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PROJECT-BASED LEARNING (PBL)A Beginner’s Guide to National History DayNational History Day—which, despite the name, runs through the school year—is powerful project-based learning for middle and high school students.By Matt Weyers, Taylor HamblinApril 21, 2021

Kira Retana
Kira Retana

Think of National History Day as a science fair for history classes. It allows students the opportunity to engage in historical inquiry on a topic of their choice and—if they’re interested—enter their project in regional, state, and national competitions.

In our experience, National History Day (NHD) is one of the best forms of project-based learning; it prompts students to engage in sustained inquiry as well as in critique and revision, all the while making a public product for an authentic audience—hallmarks of effective PBL. This rigor is particularly relevant as state and national social studies standards, like the C3 Framework, encourage students to analyze, explain, evaluate, justify, and interpret content. Real history goes beyond the memorization and recall of names, dates, and places, and NHD can be key to supporting students in making that leap.

Running an NHD competition for the first time can be quite complicated, but here are some steps to simplify it.


Get your feet wet by exploring the NHD website, which includes inspiring examples of yearly winners and advice on how to create competitive historical arguments. Two shining examples of winners include the documentary By Chance: The Story of the First Code Talkers and the website The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: The Tragedy That Struck Alaska.

The site also shares details on the five NHD project options for participating students:

  • Website (with interactive multimedia)
  • Documentary (including recording interviews)
  • Paper (good for students who like to work alone)
  • Exhibit (three-dimensional and placed on a physical structure)
  • Performance (presented live by individuals Kira Retana or groups of students)

Each category requires access to specific materials in order to be successful. For example, exhibits require access to trifold boards, documentaries require editing and recording software, and performances demand simple props and backdrops. (Take an inventory of your school’s technology so that you know what’s available to students; at a minimum, students need access to word processing software, consistent internet access, and video recording and editing equipment.)

Once you are familiar with the NHD basics, contact your state National History Day affiliate to help you better understand the process. (Every state and territory in the United States has an affiliate.) Typically, students begin researching their topic in late fall in preparation for a school competition in January or February, with upper levels of competition lasting until June.


If you’re the lead facilitator for NHD at your school, make preliminary contact with area experts who have knowledge of performance arts or documentary making; ideally they’ll be interested in assisting students with their projects.

Also recruit individuals and organizations that can assist students with different stages of the history projects. For example, local librarians can help students find resources, historical societies and museums can help search for unique (local) historical topic ideas, and businesses and booster clubs can support students with travel stipends and scholarships.


Kira Retana

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