Primary and Secondary Sources: A Natural Fit for Personal Finance

stack of financial paperwork

While personal finance is ever changing and evolving, the collections available through state archives and libraries should not be overlooked as fabulous resources. This doesn't mean digging through historical archives; personal finance is about what is happening in the present and future. Rather, it calls for using the wide array of current primary and secondary sources for teaching personal finance.

To understand more about using primary and secondary sources in the classroom, we went to some experts to provide their insights. Very special thanks to Julie Schein, Kira Duke, and Candi Norwood for sharing their expertise.

What is the difference between primary and secondary sources?
Primary sources are documents, objects, and so on that are created at the time under review. This could be anything from a government hearing to a newspaper article to a poster that was hanging on a wall somewhere during the time under study. Secondary sources are also documents, objects, and other materials that are created by an individual or group with no firsthand experience with the event they are depicting. Sometimes, telling the difference is tricky. For example, a present-day article written about slavery could be a primary source if it discusses present-day attitudes about slavery. The Library of Congress has posted a good article on primary sources.

What is the value in using primary sources in the classroom?
Primary sources bring instruction to life and allow students to make personal connections to a topic. Integrating primary sources into your classroom will help students improve their literacy and critical thinking skills. The wide variety of primary sources available online allow teachers the freedom to choose items that will interest all of their students. If you have students who are visual learners, then you can incorporate videos, illustrations, or photographs. If your students connect with sound, think about how you might incorporate music, recorded speeches, or oral histories. Once your students are hooked on a topic, you can challenge them with a source that is a bit more difficult like a text-based source. The skills that students will develop as they gain familiarity with primary sources will help them to become more savvy consumers of information in today's digital world and overall will help them become more engaged citizens down the road.

Why is it important to use primary and secondary sources in the classroom?
It is key for students (future citizens) to understand the nature of the information they are looking at. Being able to evaluate the source of a document, image, or other resource can tell you a lot about the perspective of the person who created it and help separate opinion or analysis from fact or observation. If we are to be a well-informed society, we need to understand how to interpret all the information that we come in contact with. Also, I think that studying primary source documents can give a student a window into a historical event that is much more powerful than reading about it in a book. I also think there is value in helping students discern what secondary sources are reputable so they are not using information in research that is incorrect.

In what ways do you suggest using primary sources to teach personal finance and business-related courses?
It is important for teachers to use primary sources in business and personal finance classrooms because students need to feel comfortable with documents that will be part of their adult lives regardless of their chosen career paths. It is crucial that students be able to interpret pay stubs, FAFSA forms, W-2s and W-4s, and bank statements. Teachers understand that the only way to ensure financial literacy is to use these items in the classroom.

Do you see a challenge in using primary and secondary sources in teaching?
Although there are many great resources and lesson plans for teaching primary sources, it could be time-consuming to prepare a lesson for execution in the classroom. Any exercise would have to be extremely well organized to guide students effectively through the steps and keep them engaged in the process.

Do you have a favorite primary source that you might recommend to a personal finance teacher?
An item of interest to senior personal finance students is a semester tuition bill from a nearby college. This becomes an eye-opening exercise when students are asked to extend this bill to eight semesters and contemplate using student loans, scholarships, grants, and work-study programs. In a country where student loan debt is a newsworthy issue, it is important for students to have a realistic idea of the cost of four-year institutions so they can construct a strategy for payment.

Do you have a favorite resource that might be useful to a personal finance or economics teacher?
At the request of a high school economics teacher, we [Teaching with Primary Sources, Middle Tennessee State University] prepared a newsletter to explore ideas centered on economics. We  also have various tools for integrating primary sources into various disciplines.

Additional tools and resources
Be sure to check out the various education resources available from the Atlanta Fed and the Federal Reserve System. Many of these lessons and activities utilize primary and secondary sources as part of the students' exploration and learning.