How To Write History Essays A Level

  1. I really liked GCSE History and because I got an A* in it, I took it for AS Level. However, I haven't really been adjusting well to the essay writing. I don't entirely understand how to structure the essay in terms of what actually goes into each paragraph. I understand that you need to develop analytical responses whilst having explicit understanding with relevant evidence but it's really difficult to put this all into a paragraph. Also, I get really distracted and it normally takes me ages to write a history essay whereas everyone else completes it within 1 hour.

    Ah, I'm doing Edexcel AS History and the units are: Scramble for Africa and Britain and the American Colonies 1740-1769. Can anyone help me with the content in this as well?

    I know it's a lot to ask but thank you!

  2. I am also with Edexcel for A2 - however I'm doing Medieval History. I may be able to help on a few things.
    Firstly, the most important difference between GCSE and A Level History is that you are negatively marked for any irrelevant information - therefore try to make sure that your essay is tightly argued and is focused.
    Moreover, at the beginning of AS , I fell into the trap of trying to include everything related to the topic and many examples, this was a major pitfall- try and avoid this. Rather, you are better of including a few relevant examples and focusing on your analysis.
    A good structure to use is Point, Evidence, Explain and LINK. Linking your arguments will get you the higher grades.
    Finally make sure you always refer back to the question so you keep your essay cogent.
    With regards to timing issues, at this point of the year don't worry too much about spending more time. I too was like this. But, I promise with practice, it will become second nature! Perhaps you can slowly start setting yourself time limits when completing essays at home, and eventually build up to the time required for your exams.
    I hope this all helps ! And like I said, at this time of the year don't worry too much (assuming you don't have any January exams!!)

  3. Building up both sides of an argument then demolishing them through further points is pretty key to scoring top marks, my Hist teacher said.

Posted 07 May 2003 - 12:23 AM

Essay Writing at AS Level

September. There they are. Your bright-eyed, bushy-tailed new AS Level set. Raring to go on their new course. Successful at GCSE, they have all the self-belief of the young. Within weeks they face their first ‘proper’ essay and with it the first big hurdle of their course. You give the work back. The disappointment in their faces as they read their grade and your comments is very real.

If this strikes a chord with you, then I hope you will join in this discussion and contribute to a pooling of ideas and strategies for helping the AS candidate to learn how to write “a good essay”. It is not my intention to lay down a definite guide to the subject. I have no particular expertise and I certainly don’t feel that I have all the answers. Nor, intentionally, is this a complete 'view from the classroom' for I hope that many others will contribute their ideas and experience to this discussion.

What is it exactly that the new AS student finds so difficult? For many it is understanding the demands of different types of questions. What exactly is meant by “Assess the reasons for …..”, “Consider the view that ….”, “What best explains ….”?

What do we mean precisely when we demand that a student should be “more analytical”? Learning how to “focus sharply on the question” is possibly an even bigger hurdle. Others, particularly the weaker ones, find it incredibly difficult to structure an essay logically. Of course the traditional A Level candidate faced all these problems too, but there was then a longer period of time to build the art of writing a good essay. An AS candidate may well be facing the first Unit’s exam after only four months’ teaching and so it becomes imperative that the problems are addressed early in the course.

As with the development of all the skills of the historian, the real solution to this problem is to begin developing essay writing skills during KS3. Essay writing frames, making ‘big points’ supported by ‘little points’, the use of the ‘beefburger’ analogy and so on all help to build the skills slowly. But what if your AS candidates have not experienced this gradual development of skills?

It helps to have a variety of strategies aimed at different learning styles. Card sorting activities which involve putting reasons into an order of importance (or ‘Significance Stairway’) help students to visualise relative importance and is effective in helping students to see how to structure an essay effectively. Similarly activities which involve sorting factual information according to given criteria seems to help those who find it hard to decide what support they can provide for their generalised assertions.

For those who find it hard to understand what is meant by “focusing sharply on the question” and who still fail to relate what they write directly to the question being addressed I have found it useful to provide both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ examples and to get them to highlight those sentences which link the point being made directly to the question. The absence of highlighting in the ‘bad’ essay seems to drive the point home and the ‘good’ example demonstrates how “sharp focus” can be achieved.

Many of us will be very familiar with the “A good essay is like a good beefburger” analogy. Whilst I think my own students probably think I am mildly mad to pursue the idea with sophisticated 16 and 17 year olds, it definitely works! If anything, it helps to drive home the importance of a good introduction and the need for an overall conclusion if the ‘burger’ is not to fall apart. Encouraging them to think of each paragraph of their essay as a ‘mini-burger’ which opens with a point linked directly to the question and ends with a concluding link has also proved effective.

A similar idea involves the idea of P.E.E.L.-ing each paragraph where P means ‘make your Point’, then ‘Explain’ and back it up with ‘Evidence’. Finally ‘Link’ your paragraph so that it flows logically on to the next one.

Where understanding the demands of particular types of questions are concerned I have found it helpful to use different coloured pens on the whiteboard to distinguish between the ‘instruction’ and the ‘topic’ of the question. ‘Unpacking the question’ so that they learn to identify the sub-questions which need to be addressed in their answer also proves helpful, though there are some who never really seem to grasp this. When using a particular question wording for the first time (eg “Assess the reasons for …”) I found it helps to discuss this in the context of a more familiar situation first. Mine is an all boys school, mad about rugby, so that “Assess the reasons for the first XV’s victory/defeat last Saturday” is something they all can relate to. From there it is easier for many of them to see how to tackle the History question.

I would stress again that I have no particular expertise in this field and I certainly don’t feel I ‘have all the answers’. Indeed I am very much aware that I don’t! What I should like to encourage is contributions from others with hands-on experience teaching AS Level students.

What problems do your students face when writing essays? How do you address their difficulties? What strategies have you found particularly helpful?

Over to you ……

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