Skip to main content


HIS1101 : Historical Sources and Methods

  • Offered for Year: 2024/25
  • Module Leader(s): Dr Clare Hickman
  • Lecturer: Professor Rachel Hammersley, Dr Philip Garrett, Dr Nicola Clarke, Dr Laura Tisdall, Dr Martin Farr, Dr Robert Dale, Dr Luc Racaut
  • Owning School: History, Classics and Archaeology
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus

Your programme is made up of credits, the total differs on programme to programme.

Semester 2 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0
European Credit Transfer System


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?
- Film
- Political treatises/tracts
- Diaries and memoirs
- What is an archive?
- Newspapers
- Material Culture
- Visual Culture
- Architecture
- Maps/cartography
- Reading the landscape


There will also be 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.

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture111:0011:00Lectures
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion601:0060:00Source commentary (formative), source commentary (summative), research essay (summative)
Guided Independent StudyDirected research and reading321:0032:00Recommended and further reading
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 ActivitiesSmall group teaching102:0020:00Seminars
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesWorkshops12:002:00Workshop in conjunction with Special Collections
Guided Independent StudyIndependent study251:0025:00General consolidation activities
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

As a Stage 1 module, aside from an in-depth understanding of the content of the module, the teaching methods, which focus on small group work, presentational and oral skills, team work, lecture delivery and independent research and writing, relate to the core learning outcomes of supporting students in developing sophisticated research skills across a wide range of sources, being able to synthesise the information they collect and form convincing and coherent arguments.

Independent learning is essential to this module: students are expected to develop skills of source evaluation, critical reading and note-taking in an independent and effective manner. Seminar teaching complements these skills by allowing students the opportunity to share and debate information gathered independently. Moreover, a significant part of seminar teaching will test the development of primary source analysis and problem solving.

Small group teaching will allow the students to explore ideas and patterns together in a structured way, and great emphasis will be placed on primary sources and their interpretation. The lectures will enable students to learn about a new source type each week and thereby complement and inform the work they are doing in seminars. A workshop with teaching staff will help them engage with materials drawn from Special Collections, giving some insight into the wealth of documents on the doorstep and encouraging the further use of the Special Collections in their degree.

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

Formative Assessment is an assessment which develops your skills in being assessed, allows for you to receive feedback, and prepares you for being assessed. However, it does not count to your final mark.

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.

Both the formative and source commentary summative assessments will be developed in conjunction with the Special Collections team so that the students gain experience of working with a wide range of primary sources and can look at the original material as part of their assignment preparation as well as accessing digital versions in the associated workshop.

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.

Reading Lists