Getting to Grips with Primary Sources

In this week’s workshop, we tackled the challenge of analysing primary sources in ‘gobbet’ exercises. This is a common type of assessment in Sub-Honours History modules, so first we discussed why these kinds of exercises are so important. Source analysis encourages students to get to grips with primary material, and being able to read and interpret these sources critically as historical evidence is a key skill for historians.

Source analyses are essentially exercises in deconstruction, requiring the historian to interrogate a piece of evidence and draw out as much information as possible. Knowing the right kinds of question to ask is important; in particular, instead of asking ‘What does this say?’, students should ask themselves ‘What does this tell me?’

Although there are many different ways to produce a source analysis, we suggested one method of structuring such an assessment, consisting of context, analysis, and evaluation. As an example, we used an extract from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Journeys to England and Ireland (1835) and analysed what it could tell us about the impact of the Industrial Revolution in Manchester. Then it was the turn of students! Using a variety of sources, students were split into groups and asked to analyse these extracts critically, just as they would have to in a piece of assessed coursework. With examples from a Wilfred Owen poem, a Winston Churchill speech, and the American Declaration of Independence, students had a range of sources to get stuck into. It quickly emerged that there was a whole host of information to be gleaned from these sources! Students were able to successfully put them into context, analyse their content, and evaluate their usefulness as historical evidence, and hopefully left the workshop feeling more confident about their ability to handle primary material.

For more detail on the workshop, the materials are available via the History Workshop Moodle page. Check out these links for more useful information on working with primary sources:

Exam Tip:

You are not expected to remember lots of primary material for your exams – but it is always impressive if you can include something! Try learning the important names or a key word or two from certain sources, as these will show your examiner that you know what you are talking about.