Historical Sources for GCSE and A level I Oxford Open Learning

Historical Sources for GCSE and A level

Both GCSE and A level History students are expected to analyse appropriate historical sources. This short article attempts to offer some practical advice on how to do so.

You may be faced with the problem of choice (e.g A level History) where you have to select material to use in exploring a particular topic or portion of history  over a given range of dates. A typical example would be to explore a particular topic or portion of history over a given period of time. Typically, this could be Afro-American emancipation from 1700-1900. Make sure the sources selected are substantial, so that you have opportunities to develop and extend comments, and that they cover the relevant dates. You need to be able to comment and evaluate what the source says or does not say about the subject in question. If you are required to analyse more than one source it is a good idea to choose material that presents contrasting points of view so that you can compare and contrast different opinions. Comment on not only what is said but also what is not said or implied. Are the opinions in the sources appropriate or typical for their time?

Often students approach the task of discussing each source in sequential order, using  separate paragraphs to discuss common themes followed by paragraph on difference are most convincing. Use your own judgement on difference are most convincing. Use your own judgement whto judge which of the sources and why.

If possible, comment on the providence of each source, such as which is the most convincing and why. Is the source written by an important personality of the period? Is it an official government document; A newspaper of the time, perhaps; Or could it be the work of an accredited academic; possibly just a simple textbook? Use such sources to express your own ideas and be explicit about what you think.

Try to avoid categorising or labelling a source. A standard comment is that the author is writing from a Marxist point of view particularly if you are discussing economic or social issues. It is perfectly okay and in many cases valid to say such and such interpretation is from a Marxist perspective but that you must explain what you mean by such terms in the context of the events and historical period.

Finally, relate your comments and analysis to the essential elements of the question or essay subject.


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Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.

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