Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Disappointing Course Review: AGS: Beyond the Basics by NGS

NGS replaced their Home Study Course with a series of courses titled American Genealogical Studies. After successfully completing the prerequisites, AGS: The Basics and the frustrating AGS: Guide to Documentation and Source Citations, I recently started AGS: Beyond the Basics. (I reviewed the first two courses here and here.)

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The first of five modules is titled "Evidence Analysis" and covers the Genealogical Proof Standard along with sources, information, and evidence. Unfortunately, I feel this module has totally misunderstood several of these key concepts and is promoting very wrong ideas to genealogy students. I would not, at this time, recommend this course. 


There are three types of sources: original, derivative, and authored narrative. I thought the course did a good job of explaining these three types of records. The quiz only had one question I disagreed with: whether a family history was an original, derivative, or authored narrative. I said it was an authored narrative, but got the question wrong. What do you think?


There are also three types of information: primary (first-hand) information, secondary (second-hand) information, and undetermined knowledge in which we are not sure who is providing the information. Although the course notes do a good job of explaining the three types of sources, one of the quiz questions seems to imply that even first-hand knowledge becomes secondary if it is shared at a date far removed from the event. In this question, a man recorded his son's birth date in various books. In later books, the father started writing a different date of birth for his son. To get this question correct, you must say these later books contain "secondary information." However, even though this father must have been incorrect on one of the dates of birth he recorded, the information is still first-hand and is therefore primary information. As Elizabeth Shown Mills points out, "A time lapse might affect the quality of the recollection, but it does not alter the primary nature of the information."[1]


Evidence also has three types: direct, indirect, and negative. This is where I feel the teaching is just plain wrong. For those of you who don't know, or as a reminder, here are the basics of the three types of evidence as described in Tom Jones' book, Mastering Genealogical Proof:
  • "Direct evidence is an information item that answers a research question by itself."[2] But, Elizabeth Shown Mills adds that "it may not give us as complete an answer as we would like."[3]
  • "Indirect evidence is a set of two or more information items that suggest an answer to a research question only when they are combined."[4] In other words, the single piece of evidence doesn't answer the question by itself, but can be used with other pieces of evidence to answer the question.
  • "Negative evidence is the absence of information that answers a research questions."[5] Tom Jones' example is not finding an individual on a specific tax lists which suggests "the research subject was a minor, too old to pay taxes, deceased, or living elsewhere."[6]
Compare these answers to the Beyond the Basics course notes. For an example of indirect evidence, the course refers to a death certificate where the place of birth was stated as "Germany." The notes say: "This information is relevant to the research problem but it does not provide us with a specific town or location by itself. Therefore, this evidence is indirect evidence." [Italics added for emphasis.]

And yet, "Germany" does provide direct evidence as to where the person was born! Remember, Elizabeth Shown Mills said the answer given might not be "as complete an answer as we would like."[7] Places like "Kansas" or "Cowley County, Kansas" supply direct evidence to questions involving "where" something happened. Likewise, "1858" or the "summer of 1972" are also direct evidence for questions of "when" something occurred. If places and dates had to be exact, there would be very little direct evidence! In fact, even a census record stating a person was born in May 1858 would be considered indirect evidence. This is just wrong!

When I wrote the person in charge of course content about this question, she added that Germany wasn't even a unified country when this person was born in 1868. She asked, "did the informant know this or were they using the current geographical area?" She also stated that an employee of the clinic where this person died had filled out the form and suggested the employee might have just guessed the deceased was from Germany because of her name. Again, while this information is useful when analyzing the document, it has no bearing on whether or not the information is direct or indirect. The information provided answered the question as to where the deceased was born and is, therefore, direct evidence.

The course also fails, in my opinion, when discussing negative evidence. Using the same death certificate, the fact that "Unk." [unknown] was listed in the field for "mother's maiden name" was highlighted. This is one of two examples this course used for negative evidence. However, finding a document indicating the mother's name was unknown is not evidence at all! It doesn't point towards any answer. It does not give a clue to answer the research question! And, as the quiz questions reflect, this "lack of evidence" being called "negative evidence" continued throughout this module.

After reading this section, there is a quiz in which students read a letter and choose whether the letter provided direct, indirect, or negative evidence for certain questions. In any instance where the letter doesn't provide any information regarding that fact, you have to wrongly chose "negative evidence" to get the answer correct. 

The final quiz for this module is probably the worst part. There are a series of questions which each have four answers like "original source, secondary information, indirect evidence" or "original source, secondary information, direct evidence." However, since in particular the evidence concept is flawed in this course, you must purposefully choose the wrong answers to get the questions correct!

There were additional problems with this module including one quiz which was missing a question and one question which had two wrong answers and a blank answer. These were glitches in the system which I was told cannot be fixed unless someone points them out. When accessing my course, I can see that the "blank answer" question has been fixed, but the quiz with the missing question is still missing a question. Thankfully, the resulting score gives the student the point for this missing question.


While writing back and forth with the person in charge of course content, I explained how unhappy I was with this course and asked for a refund. I shared the problems I've shared in this post and more. In reply, I was referred to the website which clearly states: "All purchases of courses are final. No refunds or credits are available."


After having issues with the first two courses, which cost me $45 each, I spent $175 on this course. I am writing this review primarily for two reasons. First of all, I sincerely hope that NGS will correct the issues I've presented regarding this course. Secondly, I hope to save others the $175 it costs to enroll in this course which contains some misguided concepts that I believe will be damaging to students.

Do you agree with what I've written? Disagree? I'd love to hear from you! Also, I'd love to hear from anyone who has taken the online "Beyond the Basics" course and get their feedback. Please leave a comment or email me at

[1] Elizabeth Shown Mills, "QuickLesson 17: The Evidence Analysis Process Model," Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage ( [accessed 30 November 2016].

[2] Tom Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof (Arlington, VA: National Genealogical Society special publication, 2013), 14-15.

[3] Mills, "QuickLesson 17."

[4] Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof, 14-15. 

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Mills, "QuickLesson 17."


  1. Dana, I really appreciate this post. I was going to take this course next, but I will save my money and avoid the frustration. By the way, I haven't decided for sure how I will label those collages. They are in protective archival sleeves and I will probably put a piece of paper in the back with a descriptive information and IDs of everyone in the photos, but I'm not sure this is the best way yet.

    1. I have been enjoying courses by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. Even though I'm intermediate/advanced, I'm taking basic level courses (towards an American certificate) and have been learning lots! You might check those out!

  2. Thank you, Dana, for writing this post. I discovered it by accident and yes, you're saving me $175.00. Also, thank you for noting that you had issues with the first two courses. So did I. Even though I have been working with genealogy for a number of years, at times I felt as if I'd never spent an hour in this profession. I will check out the other courses you suggested.

    1. I'm glad I saved you the $175! And, hope your other classes work out better. I am still REALLY enjoying the courses by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies.

  3. Thank you for your review! I took the first two courses only because I was interested in taking the later ones, but I found them to be mediocre and I wasn't sure I wanted to continue the series. This is good to know and the response you received when you let them know about the problems is disappointing. You saved me $175 too. I'll try the National Institute for Genealogical Studies courses instead. I hope that NGS fixes the problems.

    1. I'm glad you found my review & found it helpful. I am still really pleased with the National Institute for Genealogical Studies. And, am hopeful NGS fixes their courses, too!


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