1. Too generic

Comments upon provenance are often very general and go little beyond what is said in the attribute of the source. It was written by X and dated Y and it is a Z type of source. To improve it, students need to use precise knowledge to explain the background, the context, audience and purpose of the source. What was Zhdanov’s role in the Soviet government at this point in time? Why should we listen to his thoughts on Truman’s foreign policy? The fact that it was written days after the Mr X article is significant why? Then surely, we should be looking at point number 3 below.

2. Only testing trustworthiness.

Evaluation is often limited to how ‘trustworthy’ the source is – candidates get led down a rabbit warren when they start commenting upon bias in particular. Everyone is biased. I am, you are, Churchill certainly was. Often this is followed by a full stop too.  “We should not trust the source because Stalin is biased.” This lacks any explanation and is clearly an assertion. Not only this, but the fact that someone is ‘biased’ (to use their words) does not mean the source lacks value – so what is the point? One might certainly comment on how typical the source is and how one is not surprised by the contents. There might even be some evidence to support some of the claims the author makes, which adds to its value. However, whether there is merit in what the author claims is only one aspect of the rich tapestry a student can comment upon when considering value. Have a look at this checklist my students and I created.

3. Separated provenance

Provenance is often separated from the content (and tone) of the source. Consequently, provenance reads like a bolted on section where students are simply ticking boxes for the examiner. Yes, they will pick up some marks because they have ‘done it’, but there is a ceiling on how far they can go in the mark scheme with such a formulaic approach. I talk about this in some of my podcasts on source structure. Better answers explain how the content is shaped by the provenance. The reason that X is being claimed in the source is because it was written by Y who wanted to achieve Z (for example). Why is Z adopting that tone? It is because he is trying to achieve Y. Class exercises on source skills should aim to make these links once the students know how to comment upon provenance. The History Rocks T&L booklets contain some exercises that would help here.

4. Not linking to the question

They don’t link their commentary on provenance to an overall assessment of value (or whatever the question is testing for) and the question. Students need to remember that they are answering a question on the causes of the breakdown of the Grand Alliance for example. Evaluation needs to be linked to how valuable the source is to an Historian studying that issue. Evaluation that is divorced from the question has no purpose.

5. Lacking balance

Many students either think the source is completely valuable or vice versa. Or the balancing comment is rushed and superficial. It does not mean they need an equal number of points to say why it is limited in value, but surely there should be more than 1-2 sentences in a page and a half of work. Again, this takes a lot of practice and as teachers, we need to hold their hands for sometime until they are ready to walk alone. (This raises a much bigger issue about the pressure to set one assessment after another – one which I will tackle another time).