How to write a critical summary

Shakespeare's First Folio
© History Skills

Some research tasks, particularly the source investigation, require you to write a summary of your research findings.


This is most commonly required when you don’t need to write a full essay after your research.

What is a 'critical summary'?

 A critical summary is a series of short paragraphs that provide an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the sources you found.


The primary task of your summary is to highlight how well your sources helped you answer your research questions.


Please be aware that you are not simply giving your opinion about whether you liked your sources or not: you need to draw upon what you said in your source analysis and evaluation section in order to justify your conclusions.


Required elements:

How to structure your critical summary

There are a number of different ways that you can structure your critical summary. Depending upon what you can say about the usefulness and reliability of your sources and how you intend to answer your research questions, you can follow any of the following approaches.


Regardless of which approach you choose, ensure that you still fulfil the ‘required elements’ listed above.


Approach 1: Compare primary and secondary sources

Paragraph 1: What information did your primary sources provide?

Paragraph 2: What information did your secondary sources provide?

Paragraph 3: Based upon your research, how would you answer your Key Inquiry Question?


Approach 2: Group by evaluation skill

Paragraph 1: Which sources were the most useful in answering your sub-questions?

Paragraph 2: Which sources were the most reliable?

Paragraph 3: Based upon your research, how would you answer your Key Inquiry Question?


Approach 3: Compare and contrast

Paragraph 1: Which sources provided similar or corroborating information?

Paragraph 2: Which sources provided dissimilar information based upon their perspectives?

Paragraph 3: Which of these sources were most useful and reliable?


Using Approach 1

The archaeological and written sources indicate that Roman propaganda stressed the importance of military victories in establishing imperial legitimacy. However, these sources were clearly created by and for members of the social elite and, as a result, only reflect the perspective of these people. Whilst the purpose of the statues and histories were to influence the loyalties of wealthy aristocrats, we have no way of knowing what effect they had on the rest of the people in the city, as their thoughts are not preserved in the extant sources. Regardless, Tacitus is crucial to answering my two sub-questions about senatorial and military understandings of imperial rule, especially when he outlines the failings of previous emperors in the eyes of the various social groups in Rome (Annals, IV.39). His comments about “staged performances” is corroborated by the scenes on the Arch of Titus. As both of these sources are contemporaneous with the imperial system, they are a particularly reliable source of the perspectives of the Romans themselves. 


What I found most useful, specifically when researching information on the views of the non-Romans about emperors' attempts at justifying their power were the works of modern historians. Cambridge University classicist, Mary Beard provided substantial detail about the use of statuary in Egypt and the Levant which provided a counterweight to the ancient sources (2012, 165-8). Her overall point, that the propaganda didn’t effectively filter down into the lower classes of provincial society was far more convincing than the limited critique offered Brewer. I found Brewer to be less useful, even though he is a professor of Ancient History, since he focused more on the actions of the emperors themselves, rather than on broader sections of society (1977, 40). As a result, I found the academic works of modern historians most useful in providing a critique of the Roman perspective of the ancient sources.


Based upon the evidence I have gathered from ancient and modern sources, I concluded that the Roman emperors believed that military victories were the primary mode of establishing imperial legitimacy to their subjects, despite the fact that only the upper classes of society were influenced by it.

Using Approach 2

The sources that I have chosen at the completion of my research have all been incredibly useful in answering my research questions. In particular, evidence from Shirer proved invaluable in answering my sub-question about how the Nazi party came to power, since the author took part in many of the events he describes (1951). What proved particularly helpful to me was how much Greiger, emeritus professor of political history at Harford corroborated the finer details provided by Shirer (1997). While I found the two Nazi propaganda articles in the Der Stürmer helpful in answer my second two sub-questions, I found the level of antisemitic bias difficult identify in every instance. Despite this, I could confidently answer my first sub-question by showing that print media was central in manipulating public opinion during the Nazi rise to power.


The academic works by Greiger (1997) and Stanton (2000) proved to be the most reliable. This is firstly due to their credentials as history professors with a combined fifty years of research experience between them. What made Stanton so much more trustworthy is that he was fluent in German as well as English and went into detail about the different nuances of the German words used in Hitler’s speeches (2000, 12-5). This gave me a lot of confidence to then go back to the political posters and cartoons, particularly those I found on the Holocaust Museum website, and identify specific word choices that helped me answer my final two sub-questions. Therefore, I have concluded that Goebbels invested heavily in radio and visual forms of propaganda to further the Nazi party’s agenda. 


Based upon the information provided by my sources in my research, I am drawn to the conclusion that it was the Nazi party’s manipulation of all forms of available mass media that played a central role in their ability to change the opinions of the German population during their rise to political dominance. 

Using Approach 3

Among the sources discovered for this task, a number have proved to be useful in answering my sub-questions due to the explicit and implicit information contained within them. For example, Source 1 is extremely relevant to my sub-question about the experience of the First Nations’ contact with European settlers because it explicitly stated that “the aboriginal tribes in the Sydney area consistently made contact with the colonists using traditional ceremonies that demonstrated openness and respect” (Source 1). The sentiment that the First Nation groups were not initially violent is also corroborated by Jacobson, who provides numerous descriptions by Arthur Philip about the friendly nature of the tribal leaders (Source 2). The fact that Jacobson corroborates the information provided in Source 1 makes it incredibly useful in answering my third sub-question about the opinions of primary source authors.


However, other sources offer different perspectives regarding the demeanour of the original inhabitants of the Sydney area. For example, Wiles recorded in his personally diary that he was “attacked without provocation by the natives” and “feared for the life and security whenever [he] was working the land” (Source 3). It must be noted that Wiles was writing from the perspective of a European settler in 1792, which means that his experiences were the result of negative interactions that occurred between the Europeans and the original inhabitants prior to his arrival. Another dissimilar perspective is offered by Shindwuttle, who claims that the ceremonies observed by the British appeared to be militaristic in nature, and was not interpreted as acts of diplomatic engagement, as is claimed in Sources 1 and 2 (Source 4). The clear contradiction in the interpretations offered by Wiles and Shindwuttle is clear evidence of the contestable nature of this topic.


The evidence provided in the source analysis above shows that all four sources were very useful and reliable in answering my research questions. Sources 2 and 3 were particularly relevant in understanding competing understandings of the actions of the First Nations groups, as they were both primary sources from the time of the events and provided both explicit and implicit descriptions. Also, Wiles and Shindwuttle are both very reliable sources of information as well, as both were professional historians working at different Australian universities.

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)