National History Day

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National History Day
Nhd logo.png
Abbreviation NHD
Motto It's not just a day, It's an Experience.
Formation 1974
Type Nonprofit Organization
Legal status Foundation
Purpose To teach the basics of the arts of research.
Headquarters University of Maryland, College Park
  • Maryland
Region served
United States of America
500,000 students, 30,000 teachers per year
Official language
Executive Director
Cathy Gorn
Affiliations American Association for State and Local History, American Historical Association, Federation of State Humanities Councils, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Center for History in the Schools, National Council for History Education, National Council for the Social Studies, Organization of American Historians, Society of American Archivists

National History Day is an American academic competition focusing on history for students in grades 6-12. It started as a local program in Cleveland, Ohio, headed by David Van Tassell, a history professor at Case Western Reserve University.[1] It grew from 129 students in 1974 to over 500,000 students in 48 states in 1991, and 700,000 students and 40,000 teachers in 2001.[2][3] Today more than half a million students enter through local schools. They construct entries as an individual or in a group in one of five categories-Documentary, Exhibit, Paper, Performance or Website.[4] Students then compete in a series of contests (School, Regional, and State) to proceed to the National Contest.

The mission of National History Day is to provide students with opportunities to learn historical content and develop research, thinking and communication skills through the study of history and to provide educators with resources and training to enhance classroom teaching.

History of National History Day[edit]

NHD started as a small contest in Cleveland in 1974.[5] Members of the History Department at Case Western Reserve University developed the initial idea for a history contest akin to Science Fair. Students gathered on campus to devote one day to history calling it "National History Day." Over the next few years, the contest expanded throughout Ohio and into surrounding Midwestern states. By 1980, NHD had grown into a national organization and in 1992 NHD moved its headquarters from Cleveland to the Washington, D.C., area. Although the name remained the same, NHD is now a national organization with year-round programs and a week-long national contest held at the University of Maryland, College Park.[6]

Project Creation[edit]

Annual Theme[edit]

The annual theme is usually a phrase, such as "Leadership and Legacy"-2015- and often an alliteration, like, "Revolution, Reaction, Reform in History" and is usually accompanied by a graphic showing an event, person and/or group in history which exemplifies the theme. The annual themes, while giving a general framework for a project, still allow for a wide range of project topics. Themes are rotated each year. For instance, in History Day 2014-2015, the proposed theme is "Leadership and Legacy,"[7] which was used in both the 1983 and 2000 contests.[8] Subtitles are also similar across different years, the 2012-2013 theme sharing greatly in name to History Day 2005-2006's theme of "Taking a Stand in History: People, Ideas, Events." [9]

The theme for 2011 was "Debate and Diplomacy: Successes, Failures, and Consequences of History". The theme for 2012 was "Revolution, Reaction, and Reform".[citation needed]The theme for 2013 was"Turning Points in History." The theme for 2014 was"Rights and Responsibilities." The theme for 2015 is "Leadership and Legacy"

1980- The Individual

1981 - Trade & Industry

1982 - Work & Leisure

1983 - Turning Points

1984 - Family & Community

1985 - Triumph & Tragedy

1986 - Conflict & Compromise

1987 - Liberty: Rights and Responsibilities

1988 - Frontiers

1989 - The Individual

1990 - Science & Technology

1991 - Rights

1992 - Discovery, Encounter, Exchange

1993 - Communication

1994 - Geography

1995 - Conflict & Compromise

1996 - Taking a Stand

1997 - Triumph & Tragedy

1998 - Migration

1999 - Science & Technology

2000 - Turning Points

2001 - Frontiers

2002 - Revolution, Reaction, Reform

2003 - Rights & Responsibilities

2004 - Exploration, Encounter, Exchange

2005 - Communication

2006 - Taking a Stand

2007 - Triumph & Tragedy

2008 - Conflict & Compromise

2009 - The Individual

2010 - Innovation

2011 - Debate & Diplomacy

2012 - Revolution, Reaction, Reform

2013 - Turning Points in History

2014 - Rights and Responsibilities

2015 - Leadership and Legacy in History

2016 - Exploration, Encounter, Exchange in History

2017 - Taking a Stand

Divisions and Categories[edit]

There are two divisions of competition: the Junior Division for students grade 6-8 and the Senior Division for students grade 9-12. Students can then choose whether to compete as a group of two to five students or as an individual in four different categories: Exhibit, Documentary, Performance, and Website.[10] Only individual students may compete in the Paper Category. Each Category in each Division only competes with projects of the same Category-Division combination (a Junior Paper project will only compete with other Junior Paper projects).[11] So groups can be made up of mixed grades (a 6th and 7th grader for instance), but cannot be made up of mixed divisions (e.g. a 12th grader and 8th grader).[12]


One choice for presentations is producing a documentary. Students may create documentaries using a variety of materials including slides, video, audio and computers. Whatever presentation format is chosen, students must be able to operate all equipment, both during production and at each level of competition. This requires a lot of research to do well.

