Research Skills for Students: Primary and Secondary Sources

Teach Your Students to Become Perceptive Researchers

One of my previous blogs recognized the Teach research skillscomplexity of teaching students foundational research skills. As educators, we struggle with teaching all of the steps of the inquiry process as well as keeping the students engaged in learning these essential skills. TechnoResearch is a new Google Apps for Education project by TechnoKids Inc. that systematically teaches information management strategies. In this project, students create a unique fun fact card as they build research skills.

Learning to distinguish between primary and secondary sources of information is an important research skill. If students are working on an inquiry project, it’s worthwhile to spend the time to ensure they understand how to recognize the type of online source they are using. Try the following activity to teach not only the difference between primary and secondary material online, but have students actively engaged in determining the benefits and shortcomings of each type.


Why Consider the Source?
Anyone can put anything on the Internet. Be critical! Just because it is on the Internet does not make it true. Instead, ask good questions to decide if the information is trustworthy.

  • How does the person know these details? Were they present at the event or scene?
  • Where did the person learn the details? Was it from an eyewitness or book?
  • Does the person list sources of information? Are these sources of information reliable?
  • Are conclusions based on a single piece of evidence or multiple sources?
  • Are the interpretation of facts neutral or are they slanted to support an opinion?
  • What does the person gain from sharing the information?

What is a Primary Source of Information?
A primary source is first hand. It is information from an actual event or original person’s actions or words. Primary sources include:

research data autobiography video testimonial
speech legal document eyewitness account
diary entry news footage of an event letter or postcard
interview original artwork social media post
email or test message meeting transcript performance
photograph chat log census statistics

What is a Secondary Source of Information?
A secondary source is second hand. It is information based on another person’s interpretation of an actual event or original person’s actions or words. Secondary sources include:

newspaper editorial biography non-fiction book
newspaper story documentary expert commentary
movie of historical event review summary report

Research using Primary and Secondary Sources of Information

    A primary source of information is from the original person or event.
    A secondary source of information can be a person’s opinion of the primary source.

    1. Form an opinion of a popular musician.
      a. Use a primary source to watch a performance such as a music video or concert.
      Did you like the performance?
      b. Use a secondary source to find a review of the musician’s concert or latest album.
      Do you agree with the reviewer’s opinion?
      c. Why is it a good idea to form your own opinion using a primary source instead of simply taking someone else’s opinion?
    2. Teach research skills

    3. There are many quotes on the Internet. A quote is the exact words written or spoken by someone. Discover what a famous person such as an athlete, politician, actor, musician, or historical figure said.
      a. Use a primary source to find a quote. Search the Internet for a video of an interview, testimonial, or speech. Write a quote from the footage.
      b. Use a secondary source to find a quote. Search the Internet for a web page or image that has a quote. Write down the quote.
      c. Why is a quote from a primary source more reliable?
    4. Teach research skills

    5. A news report can be a primary or secondary source of information. It depends how the facts are reported. Research a current event.
      a. Use a primary source to learn about a current event. Search the Internet for a video of the actual event, interview with an eyewitness, photograph of the scene, or social media post of an attendee on location. What source of information did you use? Why is it a first-hand account?
      b. Use a secondary source to learn about a current event. Search the Internet for an opinion article, e-book, expert commentary, or summary report. What source of information did you use? Why is it a second-hand account?
      c. How does a secondary source of information help you to understand a current event?
    6. Teach research skills

    7. Your teacher assigns you to create a research report on Asteroids. Why would this be a secondary source of information?
    8. Learn Research Skills

    9. List a benefit to using primary sources of information.
      Possible answer: A primary source of information is a first-hand account. You know it is true. You can form your own opinion.
    10. Learn Research Skills

    11. List a benefit to using secondary sources of information.
      Possible answer: A secondary source of information helps you learn background information. It can be a concise summary of the material. It helps you to see different viewpoints. You can save time when researching. The information may be in language that is easier to understand.

About TechnoHella

Hella Comat, Curriculum Writer - Hella Comat is a dedicated professional, who has taught in the education system for more than 30 years. As a pioneer of technology integration in Ontario public schools she was one of the first teachers to introduce the internet, video conferencing, web design, and multimedia learning activities to teachers and students in the Halton Board. To inspire teachers to use technology, she has led sessions for the Touch Technology program, ran workshops at education conferences, and sat on numerous advisory committees related to technology-issues. In recent years she taught the Computer in the Classroom course, at York University. Her lifelong commitment to teaching and learning was acknowledged when she was honored as the recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence in Science, Technology, and Mathematics. Hella's contribution to the blog includes entries about the importance of technology integration. Drawing from her in-depth knowledge of technology in the classroom Hella writes about teaching strategies and useful resources that can benefit your practice. In addition, she provides innovative lesson ideas that you can implement into your own curriculum.