Skip to main content

Best Practices

The LTO Best Practices

Issue No. 70: Engaging Undergraduates with Primary Sources

Welcome to the seventieth issue of The LTO Best Practices. Each month, the Learning & Teaching Office will be spotlighting a timely topic in education.

After many months of construction, the 4th floor of the library, housing Ryerson’s Archives & Special Collections, has finally reopened. To celebrate, we have a guest post from Alison Skyrme, Special Collections Librarian, on "Engaging Undergraduates with Primary Sources."

This issue is also available for download as a pdf.

Check out our page of Teaching Tips handouts for more downloadable documents on a variety of teaching topics.

Best Practices in Teaching with Primary Sources

One of the last Standard Studio Tungsten Lamps used in the soundstage of the School of Image Arts before the conversion to tungsten halogen lamps. From Ryerson University Archives and Special Collections One of the last Standard Studio Tungsten Lamps used in the soundstage of the School of Image Arts before the conversion to tungsten halogen lamps. Ryerson Archives & Special Collections.

Primary sources are often used by graduate students and advanced researchers, but can be compelling teaching tools for undergraduates as well. Visiting archives and special collections departments can be intimidating for students, but by introducing them to primary source materials in the classroom, modelling research methods, and having them work in groups, students can become more comfortable working with different types of information sources, improve their research skills, and benefit from interacting with unique and engaging source materials.

Digitization has expanded access to primary sources, making it easier and more convenient to include this material into your teaching, from slides to assignments. This issue describes some ways you can introduce undergraduate students to primary sources and expand their understanding of research.

What Are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are documents that were created during the period the researcher is studying. This includes not only traditional paper documents, such as letters, diaries, news articles, and government records, but also other sources of information like films, photographs, television footage, recipes, advertisements, political cartoons, recorded talks, and even household objects.

Why Use Primary Sources?

Research has consistently shown gains in student achievement when primary sources are integrated into the curriculum (Fry, 2010). A three year study developed by a research team at the Brooklyn Historical Society found that undergraduate students that took part in a class program that included structured pedagogical sessions centered around primary source material performed better in their courses overall than those that did not, and developed critical and analytical research skills (Anderson et al.). The students in the study reported that hands-on access to the primary sources had a profound effect on them, and that the course content they studied became much more relevant through interaction with the primary sources (Anderson et al.).   

Interaction with primary sources engages student researchers, and allows them to develop an understanding of the time period in question. Primary source research also provides students with an opportunity to take an active role in learning. They are required to use analytical thinking and interpretation skills to fill in contextual information that may be missing, and to tie theoretical or generalized historical concepts to actual events, people, or experiences (Library of Congress). Students have the opportunity to draw their own conclusions, recognize contradictions, and realize how sources can be used, in and out of context, to support different, sometimes conflicting, theories.

How to Integrate Primary Sources Into Coursework

Here are some ideas for integrating primary sources into your courses:

  • Use primary documents as points for discussion at the beginning of lessons or as a way to review following a unit of study.
  • Use primary documents as a starting point for self-directed research and analysis, or as source material for students to create exhibitions, posters, creative writing, or multimedia presentations.
  • Have students work in groups with the materials to encourage collaboration, insight sharing, and cooperative learning.
  • After an introduction to primary source research, include an assignment requiring students to locate further primary documents on a topic. This can help improve their research skills, particularly in identifying reliable sources.
  • When assigning a research paper, include a requirement for the citation of one or more primary sources.  
  • Include conflicting sources for comparison. Ask students to compare and contrast records created from different sides of a historical situation.
  • Have students evaluate a record themselves. Use analysis worksheets (such as these worksheets provided by the National Archives), or provide questions to guide critical analysis, which may include:
    • What is the document?
      Cover of the comic book Nelvana of the Northern Lights. Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection. Ryerson Archives & Special Collections Nelvana of the Northern Lights. Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection. Ryerson Archives & Special Collections.
    • Who created it?
    • What was its original purpose?
    • Where was it created?
    • What kind of information or evidence does it contain?
    • What does the format say about the document?
    • Why and how was the document preserved?
    • What other documents or information might give this further context?
    • How does the information in the document align with/contradict other documents or secondary sources?
    • What conclusions can be drawn based on the document?
    • What further research is necessary to form conclusions?
  • Design tailored, small-group discussions based on students’ initial findings and require students to provide specific evidence from the document to illustrate their points.
  • Encourage students to follow up with further research on primary sources they find themselves.

