7 Ways to Improve Inquiry Lessons with History Labs!

Move over science, history labs are taking over!

If you are looking for a way to make DBQs or any inquiry-style lesson where students are reading and analyzing multiple sources to answer a driving question more exciting and approachable for students, try out history labs!

I was first introduced to the idea of history labs from a professional development led by Bruce Lesh, author of “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answers?: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12”.

Labs are basically lessons where students are taking on the roles of historians and investigating the past. I flip between calling them “history detective work” and history labs to my students - to sell the importance of what they are doing and make it more exciting- which it is! 

History labs are one of the most student-centered activities for history class you can implement. However, they can be overwhelming and if students are frustrated during these rigorous lessons, many students will tune out or shut down. So setting them up for student success is critical. If you have a lot of reluctant learners in your room, start slow with just a couple of sources. But lets face it, many reluctant learners are reluctant because they find school boring and don't want to just sit and 'receive' education but rather be engaged in constructing knowledge.

These are some strategies I use to make history labs exciting and successful in my room.


1. Sell it- ensure students know they are doing the real work that historians do by piecing together conflicting or different parts of a story to wrestle out what actually happened!  Students get to investigate and look closely for details and evidence to develop their own interpretation of the past.

2.Hypothesis: After reviewing the inquiry question, have students develop a hypothesis. This activates their brains and will help them analyze each document because they are not going in blind, so to speak. They will already be on the look-out for certain evidence. Of course, at the end, they will modify and revise their hypothesis based on the evidence they gathered. 

3. Use stations. Separate each document or source at a different station around the room. This will help students focus more intently on each document and not get overwhelmed if they get a packet with 4-7 documents. 

4. Include some visual sources. Some students will get burnt out from text-overload. So look for some visual sources- graphs, charts, maps, political cartoons, or photographs.This gives new details and insights to answer the question but also can help those reluctant readers.

5. Conflicting Sources. Students who are new to history labs will have a difficult time recognizing different interpretations from secondary or primary sources. Try to ensure there are some fairly obvious differences between them so students see there are clear differences in how this question can be answered or how this event can be viewed. Once students get the hang of this skill, more subtle differences in perspective will be great to add.

6. Evaluate and rate each source. Having students think about how helpful and reliable each source is to answer the question is really important. So include a space for them on their sheets to rate or evaluate the source. Which one did they think was most helpful to answer the question? Which was least helpful or least reliable? 

7.End With a Debate and Discussion. After students analyzed each source and answered the inquiry question, have a class debate or discussion. Encourage questions and evidence-based answers. The better the discussion or the debate, I bet, the better the next history lab will be.

inquiry lessons for history class

Hope this helps you level-up your inquiry lessons for history class and spice up your DBQs! If you have many struggling students use some basic and very approachable sources the first couple times. Congratulate and celebrate them when they make small progress because its hard work- but worth it! For them and for you. Lets help to make inquiry for history the norm with history labs!

If you need a template that helps support inquiry, critical thinking, and evaluating sources, check these out. These universal history inquiry templates are totally editable and are ready to kick off your history labs!



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