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Using Primary Sources to Teach Both Story and Skills

Students closely examing the Declaration of Independence. NHEC

History is the story of the past. But because the past comes to us via fragments, that is, surviving documents and accounts, history as a discipline focuses on interpreting what happened and why. Due to time constraints and standardized testing, many teachers focus on teaching students the basic story of the past, sometimes leaving out historical analysis. Many teachers who use primary sources to teach about historical thinking worry that it will take time away from helping students understand what happened. However, one study suggests both activities can—and should—happen at once.

Many teachers who use primary sources to teach about historical thinking worry that it will take time away from helping students understand what happened. However, one study suggests both activities can—and should—happen at once.

In two separate experiments, Charles Perfetti and his colleagues interviewed 30 undergraduate students, trying to understand how history students use texts. Students were given documents about the Panama Canal taken from textbooks, primary sources, and secondary sources, and written from a variety of perspectives. The researchers found that reading primary sources helped the students learn to read, write, and think historically. As a consequence, they gained a better understanding of the past. By reading multiple documents to develop their own opinions about the past, students became more thoughtful consumers of information even as they received a richer, fuller, and more accurate story of what really happened.

The Search for Accuracy

When students are presented with only textbook and/or secondary accounts, they tend to see history as simple and straightforward. They rarely seek out more information, and while capable of identifying author bias, do so only where bias is obvious.

When they encounter primary sources, . . . students become aware of subtle biases depending on when a document was written, where, and by whom.

When they encounter primary sources, on the other hand, students become aware of subtle biases depending on when a document was written, where, and by whom. They often express greater interest in seeing more sources in order to verify their understanding of past events. Students who are given primary sources refer more frequently to evidence, citing the sources of their information. Thus, examining primary sources helps students think more critically about the importance of accuracy, both in the sources and their own interpretations.

The Search for a Fuller Picture

In many cases, students look to the textbook to find out what happened. But when they were given primary sources, the students in this study began to question the textbook accounts, asking questions about issues the textbook had failed to cover. In seeing themselves as historical detectives, students began to piece together various accounts to build a fuller picture of events, using the textbook as a resource and not the ultimate arbiter of truth.


In the Classroom 

  • Begin by having students read the textbook account of a particular event. Aim for a manageable topic like the creation of the Panama Canal, rather than a large and complex event such as the Civil War.
  • After they have read the textbook passage, have students write about (or briefly discuss as a class) whether they believe the textbook account is reliable, or if they need more information.
  • Next, present students with 2-4 primary sources on the topic. They can read these either individually or in groups. Good primary sources can be found at websites like American Memory or The Internet Modern History Sourcebook. Ideally, such sources will add new information about the story, revealing gaps or inconsistencies in the textbook account (check out how Historical Thinking Matters handles the Spanish American War, the Scopes Trial, Social Security, and Rosa Parks).
  • After your students have reviewed their primary sources, ask them to reconsider the reliability of the textbook account. What has changed? What questions do they have that they didn’t have before? Are there disagreements among the texts? What could account for those? What additional information would students like to see?
  • At the end of the unit, discuss what the students have learned. It is likely that they will emerge with more historical thinking skills, as well as a better understanding of the past.

Sample Application 

The authors of this study exposed students to different types of sources—primary, secondary, and textbook—and asked them four questions about each text which required some historical interpretation:

  • Did the author present a neutral coverage of the events? If not, what do you think the author’s attitude was?
  • Did you notice inconsistencies among texts?
  • Were events perceived similarly by the different groups involved?
  • What else would you like to know?

Through such questions, the researchers prompted students to consider author bias, inconsistencies across texts, narrative incompleteness, and presence of conflicting views.

Such an activity is helpful for history students of all ages. They can learn to identify bias, resolve contradictions, recognize the limitations of certain documents, and grasp the meaning of multiple perspectives.


Charles A. Perfetti, M. Anne Britt, Jean-Francois Rouet, Mara C. Georgi, and Robert A. Mason, “How Students Use Texts to Learn and Reason about Historical Uncertainty,” in Mario Carretero and James F. Voss, eds. Cognitive and Instructional Processes in History and the Social Sciences (Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994), pp. 257-283.

And if you are using primary

And if you are using primary sources don't forget to talk about WHERE those documents come from, where they have been, and where the ORIGINALS currently reside (PROVENANCE). If the Panama Canal is your subject matter, for instance, you SHOULD be going to the source for your documents, i.e., one (or more) of the presintial libraries (Roosevelt or Carter) responsible for caretaking of the ORIGINAL SOURCE MATERIALS. To use primary sources in your classroom but draw them from secondary repositories is to undercut your own purposes.

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