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Performance Category: Judging Criteria and Rules

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Revised July 2020

Thank you for your interest/agreeing to serve as a judge for the National History Day® (NHD®) contest. Some of our finest young historians have labored for months preparing their entries and are eager to share their outstanding historical research and conclusions with you.

Purpose of Judging

NHD’s goal is to provide young people with a high quality educational experience—whether or not they win a prize. It is critical that your interactions with the students be fair, helpful and positive. Your spoken and written comments are fundamental to the learning process.

Together we succeed or fail based on the quality of the learning experience.

Your Process

  1. Review all materials sent to you in advance of the contest.
  2. Attend the contest-day orientation.
  3. With your team, review each entry’s process paper and annotated bibliography, then view the performance. Conclude by interviewing the student(s).
  4. Return to judging headquarters to deliberate, reach consensus, complete paperwork and write thoughtful, constructive comments.

Evaluating Performances

A performance is a dramatic portrayal of a topic and its significance in history. It is not simply an oral report or a recitation of facts. Instead, performances should be original and creative, and students should make effective use of the 10 minutes allowed. While performances must have dramatic appeal, that appeal should not be at the expense of historical accuracy.

No matter how impressively the students handle themselves during the interview, please remember that the entry itself should be able to stand alone. Answers to questions should not overshadow the material presented in the entry.

Judging Criteria

Historical Quality – 80%

This is by far the most important factor in judging a performance. It refers to the research, analysis and interpretation of the topic. The performance should be historically accurate. It should not simply recount facts but interpret and analyze them; that is, the entry should have a strong thesis or argument. In addition, it should place the topic into historical context—the intellectual, physical, social and cultural setting. The entry also should reflect historical perspective—the causes and consequences of an event, for example, or the relationship of a local topic to larger events. The best entries will use a variety of both primary and secondary sources and will consider multiple viewpoints (e.g., those who suffered as well as those who benefited, males and females, people from different racial, ethnic or socioeconomic groups, etc.) as appropriate to the topic.

Primary sources are materials directly related to a topic by time or participation. These materials include letters, speeches, diaries, contemporaneous newspaper articles, oral history interviews, documents, photographs, artifacts or anything else that provides first-hand accounts about a person or event. This definition also applies to primary sources found on the Internet. A letter written by President Lincoln in 1862 is a primary source for a student researching the Civil War era. An article about the Vietnam War published in 2001 and not written by an eyewitness or participant about his or her experience is not a primary source. An interview with an expert (a professor of Vietnamese history, for example) is not a primary source UNLESS that expert actually lived through and has firsthand knowledge of the events being described. Primary materials such as quotes from historical figures or photographs of historical events, when found in secondary sources, can be used effectively in NHD projects; however, these are not considered primary sources.

Lastly, the entry must clearly relate to the annual theme and demonstrate why the topic is significant in history. Do not confuse fame with significance. Local history topics may not be well known but may represent larger trends or events. The performance should draw conclusions about the topic’s significance. In other words, the entry should answer the questions, “So what? Why was this important?” It should not be just descriptive.

Clarity of Presentation – 20%

This relates to the entry’s stagecraft: the props and costumes, acting ability of the performer(s), creativity and clarity of the script, etc. You also should consider whether the process paper and the bibliography are clear, organized and well done. Do not be carried away by glitz; simpler is often better. Conversely, do not discount an entry or assume students had outside assistance simply because a performance is of high visual and production quality; many students achieve both superior production quality and superior historical quality.

Contest Rules

These are the rules to which all students must adhere in developing their entries. Please note the difference between a simple violation of these rules and a disqualifying offense:

Rule Infraction: A violation of any of the rules stated in the Contest Rule Book. Judges will take any rule infractions into consideration in their final rankings. Failure to comply with the rules will count against the entry but will only result in disqualification as delineated below. Any rule infractions should be corrected before a winning entry competes in the next level of competition.


  • Major violations are those which give an entry a substantial advantage over other entries, for example, significantly exceeding time requirements, word limits and size requirements or having unauthorized outside assistance (e.g., someone else operating editing equipment, etc.). Major violations should result in lower rankings.
  • Minor violations are those which can be easily remedied and which do not confer a competitive advantage, for example, putting the school name on the title page, exceeding time requirements by a few seconds, using inconsistent citation formats, etc. Minor violations can be treated with some leniency, especially at the local levels where you may choose to note them without imposing a penalty. At the affiliate level, enforcement of the rules should be stricter, however, one or two minor violations should not keep an entry which is clearly the best in its category from advancing to the National Contest. At all levels, if two entries are otherwise equal in quality, the entry with fewer violations should be rated more highly.

Disqualification: Removal of an entry from competition. A project may be disqualified from the contest on three grounds:

  1. Plagiarizing all or part of the NHD project. Please note that failing to give proper credit is plagiarism.
  2. Reusing, individually or as a group, a project (or research from a project) from a previous year or entering a project in multiple contests or entry categories within a contest year.
  3. Tampering with any part of the project of another student.

If you feel an entry has reason to be disqualified, please contact the contest coordinator, who will make the final determination.

General Rules

Annual Theme: An entry must clearly relate to the annual theme and explain the topic’s significance in history.


  • Entries that do not relate to the theme at all should not win.
  • If a topic is only tangentially related to the theme, you should take that into account when evaluating the entry. An example of a tangential topic is “Pickett’s Migration at the Battle of Gettysburg” for the theme “Migration in History.”
  •  If an entry is merely descriptive and does not analyze the topic’s causes and consequences, you should take that into consideration when ranking it.
  • While entries should clearly relate to the annual theme, they often do not need to address every aspect of the theme. For the theme, “Rights and Responsibilities,” students could examine rights or responsibilities; they do not have to include both, though one often leads to the other when fully explored.

