at things better – identify things better. This is going to sound really funny, but you know those games where it’s like 2 pictures of the same thing but some things are different? It actually helped me notice thing like that.”

Faculty Learning

Some SAFA faculty entered the project as seasoned researchers; others had previously spent little or no time in an archives. A few had brought students to the archives before; most had not.

SAFA faculty participated in extensive professional development that allowed them to reexamine and refine some of the basic elements of their pedagogical design and practice.

By the second year of the project, SAFA staff established best practices for teaching in the archives. These include:

  1. defining and articulate learning objectives that align visit goals with course goals
  2. selecting a small number of appropriate documents for students to examine
  3. providing necessary context to students before, during, or after an archives visit
  4. creating tailored, specific prompts to guide students
  5. designing small group activities that factor in important logistical concerns
  6. providing thoughtful facilitation and a challenging wrap up during archives visits
  7. working collaboratively with project partners to tweak the variables above, based on interim results

Evaluators observed that roughly two thirds of SAFA faculty (12 of 18) showed improvement in 2 or more of these best practices – most often numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 above.

Faculty appreciated that SAFA provided unprecedented access to rich materials, an intellectual community, the time to reflect on pedagogy and revise curricula, and the help of project staff who were experts in archives-based teaching.

“We engaged in [collaboration] at every level – with BHS staff, and with other faculty participating in SAFA – it was transformative.” — City Tech professor

“SAFA helped me figure out what my goals as a history professor are, and how to use innovative teaching techniques to achieve them in the classroom.” — SFC professor

“I didn’t have much experience working with primary [documents]. Now I enjoy working with them and it is much easier to come up with ideas or exercises … I now know the kinds of questions to ask of these [documents].” — SFC professor


The SAFA project found great success because participating faculty and archives staff tweaked and refined pedagogy and curricula over a sustained period of time, which encouraged students to persist with new and challenging coursework. We hope that the success of the SAFA project will prompt other institutions to pursue similar programs, and that the resources available on this site can help students and faculty around the world experience meaningful interactions in the archives.


1) Increasing student retention and improving their academic outcomes were secondary goals. The project focused instead on the things it could best improve: the quality of students’ interaction with archival materials, and instructors’ ability to facilitate that interaction.

2) Factors that influence college retention include academic performance, attitudes and satisfaction, academic engagement, and social and family support. EDC analyzed re-enrollment rates of participating students 1 year after their SAFA course, and compared them to rates for first-year students in similar courses. Overall, re-enrollment was slightly higher at 1 of the 3 campuses. It is probably not reasonable to expect a single course to have measurable impact on retention. But the project’s documented impact on key mediating factors – academic performance, attitudes and satisfaction, and academic engagement – suggest that it is contributing in positive ways to retention. For details see the Final Evaluation Report for the project grant.

3) Though completion rates for this task were not high, when combined, the student responses gave an independent measure of students’ developing skills.

4) Wherever possible, evaluators compared the outcomes of students in SAFA course sections to those of students in the same courses either a) taught by the same professor without visiting the BHS archives, or b) taught by another professor of a similar rank.

To cite this page:
Alice Anderson, Julie Golia, Robin M. Katz, and Bill Tally, “Our Findings,” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/articles/our-findings/.


Alice Anderson
Evaluator and Research Associate
Educational Development Center, Inc.
view bio + contact info >
Julie Golia
Historian / Founder and Editor, TeachArchives.org
Brooklyn Historical Society
view bio + contact info >
Robin M. Katz
Archivist / Founder and Editor, TeachArchives.org
Brooklyn Historical Society
view bio + contact info >
Bill Tally
Senior Researcher and Designer
Educational Development Center, Inc.
view bio + contact info >