The Ultimtate History Guide for GCSE and A Level Watch

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Hi all,

First and foremost, apologies for the length and somewhat lack of structure – which is ironic considering what I'm talking about, and secondly, apologies for any potential typos or poorly constructed sentences, it's been a long day!

I'm writing this because I get tonnes of people asking me about specific essays and how to structure various ones, and also people asking me how to get the best mark. So let me say this: for pretty much every single generic history essay the structure and ways to get the best mark are always the same (to be elaborated below); although you do get some variations such as some exam boards requiring that certain primary sources are to be referred to and used, for example, the structure still stays the same! The only differences which must be understood and demonstrated by you guys in exams and coursework is approach, this is key.

In almost every single historical secondary source you come across - be that journal, book, etc... - they will always use the same structure, and this is the same structure you've probably been had drilled in to you since GCSE English, i'm talking about PEA - Point, Evidence, Analysis. I'm aware some variations exists such as PEE and all that, I myself like to use PEAL - point, evidence, analysis, link back - but the fundamentals stay the same.

Now if you look in academic works such as William Doyle's Oxford History of the French Revolution, or John Elliott's Imperial Spain (to name two), you may think that they don't use this and its much more complicated, but they do! Academic writers essentially branch PEA over a series of paragraphs. They'll always have a point they make and usually follow this up with evidence and analysis in the following paragraphs, but its still the same.

Anyway to cut the waffle. I can only speak for GCSE, A-Level, 1st and 2nd year of undergraduate History but in all of these I've found PEA word and is used. The structure of your essay therefore should revolve around this. You have an introduction, then a couple of paragraphs in the form of PEA and a conclusion. If you want to be hitting the higher marks I would always keep PEAL in mind as the 'L' makes you link back to the question at the end of your analysis, it keeps the essay relevant and shows you can relate to other parts.

Introductions at GCSE and AS Level are pretty self explanatory, you highlight the basic elements of the topic etc...but for A2 and degree level the introduction becomes essential, you can loose/gain significant marks here and it really shapes your essay if done right. Ideally you want a short, simple and effective sentence arguing your point across (because history at this level is all about persuasiveness/argument - to be discussed in approach!). From here, you can elaborate slightly and include some historiography to back yourself up if you want, its a nice touch and it might win you a few ticks but keep it simple. The real body of your introduction is laying out how you're going to approach the question; in other words, you want to be very briefly laying out the arguments and points you will cover in order - so the examiner gets a basic feel and knows whats coming. For example (i'll keep this real brief as introductions can be wordy), "To suggest that the main cause of the English Civil War was King Charles' personal reign is wrong. Rather, as shall be explained below, the Civil War was product of a long-term build up in tension (as classic historiography suggests) between the King and a faction in Parliament over the issue of finance in the long-term and religion in the medium-term. Hereby..." You can see how it goes, I've given my argument, historiography, and how i'm going to approach the first few paragraphs.

Also as a pointer (this is only really relevant in A2 coursework and in undergraduate level) examiners are really hot on time constraints and making clear key words/terms/concepts. For example, if the question was "To what extent did Rome, militarily, differ under the Late Republic as it did under Augustus" you need to be engaging with the concept of the Late Roman Republic. Not only does this show a grasping of historiography - as it is a topic debated to death - it allows you to set restraints (and thus include relevant material in your essay) meaning you can't get pulled up for not including something which may be relevant, but outside the specified period. As a pointer though, i'm going to say at least 99 times out of 100 (especially for anything under 2nd year undergrad) this wont be an issue in exams as they set constraints and it would be too time consuming for you to do so. So really only worry about this for coursework, because remember, its all about clarity of argument so setting the constraints is only going to help this.

