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Why Have Students Conduct an Oral History Project?

An oral history project attempts to preserve a small segment of a relatively recent historical period as viewed through the eyes, experiences, and memories of people who lived during that time. Capturing their experiences and memories is invaluable. Over a period of time, memories can fade and those feelings or emotions associated with the events can easily be lost or altered by time.

Oral history projects add to the collective knowledge of local and national history, due to the fact that such projects document citizen's participation and memories concerning a specific event or time period. Students begin to understand that Canadian history is not simply a series of isolated events, but rather it is composed of life experiences and memories of Canadians just like themselves.

Conducting Oral History in the Practice of Teaching 
Oral history is a natural teaching method for the classroom. Students who normally expect tedium and irrelevancy of history learning are taken with the immediacy of personal accounts of past events. Students want to be knowledgeable when talking to interviewees, so research and data gathering is no longer a conflicted issue.

To use oral history properly, one must understand its strengths and weaknesses. Good oral histories provide background information, personal insights, or anecdotes rarely found in official documents. These contributions, together with oral history's ability to capture and preserve information that may not otherwise be saved, illustrate some benefits of the technique.

Most of oral history's deficiencies are attributable to human faults. Like all historical sources, interviews contain personal biases, but these biases may themselves constitute important data for the historian's consideration. Interviewees may also be unwilling to honestly discuss mistakes or errors even years after the fact. 

A potentially greater problem is the inability of some interviewees to provide accurate accounts because of the limitations of human memory. This is a special concern when recounting traumatic events or actions that took place years before. As time increases between an experience and its recounting, individuals tend to condense the sequence of events and omit critical actions and judgments. 

Although, one should consider the elapsed time when weighing oral history materials, a long duration does not automatically diminish the value of an interview. In spite of the limitations of oral history, a properly conducted interview can be a previous resource and a special means of preserving the past.

Instructional Arrangements

Three types of organization are most often used in classroom oral history projects.

Individual Project:

  • Excellent for self-motivated and highly capable students.

  • Requires student to be proficient with all processes and skills of project.

  • Student is graded on own work and does not have to rely on other individuals.

Small Groups:

  • Effective for less confident/able students, allows each to accept certain responsibilities or parts of the project.

  • Allows highly capable students to pool their research.

  • Each member is dependant on the follow through of the other group members.

  • Assign and grade each student on specific responsibilities/tasks of project.

Entire Class Project:

  • Works well if one major topic is going to be investigated.

  • Beneficial for a media presentation/publication.

  • Each student can assume a specific task e.g. research, interviewing, etc.

  • Allows each student to use his or her expertise.

  • Student does not get to experience all of the processes or an oral history project.

  • Each member is dependant on the follow through of the other group members.

  • Backup/assistant for each major job may provide a failsafe approach for getting tasks completed accurately and on time.

  • Specific classroom situation/objectives will determine which organization is more appropriate.

What to Teach Students Before Sending Them on an Interview

  • The background and purpose of oral history

  • The techniques of oral history interviewing and question development

  • The methods of finding oral history interviewees

  • The methods of researching a topic

  • An in-depth review of the topic being studied

  • Interview paperwork and documents

  • The use of equipment

  • How to recognize and collect supplementary documents/photographs

Participant Selection

Students need to be aware of the dynamics of age and time as they select a historical period. Student must remember that the potential pool of participants can be affected by the topic chosen. The level of recollective ability and historical accuracy can dramatically be affected by the age of the participants being interviewed. Therefore, the selection of participants is a critical component for an effective oral history project.

Students will also discover that some participants are simple better interviewees than others. Students usually approach relatives or friends as their first potential interviewees and then expand their pool of people to be interviewed.

How Many People Should Each Student Interview?

The time devoted to the project is a major factor, the following suggestions might provide some guidance:

Short-Term Project:

  • Several mini interviews, consisting of a few select questions.

  • Give students the opportunity to compare/contrast information required from the interviews and/or primary/secondary sources.

