Revision:A Level History - Tips for Answering Questions

These notes aim to give a brief description of what is required of people studying A Level history (specifically for Edexcel Unit 6, but parts are also valid for other exam boards and modules).

Both (a) and (b) questions demand that we respond in an analytical fashion. That means that we develop an argument in response to the question set. The questions are framed in such a way as to allow analysis to take place.

(a) The question asks us to explain a factor/issue relating to some of the course content. However, WE SHOULD NOT BE MISLED: the best way to answer the question IS NOT TO WRITE AN EXPLANATION but to CREATE AN ARGUMENT AND ANALYSE. In doing so, we move automatically to the top band and often placed at the top of that band.

A common mistake is for candidates to underestimate the importance of the (a) question. Those achieve near full marks set themselves up for an A/B grade even with a weaker performance on the essay.

(b) The question will be framed in such a way as to facilitate a relatively straightforward argument. We will be given an interpretation or a view and be asked TO WHAT EXTENT we agree. The answer is therefore: ‘UP TO A POINT … BUT’. It is for us to qualify the extent to which we agree.

The questions ask us to use the sources. In doing so we need to show evidence that we possess the following skills:


Both at face value and reading between the lines


We need to show that we understand that the provenance of the evidence is an important factor to consider. Also what the speaker of the source was feeling at the time, this is through understanding the key events at the time of the source.




We need to be able to treat the sources together and highlight where the sources agree and where there are significant differences. We also need to explain why there are these similarities and differences.

The sources must be used as part of the analytical response. Below is a suggested paragraph structure that facilitates both analysis and source work at a level required for full marks.



Once we have written a PLAN, we need to write an introduction that answers the questions.

  • The introduction will involve writing out the main points from the plan
  • It is essential that we attack the question directly in the introduction
  • Our introductions should be straightforward, direct and deliver an answer to the question.


We need to structure our essays in clear and sufficient paragraphs. To achieve the mark we want, we need to stay direct to the argument throughout. This means that WE NEED TO EXPLICTLY ANSWER THE QUESTION throughout the essay. The best structure for every paragraph, I think (and recommended to me), is thus:


At the start of the paragraph you should present a line of argument, like a sign post sentence. The best way to do this is to use the language of argument.

  • One should argue that …
  • It is clear that …
  • Fundamentally …
  • Without a doubt …
  • This most obviously …

Try and avoid a descriptive start because this will often lead to a descriptive paragraph.


The next section of each paragraph will explain that line of argument.


The difficulty for us in completing our answers is that we are expected to give evidence from our own knowledge and explain the relevance of detail used to back up their argument. This detail needs to be accurate, well selected and relevant.

What is meant by detail? Facts, statistics, names, events, references to historians.


The last half sentence of the paragraph should be a reiteration, going back to the main theme/argument in the question.


The rule of the major-generals was perceived as harsh because it was associated with the brutal crushing of Penruddock’s Rising in Wiltshire in March 1655. Indeed the major-generals’ experiment that followed had the effect of creating the legend of Cromwell as a military dictator. Equally damaging were the order received by the major-generals including banning horse races, cock fighting and stage plays. The reaction against this experiment can be seen in Source B in which the historian, well informed and reliable, attacks the major generals as ‘the most intolerable experience England ever had’. This view is complemented by that of the contemporary writing in Source C, who believed that the major-generals ‘are as a destructive force as we have known’. Although one has to be aware that the contemporary source is clearly an opponent of Cromwell and is writing after 1660 and will therefore invariably condemn, it is clear that he was in a position to understand the impact of the major-generals at the time. So the evidence of contemporary and historian condemn the experiment as negative.

I think a real important factor in our answers is STYLE. The style of our answers should be one of SYNTHESIS, that is suing the information from the sources to inform our analysis. Here is an explain answer for this question:

Consider the validity of the view that during the period 1653 to 1658 Cromwell was a willing dictator.

It is clear that a move to dictatorship went against Cromwell’s deepest political instincts. The political stance taken in the 1640s in support of the Independents was never lost, merely compromised. Indeed, this point is highlighted by Coward who stresses that Cromwell had never lost his ‘Independent instincts for “healing and settling”’. That he could, in the 1650s, still show traits of such political instincts was, in part, due to his ideological schizophrenia, or what Wedgwood refers to as his being an ‘enigma’."


These notes are aimed at A Level history students.

Originally written by all red and ermine on TSR Forums.