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Analyzing Primary Sources

Never be stumped by a Maori artifact again.

Course Description

This 6-lesson nano course will teach students how to identify, interpret, and use primary sources to study history. Each lesson will focus on a different category of primary source (textual, visual, audio, or material), and will include an activity built around one or two examples of that primary source. The examples will be deliberately unfamiliar, to minimize students' preexisting biases and ideas about the source. We won't be reading the Declaration of Independence, but we might be looking at illustrations of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, or material objects from the Maori. The final lesson will ask students to take the next step in historical analysis. They will be asked to take a group of primary sources all related to the same event and construct a short argument based around the sources.

When they finish this course, students will be able to:

  • Identify and categorize primary source materials.
  • Determine basic information about a primary source, including its location, authorship, date, and audience.
  • Analyze the more complicated aspects of primary sources, and ask questions about authorial bias, inaccuracy, objectivity, and historical context. 
  • Interpret a variety of different kinds of primary sources, including texts, images, audio recordings, and material objects.
  • Begin to use primary sources to develop their own ideas and make historical arguments.

Technology Requirements

  • Microsoft Office, Google Docs, or another word processing program
  • All other work can be done via the Shmoop website.

Required Skills

Since this course deals with primary sources, which contain complicated language, students must have high-school level reading and interpretation skills.

Course Breakdown

    Unit 1. Analyzing Primary Sources

    This course is a comprehensive introduction to how to read and evaluate primary sources. After starting by defining primary sources, we'll go over how to evaluate documents, images, sounds, objects, and round it all out by testing students' chops in with a mini-essay.

  • Course Length: 2 weeks
  • Grade Levels: 9, 10, 11, 12, College
  • Course Type: Short Course
  • Category:
    • History and Social Science
    • Life Skills
    • Humanities

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