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Teaching the First World War
Teaching the First World War

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6 Evaluating academic literature

Now that we’ve practised finding secondary literature, let’s move to the slightly more challenging subject of evaluating the usefulness of that literature. Although you are probably well equipped to undertake this task, it is likely that your students might initially struggle with it, so we have provided a worked example here that could be adapted for classroom use.

There can be tension between how easily you can access an item and how germane it is to the topic that you are researching. As we have already seen, careful searching can easily find lots of secondary sources using resources such as JSTOR, but this may not help you, or your students, unless it is both relevant to your research and free at point of use online. Equally, if a source is readily available, free to use and relevant to your topic, that does not automatically make it suitable scholarly matter. Given that, especially for NEA projects, exam boards insist that candidates utilise appropriate scholarly work, especially for NEA projects, this is a major consideration.

The Open University’s Library has developed a mnemonic tool that can help your students to assess a source relatively quickly to decide whether it is worth reading the whole thing and using it in their work. We call this PROMPT. It is designed to interrogate secondary literature, but some of its core principles can equally be applied to primary sources. The tool below summarises PROMPT and has been adapted for use with this course.

PROMPT [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (open the tool in a new tab or window by holding down Ctrl [or Cmd on a Mac] when you click on the link)

Activity 3 Using PROMPT to evaluate a source

Timing: Allow around 15 minutes

You can download a PDF version of the PROMPT criteria. Spend a few minutes familiarising yourself with this information and consider how your students might benefit from using the PROMPT criteria and what the likely shortcomings are.


If you have picked up material from an academic site such as a university publisher, or even from a more general academic search facility such as Google Scholar, then you can skim through most of these questions because the answers will be obvious. If you are intending to use this typology with your students, it might be advisable to emphasise that it will only provide answers as to whether a source is appropriate and sufficiently relevant. Whether or not you or your students agree with the interpretation offered in a source is, of course, a different matter and one that – in any case – is deliberately tested in the composition of assignments and coursework.

There are some generic considerations that can be applied to this process and understanding the genre of literature in front of you is one of them. It is likely that, at least for NEA purposes, the literature that your students will employ will be either chapters from academic books or articles from scholarly journals.

Each type has certain common features. Other than textbooks, academic books tend to be pioneering and important works in a particular field of study that are generally published several years after the research for them has been conducted.

Single author volumes are usually detailed explorations of a topic, which form part of the seminal literature in individual subject areas. At times, these books can be decades old yet still ‘current’, and that is no doubt one of the reasons why most exam boards consider them legitimate to include as interpretations in a piece of coursework.

Journal articles such as those found in JSTOR are also considered to be scholarly output and are likewise peer-reviewed (that is, their content is scrutinised by other experts before publication). The research that informs a scholarly journal article tends to have been conducted more recently than that for books, so finding one that was published relatively recently will tend to bring the reader up to date with the latest scholarship. Naturally, they are shorter than books, but they can also be denser and more complicated for the general reader.

Chapters in edited collections can also increasingly be accessed openly. They tend to focus on the overall subject or topic of the edited collection. They are often peer-reviewed, but less stringently so than journal articles.

Now that we have considered the parameters in which PROMPT can help students in their literature search, let’s turn to the next section to see how it works in practice.