DocsTeach – ‘Weighing the Evidence’: An amazing activity design tool for critical thinking


Today I came across a great resource while searching for something else. DocsTeach is an activity creation tool from The National Archives (USA). Students are encouraged to work with documents, videos, images, and other things found in the archives. Teachers need to register to use the activity tools, but students can use the activities without registering. There are number of tools, but I will only focus on one for now. Here is how it works:


  1. Go to DocsTeach and click on ‘Register’ in the top-right corner.
  2. Choose a user name, enter your email address, add a password and re-enter the password before clicking ‘Register’.
  3. You will receive an email fairly quickly. Make sure to check your junk box if you don’t see it. In the email, click on ‘Confirm Registration’.
  4. You will be taken to a page where you can type in your username and password. Click on ‘Log in’ when done and you will be taken to the front page.
‘Weighing the Evidence’
  1. Go to DocsTeach and click on click on ‘Activities’ at the top of the page.
  2. Click on the green ‘Create an Activity’ button near in the top-right box.
  3. Below the title ‘Weighing the Evidence’, click on ‘Create an Activity’. If you aren’t already logged in, enter your username and password before clicking on ‘Log in’.
  4. You will be taken to a dialogue box. Click on ‘Continue’.
  5. Click on ‘Find Documents’. You will taken to a new page. Click on ‘Browse’ or ‘Search’ and then click on the subject area and type.
  6. You will be given a grid of documents. Click on any document and you will be taken to a larger picture of the document and the description.
  7. When you find a document you like, click on ‘Add to Activity’ and it will change to ‘Added to Activity’. Click on ‘Back to Results’ to choose more documents.
  8. Keep adding documents until you feel there are enough for students to “weigh out” the evidence. A good amount would be around 8-12 documents. The limit is 18.
  9. Once you have added enough, click on the big green button labelled ‘Back to Activity’.
  10. You will be taken to the labelling page. Click on the box under ‘Topic Title’ to name the activity. Click on the left box under the title ‘Interpretation One’ to have the one side of the argument and click on the right box under the title ‘Interpretation Two’ and type in the counter argument. Click on ‘Next’ at the top of the page.
  11. Click and drag the document at the bottom of the page into the area that is labelled ‘Drag document here’. Drag them in the order you want them to appear from left to right in the activity. Once you are done, click on ‘Next’ at the top of the page.
  12. The next section is optional, but helpful. There are two boxes, the one on the left is an introduction to the activity and the one on the left is the conclusion. These can be used to give further instruction or a followup activity such as a writing assignment or further research on their own. Click on ‘Next’ when done.
  13. On the next page, type in a title, author(s), historical era (dropdown menu), thinking skill (dropdown menu), Bloom’s Taxonomy level (dropdown), synopsis, and notes. The notes are visible to the students during the activity. Click on ‘Save and View’ to finish. You could also click on ‘Publish’ to share with others through the DocsTeach website.
  14. On the next page, copy the URL address under the title of the activity or click on ‘Start Activity’ to start using the activity.
  15. Share the URL with your students. When they go to the address, the students can click on a thumbnail on the top-right of the page to view the document. They can zoom in or out and can click on ‘Details’ to read the details on the document. Click on the top-right ‘X’ to close the window and go back to the activity.
  16. Students drag the document onto the balance. The farther the document is placed to the left or right, the more the student believes it fits that category. Once all the documents are places, the way it is tipping tells the students what way they think the evidence leans.
  17. Once students are done, the can click on ‘I’m Done’ and enter your email address (or class email), name, and message before clicking on ‘Send email’.
This is a fantastic activity to have students think about the types of evidence and the quality of evidence. It helps students think about their own feelings regarding the topic and whether the evidence matches their thoughts. They can follow it up to find evidence of their own to confirm or reject their initial thoughts. It helps students to think about information critically and gives them a framework which they can use to evaluate their own research material.

In the days ahead, I will add some other activities from DocsTeach. There are a number of activities that can be used in the ESL classroom. If you have any comments, please add them below, send me a Tweet at @nathanghall, or send me an email using the contact form on this website. Thanks! 


