How to get full marks on source questions in History A Level: 3. Using knowledge to assess the accuracy of a source

Andrew is a tutor with Owl Tutors

Andrew

Owl Tutor

September 4th, 2017

How to get full marks on source questions in History A Level: 3. Using knowledge to assess the accuracy of a source

In the third post in this series, we will look at how to show A Level examiners that you can assess the accuracy of sources. People in the past did not always give an impression consistent with the facts available to us. Good historians will compare the information presented by any source to what they already know of the period.


Exam boards and schools

In this post, I hope to show some general ways to get the best marks in source questions, and hopefully how to enjoy reading sources. I have organised the 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 teach students 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 use the same approach that a student has been taught in school, so that we build on 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.

Using knowledge to assess accuracy

‘Accuracy’ means how well the impression given by the source fits what you believe to be the ‘true’ interpretation of the past.

Use clear, established facts, and compare these to the source

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

AQA

  • ‘strong awareness of the historical context
  • ‘present a balanced argument on their value’
  • ‘The response demonstrates a very good understanding of context.’

Edexcel

  • Interrogates the evidence of both sources’
  • ‘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’
  • ‘distinguishes between the degree of certainty with which aspects of it can be used as the basis for claims’

OCR

  • ‘detailed and accurate knowledge of their historical context
  • ‘convincing, fully supported analysis’

In order to assess the accuracy of a source, you need to compare it to other evidence. The more certain you are of this other evidence the better. If your other evidence supports the source, the source is accurate; if you have certain knowledge to contradict the source, it is inaccurate. For example: ‘The source states that “the Boxer Rebellion was a peasant uprising”. This is an accurate description because around 70% of those who took part in the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900 were peasants.’

Make sure the facts you use are not drawn from the source itself

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

AQA

  • ‘The answer will convey a substantiated judgement’
  • ‘The response demonstrates a very good understanding of context.’

Edexcel

  • Interrogates the evidence of both sources’
  • ‘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’
  • ‘distinguishes between the degree of certainty with which aspects of it can be used as the basis for claims’

OCR

  • ‘fully evaluated’
  • ‘detailed and accurate knowledge of their historical context
  • ‘convincing, fully supported analysis’

This first example does not prove that the source is accurate: ‘The source is accurate because it states that the Boxers wanted to “Save the Qing!”, and preventing the decline of the Qing dynasty was the Boxers’ main aim.’ To prove accuracy, compare the source to other facts: ‘The source is accurate because it states that the Boxers wanted to “Save the Qing!”, and the fact that in 1900 the Qing Empress Dowager made the decision to support them implies that this may indeed have been their aim.’

Assess the accuracy of the inferences you have drawn from the source, as well as the source itself

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

AQA

  • ‘The answer will convey a substantiated judgement’
  • ‘The response demonstrates a very good understanding of context.’

Edexcel

  • Interrogates the evidence of both sources’
  • ‘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’
  • ‘distinguishes between the degree of certainty with which aspects of it can be used as the basis for claims’

OCR

  • ‘fully evaluated’
  • ‘detailed and accurate knowledge of their historical context
  • ‘convincing, fully supported analysis’

Sometimes, the source does not directly address the question you are answering. In this case, you need to make inferences from it (see the first two posts in this series), and test the accuracy of these. Imagine that this is the quotation you have picked out from the source, and your question is about the causes of the Boxer Uprising: ‘The source states that “the Boxer Rebellion was a peasant uprising”.’ You might make the following inference: ‘This might suggest that it was caused by anger over economic hardships.’ You might then assess the accuracy not so much of what the source tells you, but the impression that it gives, or the inferences you have taken from it. ‘The timing of the rebellion suggests that the impression given by the source is accurate: it began immediately after several natural disasters that killed many thousands of peasants and left more without food, indicating that this may have been the cause of the unrest.’

Include short quotations and references to the question

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

AQA

  • ‘argument on their value for the particular purpose given in the question’

Edexcel

  • ‘Interrogates the evidence of both sources’
  • ‘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’
  • ‘Evaluation of the source material

OCR

  • ‘very good focus on the question throughout’
  • ‘engage with the sources’

Do this even if you are repeating your quotations. You get no marks in source questions for giving knowledge on its own, so avoid this: ‘The source is inaccurate because the Boxer Uprising was motivated by socio-economic factors. The Boxer Uprising began in Shandong province, shortly after it had been hit successively by droughts and flooding.’ Instead, refer to specific parts of the source, or to the inferences you made from it, whose accuracy you are assessing. You should also try to include the wording of the question, so that it is clear why you are assessing the accuracy of these parts in particular: ‘The source is inaccurate because the Boxer Uprising was motivated by socio-economic factors. The Uprising began in Shandong province, shortly after it had been hit successively by droughts and flooding, contradicting the impression that the desire to “Save the Qing” was the main motivation of the Boxers.’ In this case, ‘Save the Qing’ (the final Chinese imperial dynasty) is a quotation from the source.

Summary

Whenever answering a source question, think about whether its accuracy will affect your answer. If it will, these tips will help you show the examiner that you’ve thought this through like an excellent historian.

  • Use clear, established facts, and compare these to the source
  • Make sure the facts you use are not drawn from the source itself
  • Assess the accuracy of the inferences you have drawn from the source, as well as the source itself
  • Include short quotations and references to the question

Andrew is a tutor with Owl Tutors

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.