Using Case Studies in a Roundtable Discussion

Almost every issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly contains a long detailed case study that illustrates some general principle of effective research with a particular problem a researcher has solved. Let me give you an example: T.Mark James, “Abraham Ott of Orangeburg, South Carolina: Direct and Indirect Evidence”, NGSQ 93:2 (June 2005) pages 85-93. How could you use a 9 page case study in your work as a genealogy educator?

I started using these lengthy case studies several years ago. My first venture was as discussion group for “advanced” genealogists. Most were not that advanced. I identified about eight of these case studies that I liked. I then contacted the editor of NGSQ as a courtesy to explain what I was doing. The editor at the time, Elizabeth Shown Mills, was very encouraging. She explained that after 6 months from the date of publication, NGSQ had no claim on the articles I was interested in. My next step was to track down the authors. That was a bit of a challenge. I recall one required quite a bit of searching to find. I eventually found a phone number and called her in Texas. All the authors gave permission for me to make up to 20 copies for my group.

My next step was to make the copies and distrubute to the students. With each article I enclosed a set of open-ended study questions to help them get inside the article. There were lots of how and why questions, some questions asking for their opinions on what was done. One or two that asked them if particular bits of logic made sense to them. On the average I think there were 15 questions for each article. I also explained in a cover sheet one of the best strategies for getting the most out of each article.

I suggested they read each article four or more times in the 10 days before our roundtable session, with particular objectives for each reading. I challenged them to check on the citations used. And I asked them to write down every question that occured to them as they were reading.

At the round table ( ours was square and sat 3 per side) I served as moderator. Moderators do not lecture. The students came knowing that everthything they learned would come from their efforts not my lectures. My job was to draw people into the conversation. When there was a lull I might ask a question– one from the study questions, or another new one. I might turn to a quiet person in the group and invite them to comment, or to raise an issue that the article evoked in them. And I invited people to briefly share their experiences as related to the issues in the case. After about 90 minues they started to wind down. Here was the point I’d ask for a comment on the article as a whole, “Are you persuaded to agree with the author?” THen I’d ask, “What have you learned from the article and the discussion tonight?”

Before breaking up I’d assign the next article, pass out the study materials and remind them of the date. It was very well received.

I cannot claim to have invented this roundtable. Its been used in academia in graduate seminar classes for decades. I suggest you read William M. Litchman “Teaching analysis, logic and the research process: a seminar approach” National Genealogical Society Newsmagazine (Nov/Dec 2000) pp. 340-343.

Does this roundtable discussion sound interesting? Perhaps youlike to have me come to your group and do a demonstration event, and show you how to set up your own discussion group?
Your comments are always welcome.


12 responses to “Using Case Studies in a Roundtable Discussion

  1. Ken,

    Your posts are always challenging…I like it!

    I’ve looked for the Litchman article and found I don’t have that issue of the NGS Newsmag (I’ve been picking them up at society book sales), since I wasn’t a member then. And the first three local gen libraries I’ve checked don’t have it either.

    The roundtable discussion sounds very interesting – I’d love to attend one somewhere! Do you have a schedule? OTOH, do you want to come to San Diego for a weekend?

    As I mentioned in an earlier post, my local society (80 members) has a monthly research group that I lead. In most of the meetings, one or more members define their research problem, what research they’ve done, and then the group makes suggestions for further research. Our typical meeting lasts 90 minutes and has had 8 to 12 attendees of all levels of expertise. We’ve been able to address new members problems, and even assigned mentors if necessary to guide them as they start their research.

    I also use the meeting to answer questions about all aspects of genealogy – usually someone can give a cogent answer or tell people where to find one. And I use it to broadcast news from the genealogy world of interest to the folks. We use our email list (about 50% of the members) to broadcast news and give meeting notices.

    However, after two years of this, we all know each others problem areas and I sense a need for more challenge and growth.

    I want to try something like your round table at my meeting – I will summarize the case srudy from an NGSQ article on a sheet of paper, have the group digest it and make suggestions for solving the problem, then provide the solution on a separate sheet of paper so they go home with something written down, and hopefully learned something in the process. Your comments?

    Cheers — Randy

  2. Randy,
    I’d love to come to San Diego for a weekend. But it will cost you a bit.
    I am on the west coast of Canada on the 25th of March. How about the following weekend? I’ll need air fare, meals, accomodation, and speakers fees.

    To get the William Ltchfield article, go to your local public library and ask about obtaining it using interlibrary loan. It would cost about $7.50 I think. Worth it.

    The problem from a learning perspective with your solution is that your students have little invested in the learning process. In Litchman’s model, the obligation to make the experience a learning experience is squarely on the student. No lectures means they need to study, they need to puzzle out things, they need to ask questions, answer questions, dig out source citations, sort out the logic in the case and measure it against the GPS standard. Give them credit for brains, expect more of them. They will rise to the occasion.