The most important aspect of any History Day entry is its historical quality. Aesthetic quality is valued less than the quality of the data presented. The most common forms for making a documentary is by film presentations and computer-based presentations. Due to the proliferation of computers, physical slide-form presentations are now very rarely produced by students. There is no talking allowed by the presenters during the documentary. It must be able to stand alone using voice-overs or recordings. In addition, any presentations which require manual progression (i.e. slide-form, un-automated PowerPoint) can be disqualified.


The most popular category, exhibits are designed to display visual and written information on topics in an attractive and understandable manner, similar to exhibits found in a museum. People walking by the piece should be attracted to an exhibit's main idea and, therefore, stop to learn more about the topic. To be successful, an exhibit must create an effective balance between visual interest and historical explanation,while still not being too overdone. The most common form of exhibit entry is a three-panel display, but others, such as a rotating cylinder have been used.[13] There is a 500-word limit for student-composed written materials, with brief citations and quotes not contributing to the word count (not student composed) and with dates counting as one word.[14]


The paper category is open only to individual entries. Papers are usually expected to be submitted weeks in advance, for in depth readings by the judges, prior to the Contest. Papers may have a maximum of 2500 words and must be no fewer than 1500 words. Notes, annotated bibliography, illustration captions, and supplemental/appendix material do not contribute to the word count.[15]


The Performance/Acting category covers scripted performances based on original historical research [16] Performance/Acting is the only category in which students present their research live. Entries in this category must have dramatic appeal, but not at the expense of historical information. Students must make effective use of their 10-minute time allowance. Contestants cannot reset their 10 minutes if any sort of spectacle (sound, set, etc.) goes wrong, adding another layer of difficulty.

Use of music, set and costumes is allowed, but not required. Contestants are given a maximum of 5 minutes to set up all props/set that they wish to use in their performance. Contestants are also given a maximum of 5 minutes to remove all props/set. Performances are usually memorized and must be performed with diction, clarity and volume.[17]


The website is the newest of all of the categories, having originated in History Day 2007-2008, and with its rules still in flux. Students must create their own website using the NHD version of the Weebly editor. The website category was introduced early on in California, in 1997.[18] It quickly spread-by History Day 2007-2008, regional competitions were added; and in History Day 2008-2009 the addition of a national competition made Website a full-fledged category. There is a 1200-word limit on all websites, and the website itself must be optimized for Trident-based browsers such as Internet Explorer. All websites must also contain less than 100MB.

Written Material: Title Page, Process Paper and Annotated Bibliography[edit]

A title page, process paper and annotated bibliography is required for all projects, except for papers which do not require the process paper. The process paper is a short, 500-word or fewer, paper detailing the steps which the contestants took in preparing their project. This is followed by the bibliography, a standard annotated bibliography containing all sources that provided new and usable information for the preparation of the project. Each entry must be followed by a short description of each source, how it was used and how it related to one's main topic and the yearly theme. The bibliography must be separated by primary and secondary sources, as well as source type (Primary Interviews versus Secondary Periodicals). Although many contestants choose to use MLA for ease of use, Turabian is allowed.[19]



National History Day participants are judged on three deciding factors: Historical Quality, Relation to Theme, and Clarity of Presentation.[20] Research should include primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. Additionally, sources need to be clearly cited with the inclusion of an annotated bibliography.[21]

State and Regional Competitions[edit]

Regional: In some regions, students who reach enough points in their judging advance to states, and any amount of students at regionals can advance to states. In other states, such as California, Hawaii, and Pennsylvania, the top three projects at the regional competition advance to the state competition.

State: Some states divide between group and individual events, while other states combine all entrants. (For example, a combined Senior Website category as opposed to an Individual Senior Website and Group Senior Website.) Students who place first or second at state competitions receive small trophies and/or medals and (if they're in the junior or senior division) are allowed to advance to the national competition. Additionally, students may win a large variety of cash or other special awards at state.

National Competition[edit]

50 states, the District of Columbia, Department of Defense Schools, American Samoa, International Schools of Asia, and Guam participate in National History Day.


