Effectiveness of eyewitness interviews in the teaching of history

Eyewitness interviews - that is, interviews with people who have experienced a historical context themselves - are popular in history classes as a way of bringing students closer to the past. As a result, students sometimes believe the eyewitnesses more than the textbooks or written sources, because the eyewitness "was there." The two-faced nature of the contemporary witness, who is both a source and a representation, makes him or her exciting for history classes, but also risky.

A study by the Hector Institute for Empirical Educational Research investigated the effects of eyewitness interviews on three aspects, namely on the promotion of historical competencies, on the acquisition of factual knowledge and on interest in history. For this purpose, the effects of three teaching treatments on the topic of "Peaceful Revolution in the GDR" were compared in a total of 30 Baden-Württemberg 9th grade high school classes in the 2011/2012 school year: first, working with a living eyewitness, second, using video clips, and third, using the transcripts of an eyewitness interview. Before and after the teaching unit, as well as two to three months later, the students' interest, knowledge of the topic, and historical competence were recorded. In addition to the treatment groups, eight control classes participated in the three tests. The main survey was preceded by a validation study in which the measurement instrument was developed in close collaboration with subject didacticians in history and validated in a sample of 15 classes.

The aim of the study is to show ways in which the didactic instrument of eyewitness interviews can be used in history classes in such a way that the opportunities (e.g., arousing historical interest) are exploited and the risks (e.g., unreflected handling of the supposedly authentic source) are minimized at the same time.