    When I introduced this concept in Chehalis Washington last year the local organizer worked diligently to encoiurage the group to prepare in advance. It was a real treat to work with students who prepared, who argued cogently with each other, and me, and finally found some common ground. The group actually concluded the case was flawed, and presented a good explanation. It was a treat.

    Randy, you can do it, but I’d love to come and help!

  3. Ken,

    Excellent points about student investment in learning. I hadn’t thought that through, obviously.

    It seems to me that a pre-requisite for any case study work is to teach the Genealogy Proof Standard. I may try that this next time in my group.

    Thanks — Randy

  4. Randy,
    Thanks for the comment. In the packet sent out to each student is information on the GPS and often material to explain the terms, Source, Information and Evidence.

    When I run these as a series I start with an article by Tom Jones on those concepts then do case studies. THere is a good article in Pro-Gen by Donn Devine on those terms as well you might use.


  5. Ken,
    Which article by Tom Jones are you referring to, and is it readily available through ILL?

  6. Bill,
    I thought I left a loose end.
    Thomas W. Jones
    “A conceptual model of Genealogical Evidence; linkage between present day sources and past facts” National Genealogical Society Quarterly Vol. 86 pages 5-8.
    Should be available through interlibrary loan.

  7. Ken,

    Thank you for the ‘article analysis and discussion’ suggestions. I did the one online at NIGS a couple of years ago (maybe three?) and it really taught me how to read those articles and made me think seriously about what they were trying to accomplish (which wasn’t just imparting factual knowledge about the people in question). I think that was one of those quantum leap moments for me in terms of my own genealogical education.

    I’ve noticed that most of your articles on the website have been aimed at those who teach genealogy. And selfishly I wish that more were aimed at those of us who are trying to educate ourselves because I think that is the wider audience, and the one more in need of education.

    Randy’s group in his society is fortunate to have someone who takes genealogy seriously and provides a good role model. The students who take your article discussion courses are likewise very fortunate.

    I like the mentor notion, and I have learned a lot just reading posts on the APG list and reading articles, which is a bit like having a mentor. I’ve also benefitted from some of the NIGS classes, though I would wish for more give-and-take there.

    I hope you’ll continue to post your thoughts about how we can continue to educate ourselves as well as offer ideas for teachers.

    Thanks for all of your efforts!

  8. Barbara,
    Thanks for the kind words. Look for more articles on self-directed learning and suggestions of books worth mentioning in the future.

    You may find some good help in preparing for self-directed study in the study skills centerof your local college or university. Short courses on reading skills and study skills for college students help prepare you for heavy reading.

    Of course after that heavy reading, you need to take on a few little projects. Here’s one. Go to the BCG Genealogical Standards Manual, see the “Proof Summary, Source-Cited Taxt Format” on page 55. Study that, and try to replicate it with a proof argument of your own. You may need to start with emulating the ones on pages 53 and 54.

    When I look back at my early work in genealogy I see dozens of opportunities to do it again, and do it right– and spin off good proof summaries.


  9. Barbara Schenck

    Thanks for the “assignment,” Ken! I will read the proof argument with interest and try a couple of my own.

    I recently did one for a group of collateral family researchers in an effort to distinguish two men of the same name living in the same place at the same time. It was great fun as well as being a challenge. But it was really neat to be able to marshall all the evidence and explain why one was the son of this particular set of parents and the other was the son of that other set of parents (both fathers even had the same first name!). I’ll try writing that one up again with all the “proper” citations. That should be a real challenge!

    I’m not worried about the study skills personally. I do them in my “real job” all the time. But I will keep them in mind for suggesting to people I run into at my local FHC who want someone else to do the work for them and thus “miss out on all the fun.”

    Kind regards,

  10. Barbara, when you do that one with the proper citations, send it along to Tom Jones, editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly. (You can tell him I sent you, if you like) and then go through a real intense personal learning experience as your article goes through the peer review process, the and comes back with suggestions for improvements, rewrites etc. Then you rework it again, the editor makes more comments etc. Sound familiar? I suspect you’ve worked with editors before 😉


  11. Barbara Schenck

    Yes, Ken, been there, done that. But not in this field.

    I will work on the article as time permits. I’ve had it in mind for some time. The one with the two men of the same name is relatively easy to work out and might be a good starting point. The one with each of their brothers, also of the same name (determining which was which) has proved much more time consuming.

    The use of ‘tables’ has helped clarify things, but I’m not entirely satisfied yet that it’s an airtight case. It may just be as tight as I can get it right now. Still have more work to though. And a life to live besides!

    Thank you for the suggestion and encouragement. I’m not up to Tom Jones’s scrutiny yet, but by the time the article is finished, I hope it’s at least a credible job.

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