Evaluating Secondary Sources at A2 level

Tim Clancey advises on how to use historians’ writings to your best advantage.

Secondary Sources 

Sixth form students of History are encouraged whenever possible to read secondary sources. Typically these will be books or articles written by professional (or well-read amateur) historians based on their own study of primary sources. They may be informed and influenced by other secondary sources, but will have based their work predominantly upon primary sources, which may include oral or written accounts from those who witnessed events, statistics gathered on the ground, photographs or filmed evidence. However, students will often feel themselves to be on a steep learning curve; pressurised by competing demands of different subjects and other commitments outside school or college work, trying to master large quantities of knowledge and practise the skills needed to analyse questions and produce structured, detailed answers in too little exam time.  

For this reason tertiary sources, a mainstay of GCSE and AS level study, remain popular even at A2 level as they are designed for purpose and save time mastering the basics.

Tertiary Sources: Advantages and Disadvantages 

Such sources are typically textbooks or articles written specifically for student use and based predominantly upon secondary sources. Purpose-designed GCSE and A level textbooks, and most teacher-produced handouts, usually fall in this category. Recognising that exam boards like to see awareness of historical debate, tertiary sources often provide summaries of the historiography – different historians’ interpretations of the past, setting these alongside each other and even categorising the interpretations into different ‘schools of thought’, such as ‘Whig’, ‘Marxist’, ‘Revisionist’, ‘Post-Revisionist’ and so on.

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