Family Project:

  • 2-3 generations or 2-3 family members provide different viewpoints and perspectives.

Thematic Project:

  • 2 interviews often provide sufficient information and differing points of view.

Biographical Project:

  • 2 interviews often allow the student a chance to improve their interviewing skills.

Oral History Methodology

An oral history project can be as simple as a student interviewing one person, writing the responses of the participant, and reporting those survey responses to the class. 

Another project could involve audio or videotaping of the participant and the student composing a written account of the dialogue. But a more sophisticated and encompassing oral history project could involve the entire class during a semester or school year. The class would conduct taped interviews throughout the school year, type the dialogue of the interviews, and print the results in a book or magazine format. 

The culmination of the year's project would be to publish the interviews and make the books available to interviewees, students, libraries and interested individuals in the community.

Process of Conducting an Oral History Project

The oral history project is a process-oriented activity. Students are responsible for the entire project. It is imperative that students have adequate background knowledge of the historical topic and the time period before interviewing the participants. Good content knowledge will enhance their understanding of the historical topic or era and vastly improve their questioning skills; in turn, they will have a better understanding of the person being interviewed.

Students must choose the interview instrument focusing upon questions that will elicit much more information then merely yes/no answers. Practice interviews must be conducted to test the interview instrument, which allows students to practice their interview skills and insures the validity of the questions and answers. Students will learn that some questions simply do not ask what was intended.

Students select their own participants to be interviewed and set up an interview time, which helps to enhance their organizational skills. Interviews can be conducted during school time or on the student's time, whatever is convenient for both student and the participant. It is imperative that the student obtain from the interviewee a signed release form giving the class and the school the right to publish the oral interview. This is important because of the legalities involved in publishing an interview.

All interviews are done with audio/video tape, and the students make typewritten transcripts from the recordings. This element of the process takes a considerable amount of time. Students proofread their own material, as well as other students' material, to insure spelling accuracy, historical accuracy, and common formatting.



  • Introduction of Project and Investigation of Event

  • Choose Interview Instrument


  • Interviewing of Participants

  • Transcribing of Tapes

  • Typing of Rough Draft


  • o Proofreading and Finalization of Document or Book


  • Final Copies to Printer and Binder

Evaluating Project to Develop a Better Program

  • Keep a diary/log of the project's strengths/weaknesses. Note where more structure was needed, ways to improve the training, or where students needed more assistance, etc.

  • Have students evaluate the project. Have them explain what they liked, didn't like, and what they felt they learned. The student evaluation can be written/oral and accomplished individually or in a group setting.

  • A review of your goals/objectives or learning opportunities that were not planned but were successful should be noted and incorporated in the future.

Storing Materials

  • The school library, a nearby public library, or a local college library

  • A local historical society, archive, or museum

  • A community center

You must consider:

  • A dry/safe place with a moderate temperature

  • A policy for cataloguing

  • The need for copies of tapes, photos, materials, etc.

Convincing Administration the Worth of an Oral History Project

  • Present the administration with a detailed written proposal, which includes the stated objectives of the project and methods of evaluation

  • Demonstrate how the project supports/augments the required curriculum

  • Show how the project teaches skill development

  • Collect and share research studies/journal articles which explain the rationale for a project of your type

  • Cite local/national project examples e.g. Foxfire Project

  • Explain how an oral history project can be used to benefit the school's public relations image

  • Show how the proposed project can support current educational mandates such as writing across the curriculum and computer literacy.

Adapted Source:

Oral History in the Teaching of U.S. History. ERIC Digest. ED 393 781

Oral History Unit Overview

Information for the Development of an Oral History Project

Oral History Project: Guidelines For Recording an Interview

Fish Bowls and Bloopers: Oral History in the Classroom

One Minute Guide to Oral Histories

Oral History Questions

Specific Oral History Questions

Oral History Lesson Plans

Oral History Websites

Oral History Activities

Teacher's Guide to the Teen Reporter Handbook

Oral History Topics, Skills and Methods

Download Why Have Students Conduct an Oral History Project? in Word Document format




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