How to get full marks on source questions in History A Level: 2. Using the content of the source (A grade)


Owl Tutor

August 11th, 2017

This is the second post in a series that shows you how to approach source questions in History A Level, and hopefully also how exciting analysing primary source material can be. In this blog, Andrew sets out how to raise the quality of your answer to A* level by showing understanding of the source in context, and focusing on the question.

NB: Exam boards and schools

I have organised this post article around the general skills required in most A Level specifications. In each section, I have tried to indicate which criteria these skills help to fulfil on the mark schemes of different exam boards. If you’re looking for something specific, use ctrl + F to search for specific words from your exam board’s mark scheme.

Different schools and teachers explain how to analyse sources in different ways: ‘Content, Origin, Purpose’, ‘What? When? Who? Why?’, ‘Interpretation, Knowledge, Provenance’, etc. When I tutor, I always try to develop the approach that a student has been taught in school, so that we build on existing skills, rather than starting from scratch. When using this guide, try to do the same yourself, by working out how the skills below correspond to what your teacher asks you to do in lessons.

1. Use knowledge or key terms when making inferences.

This will help you achieve the following mark-scheme criteria:


–                      ‘good understanding of all three sources…and combines this with a strong awareness of the historical context


–                      ‘Interrogates the evidence of both sources with confidence and discrimination’

–                       ‘Deploys knowledge of the historical context to illuminate and/ or discuss the limitations of what can be gained from the content of the source material’

–                      ‘interpret source material in the context of the values and concerns of the society from which it is drawn


–                      ‘detailed and accurate knowledge of their historical context

–                      ‘convincing, fully supported analysis’


This is where you get to show off, and also where the sources come alive. Consider this sentence about the constitution that was introduced in 1653, when Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of England:

‘The fact that the new constitution stated that “The Christian religion…shall be declared the official faith” suggests that Cromwell was strongly committed to Christianity.’

This doesn’t include any knowledge or key terms, and therefore misses the interesting point about the quotation. If you have studied the seventeenth century, you will know that of course Cromwell was committed to Christianity – almost everybody in England at the time was! What was controversial about the new constitution introduced in 1653 was not that previous rulers had been pagans, Jews, or Muslims, but that previous rulers had specified a particular form of Christianity. Therefore, this would be a much better sentence:

‘The fact that the new constitution introduced in 1653 stated that “Christianity …shall be declared the official faith” suggests that Cromwell believed in religious toleration for all Christians, and did not intend to persecute the religious sects that had multiplied during the previous decade.’

With a little bit of knowledge, our inference allows us to see what a bold and dangerous move producing this constitution might have been.


2. Explicitly refer to the question, using the wording on the exam paper

This will help you achieve the following mark-scheme criteria:


–                      ‘present a balanced judgment…for the particular purpose given in the question


–                      ‘Interrogates the evidence of both sources with confidence and discrimination

–                      ‘Evaluation of the source material uses valid criteria

–                      ‘Evaluation takes into account the weight the evidence will bear as part of coming to a judgement


–                      ‘The answer has a very good focus on the question throughout’

–                      ‘analysis of [the sources] in relation to the issue in the question



Not addressing the question is one of the main ways students lose marks at A Level. If you have written a sentence showing some skill or knowledge, tell the examiner why you have done it.

Try to avoid going more than three sentences without a specific reference to the question.

If you can’t link what you are writing to the specific question you have been asked, think about whether it’s worth writing! Save time, and only write what will score you marks.

For example, look at the example question, and imagine one of your sources is a statement by William of Orange, who in 1689 became joint monarch of England, alongside his wife:

‘Using the four sources in their historical context, assess the view that William of Orange was motivated to invade England by the hope that the English would join the war against France.’

You could write:

‘The source suggests that William did not want his wife, Mary, to be Queen alone, but wanted to have power himself.’

This is relevant and interesting, but it is not necessarily clear to the examiner how it relates to the question. It would be better to write:

‘The source suggests that, when William invaded England, he insisted on being made King alongside his wife, which might imply that he was motivated by gaining power for himself. This may have been because he wanted to force England to join the war against France.’



If you make sure that you have followed these tips, you are on the way to showing an examiner that you read and interpret sources like an A* historian!

  • Use short quotations (see first post)
  • Make inferences (see first post)
  • Make sure your inferences are relevant to the question (see first post)
  • Use knowledge or key terms when making inferences
  • Explicitly refer to the question, using the wording on the exam paper

More about Andrew

Andrew qualified as a teacher in History in 2014, and now works as a tutor with Owl Tutors.

After studying History at the University of Cambridge, Andrew went on to achieve his PGCE and taught for five years at an outstanding state secondary school. In 2016, 83% of his GCSE students achieved A or A* grades. He is currently studying for an MA in Medieval History at King’s College London.