Contest Participation: Students may participate in the research, preparation and presentation of only one entry each year.

Development Requirements: Entries submitted for competition must be researched and developed during the current contest year that begins following the National Contest each June. Revising or reusing an entry from a previous year—whether a student’s own or another student’s—is unacceptable and will result in disqualification.

Construction of Entry: Students are responsible for the research, design and creation of their entry. They may receive help and advice from teachers and parents on the mechanical aspects of creating their entry, such as typing a paper and other written materials. They may seek guidance from teachers as they research and analyze their material, but their conclusions must be their own. Students may have reasonable help preparing their project. Examples of reasonable help include:

  • a teacher instructs students in how to use an editing software program.
  • a parent uses a cutting tool to cut the exhibit board or performance prop the student(s) designed.
  • a teacher offers editing suggestions on a student’s historical paper.
  • a parent assists in sewing costumes the student(s) designed.
  • a teacher shows students how to build an NHD website.
  • students have photographs commercially developed.


  • Students entering as individuals should do all of their research themselves and not share research or bibliographies with other students. Students entering as a group may share their research only with other students in their group. In cases where students have shared research with other entrants, it is appropriate for you to reduce their final ranking.
  • Students may receive reasonable help from adults on the mechanical aspects of creating their entries. Nonetheless, students should do as much of the mechanical work as possible.
  • The intellectual aspects of the production, such as the actual writing of the script and the design of props and backboards, must be the student’s own work.
  • It is up to you to decide, when appraising an entry, if adult assistance has exceeded acceptable levels and given the students an unfair advantage over others.
  • Advice and guidance are encouraged and acceptable.

Supplying Equipment: Students are responsible for supplying all props and equipment at each level of competition. All entries should be constructed with transportation, setup time, size and weight in mind. Students must provide their own equipment, including computers and software, unless the contest coordinator has specified that certain equipment will be provided at the contest venue. Projection screens for documentaries, websites and performances may be provided.

Discussion with Judges: Students should be prepared to answer judges’ questions about the content and development of their entries, but they may not give a formal, prepared introduction, narration or conclusion.

Costumes: In the performance category, students may rent or have reasonable help creating their costumes (e.g., a parent helps a student to use a sewing machine, etc.).

Prohibited Materials: Items potentially dangerous in any way– such as weapons, firearms, animals, organisms, plants, etc.–are strictly prohibited. Such items will be confiscated by security personnel or contest officials. With the rule book update in July 2020, replicas of such items are no longer permitted.

Title: Entries must have titles that are clearly visible on all written materials.

Required Written Materials For All Entries

Title Page: A title page is required as the first page of written material in every category. The title page must include only the title of the entry, the name(s) of the student(s), the contest division and category, and applicable word counts. A title page for an entry in the performance category must include the word count for the process paper.

Note: the title page must not include any other information (pictures, graphics, borders, school name or grade) except for that described in this rule.

Annotated Bibliography: An annotated bibliography is required for all categories. Students must list all sources that you consulted during the development of your entry. Students will look at many more sources than they will actually use. Sources of visual materials and oral interviews must be included. The annotations for each source must explain how the source was used and how it helped the students understand their topics and should not be more than two or three sentences.

Separation of Primary and Secondary Sources: Students are required to separate their bibliographies into primary and secondary sources.


  • While many sources clearly fall into one category or the other, some sources can be either, depending on how they are used. In those questionable cases, the student should explain in the annotation why they classified that particular source as primary or secondary.
  • If you disagree with the categorization of a source as primary or secondary, ask about it during the interview and allow the students a chance to explain their rationale.
  • If you have doubts about the validity of an Internet source or its classification as primary or secondary, ask about it during the interview.

Style Guides: Style for citations and bibliographic references must follow the principles in one of the following style guides: (1) Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses and
Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers or (2) Joseph Gibaldi, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. Regardless of which manual is used, the style must be consistent throughout the project.

Process Paper: Entries in all categories must provide a description of no more than 500 words explaining the following:

  1. How did you choose your topic and how does it relate to the annual theme?
  2. How did you conduct your research?
  3. How did you create your project?
  4. What is your historical argument?
  5. In what ways is your topic significant in history?

In addition, your process paper must not include quotes, images or captions.


  • The process paper should not summarize the students’ research but should instead explain how they conducted research and developed the entry.

Plagiarism: Students must acknowledge in their annotated bibliographies all sources used in their entries. Failure to credit sources is plagiarism and will result in disqualification.

Category Rules: Performances

Time Requirements: Performances may not exceed ten minutes in length. Timing starts at the beginning of the performance following the announcement of the title and student name(s). Any other introductory remarks will be considered part of the overall time. Students will be allowed five minutes to set up and five minutes to remove any props needed for their performance.


  • If a performance exceeds ten minutes by a few seconds, please be lenient; students’ timing may have been slightly off for various reasons, such as a fallen prop, a forgotten line or unplanned applause.
  • If a performance is more than a few seconds too long, providing an opportunity to include additional information or interpretation, you should take that advantage into consideration by reducing that entry’s ranking. At the affiliate level, such a performance should not be allowed to advance to the National Contest.
  • Please note violations of the time requirements on the evaluation sheets.

Performance Introduction: The title of the entry and the names of the participants must be the first and only announcements prior to the start of the performance.

Audience Interaction: As of the rule update in 2020, during performances, students may not interact with or require participation by the audience.

Media Devices: Use of slides, tape recorders, computers or other media within a performance is permitted. Students must run all equipment and carry out any special lighting effects.

Script: The script for the performance should not be included with the written material presented to the judges.

Thank you and have fun!

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