Interpret Primary Sources to Propose a Model

Primary sources - original texts, objects, or data which were generated at the time under study - are the ground from which disciplines build knowledge. Students are often required to understand such sources and put forth models that explain their interpretation. This requires students first to slow down and make observations about the source; then to unbiasedly think through several possible explanations of their observations until they find the most parsimonious model.

Analyzing primary sources allows students to move from observations and fact gathering to interpretation. When interpreting primary sources, students often need to integrate their prior knowledge to contextualize or make inferences on sources that may be lacking information. This integration of prior knowledge with new information results in a deeper understanding of course material. Additionally, primary sources are a great way to foster motivation through discover-driven learning as students get to follow their own interests. Lastly, critical thinking is a fundamental part of this process. Students must read, infer, compare, and evaluate multiple sources to eventually draw conclusions and piece together different evidences to form their own model or argument.

Interpreting Primary Sources to Propose a Model or Argument can be worked into a variety of activity types! Here are just a few examples:


Quick Write: Allow students time to read a primary source. Then, give them ~5 minutes to write down their first thoughts and observations. Have them focus on the question: what do you see? Then, provide another ~5 minutes to turn these observations into potential models. Encourage students to think unbiasedly and propose as many different models as possible from the same source. End by having a discussion about each potential model and highlighting which are more likely to be correct/incorrect based in the context of the broader course.


Concept Map: After reading several primary sources, students can relate them together using a concept map. Ensure students also label the arrows connecting each source, clearly indicating how they fit together in a larger context.


There are also ways to focus on Interpreting Primary Sources to Propose a Model or Argument in unexpected activity types.


Jig-Saw: Assign each original group a single source from a broader collection– such as a figure from a scientific paper or a single piece of art by an artist. Within these groups, allow students time to interpret their single piece of information. Then, intermix the groups so that each new group contains the total collection of materials – all figures from the scientific paper or a series of work by the artist. In these new groups, allow each student to explain their single source and then instruct students to piece them together into a larger model/argument. Conclude by having a class discussion to see if groups agreed on a final model/argument.

Coming soon!