Evaluating Secondary Sources

The majority of information that history students will come across is secondary in nature. Students are expected to read textbooks and online articles, as well as watch videos of historians, educators, and independent creators. Often times, students are bombarded with secondary information for the sake of giving students context. The issue lies with students inability to digest the amount of information given to them. This article will focus on how students can read secondary sources analytically, take notes on secondary sources with critical thinking as a goal, and begin linking their notes of secondary sources to future projects, problems, or questions that they want to pursue. A student version of this can be found by clicking Evaluating Secondary Sources.

Step I: Create A Note Taking System

The first step in taking notes is understanding how they should be used for the future. Generally, students feel like teachers require notes because students can use them to take a test, or far worse, to keep them busy. Taking notes to prepare for exams in useful, but note taking serves a far greater purpose that connects to life. Notes are a way of organizing one’s thoughts and reflecting on how information changes or reaffirms beliefs. Students must learn that many successful adults incorporate note taking, journaling, and reflecting into their daily practice. If this is not the case, then what is the real point of taking notes.

Note taking can be a cluttered mess. There needs to be a purpose for notes that go beyond test taking.

However you decide to do notes, make sure students have a system down.

Once a teacher establishes the importance of taking notes, they must help students develop a system for taking them. The method I am sharing in this article focuses on using Google docs and file sharing. Students will be able to create separate Google docs for their notes and all materials will be shared with teachers. Of course, there are many ways to take notes, some of which include taping class assignments to notebooks, skeleton notes, or daily reflections on paper. Regardless of the practice, students must have a system where they are collecting their notes. Additionally, students must believe there is a higher purpose to note taking.

If you and your students need help with organizing notes, feel free to borrow my method.

  1. Open up your Google Drive and click on the “new” button, upper left side of the screen.
  2. Create a folder and name it historical research.
  3. In this folder, create a separate doc for each secondary and primary source you analyze. Use the questions and prompts in Evaluating Secondary Sources to organize notes in each doc. Make sure to name each document after the source you are analyzing.
  4. Check out this example of a research folder.
  5. If you have partners, create one folder and share with all of the team members. All analysis should go into the collective folder.

Step II: Review Teacher and Student Examples of Secondary Source Evaluation

If you are unsure or not confident in explaining a secondary source analysis, review the videos  Evaluating Secondary Sources Example and Evaluating Secondary Sources-Student Examples. Both videos were used in my class of 8th grade history students.

Step III: Gather Preliminary Information from Secondary Sources

If you have ever done a big project, then you know how hard it is to keep track of all your notes and materials. Students taking notes over various secondary sources is also difficult and they need to take notes on some identifying information.

First, students need to list: (1) name of author, creators, and/or editors, (2) title or name of source, (3) date of source creation, (4) publisher, (5) website URL, (6) any other information that helps identify the source.

Finding citation information can be exhausting and boring, but once students practice the skill, it can be done efficiently with little stress.

Understanding the reason why someone wrote something is key in finding out if you can trust the source.

Second, students need to identify if the creators of the source can be trusted. This can sometimes be as easy as looking up the author’s credentials, but sometimes students need to practice reviewing author intent in greater detail. Click here to learn more about researching authors and publishers.

Finally, students need to determine what was the purpose of the author in creating the artifact or document. Creator intent is important in determining the value of the source as trustworthy.

Step IV: Find Important Information in Secondary Sources

The final step in evaluating secondary sources is to survey the source for important information. Secondary sources are rich wells of facts that students can use to form context around their project topic. Student researchers should begin by looking for dates, names of individuals, groups, and events, and finally places. These categories of information will help students input rich contextual information into their final topic.

Student researchers should also be looking for quotational material that directly pertains to their interests. Students can write down direct quotes, paraphrases, summaries, and observations. Be careful that students do not write down information word for word, unless they find it truly important. A best practice would be to model for students how to find information that is highly valuable.

Students will need to learn how to summarize. For resources on teaching the summarizing skill, visit Skill Based Grading and Grading for Mastery

Students can finish their evaluation of the secondary source by writing questions that relate to their interests. While students read, they should be mindful of how their interests connect to their topic and they should write down questions that represent their interests and the topic that they are surveying. Students should think of open ended questions, such as questions that start with “how” or “why.” For example, “how did George Washington’s early failures as a military leader affect his strategies during the American Revolution?” These preliminary questions will lead to a bigger research question, and eventually a thesis statement.

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