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How to Leverage Primary Sources in Instructional Design

Aug 12, 2022 11:44:11 AM

Photograph of old newspaper, business cards, and other historical documents

Photo by Photoholgic. Description: Photo of wrinkled newspaper, business cards, and other historical documents.

Think of an important event in history that occurred during your lifetime. You probably remember watching the news on TV or seeing the newspaper headlines related to the event. These primary sources are part of our collective cultural memory. 

Primary sources can also serve as important learning materials for students. Helping learners step within inches of historical events and the news, primary sources are invaluable. Not only do primary sources bring benefits for learners, but they are also versatile. 

In this guide, learn how to pick out the best primary sources for your course needs. Then, discover activities you can leverage to get the most out of primary sources in instructional design.

3 Rules for Picking Primary Sources

Covering a wide range of resources, primary sources are first-hand accounts of news or historical events. Some examples include newspaper articles and reports, texts related to law, journal or diary entries of first-hand witnesses, interviews, statistics, video, audio, or photographs of an event, and more. Here are three rules instructional designers should have in mind when selecting primary sources:

1. Build interest

Learner motivation and engagement are essential considerations for instructional designers. When students are interested in what they’re learning, their performance improves. For this reason, the main criterion for picking primary sources is that it is attention-grabbing and engaging for students. Video content, images, and multimedia content in general are often the most exciting for students. That said, journal entries and contemporary advertisements can also intrigue students.

2. How do sources work together?

Primary sources can complement each other very well, making for exciting activities and lessons. For example, two sources sharing conflicting opinions or accounts can show how the author’s perspective or purpose can change how they describe the event. Or, a photo combined with a journal entry can offer powerful insights into historical language, clothing, architecture, and more.

3. Practical concerns

Naturally, practical concerns must also be taken into account. Some of the principal issues include copyright, how you’ll integrate the resource into your courseware, and accessibility needs like subtitles or image descriptions. In addition, instructional designers must ensure that the primary sources chosen are suitable for the ages of the learners. While at the high school and higher education levels this isn’t as much of a concern, for younger students, it’s important to screen for inappropriate content.

Did you know? Boclips curates primary sources and other rich media content, sorting by keywords and grade level so that it’s easy to find and seamlessly add to your courseware. 

With your primary sources selected, you can use them to create dynamic lessons and activities.

Top 6 Learning Activities Involving Primary Sources

Primary sources are versatile and fit in a wide range of curriculum areas. From supplemental materials for English language arts curriculums to social studies, history, and science lessons, primary sources are always relevant. Here are some excellent learning activities to consider:

1. Recurring tasks

Instructional designers may consider the benefits of a recurring task that requires students to watch or read the news every week. Veteran teachers report that this sort of activity helps students build vocabulary and learn to think critically about news sources. Another benefit is that this helps students meet Common Core Standards such as distinguishing between fact and opinion. Fitting this into courseware may look different depending on the overall objectives. One idea would be to do a peer share, in which learners chat in small groups to share a summary of their news stories.

2. Evaluating the source

Part of learning to think critically is knowing what questions to ask. Instructional designers can build lessons that teach students to evaluate primary sources carefully. Some questions to ask students include:

  • Who is the author or creator?
  • What is the purpose of the content?
  • What information is missing?
  • What might someone else say?
  • When was the source published?

Learners can talk through their ideas in a video conference, present assignments for peer review, or have students work collaboratively in small groups.

3. Comparing primary sources

In this activity, instructional designers should provide two primary sources. Then, students should compare and contrast them. How are the opinions or ideas different? Who are the authors and how do their perspectives change the content? What similarities do they share? 

Students can present their ideas through a video conference, in a forum, through chat, or in a formal assignment.

4. Primary vs. secondary sources

Learning to distinguish between primary and secondary sources is an important skill. Not only will this serve learners as they develop research abilities, but it also builds critical thinking skills. This lesson could be presented as a short unit with a homework assignment for learners to research and identify several examples of each. Then, students can present their findings in a video conference, in small groups, or within a forum. 

5. Flipped learning

Using primary sources in a flipped learning setting is an excellent option to consider. If your courseware is intended for hybrid learning, offering primary sources with a digital lesson that students can access as homework is an excellent option. Then, when learners arrive at class the next day, they’ll be prepared to engage in more engaging learning activities such as discussions, analysis, writing, and more.

6. Introduce a topic

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Photos and videos in particular can be powerful openers that capture the imaginations of learners, helping them engage with a new topic. For example, if the topic is hurricanes, why not open with a weather report from hurricane Andrew in 1992? 


Primary sources can add a feeling of excitement to your courseware, leaving learners always wondering what will come next. How will you leverage primary sources to take your activities to the next level? Let’s discuss! Get in touch with us on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter. We’d love to hear from you!

Rachel Peachey

Written by Rachel Peachey

Rachel is an education industry writer and former Montessori schoolteacher. Originally from Pennsylvania, Rachel lives in Guatemala with her husband and three children.