What students need to know and do
Students must learn to work with sources from their first year. They need to learn to differentiate between primary and secondary sources in order to make judgements about them and their use.
Student barriers to learning
Students often have difficulty understanding the difference between primary and secondary sources. Sometimes the categories are blurred and means of dissemination may not conform to student preconceptions. For example, edited volumes of documents and documents delivered online may present particularly problematic. Students working with contemporary history topics may also be easily confused. Even when students are able to differentiate between the two kinds of sources, some students will still prefer to privilege secondary sources. These students are still looking for an authority that will sort and settle everything. They may therefore not appreciate that their academics have set a different agenda for History classrooms and essays at university: not fact collection per se, so much as source interpretation and criticism. These students still don’t grasp that they are actually being invited to begin to make knowledge, not just to parrot knowledge (Hughes-Warrington et. al. 2009).
Our teaching strategies
Students should be given the opportunity to explore a range of primary and secondary sources, not just for the information they contain, but also as an exercise in identification and discussion about how they serve as the raw material for the Historian at work. Take the time to explain, furthermore, why the students are being invited to tackle this tricky material. This is research training (Evans, 1994; Peters, 2001).
Evans, R.W. (1994). Educational ideologies and the teaching of history. In G. Leinhardt, L.I. Beck, & C. Stainton (Eds.), Teaching and learning in history (pp. 177-207). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Hughes-Warrington, M., Roe, J., Nye, A., Bailey, M., Peel, M., Russell, P., Laugeson, A., Deacon, D., Kiem, P. & Trent, F. (2009). Historical thinking in higher education: Final report to the Australian Learning and Teaching Council. Retrieved from http://www.altc.edu.au/resource-historical-thinking-highereducation-macquarie-2009
Peters, J. (2001). Combining innovative professional practice with a traditional subject: Negotiated learning in history. In E. Chambers, Y Evans & K Lock (Eds.), Subject knowledges and professional practices in the arts and humanities (pp. 105-112). Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
What students need to know and do
Students should be introduced to the ways in which historians make judgements about the sources they use. Students often have limited exposure to a variety of primary and secondary source types. Students are therefore often not aware of what sources are available to the historian, the purposes they serve and how they can be used. Students in the first year must realise that sources are always problematic; they carry an agenda and were created for a purpose. Discussion of the nature of sources should accompany any student use of them. When beginning to analyse primary sources in the first year, students should be encouraged to undertake a careful reading of the texts and to discuss their historical contexts. At the same time they should apply the same techniques to reading secondary sources. In this way they will be encouraged to look at all sources with a more critical eye.
Student Barriers to Learning
Students coming to the study of history for the first time find making any sort of judgement difficult. They feel insecure in analysing, assessing and commenting because they often believe they do not have enough knowledge to make informed judgements. As a consequence they focus on receiving knowledge, trying hard to avoid actually practising how to make knowledge. They’ll turn to the academic or to the textbook for ‘the answers’ instead. Primary sources can be difficult to understand because the language is archaic or the concepts unfamiliar. Students may respond by tending to gloss over difficult passages, or even by ignoring the primary sources altogether as simply too difficult to use. An added dimension of difficulty may arise if the primary sources are translations from a foreign language. How do different translations change the meaning of the text? For some or all of these reasons, first-year students will often prefer to read secondary sources simply because they are familiar with the process of gathering information, and because they think these sources are the only truly authoritative sources they can read. These one-truth-seeking students may not yet be reading to unravel the argument or to identify a perspective (Halldén, 1993; van Drie & van Boxtel, 2008; Wineburg, 1991; Wineburg, 2001).
Our teaching strategies
We should explicitly model how we use primary and secondary sources as artefacts of interpretation in themselves and not simply as repositories of information for students to mine (Anderson & Day, 2005; Lee, 2004b; Wineburg & Wilson; 1991). Conducting reading activities in small groups can assist students to identify and discuss the meaning of difficult words and concepts.
Anderson, C., & Day, K. (2005c). Purposive environments: Engaging students in the values and practices of history, Higher Education, 49(3), 319-343. DOI: 10.1007/s10734-004-6676-y
Halldén, O. (1993). Learners’ conceptions of the subject matter being taught: A case from learning history, International Journal of Educational Research, 19(3), 317-25.
Lee, P. (2004a). Walking backwards into tomorrow: Historical consciousness and understanding history. International Journal of Historical Learning, Teaching and Research 4(1).
van Drie, J., & van Boxtel, C. (2008). Historical reasoning: Towards a framework for analysing students’ reasoning about the past, Educational Psychology Review, 20(2), 87-110. DOI: 10.1007/s10648-007-9056-1
Wineburg, S. (1991). On the reading of historical texts: Notes on the breach between school and academy, American Educational Research Journal, 28(3), 495-519. DOI: 10.3102/00028312028003495
Wineburg, S. (2001). Historical thinking and other unnatural acts: Charting the future of teaching the past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Wineburg, S. & Wilson, S. (1991). Subject matter knowledge in the teaching of history. In J. Brophy (Ed.), Advances in research on teaching: a research annual, vol. 2, teachers’ knowledge of subject matter as it relates to their teaching practice. Greenwood, CH: JAI Press.