Course: 2024-08 – Tools & Strategies for Tackling Tough Research Problems

Coordinator: Kimberly T. Powell


This hands-on workshop/practicum for high-intermediate to advanced genealogists delves deeply into methodologies, strategies, and best practices for solving complex genealogical problems. The focus is on methodology and tools, rather than records, explored through a mix of lectures, interactive case studies, and applied learning opportunities. Since good research requires practice, this course will incorporate a variety of exercises and guided participation designed to help enhance your learning. We want you to go home feeling confident that you can apply what you have learned to your own tough research problems!

Other Instructors:

Catherine B.W. Desmarais, CG
Karen Mauer Jones, CG, FGBS, FUGA
Patricia R. Reed

Student Prerequisites:

Working knowledge of sources, information, evidence, and the GPS, as well as familiarity with a wide variety of record types (e.g., census, tax lists, deeds, passenger lists, probate records, vital records).

Familiarity with the concepts presented in Mastering Genealogical Proof  (Arlington, Va.: National Genealogical Society, 2013).

Familiarity with the first chapter of Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation and Source Usage, 3rd edition (Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2015).


  1. Please come prepared with a summary of the research that you have done to date on a challenging research problem. The written summary doesn’t have to be formal, but it should be organized such that someone else can understand the research to date and you have a strong foundation that you can build on during our week together. We will also use the summaries in group strategy sessions. Sharing is optional if you prefer to work on a project you can’t share.
  2. A second monitor or a second computer may be helpful, especially for participation in tools sessions or online research sessions. Any tools used in the course, such as Excel and Gephi, will be accessible for both Mac and Windows users. Still, they can sometimes be power-intensive (especially Gephi), so running them on the same computer running Zoom may be an issue if you’re using an older computer. Following along in the software is not required, however. You will also learn from the sessions if you prefer to listen and watch the demonstration.

Day Session Title Description Instructor
Monday 1 The Genealogists’ Mindset: Problem Analysis and the Research Process It’s all about the mindset. Reliable answers to tough genealogical research problems require an analytical approach, critical thinking, thorough research, and discipline. This session will set the stage for understanding our research subject in the context of time, place, and relationships; thoughtful analysis and appraisal of information; integration and correlation of evidence from a variety of sources; and testing our hypotheses and written conclusions for assumption, bias, and alternative explanations—the principles on which the rest of this course are based. Powell
2 Strategic Planning: Developing and Executing Effective Research When an answer eludes us, it usually doesn’t mean the evidence is unavailable. This session will focus on how to craft plans that help us solve challenging problems, including re-appraising results-to-date and using context and source research to identify potentially relevant records. We’ll also examine the thought process for refining and repeating our plans as we execute them. Reed
3 Details and Context: Squeezing Evidence from Documents This hands-on session will explore the many layers of internal and external context that may affect how and if the information a document provides reflects reality and the evidence we can glean from it. The majority of this sessions is hands-on practicum based as we work in groups to ask questions of several example sources, squeeze as much information from them as we can, and consider where the information might lead us next. Powell/Reed
4 Details and Context: Squeezing Evidence from Documents Continued from the previous session. Powell/Reed
Extra Session Small Group Strategy Session: Each day ends with extra time for a small group strategy session to brainstorm and strategize the next steps and apply what you’ve learned during the day to your own tough research problem. Groups will be organized by research area/topic of interest and/or expertise (if you don’t want to share your own research, perhaps you can help others!). Powell
Tuesday 5 The Ties that Bind: Developing Identities, Correlating Clusters, and Proving Relationships Good genealogical research focuses on identities, not people. We need to recognize our research subjects not only by their name but through the context of their life, their communities, and their relationships. This session focuses on learning to recognize and correlate those threads of evidence that tie people together and help us to reconstruct their lives and prove relationships. Powell
6 Widen the Net: Online “Fishing” Strategies for Finding Unexpected Information No matter how thorough our research plan is, sometimes the evidence we need hides somewhere we never expected to find it. This session will cover strategies for finding, evaluating, and piecing together information gleaned from various online sources, including the information we didn’t know to look for! Powell
7 Managing a Complex Research Project and Writing as You Go Karen, Kimberly, and Patricia will share various approaches for organizing and managing an extensive research project, making good use of research notes as a tool for problem-solving, and writing as you go. Examples and demonstrated strategies will utilize various tools, including Word, spreadsheets, Scrivener, and even PowerPoint! Shared student strategies are also encouraged! Powell/Reed/Jones
8 Managing a Complex Research Project and Writing as You Go—Continued Continued from the previous session. Powell/Reed/Jones
Extra Session Small Group Strategy Session Powell
Wednesday 9 Simplifying Complexity: Tools and Strategies for Examining Information and Evidence & Developing Hypotheses In this hands-on workshop, we will dig into various tools for organizing and examining information and evidence—including timelines, tables, spreadsheets, and mind/concept maps, and explore which types of problems are best suited for each method. Powell
10 Simplifying Complexity: Tools and Strategies for Examining Information and Evidence & Developing Hypotheses—continued. In this continuation of the hands-on workshop, we will continue the discussion and practice applying the strategies and tools to your own tough problem. Powell
11 Obstacle Avoidance: Alternative Paths Around “Burned Counties and Evidence Gaps A lack of records doesn’t have to mean a lack of evidence. This session will explore some of the reasons for gaps in evidence—missing information or records, interpretation, bias, incomplete knowledge, and historical and cultural context—as well as various research strategies for recognizing and filling in gaps in evidence. Powell
12 Mastering the Spreadsheet for Data Analysis & Correlation Learn how to manipulate collected spreadsheet data to uncover patterns and correlations you might otherwise miss. Use your own spreadsheet or the spreadsheets I will provide for hands-on practice as we walk through various strategies. Powell
Extra Session Small Group Strategy Session Powell
Thursday 13 Common Threads: Get to Know the Neighbors Learn how to correlate census records with tax lists, church lists, legislative petitions, road orders, historical maps, deeds, and other records to identify your ancestor’s closest neighbors and associates and “build” a cluster community for researching sticky problems. Powell
14 Community Context: Get to Know the Neighborhood This session will explore a variety of creative strategies for locating an ancestor’s “neighborhood” on a map, plus methods for using historical and social data and laws to identify community patterns and pinpoint what is “normal” for the time and place. Powell
15 Reconstructing a Revolutionary War Militiaman’s Family: Documentary Evidence Recollections, once proven incorrect, should be discarded…or should they? An error in a family record offered a clue to an ancestral surname. Sparse evidence to prove a parent-child link led to expanding the goal to reconstruct the entire family despite a lack of direct evidence for any of the seven proposed children.  Desmarais
16 Reconstructing a Revolutionary War Militiaman’s Family: DNA Evidence This session will expand on the previous lecture, illustrating the various strategies used to strengthen the sparse indirect documentary evidence by adding genetic evidence. Desmarais
Extra Session Small Group Strategy Session Powell
Friday 17 Using DNA to Drive Documentary Research When documentary evidence seems to reach a dead end, DNA may help to suggest the next steps. In this session, we’ll explore creative ways in which the evaluation of the connections in and between shared match groups or clusters can be used to target potential individuals and localities for further documentary research. Powell
18 Social Network Analysis for Genealogy Sometimes, you need to approach evidence with fresh eyes to make new connections. We’ll wrap up the week with a hands-on exploration of the possibilities of social network “cluster” analysis for documentary and DNA evidence using the free, open-source Gephi software. Powell