How to do a source investigation research task

Inside the Colosseum
© History Skills

A source investigation is a research task that allows you to choose a specific topic that you would like to research on a deeper level.


This means that your learning will go well beyond what you covered in class and allows you to become somewhat of an expert on your chosen topic.


This kind of task seeks to develop your ability to:

  • Create research questions
  • Find high-quality sources
  • Analyse and evaluate your sources
  • Reflect on your decision-making processes

Choosing a research topic

One of the most difficult parts of a source investigation is choosing a topic that you want to focus upon.


To help you find potential areas of interest, your teacher will give you several lessons of introductory material on the historical topic or theme.


During these lessons, start writing down anything that piqued your interest, something that shocked or surprised you, or something that you want to know more about.


Once you have found a person, event, belief or source that you are interested in, you need to decide on the precise thing you want to discover.


To help you refine your topic, here are some different approaches you can take:

Approach 1: Historical knowledge

This approach focuses on the information we think we know about the past and motivates you to want to find out more about it.


Here are some common focuses (click the links for more explanations and examples):

Change and continuity: Why did a particular change happen, or why did something remain the same?

Cause and effect: What really caused something to happen, or what impact did it have on history?

Significance: Why do people consider this to be so important?

Empathy: How could people do something so strange? How could someone justify something like this? 

Approach 2: Source-based

This approach focuses on the nature of the surviving primary sources. This allows you to investigate what the people at the time said and if their words could potentially be untrue.


Here are some common focuses (click the links for more explanations and examples):

Evidence: What primary sources actually survive about this? What do we still not know from these sources?

Perspectives: What point of view do we hear from in the sources? What perspectives are missing?

Contestability: Why do people hold different opinions about this? 

Approach 3: Challenge an interpretation

This approach focuses on the exploring the opinions of secondary sources. This allows you to see if the ‘common assumption’ is entirely correct and if there are potential errors in these interpretations of the past.


Here are some common focuses (click the links for more explanations and examples):

Cause and effect: Are the causes proposed the full story about this? Are the consequences of this as profound as people claim?

Significance: To what degree is this as important as they claim? To what degree is this far more important than people have given it credit for?

Contestability: Why do people hold different opinions about this?


Please Remember:

A source investigation task is meant to allow you to develop your understanding further on a particular topic that interests you. The process of source research should be inherently interesting as you uncover the answers to your questions. If you begin with a topic that doesn’t interest you, it is difficult to do well and maintain motivation. Therefore, take significant time at the start of the process to find a topic that resonates with you. If you do this, you will find that the research process isn’t too onerous. 

A step-by-step guide to a source investigation

Once you have chosen a topic and decided on what approach and focus you want to use to drive your research, you are ready to begin the assessment piece.


In order to complete your source investigation, follow these steps:


(Click the links to find out more)

Need a digital Source Investigation template?

Source Investigation Template
A Word Document template for students to use when conducting a Source Investigation research task. It provides space for six unique sources. The format allows it to be used for any historical topic or student level. ... (Read More)