Getting Started with Primary Sources

To help ease undergraduates into working with primary sources, consider the following tips:

  • Always begin by defining primary sources and differentiating them from secondary sources.
  • Provide students with clear learning objectives for the use of primary sources.
  • Provide students with related secondary source material to help develop context.
  • Select a few individual documents to examine, ensuring they are relevant to the course material. Model the process of document analysis for students.
  • Provide some introductory information about the materials: Where are they located? How are they arranged?  How can students search for them? How do they cite them?
  • If visiting an archive or special collection and using original documents (rather than reproductions or digitized copies), review handling guidelines carefully prior to the class.

Sample Assignments at Ryerson

Looking for some inspiration? Here are a few undergraduate assignments that Ryerson faculty created using primary source material in the Ryerson's Archives & Special Collections:

  • Digital Exhibitions Assignment: Students in Professor Lorraine Janzen Kooistra’s Advanced Research Methods class examine popular culture through different historical periods by consulting primary sources from the time, including a run of the Yellow Book and the Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection, to create an online exhibition that can be included in their resumes or portfolios.
  • Image Research in Architecture: Architecture and urban planning students studying the history of building in Toronto have conducted image research using photographs from the Canadian Architect collection, taken for publication in the journal from 1955-1990. These projects resulted in building histories, research papers, and a feature exhibition.
  • History of photography through images, text, and objects: Students studying the history of photography in classes taught by Sara Knelman and Christopher Manson spend a class learning about the development of different photographic formats and processes through a combination of prior readings, lecture, and interaction with historical photographs, 19th and early 20th century cameras, period advertisements, amateur photography journals and how-to guides.


Primary Source Resources at Ryerson

    Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleavers. Images from The Black Star Collection, Ryerson Image Centre Above, left: Cynthia Benjamins, Untitled [Angela Davis], ca. 1978. Above, right: Allan Copeland, Untitled [Kathleen Cleaver at the Black Panther Headquarters, San Francisco, California], November 24, 1968. Gelatin silver prints. The Black Star Collection, Ryerson Image Centre
  • Ryerson Library Archives and Special Collections: The Archives contains a broad range of primary source materials related to the history and development of Ryerson University. Special Collections was established to help support the learning and teaching needs and facilitate the scholarly, research and creative activities of the Ryerson community by acquiring and preserving rare books, published material, photography, film and cultural history objects. We can provide access to these materials to you and your students through activities held in our classroom space, by providing primary source material to be integrated into course readings and assignments, and by working with instructors to create programs that meet the needs of their specific class. Collections of interest in Special Collections include:
    • Canadian Architect Magazine Fonds: The archive contains thousands of negatives and photographs taken for publication in Canadian Architect magazine, which reviewed and documented both public and private structures, including churches, homes, businesses, airports, government offices and public spaces.
    • Leniniana Collection: The collection consists of more than 800 items featuring the image of Vladimir Ilych Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union. There is a variety of media, including paper, textile, bronze, alloy, gold, clay, wood, porcelain, stone as well as books, posters, postcards, and 35mm black and white film.
    • Kodak Canada Corporate Archives and Heritage Collection: The Kodak Canada collection contains records and artifacts from the Kodak Heights manufacturing facility in Toronto. The collection consists of photographs, negatives, advertising records, magazines, pamphlets, daily record books, recipe books, cameras and other photographic equipment produced by Kodak Canada Inc., or other Kodak plants around the world.
    • Robert Hackborn Fonds: The Robert Hackborn fonds contain the records that Mr. Hackborn generated during the course of his television production career at the CBC from 1955 until his retirement in 1993, including photographic and textual documentation of the earliest stages of the show development process for the important children's television programs Mr. Dressup, Mr. Rogers Neighbourhood, and Jim Henson's Fraggle Rock.
  • Ryerson Image Centre: This centre for research, teaching and exhibition of photography at Ryerson features three galleries and a media wall. The Peter Higdon Research Centre is available by appointment to the Ryerson community and the public from Monday to Friday and contains historical and fine art photographs, the Black Star photojournalism collection, and several photographer archives.
  • Fashion Research Collection: The Ryerson University Fashion Research Collection was founded in 1981 by Professor Emeritus Kathy Cleaver and contains several thousand donated garments and accessories dating back to the latter part of the nineteenth century. The collection includes many examples from Canadian designers and retailers, as well as international designers such as Christian Dior, Valentino, and Balenciaga. The collection is located in the School of Fashion at Ryerson. While it is not open to drop in visits, undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and visiting researchers may request research appointments.


For more information on primary sources available in Toronto as well as online resources for integrating primary sources in your teaching, download the full version of this document [pdf]

Next Issue

"The LTO Best Practices" is produced monthly by Michelle Schwartz, Instructional Design and Research Strategist at the Learning & Teaching Office of Ryerson University.

Do you have any thoughts, suggestions, or best practices that you would like to see appear in this newsletter? Please send all submissions to We look forward to including your contributions in our next issue!

Contact Us

Location: Kerr Hall West, room KHW373.
Phone: 416.979.5000 x6598