Module Catalogue 2023/24

HIS1101 : Historical Sources and Methods

  • Offered for Year: 2023/24
  • Module Leader(s): Dr David Hope
  • Owning School: History, Classics and Archaeology
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus
Semester 2 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0
Pre Requisites
Pre Requisite Comment


Co Requisites
Co Requisite Comment



This module introduces students to the raw materials upon which historical research is based, namely primary sources produced at the time, to encourage critical engagement with these sources, and familiarise students with a range of methods and techniques necessary to examine and interpret primary sources as historical evidence.

While historical research frequently draws on the ideas, arguments, and interpretations of other scholars, it ultimately rests on a deep and critical engagement with primary materials. Original documents take a wide variety of forms, ranging from texts (like letters, diaries, legislation, and official reports), to visual sources (such as paintings, posters, photographs, satirical cartoons), to the material traces of the past (objects, buildings and landscapes).

The module is not intended to be exhaustive as the rich array of primary evidence is one of the many things that makes history such a dynamic and interesting discipline. Rather, it aims to ground students in the types of primary sources they will most commonly encounter over the course of their undergraduate degree, and to equip them with the analytical tools to critically evaluate them. While many students (although not all) will have a basic idea of primary source analysis skills (perhaps based on thinking about who, what, when and why they were produced), this module aims to deepen and consolidate these approaches and introduce students to some of the methods historians can use to make sense of the past.

On successful completion of the module students will have a more critical and nuanced understanding of the circumstances in which particular sources were produced, as well as how, when, and with what purposes historians might turn to them. Most importantly, students will appreciate that primary sources, irrespective of the forms they take, are far from transparent windows on the past. Indeed, the primary documents available to us are a very imperfect historical record. They are often highly mediated and selective records, shaped by decisions at the time as to what information was important, and how to record it, as well as subsequent decisions taken by archivists and other gatekeepers about what records to preserve, and how to organise that material. Evidence then rarely, if ever, speaks for itself. Yet with careful examination, contextualisation, and interpretation they can form the basis for research. This module will give students the knowledge, methods, skills, experience, and confidence to draw more fully on primary evidence throughout their degree.

Further aims include:
- Introduce students to the University's Special Collections and Archives as a key resource during their studies and to provide students with the opportunity to acquire experience of studying in an archive and handling primary sources.
- Build upon the skills acquired in Evidence & Argument (with its focus on historiography) by developing students' confidence and skills in critically engaging with primary source evidence and methods used in historical research.
- Developing students' ability to write source commentaries and use primary sources and historical methods in research essays.

Outline Of Syllabus

Outline syllabus, intended as a guide only; week-by-week topics may be slightly different to the following.

Lecture topics:

- Introduction: What is a primary source?
- Archives, archivists, and gaps in the historical record
- Manuscripts and handwritten sources
- Printed sources
- Images and visual sources
- Literature
- Legislation
- Objects and materiality
- Counting: Quantitative sources and methods
- Architecture and landscapes
- Maps and thinking spatially
- Media (film, audio, the internet, etc.)
- Oral histories


Throughout the module, each seminar group will explore a specific theme in history that relates to the research expertise of the seminar leader: a weekly seminar series that broadly maps onto the type of primary source or method introduced in the associated weekly lecture. Seminars will largely focus on analysis of primary sources and the critical questions historians need to ask of each specific type of source evidence, with time given each week to the development of wider skills related to assessment preparation. Preparatory reading will also include secondary sources that illuminate approaches to a source type or historical method.

Learning Outcomes

Intended Knowledge Outcomes

By the end of the module participants will have:
- Acquired a broad understanding of the key types of primary sources, how the form of a source structures the evidence it contains, and the strengths and limitations of different types of historical evidence.
- Comprehended the nature of archives, the gaps in the historical record, and how to accurately reference and search for primary sources.
- Developed their knowledge of the different methods used by historians when analysing primary sources and the value of these methods to historical research.

Intended Skill Outcomes

This module is designed to offer a clearly defined progression from school/college students through to Stage 1 at undergraduate level, and its pedagogic focus is directed towards learning skills ahead of knowledge acquisition. The module provides a bedrock for subsequent modules, specifically to prepare and provide a pathway to Stage 2 modules.

By the end of the module participants will have:
- Developed their ability to critically evaluate a wide range of primary sources and historical methods and use them to support a coherent and compelling answer to a research question.
- Raised their capacity for showing initiative, self-discipline, and creativity in learning and using feedback, reflection, and self-assessment to improve their academic and transferable skills.
- Improved their teamwork and written/oral communication skills through participation in seminars and workshops and through the completion of the assessments.

