Historical Skills

Historical Skills

Historical Skills:

What are they and how do I approach them?



Simply put, historical skills are the skills you require to study History. Just as you learn how to play a sport or musical instrument, you need to develop your mental and physical abilities related to History. Below are some of the skills you will learn in Key Stage 3 and some suggestions on how to approach them.


Historical evidence:


Strictly speaking historical evidence is written evidence of the past, but often we also study archaeological evidence, that is the physical remains of the past, such as the ruins of buildings.

There are different types of written historical evidence, but they generally fit into two broad categories:

  1. Primary sources: sources written at or close to the time of an event, such as diaries, letters, legal documents, manuscripts, newspaper articles, images, autobiographies, etc.
  2. Secondary sources: These are written well after an event, such as biographies, history books (like your school history book) and journal articles. These normally use primary sources to write a story of what happened in the past, but they also analyse past events and interpretations of those events.

Contrary to popular belief, primary sources are not more valuable or valid than secondary sources: both have value and both have their limitations. It’s always fun to read a source from the time, but it gives us a narrow view of the past. It can be just one persons’ view. On the other hand, secondary sources use a variety of primary sources as well as consulting other historians’ opinions.

So, what questions can we ask of a source? It depends on the source as each source creates its own questions, but standard questions are:

What type of source is it? Who wrote the source? For what reason/occasion was it written? Where and when was it written?

These questions give us the context and can help us answer other questions such as, is it a trustworthy source?

Note: Quite often you might get a question that asks you to say if a source is objective (free from opinion) or subjective (it takes a side and is ‘biased’). Most sources are subjective, even a table of data, because someone has chosen what to include in that table, and what to leave out.


Inference and evaluation of sources:


When you infer from a source, you are reading between the lines to understand what is not said directly. One has to look closely at the words used for such an exercise. For example, if a source says that workers’ houses are ‘mostly’ in a bad condition, this means that some were at least tolerable, even though the majority were not.

When you evaluate a source, you are judging how useful it is to an historian. In order to judge this, we use other skills, such as analysis (examining the sources in detail), such as looking at when it was written, where and for what reason it was written, and who wrote it.



For example, the poster above was made during the First World War (1914-18) to encourage men to join the army. They use a famous general at the time, Lord Kitchener, to promote their cause, like today causes are promoted by famous actors and singers. They further appeal to nationalism (‘your country’s army’) and loyalty to the monarchy (‘God save the King’). They needed to do this because conscription (the forcing of men to join the army) was not compulsory until January 1916. Other propaganda posters were used to get women to contribute to the war effort, such as working in factories, to replace the men who were in the army.





The cause of something is what makes it happen, the reason or reasons it happens. There are short-term and long-term causes for events and these can be sub-divided into social, political, economic and cultural causes. For example, a short-term cause of the First World War was the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne by a Bosnian Serb. This was a political act. On the other hand, a long-term cause was imperialism, such as competition between European countries to have colonies in other places around the world that they economically exploited. Normally, it is quite easy to determine a cause, by looking at the events beforehand, but also in secondary sources you look for words such as ‘this lead to’, ‘as a result’ or ‘because of’, etc.

Sometimes you might be asked to put causes into an order of importance, or identify the main cause of an event. For such exercises, you should look at all the reasons carefully, then you state the main cause, giving your reasons for thinking this is the main cause. Try to use words or short phrases in the text to support your opinion. Then you mention the other causes, pointing out their importance, but also why they are not the main cause. Note that if the question asks what you think is the most important cause, it wants you to commit to one cause, so don’t make the mistake of saying you think two or three are of equal importance.




A consequence is the result of an event, what happened afterwards. For example, one consequence of the First World War was the fall of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. How do we explain that consequence? In the above cases, one can partially conclude that poor military performances in the war led to dissatisfaction amongst the people of the Empires. Also, in the case of Austria-Hungary and Turkey, as both were on the losing side, they had to accept the break-up of their Empires as part of the peace agreements.




Significance refers to the importance of an event. Like many things in History, this is a value judgement, but just as we can say one stone thrown into a pond creates a bigger splash than others, so some events have longer lasting effects. To judge the significance, we need to look at the different effects it had.


Analysing short and long-term significance of key events:


Just as an event can have long and short-term causes, they can have long and short-term consequences and significance. As with significance, we look at the impact to assess its importance. For example, a short-term impact of the Berlin Airlift was that West Berlin was cut off from the rest of West Germany, but a long-term impact was that it solidified the bad relations between the USSR and the West into the Cold War for over 40 years.


Judging change & causation:


This involves evaluating changes and their impact, normally over a long period of time. The aim is to see change with a broad historical view and not just an isolated event. For example, since World War II, there has been immigration into the UK from the former colonies and Commonwealth countries. However, according to the 2011 Census data, only 13% of the UK population have ethnic minority origins, while 87% are classified as ‘white’. When judging change like this, we cannot possibly look at all the information available, so we have to select particular points as snapshots, such as at the beginning, middle and end of a period, and draw conclusions from that. However, if we have statistical data, we can present this in chart form to plot the trends over a whole period.



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