History: Assessing the historical value and significance of sources

In judging the significance of a source in informing what happened in the past, students often fail to take appropriate account of the influence of context, contemporary insights and hindsight in evaluating the interpretation which the source offers.

This lesson aims to help students to critically evaluate a range of sources in terms of their significance (i.e. their value and usefulness to historians). In the activity students are asked to use contextual knowledge to reach substantiated judgements about the significance of each source in illuminating the question, bearing in mind

  • the date authorship, audience, perspective and motives of each source;
  • that sources may be significant at the time or have significance attributed to them subsequently by historians
  • that the degree of significance is a matter of interpretation, often related to the value systems of the period in which the interpretation was produced.


Students are divided into small groups and presented with a selection of different sources of commemoration of the Home Rule crisis, for example:

  • A poem by Rudyard Kipling called “Ulster 1912” commemorating the Ulster Covenant
  • A panel commemorating Home Rule from a Decade of Anniversaries exhibition in City Hall Belfast or Home Rule memorabilia on eBay site
  • A wall mural commemorating the Ulster Volunteer Force and or the Easter Rising 1916.
  • A podcast (YouTube) of a lecture by modern historians on the commemoration of significant events during the decade of anniversaries.
  • A selection of other modern historians views on Home Rule

(Visit Resource section of website for more examples of sources)

Students examine the sources and discuss

  • What types of sources are these?
  • What is being commemorated?
  • What is the contextual background?
  • What are the key messages from the sources?
  • In what ways may these messages/ purposes relate to contemporary events?


Each group will begin to examine the reliability/motivation of the sources using two sets of criteria

Students will begin by examining each source by using a set of criteria called DAAMIT.


D – Date 

  • When was it produced? How long after the event was it produced?

A – Author 

  • Who produced it? What was their background?

A – Audience

  • Who was the intended audience? What do you know about this audience?

M – Motive

  • What was the author’s purpose/motive?
  • Was it to entertain/inform/persuade/mislead?
  • How might these motives have influenced the interpretation/perspective offered by the source?
  • What might the author want to happen as a result of this work?

I – Information

  • What form does the source take? ( poem/song written)?
  • What information it provide?
  • Where is the information drawn from? For example:Is the observation first hand?
  • what other sources of information were used to produce it?
  • Is it produced in a way that we would expect a source of its kind to be produced?
  • How reliable is it likely to be?

T – Tone

  • What is the perspective and tone offered by the source?
  • What insight does this give into the views and standpoints of the author?
  • How reliable is it likely to be in light of previous considerations?

Teachers may wish to help pupils probe:

  • What are the key words in the source? What do they mean?
  • What key ideas is the author trying to communicate?
  • Does the author provide evidence to support these ideas?
  • What underlying assumption and values do the sources reflect?
  • What issues do the sources raise?
  • Can you relate these issues to the historical context?

Students share information and compare answers, highlighting similarities and differences.

Students then use a second set of criteria (the Five ‘R’s) to assess the value to historians of each source.

Five ‘R’s for thinking about historical significance

  • Remarkable – the event/ development in the source was remarked upon by people at the time and/ or since
  • Remembered – the event / development  in the source was important at some stage in history within the collective memory of a group or groups
  • Resonant – people like to make analogies with the event,  it is possible to connect with experiences, beliefs or situations across time and space
  • Resulting in change – The event had consequences for the future
  • Revealing – of some other aspect of the past

After using both sets of criteria, each group rank orders the sources according to which, in their view, are the most and the least value to historians and why. They should be encouraged to consider also:

  • If the most significant sources are the only ones of value?
  • What might the other sources tell us?
  • How typical is this source for this period?
  • How widely was this source circulated?
  • What evidence supports your conclusions

In light of all of these questions, how significant is the source in terms of the insight it offers about events, actions, motives and values at the time and subsequently?

Making judgements about the relative value of the sources

A ‘source auction’ strategy (Diana Laffan 2009) can be used to help students decide which of the sources would be of most value to historians when investigating the commemoration of Home Rule.

  • Groups of students are allocated an amount of money to spend.
  • Sources come up for auction.
  • Teams bid for sources
  • The price they realise in the auction may (or may not reflect) their usefulness and value.
  • After the auction each group assesses what they have spent.
  • Each team is then cross-examined by the teacher to explain their reasons for purchasing the source and its relative value.
  • The teacher acts as an ‘expert valuer’ to assess which team made the most valuable purchases in an historical sense.


Students are asked to consider:

  • How useful the different sets of criteria were in helping to understand the relative value of sources?
  • To what extent were key messages easier to identify in some sources than in others? Can you suggest reasons for this?
  • Which of the sources provided the most convincing argument /message in relation to its author’s motive/perspective?
  • Which of the sources was the most reliable in relation to understanding what really happened?
  • Why do historians sometimes reach different interpretations even when they use the same sources?
  • In what ways did the sources inform your understanding of the contemporary situation?
  • In what ways do the sources inform your understanding of the present?