Critical Use of Sources

Michelangelo. (c. 1540). 'The Last Judgement', Sistine Chapel, Rome.
"Last Judgement (Michelangelo)", Sistine Chapel. Public Domain.

All sources, both primary and secondary, are made by people and may be biased (one-sided) and incomplete.  Two people can see exactly the same incident and yet remember it differently.  So too, modern historians can study the same evidence and reach different conclusions.


Therefore, it becomes important to take time to discover who created each source. Maybe the creator(s) were well known and their opinion might matter a great deal. Perhaps they were famous criminals who could have twisted the facts to justify their actions. Finding out about who created a source and why they did so will add great depth to your assessment pieces.


To do this, you need to develop CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS. These skills vary in complexity and sophistication. The table below explains the four kinds of critical thinking skills, from the simplest to the most difficult. Beside each critical thinking skill are some historical skills that help you demonstrate your mastery of each one.

Critical Thinking Skills

Historical Skills

Comprehension  Understanding and explaining:

-        The explicit (obvious) meaning of a historical source



Understanding and explain meanings that are implicit (hinted at) within a historical source. For example:

-      Ideas described in a political cartoon, photograph, propaganda poster, painting, carving or sculpture

-      The theme (overall message) of a speech or an article

-      The meanings of metaphors in written texts

-      Beliefs, values or motives that influenced individuals or group



Identifying and explaining the historical aspects of sources. For example:

-      What kind of source it is (primary or secondary)

-      What type of source (artefact, written, painting, photo, etc.)

-      Who was the creator of the source

-      When it was created

-      Who the intended audience of the source was

-      What the purpose of the source was (why it was created)

-      What perspective (point of view) the source contains

-      Whether it contains any bias (for or against people or ideas)

-      If the source’s information can be corroborated (confirmed or supported) by other sources

-      If the source’s information is in contradiction with other sources


Deciding how valuable a historical source is, according to what you discovered in your analysis. For example:

-      How relevant particular sources are to your investigation

-      How accurate the information in source is

-      How reliable a source, author or information is

-      Whether the source's interpretation is contested by other sources

-      Whether the source’s point of view represents the majority or a minority opinion of the time


Looking for revision material for source criticism?

Download a copy of the source criticism table for free in the Store.

Also, purchase a ready-to-use source criticism worksheet for use with any primary or secondary source.