This post is supposed to follow on from my one last month called “Basic history essay-writing advice”. It is slightly less basic.
How often have you heard (or said, if you are a teacher ) “You must think about the question.” I had been teaching for many years before I realised that, by itself, this was not a very helpful instruction. So I examined the problem and came up with the following very specific thoughts that one ought to have about essay questions.
In an exam time is short, so it is worth practising these thought processes as a drill during revision, so that no time is wasted when it comes to the real thing.
Here are four example titles, taken from recent exam papers. I shall refer to these in what follows.
Title A: OCR AS History
“The military strength of the
was the most important reason for their victory at Hastings” How far do you agree?
Title B: OCR A2 History
How effectively did states react to the demands of war in the period from 1792 to 1945?
Title C: SQA Advanced Higher History
What factors best explain Robert the Bruce’s decision to seize the throne in 1306?
Title D: SQA Higher History
To what extent did the Liberal Government of 1906–1914 introduce social reform due
to the social surveys of Booth and Rowntree?
1. What's the topic? This almost too easy to bother with – but get it wrong and your essay could get no marks at all. Write about the Second World War instead of the First World War, Thomas Cromwell instead of Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon I instead of Napoleon III and you are in big trouble. Essay titles often contain dates, and material outside those dates is irrelevant. For example, in an essay about the development of democracy between 1880 and 1914, material about the 1867 Act or the 1918 Act will do the essay little good.
For example: Title A is only about the victory at
Stuff about the subsequent conquest of the whole country is off the topic an
will get nul points.
Title B; No problems in this case. Those dates are in the syllabus, so you wont be tempted to go outside them.
Title C: Again no problem. You are unlikely to write about a different King Robert.
Title D: is only about the social reforms. Explaining why the political reforms were introduced will damage your essay.
2. What's the focus? Every examiner knows that writing down memorised facts about the topic instead of sticking to the focus of the question is one of the two commonest ways of under-performing in history exams. (The other is running out of time through lack of self-discipline and a failure to look at the clock.)
Title A: Candidates will know lots and lots about William of Normandy, about the reasons for the invasion, about the consequences of
Hastings, and so on. But stick to the focus –
the reasons for the Norman victory in that one battle.
Title C has a fairly narrow focus – the reasons why Bruce decided to seize the throne in 1306.
Title D is only about the reasons for the reforms. You will have been taught about the content and the consequences of the reforms, but those are not the focus of this essay.
3. What type of question is it? In practice there are a very limited number of question-types in use. You should have thought about, and practised, all of them before the exam.
Title A: A view is provided and you are asked whether you agree. The obvious structure is an essay in two parts. Part one examines the reasons for thinking the view is correct. Part 2 examines the reason for thinking the view is incorrect. The conclusion weighs up the arguments. (Note I have said “examines” not “describes”. The best essays are always evaluating and analysing as they go, not merely listing points.
Title B: Superficially a more complex instruction, as befits a more advanced exam. In fact this is another 2-part structure. Weigh up reasons for thinking reactions were effective against reasons for thinking reactions were not effective.
Title C: Many essay questions, like this one, look at first as though all you have to do is regurgitate your notes on the reasons why Bruce decided to seize the throne. Beware! All through the essay you must be evaluating the possible reasons so as to prioritise them. A last main paragraph beginning “However, the most important reason Bruce decided to seize the throne was….” seems indicated.
Title D: This is called an “isolated factor” question in the trade. What you have to do is weigh up the reason you are given against all the other possible reasons. Your conclusion, after all this analysis, must be either “Completely”, “Largely”, “Quite a lot”, Not very much”, or “Not at all”.
4. Hmm. It depends what you mean by....” This is often where the A-grade historians leap ahead of their rivals. Some titles are so straightforward that no thought about definition is required, but more often or not an essay can be made or marred by such thought. If the title contains the word “Socialism” and you write as though this merely means “trying to be sympathetic to the poor”, your essay will be feeble. A question about whether or not the British people benefited from the domestic reforms of the Liberal Government 1906-1914 will be much better is you pause to think what “British people” and “benefit” might mean.
Title A: Military strength: This includes strategy, tactics, leadership, logistics, weaponry, command structures, organisation, reconnaissance, intelligence… If all you writer about is men on horses against men with axes your essay will be feeble.
Title B: These A2 synoptic essays almost always require this kind of subtle thought. In this case, what do you mean by a states effective reaction to the demands of war? It can be helpful in these cases to run through a quick check list: Economic? Political? Cultural? Ideological? Bureaucratic? Financial? Other? In this case there is far, far more to be said than can be dealt with in 50 minutes. Fortunately the examiners won’t expect you to cover everything, but rather to show that you could if you had time.
Title C; In this case you probably do not need to spend long on this particular thought. But even so a, little thought about how eminent medieval warrior-earls made decisions might help. The main point is that you should always be thinking, not merely remembering.
Title D: This also is straightforward, assuming you have already identified social, as opposed to other sorts of reform. But do apply the “depends what you mean by” test briefly, if only to assure yourself that in this case it is not needed.
5. Do I know any authorities worth using in the essay? In A2 and Advanced Higher essays the reference to and evaluation of historians' judgements is often obligatory: study the published mark schemes. At AS and Higher it is an option, only worth taking if there is something worth saying. Evaluating and balancing these arguments – with the names of historians if you know them – will add a good deal of value to your essay. Merely sticking in quotations from historians as though they proved something, tends to weaken an essay. You will not be an A-grade historian if you use secondary quotations from modern historians as though they are evidence.
I repeat, you should in this matter follow closely the instructions of the exam board. However, in general history is a debate, not a list of memorised truths, and if you can join intelligently an existing debate, so much the better.
6. Why is this an interesting question? You probably chose the essay because you thought it was easy, because you knew about it. But your essay will stand out from the crowd if you can write it as though it were genuinely interesting and worthwhile. This can be especially useful for giving your conclusion an extra lift.
Title A: This whole idea of why some battles are won and some lost is interesting. Napoleon liked to appoint generals who were “lucky”, and he knew a lot about warfare. Were men on horses with pointy sticks really stronger than those housecarls in the shield wall?
Title B: Well,
went from world-beater to invaded. Germany seemed to have the answers
– but then was overwhelmed. Britain
buried her head in the sand and hoped for the best. These are deliberately
thought-provoking sentences, but that is what the best essays have, thought as
well as memory.
Title C: the decision-making process is fascinating. How are these key decisions arrived at? What does the evidence tell us about this man Bruce, and why he behaved as he did?
Title D: There’s a massive debate going on in the country right now about the right way to tackle problems of poverty. Relate Lloyd George and co to that to fond interest.
Good essays can be fine pieces of literature, genuinely works of art. but these are built on a solid foundation of method and practice. The moments of genius that great athletes show are added on to their mastery of the basics, not a substitute for them.
* * * *
If you think my blog-posts are helpful you might find my short revision pieces on Kindle helpful too. I’m afraid you have to pay for those, but only 0.88p (in the
There’s a list of them here: http://georgehharris.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/a-bibliographical-commercial-break.html