The Transformational Power of E-learning

Great quote from the introduction of D. R. Garrison and Terry Anderson’s book E-learning in the 21st Century:

The essential feature of e-learning extends beyond its access to information and builds on its communicative and interactive features. The goal of quality e-learning is to blend diversity and cohesiveness into a dynamic and intellectually challenging ‘learning ecology.’ This interactivity goes far beyond the one-way transmission of content and extends our thinking regarding communications among human beings engaged in the educational process. Not long ago, the provision of increased learner independence in terms of space and time meant a corresponding loss of collaboration and increased isolation. Independence and collaboration seemed contradictions. More of one inherently meant the loss of the other. The transformational power of e-learning goes to the heart of this issue. We now can provide freedom and control within a vibrant community of inquiry. E-learning recognizes and integrates the personal and public aspects of an educational experience.”

Garrison and Anderson (2003) p. 3. Bold and italics added.

It made me think about how Socrates developed the elenctic method where the teacher became the facilitator and encouraged the students to discover things on their own. Debating and questioning were central to the creation and ownership of thought at that time. It appears to me that this is what teachers and educators are striving to (re)create in the current classroom with technology. It is not, as Garrison and Anderson put it, simply used to access information, but to build upon it. That should be the goal of anyone integrating technology into the educational process. This can be in the classroom or might, and likely should, extend beyond those boundries into the students’ lives.

“Weighing the evidence”: Using online tools to encourage critical thinking

Image courtesy of Julia Manzerova

Image courtesy of Julia Manzerova

In the last month, I have spent a good deal of time developing the curriculum and material for a new EAP program at our school. A major focus of the course will be developing critical thinking skills, especially in the area of research for writing academic papers. For some of the students, this isn’t anything new, but for a section of the group, this is a skill they have never been encouraged to develop. I am having students work in pairs or small groups to form a research question or hypothesis and then research the opposing sides of the argument before making a final decision and supporting that opinion. Since most of the work will be online, I am encouraging students to use online tools to share the information they find and to write up their charts.


  • Critical thinking: Students are required to think and read about various viewpoints and then develop their own opinions.
  • Summarizing: Students need to condense what they are studying into shorter pieces which helps them developing better writing skills.
  • Framework: It gives students a starting point from which to work from when writing their research papers in university.
  • Collaboration: Students need to work together to brainstorm, debate, and talk about how to interpret the information they have gathered.


  • Online Document: I have often used TitanPad as my registration-free real-time collaborative document tool, but for this exercise, I am using the rich text function of Kl1p to make a table that the students can fill in.
  • Annotator: I have blogged about a number of online annotation tools, but for this exercise, I will use Markkit as an online highlighter.


  1. Create a Kl1p site for each group of students. Make a rich-text page and add a table that has two columns: ‘Supporting Evidence’ and ‘Opposing Evidence’. Along the top of the page is the hypothesis or question and below the table is the ‘Conclusion’ and ‘Reasons’ sections.
  2. Add the Markkit bookmarklet to each browser that the students will be using. This makes it easy for students to highlight and share their findings with the rest of the group.
  3. Have students look for articles that support and oppose the hypothesis or question. When they find a statement for one of the two sides, they should highlight the sections, click on the bookmarklet, copy the new URL, and then paste the URL in one of the table columns along with a summary of the information.
  4. Once students have collected what they believe to be enough information, have them discuss their findings and then draw up a conclusion along with the reasons for making this decision. This should be written in the proper sections at the bottom of the page.
  5. Have students share their page with another group. Each group should comment on the other groups’ pages and should look for potential holes in their arguments.
  6. Students read over the comments and then address any issues raised by the other groups.
  7. Once everyone is done, students can then write up a short essay based on their information.

Having students use an online document allows students to work independently and yet still collaborate on their work. Using an online annotation tool keeps students from losing where they found their information and can allow others to check on the authenticity of their findings.

I would appreciate any feedback you might have regarding using this exercise in an EAP setting. You can add your comments below, send me a Tweet at @nathanghall, or you can email me using the comment page on this website. Thank you.

Promoting active learning and critical thinking

I love this paragraph from Alan Crawford, E. Wendy Saul, Samuel Mathews and James Makinster’s book Teaching and Learning Strategies for the Thinking Classroom:

In classes that promote active learning and critical thinking, teachers do assess students’ mastery of the content of the curriculum, and they may do this by means of traditional paper-and-pencil tests, by oral recitations, or by observations as students discuss topics related to a lesson. But they also look at two more things. They assess students’ learning processes. That is, they observe carefully to see how well students can carry out the learning activities that they have been taught, and to find ways to improve their learning. They also assess the quality of students’ thinking. At the same time, teachers take care to assess in such a way that they teach students how to perform.

This is what I continue to strive for in my classroom. If you haven’t got your hands on a copy of this book yet, do it.