3. Learning and Practicing the Genealogical Proof Standard

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Now your students have memorized the Genealogical proof Standard we need to help them understand just what it means. The first principle is. "We conduct a reasonably exhaustive search in reliable sources" for all pertinant information.

How are you going to teach your students that a"reasonably exhaustive search" does not mean the research until they are tired?

Personally I joke about it to reinforce the point. I also tell them war stories behind some of the brilliant genealogy articles I've read over the years. Stories I learned by asking the authors. So I tell them of the woman who researched long hours puzzling over some Texas local tax records, then in the Eureka moment called her elderly client long after midnight, getting him out of bed to share the discovery. I tell them about the researcher who devoted three 8 hour days in succession reading microfilmed records just to eliminate a possibility. And I tell them of the man who examined every genealogy and family history on a common family name in Virginia in hopes of finding a connection to his research subject. These genealogists did not quit because they were exhausted. They researched until they had exhausted the sources.

The principle also refers to doing a search of "reliable" sources. Generally reliable sources are original documents and image copy derivatives which contain primary information. Students need practice using those concepts to sort out records. They need a wide variety of records to examine and consider in light of a research question. The question might be "When did Isaak Nears die?" The student is given a set of records that provide positive and negative indirect evidence of death including such things as marriage records of his children, census enumerations, cemetery transcriptions, tax and assessment rolls, probate records, directory listings, a genealogy, a biographical sketch, etc. The instructor walks the students through an analysis of each record to examine reliabilty of each, and help them rank these records. This is a good time to discuss the credibilty of each record. Credibility of the record really is of course about the credibilty of the informant.

Having walked through one set, the students are given a second set and asked to repeat the exercise without guidance. This sort of exercise can be put in objective form with questions asking students to rank the records most to least reliable. And it can be tested in a multiple choice question listing four different rankings, only one of which is correct/

Or it can be tested by subjective questions. "Which cluster of records are the most reliable indicators of Isaak Nears death date? Explain your reasoning in 200 words or less"

With an understanding of exhaustive searches, and reliable sources, the student is ready to move on to source citation.

It seems to me you could do a 2.5 hour workshop on the whole issue of reliability and credibility of sources. What do you think? Does this make sense? Your comments are welcome.


3 responses to “3. Learning and Practicing the Genealogical Proof Standard

  1. Barbara Schenck

    I think the notion of “a reasonably exhaustive search” is very important and I was surprised the one time I hired a very competent well-respected genealogist that after he did 3 hours of research for me on a particular person in records I could not easily access, that he said, “I’m not sure you’re ever going to find out the answer to your question.” I wasn’t either, but I certainly didn’t think 3 hours was “exhaustive!”

    I like the idea of a workshop discussing reliability of sources, but as far as “testing” the understanding goes, I think that multiple choice questions do more harm than good. They attempt to simplify things more than in reality they can be simplified in “real life.” I think that questions requiring thoughtful answers and justification for those answers is both fairer to the student and a greater indication of what the student really knows. My experience in courses with multiple choice questions is that they often focus on peripherals which can be more easily tested that way but which do not show a real understanding of the topic or they are badly composed and frustrate the student who would like to show understanding but cannot do so within the framework of the choices offered.

    Genealogy is not an exact science and there are rarely choices which are “always correct.”

  2. Barbara,
    I think I need to clarify my post just a bit. In the teaching context we often go through a cycle of experiences that starts with evaluating where the learner starts, demonstrating or modeling the concepts to be learned, practicing, reviewing, practicing and evaluating. I agree that when doing a final assessment, multiple choice tests must be very professionally developed to provide meaningful results that reflect learning. I know from experience in the fields of psychometrics and competence and performance testing of second language learners.
    However, when you use a multiple choice question based on a particular data set as a springboard for review for group of the concepts taught, it can lead to some illuminating discussions that reveal subjectively the learning challenges of the material and the method its being taught.

    When teaching adults it is seldom the grade that is important, it is the learning. When a grade is required, I have known students with Cs Bs and As who are excited about their learning after the so called test has been reviewed and their concerns addressed. The grades don’t matter. The learning does.

  3. Barbara Schenck

    I agree, Ken! And I can see that a multiple choice question is a useful springboard for further discussion because it allows teacher and students to discuss “why” a particular answer is not correct or perhaps, not as correct in the teacher’s eyes as another one. But when the multiple choice question is answered and there is no dialogue, then it can be frustrating.

    And if a student finds that there is no possibility for dialogue to clarify, and that their answer is as good as the “correct” one, it undermines the effectiveness of the instruction because students begin to doubt the knowledge of the instructor — which is why I am excited about learning and not at all excited about “testing” and “grading.”

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