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Analyzing Primary Sources

Never be stumped by a Maori artifact again.

This 6-lesson short 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.

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, and objects, and round it all out by testing students' chops with a mini-essay.

Sample Lesson - Introduction

Lesson 1: What is a Primary Source?

Are you ready for some primary source action? Ready to dig in to some old documents and probably find a secret map written in invisible ink on the back of the Declaration of Independence, National Treasure-style? Yeah, actually, we're not quite there yet.

We'll need the keen insight, brilliant mind, and dashing heroism of Sherlock Holmes. Or Benedict Cumberbatch. Or Robert Downey Jr. Any of 'em would probably get the job done.


Before we fight a bunch of people to protect American history (actually, we're never doing that; that's the sequel to this course), we're going to have to figure out what primary sources actually are. Not to give away the ending, but primary sources are original materials that were created during the time under study. Then we're going to need to know how to find and identify them in the wild. And then, once we catch them, and avoid their claws, we're going to need to know what kinds of questions to ask them. And hope they have some answers for us.