When using historical sources in class, both teachers and students know that they need to ‘analyse and evaluate’ them. But what do these two words mean? What is the difference between ‘analysis’ and ‘evaluation’?
The short answer
The key difference is that analysis requires you to understand the historical context that contributed to the creation of a source, while evaluation requires you to make a personal decision about how valuable the source is to your particular historical topic.
As you can see, analysis requires you to do some background research (usually via the internet) to discover who made the source, when it was made, etc., while evaluation requires you to reach a conclusion about whether the source is reliable, useful, etc.
Understanding the difference between these two skills is crucial because one relies on the other: in order to successfully evaluate a source, you need to base your decision upon what you found in your analysis. Therefore, you need to analyse a source before you can evaluate it.
If you have time for the longer answer, here it is:
The long answer
In order to analyse a source, you need to learn about the different elements that contributed to the source’s creation. You can discover this through some background research. This can be as simple as reading about the source on Wikipedia or through a Google search. As you research, you will discover who created the source, who the intended audience was, the perspective of the creator, and the reason it was made.
As part of your analysis, it is also worth reading the historical source closely in order to make observations about the language and imagery used by the creator. This will allow you to notice any potential bias held by the source’s creator. Also, it will allow you to compare this source with other historical sources in order to find corroborating or contradictory information.
Once you have analysed the content and historical context of your source, you will then have enough evidence in order to successfully evaluate it.
In order to evaluate a source, you need to form a judgement about its strengths and weaknesses to your class studies or assessment piece. If you’re writing a history essay or choosing which sources to use in a research task, evaluation helps you to justify your choice of sources. Usually, you can draw one of six different conclusions about a source: that it is useful or irrelevant, reliable or unreliable, and accurate or inaccurate.
Regardless about which decision you arrive at regarding your source, your justification needs to be based upon the details you uncovered during your analysis.
For example, you may argue that a particular source is extremely reliable because the creator is a qualified historian who wrote their source for an academic audience of fellow historians. Alternatively, you could argue that a source is potentially inaccurate because the apparent bias of the creator has presented information that has been contradicted by a person who was present at the historical event.
Why does the difference matter?
Gaining a genuine understanding of the difference between analysis and evaluation allows students to be far more effective in their critical use of sources. Being aware of what each skill specifically require gives students a concrete approach to source criticism.
If you want a structured worksheet for students to use in order to do their analysis and evaluation, you can grab one here.
If teachers know the difference and can convey that to the students, everyone benefits from it.