Tackling Source-Based Questions

Graham D Goodlad matches source-based questions with the skills needed to tackle them effectively.

The study of source material is a well-established feature of A Level History. For many years students have been expected to engage with the raw material of the historian's trade, analysing documentary extracts and investigating historical problems through the use of a range of different sources. Although individual requirements vary, all three principal examining bodies include source-based papers. All History candidates will therefore be asked to read selected documentary quotations, extract information from them, evaluate them and assess their usefulness as evidence. You may be asked to compare two or more sources and you will certainly be required to relate your understanding of source material to a wider historical context. It is therefore important to develop the skills necessary for tackling this kind of question. This article offers some guidance on what to look out for, and then reviews the main kinds of historical sources which you are likely to encounter.

Know what to expect

It is important to know how source material will be used in your course. Use the specification itself, and copies of specimen and past papers, to familiarise yourself with the style of questions favoured by your examining board. It is also a good idea to get hold of textbooks that incorporate relevant source material. 

Most source-based questions have a format that will be familiar from GCSE examinations. They are subdivided into a number of parts. How long should you spend on each? If guidance is not given on this, a rough indication will be provided by the mark scheme, usually printed in the margin. Some sub-questions will require a short paragraph; others, usually the final one, will call for a piece of extended writing. Make sure that you do not spend too long on a short question and so leave yourself insufficient time to answer the more demanding parts.

Explaining and evaluating

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