Answering Source Questions - Tips

Tips on how to answer source questions in a history exam. Specifically aimed at the British Depth Study paper (the liberal reforms, women and the vote, Britain during WWI) but does apply to anyone taking a historical sources paper.

Hope these cards are useful! Please rate/post comments so I know how to improve them.

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  • Created by: Tiula
  • Created on: 14-06-10 09:41

Types of Sources

There are three main types of sources you can be given in an exam:

  • written sources
    • these can be first hand accounts, newspaper articles, extracts from a modern history book, etc.
  • pictorial sources
    • usually primary sources
    • these can be photographs, paintings, cartoons, posters etc.
  • statistical sources
    • tables, graphs, or written sources containing statistics
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The Great Don'ts

  • Do not say that a statistical source is reliable simply because it shows statistics. Remember that the figures may be false, or be represented in a way to show you something.
    • In a two person race, you could say that the second car was the 'loser' or 'came second'. Both are true, but they give you different impressions.
  • Do not say that at source written later is less reliable
  • Do not say that a photograph is reliable. Remember, they can (and often were) posed, or faked.
  • Do not say that a later source is unbiased. Modern historians can be just as biased as any other people!
  • Do not say that all politicians are biased.

I think that covers everything! Basically, it all amounts to: don't say anything unless you can prove it.

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Some Tips

  • always make use of the source the question asks you to
    • that might sound obvious, but it is surprisingly easy to leave it out! If it's a written source, then quote, and if it's a picture then mention details and how they relate to the answer
  • remember how much you're writing
    • you'll never gain more than full marks for a question, even if you write a book about it. So don't waste your time in an exam writing 10 pages about a 6 mark question.
    • you won't get marks for repeating yourself. It's better to leave an answer short than repeat yourself until you've filled 5 pages - you're wasting time
  • always make it clear to the examiner which source you're using. Don't just say 'the source' if you've already mentioned two different ones.
  • the final question will want you to reach a conclusion about a statement
    • use the sources to argue BOTH sides of the argument, and use the source reliability in your answer
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How to use own knowledge

  • use it to explain the meaning of the source
  • to explain the purpose
    • e.g. this source was published by the suffragettes because in 1912, they were fighting for the vote and they wanted people to support their campaign
  • to decide if a source is reliable
    • if the source is blatantly wrong, then you can say that it is unreliable and compare what you know about the events to what the source claims
  • look at the writer of the source. What do you know about them? What does this knowledge tell you about the origins of the source, and why it was published?
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How to comment on reliability

  • tone
    • is the tone critical, ironic, unhappy, or pleased? Often this is the hardest one to comment on, because it requires you to use a bit of intuition and common sense. What can you infer that the writer is feeling?
  • language
    • this is a key indicator in telling whether or not a source is reliable. If it is calling Lloyd George a 'pig-head' then it's probably biased, but if it's calling him a politician then it's probably not.
    • beware - things can be biased and truthful. If someone says: 'The war was a horrific and terrible thing', then most people would agree that this was true. However, it is still biased.
  • author
    • does the author have a particular reason to favour one side or another? If so, the source may be biased
    • be very careful with this. An author may have a particular reason for favouring one side, but actually is neutral or favours the other. So READ the source before you judge on the author alone
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Good things to do

  • use your own knowledge
  • cross reference
    • if the question asks 'how reliable is source A?' then you can claim that it may be unreliable because source B contradicts it
    • don't overuse this, but it is a good weapon
  • put in lots of detail
  • support your answer with details from the source
  • in a pictorial source, do not just describe the picture
  • in a pictorial source, try dividing the picture into quarters or going round it in a clock formation (e.g. what is there at one o'clock, what is there at two, etc.) to make sure you don't miss anything out. 

Good luck!

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Really good






thank you so much

Former Member





thanks. :)



This is soooo good! Thankyou! :)



Incredibly helpful - Thank you :)



useful information :)

lee jie jiun



safs alhamoui


starting revision now last two weeks of summer, just to be ahead~ really helped/ thanks....!



Great help! Thanks






Thank you! This is a brilliant help!



Amazing help! Thank you !!

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