How To: Process Questioned Documents

By Sandy Peterson

Document examination is definitely not as glamorous to my students as decomposition or blood spatter, yet it remains one of their favorite units. Maybe it’s the thrill of looking and finding hidden secrets and discrepancies that can lead to a shocking conclusion. Maybe it’s because everyone is on equal footing: the squeamish, the slackers, and the shy. Or maybe it’s because one can become a whiz without dressing like a model or squeezing off a few shots at a perp who may or may not be guilty.

The main ideas for this document lab were derived from an American Academy of Forensic Science Educator Conference with additional ideas from National Science Teacher Association conferences. It takes some time to prepare the lab the first time you run the it, but subsequent times are much easier, and the payoff in student engagement is worth it.

Due to time, space, and equipment constraints, I often set up station labs; teacher instructions and student worksheets are available via the links at the end of this article. My students are free to visit stations in any order with only one group per station.  This sounds disorganized, but since they have so much to accomplish in the two to three class periods allowed, they are generally busy and on task.  Prior to lab, the students have been introduced to document analysis and examples of what they will see and analyze during lab, and practice with mini-labs such as identification of physical characteristics of paper and hand writing analysis. The stations are set up with the procedure and the necessary materials and each student or group of students carries an answer sheet with them.  Once the lab is set up and edited, I suggest laminating the papers.  That way it can be easily recycled into the next school year. 

At first, the students are frustrated with the lab.  They want the answers which I do not supply, are unsure of what all they are suppose to find, and do not like having to apply what they already know about document analysis. After working, though, they gain confidence and actually begin to brainstorm and problem solve.  Stations 15 and 16 were the most frustrating because students did not follow directions, prepare good secret notes, or did not submit samples from station 15 to be used for 16. The worksheets are presented in MS Word format and can be edited.

Once students get the hang of the challenges, realize I’m not going to just give them the answers, and figure out they really do have what it takes to solve the mysteries the exercise will become one of their favorites.

Click Here for a student data sheet suitable for printing, and teacher instructions (in red). Delete the teacher instructions for student worksheets.

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