Primary and secondary sources

Before you start your research, it helps to know which sources you will treat as your primary and secondary sources. This has everything to do with your methodology and how you will construct your argument. What are primary and secondary sources? Study the mind map below. What kinds of sources are you going to use during your research process? How will you use them? Have a discussion about this with your supervisor or candidate and record any notes in a Researcher's Reflection Space (RRS) or Reflections on Planning and Progress Form (RPPF). 

Characteristics of primary sources
  • cultural artefacts, such as buildings or posters,
  • works of art, such as feature films,
  • results from experiments, including data,
  • non-analytical by nature.
Characteristics of secondary sources
  • reference works that explain or catalogue,
  • documentaries that comment or synthesise,
  • interpretations of results and data,
  • analytical by nature.

One of the Approaches to Learning is research skills. What kinds of skills are needed to do good research? Certainly research is about searching and finding sources. But research is also about discarding sources and evaluating them for relevance and significance. Which primary and secondary sources are you exploring? Which ones are relevant to your research question?


'How many sources does a good EE have?' That is a tricky question to answer. An answer to this question will depend on the nature of your essay. History essays tend to have many more secondary sources than Language A essays, for example. But perhaps a better question is: 'How many sources can receive proper treatement in a 4,000-word essay?' Answers to this question depend on your definition of 'proper treatement'. Will you include dictionary definitions of a word or a journalist's interpretations of topical events? Evaluating sources is the first step to treating them properly.

Last modified: Wednesday, 3 June 2020, 11:06 AM