How to get full marks on source questions in History A-Level: 4. Using the provenance of the Source to assess reliability

Andrew

Tutor

October 10th, 2017

In the final post in this series, Andrew looks at how the provenance of the source (including its author, and the time and place in which it was produced) can be used to examine a source’s reliability.


‘Reliability’ means how likely the source is to provide information that is accurate. Nobody in the world has ever been completely objective: no source could ever tell you everything that ever happened, so every source will be leaving out some things, and exaggerating others. What ends up being said depends on the author, and no author can ever avoid having been influenced by everything they have experienced, and the entire culture around them.

 

Exam boards and schools

In this post, I hope to show some general ways to get the best marks in source questions, and hopefully also 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 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.

 

State how reliable you might expect a source of this type to be

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

AQA

  •  ‘Shows a very good understanding of all three sources in relation to both content and provenance

Edexcel

  • ‘Evaluation of the source material uses valid criteria
  • ‘distinguishes between the degree of certainty with which aspects of it can be used as the basis for claims’

OCR

  • ‘The sources are fully evaluated, using…provenance

Start by identifying the nature of the source. For example, is it a diary, an Act of Parliament, a letter or a public speech? Then state how reliable you might expect any source of this type to be. For example: ‘The source is a diary, so may be reliable as it was written soon after the events it describes, and the author would have wanted to remember the events accurately.’ ‘The source is a play, so may be less reliable as the author may have wanted to entertain the audience, rather than communicate facts accurately.’

 

Avoid the word ‘biased’

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

AQA

  • ‘present a balanced argument on [the sources’] value’
  • ‘convey a substantiated judgement’

Edexcel

  • ‘showing a range of ways the material can be used, for example by distinguishing between information and claim or opinion’
  • ‘Evaluation of the source material uses valid criteria
  • ‘distinguishes between the degree of certainty with which aspects of it can be used as the basis for claims’
  • coming to a judgement’

OCR

  • ‘The sources are fully evaluated, using…provenance…in a balanced way’
  • ‘fully supported analysis’

At A-Level, we should realise that everybody, no matter how hard they try, is influenced by their upbringing, culture, and experiences, so every source is always biased. By stating what is exaggerated and what is left out, you are being more specific about how a source is biased. This gets more marks, and is far more interesting!

 

State the specific purpose of the source

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

AQA

  • ‘Shows a very good understanding of all three sources in relation to both content and provenance
  • ‘combines this with a strong awareness of the historical context’

Edexcel

  • ‘showing a range of ways the material can be used, for example by distinguishing between information and claim or opinion’
  • ‘Evaluation of the source material uses valid criteria
  • ‘distinguishes between the degree of certainty with which aspects of it can be used as the basis for claims’

OCR

  • ‘The sources are fully evaluated, using…provenance
  • ‘using both provenance and detailed and accurate knowledge’ 

Now it gets more tricky. You need to work out the purpose of the source. This should be the purpose of the particular source you are given, not any source of that type. This sentence is generic and boring: ‘The purpose of the source is to entertain people, and to inform them.’

You also need to avoid just repeating what the source says, or what you can learn from the source: ‘The purpose of the source is to inform people that King Charles’s advisers were secretly Catholic and wanted to take control of England.’

A good way to avoid these mistakes is often to ask the question: ‘What did the author want the audience to do?’ This leads to much more interesting responses: ‘The purpose of the source is to motivate people to join the parliamentarian armies and fight in the civil war against Charles I.’

 

Include facts about the author, audience, or time period

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

AQA

  • Shows a very good understanding of all three sources in relation to both content and provenance and combines this with a strong awareness of the historical context
  • ‘The response demonstrates a very good understanding of context.’

Edexcel

  • ‘showing a range of ways the material can be used, for example by distinguishing between information and claim or opinion’
  • ‘Evaluation of the source material uses valid criteria
  • ‘displaying secure understanding of the need to interpret source material in the context of the values and concerns of the society from which it is drawn’
  • ‘distinguishes between the degree of certainty with which aspects of it can be used as the basis for claims’

OCR

  • ‘The sources are fully evaluated, using…provenance
  • ‘using both provenance and detailed and accurate knowledge of their historical context

In order to work out the real purpose of the source – what the author wants the audience to do – you need some knowledge. Look at this example:

Content and origin of source: ‘The source was produced by opponents of King Charles, and describes King Charles’s advisers as “papists”, implying that they were Catholic.’

Purpose: ‘The purpose of the source was to motivate people to join the parliamentarian armies and fight in the civil war against Charles I.’

Often, students find it difficult to make the jump from the content and origin of the source to the purpose. In fact, we couldn’t really have made that statement about the purpose of the source if the we only had the information about the origin of the source given on the exam paper.

The trick is to use your knowledge of the author, audience, or time period: ‘The source was produced by opponents of King Charles, and describes King Charles’s advisers as “papists”, implying that they were Catholic. At the time, most English people were terrified of Catholics. They also believed strongly in Divine Right, and did not believe that the king could be criticised directly. At the time the source was written, the King’s opponents were preparing for civil war. Therefore, the purpose of the source was to motivate people to join the parliamentarian armies and fight in the civil war against Charles I, by suggesting that the King’s opponents were fighting against Catholics, whilst avoiding criticising the King himself.’

Using some facts about the author, audience, or period lets the source reveal how people waged war against a king whilst continually insisting that they were loyal to him – very interesting!

 

Say what is exaggerated or left out and link back to your question

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

AQA

  • ‘present a balanced argument on [the sources’] value’
  • ‘convey a substantiated judgement’

Edexcel

  • ‘showing a range of ways the material can be used, for example by distinguishing between information and claim or opinion’
  • ‘Evaluation of the source material uses valid criteria
  • ‘distinguishes between the degree of certainty with which aspects of it can be used as the basis for claims’
  • coming to a judgement’

OCR

  • ‘The sources are fully evaluated, using…provenance…in a balanced way’
  • ‘fully supported analysis’

Once you have worked out the purpose of the source, you can use this to make your final statement about its reliability. Imagine you are answering the question: How far could the historian make use of Sources 1 and 2 together to investigate the causes of the English Civil Wars? ‘The purpose of the source was to motivate people to join the parliamentarian armies and fight in the civil war against Charles I. Therefore, it will leave out the fact that the demands of the King’s opponents may have led to disorder and chaos. This means that a historian could use this source, but bear in mind that it only shows some of the causes of the Civil Wars, and other sources must be used to investigate Parliament’s role.’

 

Summary

This is how you show the examiner that you’re not just going looking for accurate information, but that you can treat sources as products of real people.

  • State how reliable you might expect a source of this type to be
  • Avoid the word biased
  • State the specific purpose of the source
  • Include facts about the author, audience, or time period
  • Say what is exaggerated or left out and link back to your question


About Andrew,

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.