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion601:0060:00Source commentary (formative), source commentary (summative), research essay (summative)
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture121:0012:00Lectures
Guided Independent StudyDirected research and reading321:0032:00Recommended and further reading
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching21:002:00Seminars
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching92:0018:00Seminars
Structured Guided LearningStructured research and reading activities501:0050:00Preparation tasks and essential readings for seminars and workshops (5 hours per week)
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesWorkshops11:001:00Workshop in Special Collections
Guided Independent StudyIndependent study251:0025:00General consolidation activities
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

The combination of lectures, seminars, workshop, and independent study are designed to encourage an active and student-led approach to learning and support the development of students' ability to interpret and locate a wide range of primary sources. Lectures provide a foundational knowledge of the main types of primary sources and methods upon which historical research is based and how historians approach, analyse, and use primary source evidence and historical methods to advance their interpretations of the past.

Seminars provide students with the skills to critically analyse primary sources through a focused exploration of the primary source evidence that historians have used to understand a key theme in history. Each week, the type of primary source and/or method explored in the seminars directly relates to the source type or method introduced in the associated lecture. The seminars build students' confidence in critically analysing primary sources and applying this analysis to wider research questions to formulate convincing and coherent arguments. Through small group discussion, the seminars promote improvement in oral presentation, interpersonal communication, problem-solving skills, and adaptability. Preparation for seminars requires students to read and critically analyse a wide range of primary sources and associated secondary literature: a programme of private reading that requires good time management and personal responsibility for learning. While seminars will largely focus on analysis of primary sources and the critical questions historians need to ask of each specific type of source evidence, time will be given each week to the development of wider skills related to assessment preparation.

The workshop in Special Collections provides students with the opportunity to acquire experience of studying in an archive and handling primary sources, which provides additional support for the preparation of their source commentary and research essay while encouraging further use of Special Collections later in their degree. Independent learning helps students to develop effective source evaluation, critical reading, and note-taking, while inspiring students to immerse themselves in historical sources and discover the enjoyment and challenge that is inherent in historical and archival research.

Reading Lists

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Written exercise2M30Source commentary on two primary sources (1,000 words)
Essay2A70Research essay based on primary sources (2,500 words)
Formative Assessments
Description Semester When Set Comment
Written exercise2MSource commentary on one primary source (500 words)
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

The formative written exercise introduces students to the practice of writing a source analysis/commentary of a primary document/image/material within a limited word count. The feedback provided by their seminar leader gives students a chance to further develop their source commentary and hone their ability to critically analyse primary sources.

The summative source commentary tests students' ability to critically analyse, summarise, and interpret two different types of primary sources within a limited word count. For one of their primary sources, students are recommended to use the same primary source that they received feedback on in their formative written exercise. The second primary source analysed should be a different type to the first to enable the students to demonstrate broad engagement with the module content. Feedback on the summative source commentary provides scaffolding for the summative research essay in which students are expected to show critical engagement with primary sources.

The summative research essay evaluates students' ability to use primary source evidence and historical methods to answer a specific question set by their seminar leader. Students are required to engage with at least four different types of primary sources and/or methods in their research essay and should place these sources and methods in dialogue with each other to advance a coherent and compelling argument. Students choose the primary evidence and/or methods to focus on which provides the opportunity to work creatively with different types of primary sources. The research essay thus assesses students' engagement with the module content and their ability to apply primary source analysis to advance an interpretation. Students should make use of the learning materials and sources provided in lectures, seminars, and the workshop, but are encouraged to demonstrate research independence by locating and analysing primary sources beyond the supplied materials.

All three assessments are supported by dedicated time in seminars to skills development and assessment preparation, and each assessment enhances students' confidence in working with primary source materials. Work submitted during the delivery of the module forms a means of determining student progress. All submitted work tests intended knowledge and skills outcomes and develops key skills in research, reading, and writing.

Study-abroad, non-Erasmus exchange and Loyola students spending semester 1 only are required to finish their assessment while in Newcastle. Where an exam is present, an alternative form of assessment will be set and where coursework is present, an alternative deadline will be set. Details of the alternative assessment will be provided by the module leader.


Past Exam Papers

General Notes


Disclaimer: The information contained within the Module Catalogue relates to the 2023/24 academic year. In accordance with University Terms and Conditions, the University makes all reasonable efforts to deliver the modules as described. Modules may be amended on an annual basis to take account of changing staff expertise, developments in the discipline, the requirements of external bodies and partners, and student feedback. Module information for the 2024/25 entry will be published here in early-April 2024. Queries about information in the Module Catalogue should in the first instance be addressed to your School Office.