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What is National History Day?

The Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest is an exciting way for students to study and learn about historical issues, ideas, people, and events. This yearlong educational program fosters academic achievement and intellectual growth. In addition to acquiring useful historical knowledge and perspective during the series of district, state, and national competitions, students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills that will help them manage and use information now and in the future.

The program begins in September, at the start of the school year. Curriculum and contest materials are distributed to History Day coordinators and teachers throughout the country.

In many states and districts, teachers are invited to workshops where they share ideas about how to most effectively address the year's theme as well as to receive bibliographies and a list of possible topics. Teachers then introduce the program to their students who, in turn, choose a topic and begin their research.

Virginia Participants in National History Day

Students are encouraged to choose any topic in local, national, or world history and investigate its historical significance and relationship to the theme by conducting extensive primary and secondary research. After analyzing and interpreting their information, students present their findings in papers, exhibits, performances, documentary, and website presentations that are evaluated by historians and educators.

National History Day has two divisions: the junior division (grades 6-8) and the senior division (grades 9-12). Some states also sponsor a History Day contest for students in grades 4 and 5. Students can enter one of the following nine categories: individual paper, individual or group exhibit (similar to a museum exhibit), individual or group performance (a dramatic portrayal of the topic), individual or group documentary (using slides, video, or a noninteractive computer program), and website. Groups can consist of two-to-five students.

District History Day contests are usually held in February or March. District winners then prepare for and compete at the state contests usually held in late April or early May. The top two finishers in each category at the state contest become eligible to advance to the national contest held in June at the University of Maryland at College Park.

Benefits for Students

All types of students participate in National History Day – students from urban and suburban settings; students from public, private, parochial, and home schools; students that are gifted, have learning disabilities, or are learning English as a second language.

Students grow academically and intellectually as they integrate the arts, economics, sciences, and other disciplines into a historical presentation. Researching for an entry enhances reading, comprehension, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills while fostering pride in each student's heritage and in our nation's history and place in the world.

Preparing for the competitions heightens written, visual, and performance presentation skills. The varied formats foster creativity and imagination in presentations.

By participating in the contests, students develop a more positive attitude about their potential as learners and as persons. They acquire confidence and interpersonal skills that are an important part of the maturing process. Students say they have learned skills that will stay with them for a lifetime.

Benefits for Teachers

National History Day promotes continuing education for secondary school teachers. Teacher workshops promote the exchange of ideas in learning and teaching, building bridges between high school and college educators. Three-week summer institutes for teachers and media specialists closely examine global and multicultural aspects of an annual theme. Curricular aids such as lesson plans and bibliographic guides are provided to all teachers participating in the contest.

A teacher said on a recent survey: "National History Day encourages creativity in teaching with an emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving--a great improvement over traditional teaching methods, making teaching a more creative, intellectual exercise. The program also provides teachers public recognition that is rarely extended to them in their professional lives."

National History Day Objectives

  • To provide history teachers with an innovative teaching tool.
  • To assist teachers and schools in meeting educational standards that require outcome-based learning activities.
  • To encourage the study of history by guiding students to express themselves creatively through presentations of historical topics and materials in a variety of formats.
  • To interest students in learning about history by integrating the materials and methods of social studies, art, literature, language, and music into their entries.
  • To develop research and reading skills and to refine presentation skills in writing, visual projects, and performances.
  • To develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills that will help students manage and use information effectively now and in the future.
  • To encourage students to develop a sense of history as a process and change, a multifaceted development over time that affects every aspect of human life and society.
  • To get students out of the school building and into the community, investigating local history.
  • To involve parents and other members of the community in students' education.
  • To expose students to new and exciting educational environments by holding contests on college campuses and at historical societies.


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