The preliminary round at the national competition is similar to the presentations made at the district and state levels. The top two projects in each room advance to the final round.


In 2011, there were 14 projects per category in the final rounds. Those in the performance and documentary categories show their presentation for a final time for new judges, 1–2 days before the final Award Ceremony. Those in the paper, website, and exhibit categories are not informed if they have made it into the final round. Their project then has to stand alone for the final judging.

Example of a National History Day Medal

The awards for first, second, and third place at the national level are $1000, $500, and $250, respectively. In addition, Senior Division documentaries enjoy a $5000 1st place prize, instead of $1000 due to a grant from the History Channel.[22] "Outstanding Entry" awards are also given to two projects from each state: one junior entry and one senior entry.

Impact on students[edit]

A typical comment from a winning student attests to the skill-building nature of the contest. "All three of the girls found the experience both educational and influential. In addition to their in-depth historical research, they had to learn new technologies for making documentaries. According to Challis, she 'learned how to use modern day technology, I learned a lot about my country's history and I learned how to work well with other people.'"[23]

Impact on historians[edit]

Arnita Jones, executive director of the American Historical Association, wrote in 2001:

Perhaps the greatest impact of National History Day...was on the historical profession itself. I truly believe that never have so many historians enjoyed engaging in the pursuit of history outside their offices, their regular classrooms, and their academic research as have the thousands who have participated in National History Day as teachers, mentors, consultants and judges over more than two decades.[24]


  1. ^ Gorn, 2001
  2. ^ Page (1992)
  3. ^ Gorn (2001)
  4. ^ "About". Retrieved 2012-12-27. 
  5. ^ "What's in a Name?" National History Day. 2008. National History Day. 13 Nov. 2008 <>.
  6. ^ Byers, David. "Four score and seven years ago... Costumed history buffs hit campus in national competition." The Diamondback Online 15 June 2006: 1-1.
  7. ^ National History Day. "Themes." National History Day. 2008. National History Day. 14 Nov. 2008 <>.
  8. ^ "National History Day | Annual Theme". Retrieved 2012-12-27. 
  9. ^ National History Day, Inc. "Theme Synopsis." 2005. National History Day, Inc. 14 Nov. 2008 <>.
  10. ^ National History Day. Contest Rule Book Revised 2008. College Park, MD, 2008. 6.
  11. ^ National History Day. Contest Rule Book Revised 2008. College Park, MD, 2008. 7.
  12. ^ National History Day. Contest Rule Book Revised 2008. College Park, MD, 2008. 6-7.
  13. ^ National History Day. "Exhibit." National History Day. 2008. National History Day. 14 Nov. 2008 <>.
  14. ^ National History Day. Contest Rule Book Revised 2008. College Park, MD, 2008. 14-15.
  15. ^ National History Day. Contest Rule Book Revised 2008. College Park, MD, 2008. 13.
  16. ^ "National History Day Contest | Creating an Entry | Performance". Retrieved 2012-12-27. 
  17. ^ National History Day. Contest Rule Book Revised 2008. College Park, MD, 2008. 16-17.
  18. ^ National History Day. "Online Discussion: Web Site Category." National History Day. 2008. National History Day. 14 Nov. 2008 <>.
  19. ^
  20. ^ "National History Day | Classroom Connection". Retrieved 2012-12-27. 
  21. ^
  22. ^ The History Channel Website. "National History Day." The History Channel Website. 2006. History Channel. 16 Nov. 2008 <>.
  23. ^ "Three Alaska Students Awarded NHF National History Day Prize." Naval Historical Foundation, 17 July 2012. Accessed 10 Feb. 2013.
  24. ^ Quoted in Gorn (2001)

Further reading[edit]

  • Adams, David Wallace, and Marvin Pasch. "The past as experience: A qualitative assessment of National History Day." History Teacher (1987) 20#2: 179-194. in JSTOR
  • Fehn, Bruce R.; Schul, James E. "Teaching and Learning Competent Historical Documentary Making: Lessons from National History Day Winners," History Teacher (2011) 45#1 pp 25-42. online
  • Gorn, Cathy. "A Tribute to a Founding Father: David Van Tassel and National History Day," History Teacher (2001) 34#2 in JSTOR
  • Page, Marilyn Louise. "National history day: An ethnohistorical case study." (PhD dissertation, U of Massachusetts-Amherst, 1992). online
  • Taber-Conover, Rebecca, "History Day in Connecticut," Connecticut History (2012) 51#2 pp 261-264

See also[edit]