How to answer source-based questions


The essence of the study of History rests upon the investigation of evidence. The bulk of your coursework, homework and project work will require you to interpret primary and secondary sources, therefore you will have ample opportunity to hone your source analysis skills throughout the course of study. Much of what you will be asked to do in class will mimic the types of questions you will see on tests and exams. The only difference will be the time with which you have to work with the sources; therefore you must know how to approach source-based questions.


There are a variety of source-based questions you will be asked to deal with, some ask you to analyze one source, some require you to compare one source to another, and some questions will ask you to consider a number of different sources in your analysis. All source-based questions demand that you reach a judgment. In other words you will need to ultimately determine the reliability and usefulness to the historian. Very few questions will only ask you to superficially relate what is being stated. The expectation will always be that you provide deep analysis of what the source means, what it reveals about a particular issue.


The first aspect to make clear in answering source-based questions is not to simple replicate what has already been stated. In other words, if you are investigating a written source you would not copy out exactly what is stated in the source and expect that to earn any credit in your answer. You must work with the source and develop an interpretation as to why what was written was important and then, further, you must use your interpretation as evidence to prove or disprove a point – thus establishing a judgment concerning the usefulness of the source.


QUESTION TYPE 1 (12 point/mark Source Comparison Question) “How far does Source B differ from Source A in relation to…”


Does Not Meet (1-2) Writes out source or… Simple Comparison    
Partially Meets (3-6) Difference of views No similarity (or vice versa)    
Meets (7-9) Difference of views Similarity of views Use of own knowledge  
Exceeds (10-12) Difference of views Similarity of views Use of own knowledge Very Good understanding


Structuring your answer: Your response should consist of two paragraphs and a conclusion. Do not worry about an introduction go straight into the first paragraph identifying differences. When you have summarized and/or quoted from one you need to show how opinions/views are different in the other source. If at this point you are able to state how different they are it will help to solidify your conclusion. It is essential that you embed your own knowledge to show a good understanding of the question. Try to weave it in amongst the discussion about the quotes from the sources rather than bolting it on at the end. The second paragraph is much the same, but instead should be showing similarities. When you conclude you must ensure that you agree with the evidence that you have found and explain how far the sources agree/disagree with one another. You can use a scale of words such as strongly/mostly/moderately/slightly.


Useful words/phrases: Differences – whereas, however, in contrast. Similarities – similarly, supporting this.


QUESTION TYPE 2 (24 point/mark Source Based Essay Question) “Use all three sources and your own knowledge…”


Does Not Meet (1-6) Limited detail or little description Generalized comments of assertion    
Partially Meets (7-11)


Some detail or some description Some limited explicit links or comments    
Meets (12-16) Suitable detail/lacks depth Explicit links/lacks weight Maybe some balance


Meets/Exceeds (17-21) Good range of detail Explicit understanding Balanced argument  
Exceeds (22-24) Precise detail Explicit understanding Well balanced argument Clear judgment


Structuring your answer: This question usually asks you to consider how far or how important an event or person was in relation to something, for example: “How far was the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 a threat to Henry VIII? “ For this you need to have a two-sided argument and a conclusion, so you could say in your first paragraph – yes the Pilgrimage of Grace was a threat to Henry and then in your second paragraph, explain why it can also been seen as not being a threat to him. Like any essay you have got to make your point, explain why it can be viewed in this way, and then support it with evidence. For this question in the exam specifically you must ensure that your evidence is both from your own knowledge (specific facts and information) and from the source (all of them), when using the sources ensure you quote from them (briefly) and state which source its from.

Try not to end a paragraph on a quote, it often then means that you’re letting the quote “speak for itself”, you must remember that if you don’t back up evidence with a clear explanation then you won’t be getting the top end of the marks. This means that for anything that is included as knowledge must be explicitly linked back to the question.


Useful words/phrases to use: “This is supported by Source B where it states/implies…


How to answer source-based questions – cross-referencing


One of the most important things to remember is that a source should never be used in isolation. It needs to be interpreted in the light of information obtained from other sources. There are three main reasons why cross-referencing between sources is so important:


  • We can only judge how useful and reliable a source is by comparing it with what we already know and what other sources say.
  • It can help us to solve mysteries or apparent contradictions.
  • By using a combination of sources, we can often deduce things that none of the sources say when looked at individually.


Reaching a developed Judgment


If you structure your answer so that you focus on points that are broadly in agreement, then points that are broadly in disagreement, you need to make sure you examine the grey areas – the bits in between. This might mean introducing a final point that examines the grey areas, or an extended conclusion that weighs up how far they agree.


Good answers may try to read judgments as they proceed. This means more than just adding sentences at the end of each paragraph to say whether the sources agree. With the emphasis on ‘how far’ as you develop your points, try to give judgments that show the reasoning for your decision.


A strong conclusion always helps. This should weigh up how far the sources agree or disagree and return fully to the question, for example stating how far they suggest whatever is asked, or how far Sources 1 and 2 disagree with Source 3 over the same issue in the question.


Strong conclusions often weight up the points and judgments that have been made through the answer. Without repeating what you have said, you might refer back to key issues about the evidence or views in the source.


Your answer should reach a judgment in relation to the issue posed by the question supported by careful examination of the evidence of the sources. The sources are cross-referenced and the elements of challenge and corroboration are analyzed. The issues raised by the process of comparison are used to address the specific question.


The attributes of the sources are taken into account in order to establish what weight the content will bear in relation to the specific enquiry. In addressing ‘how far’, the sources are used in combination.