Top Ten Tips for Facilitating an Effective Primary Source Analysis


Examining primary sources at the 2011 Library of Congress Summer Teacher Institutes

This is a guest post from Stacie Moats of the Library of Congress.

The first time I tried facilitating a primary source activity during my post-graduate museum education studies, I only had to guide my peers’ analysis of a single artifact for five minutes. Yet so much of what I learned from this experience later proved invaluable to me when teaching with primary sources “for real.”

During the Library’s 2011 Summer Teacher Institute, teacher participants took turns facilitating a primary source analysis activity for their peers. Afterwards, Library staff asked them to share what they learned from their practice teaching experiences. Below is a Top Ten Tips list based on participants’ most frequently cited tips for facilitating an effective primary source analysis.

10. Choose wisely.

Selecting a primary source for analysis that will capture the interest of students is a critical first step. Pick accessible and appropriate sources based on knowledge of your students that will make a connection to both curricular and personal interests.


9. Be prepared.

Do your homework on the selected primary source’s background information and historical context; pre-select questions to guide student analysis; and determine how to use the source within a larger unit of study to meet your desired learning outcomes.

8. Model the analysis process.

One participant put it simply, “Model, model, model.”

#7. Ask for evidence.

Challenge students to “make your hypothesis: I think ___ because ____” and redirect them if necessary by referring back to the primary source for details.


#6. Listen… and learn.

“Listen to what students are telling you; don’t just assume you know what they are going to say.” Or, as another participant wrote, ”Less teacher talk, more student talk.”

#5. Encourage—and enjoy—the unexpected.

“Offer positive encouragement of the process,” and remember that you “must let the students explore different avenues than what you may have had in mind.”

#4. Make student thinking visible.

Use techniques to help students see their thinking. For example, “Point out on the painting/picture what the students mention so everyone sees it” and “Allow all questions and observations to be heard and/or recorded.

#3. Know your questions, not the answers.


“Resist answering questions,” “Have faith in yourself and in your students; take a risk!” and “Reinforce there are no wrong answers” because “this is about student thinking.”


#2. Keep it simple.

“Don’t try to do so much” and “Allow discussion to develop on its own – not too guided.”

And the most frequently cited tip for facilitating a primary source analysis from the Library’s 2011 Summer Teacher Institute participants?

#1. Wait! Give students more time.


“Giving students time to observe, reflect, question, and share,” is crucial, as one participant pointed out. As another participant wrote, “Don’t jump the gun. Give students time … to develop their ideas.”

Visit the Library of Congress Teachers page to find the primary source analysis tool and teacher’s guides to assist in facilitating student analysis of a variety of primary sources.

What tips do you have for fellow educators based on your own experiences facilitating the analysis of primary sources?


  1. Matt Cummings
    September 13, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    Stephen and Stacie, these are all great points to make about using Primary sources. In my experience, students have had the most fun identifying the differences between Primary and Secondary sources when you offer examples that are meaningful while capturing their attention. I also agree with your comments in allowing students to investigate the material on their own. I’ve offered everything from video of Libya’s rebellion to an NBC News webcast, funny political editorials, and of course the materials offered by Kathy and the team at LOC. Thanks for the article – I will be sure to share it with my colleagues!

    Matt Cummings

  2. David
    September 13, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    This is an excellent summary list of key strategies… my favorites are 8, 7, 3, and 1. Wait time is so important for learning, yet so hard to master in the classroom. We could all use a little more wait time.

    I had fun reading about what’s going on at the Summer Teacher Institutes!

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