National History Day

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National History Day
Nhd logo.png
Abbreviation NHD
Motto It's not just a normal 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 academic competition focusing on history students in grades 4-12. 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The mission of National History Day is to provide students with opportunities to learn historical content and develop research, thinking and communication skills through the study of history and to provide educators with resources and training to enhance classroom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]



National History Day participants are judged on three deciding factors: Historical Quality, Relation to Theme, and Clarity of Presentation.[10] Research should include primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. Additionally, sources need to be clearly cited with the inclusion of an annotated bibliography.[11]

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, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, the top three projects at the regional competition advance to the state competition.

State: Some states divide between a 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.[12] "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.'"[13]

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.[14]

See also[edit]


  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 | Classroom Connection". Retrieved 2012-12-27. 
  11. ^
  12. ^ The History Channel Website. "National History Day." The History Channel Website. 2006. History Channel. 16 Nov. 2008 <>.
  13. ^ "Three Alaska Students Awarded NHF National History Day Prize." Naval Historical Foundation, 17 July 2012. Accessed 10 Feb. 2013.
  14. ^ 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