Your 'E' and 'A' in PEA are pretty self explanatory. At first sight, I remember when I first did A Level History, the emphasis on evidence was scary and I used to pack my essays with hundreds of stats. With history though, this goes from GCSE to the highest levels, evidence can be anything from a statistic to a key event, date, painting etc. Evidence is essentially anything that exists but isn’t an interpretation – learn this! This can be anything from a date, key event, painting, artefact etc…as long as it is relevant its value as ‘evidence’ will serve to strengthen your point. For instance, I could say “under Elizabeth I the Northern Rebellion was a Catholic-inspired movement”, this is a point (P) but it doesn’t have any evidence; the event could be argued to be economically or politically motivate movement; however if I say “…we can see this due to the holding of mass in Durham Cathedral which was undertaken by the vast majority of the participants” my point instantly has weight. I think it should be said though that a historians quote isn’t and shouldn’t be used as evidence, it should be rather used in your analysis to back up your point from an academic standpoint. Some people may disagree with this but I’ve found that if you keep your key academic quotes in the bag for analysis it makes your analytical work strong and keeps your paragraph from looking like a list of quotes.

I won't spend too much time on analysis as it's pretty straight forward. What I would say is always keep in mind that you should be thinking analytically and critically (as a historian) to keep you from telling a story or chronology of events – this is a major blunder at AS and GCSE. The use of a link in your structure (as I mentioned with the PEAL style) will help you keep on topic; but otherwise certain buzzwords can be used to get you in the analytical frame work, such as “as a result…” “this means that…” “consequently…” “subsequently…” “therefore…” I find these work for me. At a higher level your analysis should be naturally more detailed and should demonstrate how much you know and understand about the topic, to score highly you should be thinking and analysing the significance of whatever your talking about (but only if it's relevant) it priority as a factor compared to other, why you think it is important and meaningful etc. Then to really complicate things up you could be thinking about the long/short-term relevance (again only if it is relevant) if it was top-down or bottom-up, if it was progressive or regressive, if it was regional/national/international, political/social/economic importance etc. It's hard for me to suggest how to analyse when I don't know what's specific to you as the reader, it's all about what type of question you have – but the rest of the structure stays the same! A good way to remember different types of factors though is SPERM – social, political, economic, religious, military.

Now, in terms of historiography this is a hot topic when it comes to A2, suddenly you've gone from never hearing from it to being told you have to include it – which you do if you want the top marks. Essentially, at A2, all you have to know for coursework is who follows which school of thought – and then use this to back up your arguments, or alternatively, to increase your grade potential, you can include it but suggest why it is wrong, so argue against it. As I've mentioned you include it to bulk out your argument, not as evidence. And for GCSE and AS you don't have to worry about any of this, but for A2 exams and coursework you do. At A2 there is essentially 2 schools of historical thought you can categorise historians into – classicism and revisionism; just before I start getting grief from various people I know there are many more groups (I could talk about Marxists, Whigs, post-revisionists, feminists, Great Man) theory and schools for a long time; but at A2 it is only required that you show a knowledge of historiography – and this is the easiest way to do so. To be general again then, revisionists generally clash with classicists and vice versa, so you either agree with one or another; and generally there are 2 main branches of thought on any big event, these being the classic view and the revisionist view. For instance, the classic view on the causes of WW2 is the lump all the responsibility with Hitler being a tyrant and expansionist, meaning that revisionists generally go against this and suggest Hitler wasn't the main cause and they go on to list other factors. At Agincourt the classic interpretation was to suggest the archers won the battle against an army 10 times the size of the English – revisionists would argue that it was the muddy conditions of the day which slowed the French Cavalry, and that the forces were almost equally sized. Classic historians like to claim that Ferdinand and Isabella unified and began the process of centralising Spain, whereas revisionists would say they didn't - policy was only short term and reactionary, and they possessed neither the means not the intention to bring in a central government. You get the jist? This is what historiography is all about at A Level and all you need to do is include it in your analysis to show an awareness to hit the high marks. You don't need a separate paragraph on it, but neither do you need to quote vast tracts verbatim – sometimes name dropping historians, such as “Starkey would agree with this…”, “this coincides with Elliot's work…” “I would disagree with Green’s theory that…”. Essentially there are 2 strains of thought with every topic, side with one or side with another in your arguments or even combine both with your own personal twist on it, as long as you include it, and it's relevant, with It either helping your argument positively or helping to destruct an argument, you can't go wrong.

Conclusions are pretty basic. The whole point of a conclusion is that you conclude your essay. You bring together all your arguments in a neat ending, sometimes a nice way to do this is to show in your conclusion how all the factors you've mentioned are relevant, and that they all come together to play upon each other in some way – some factors being more long-term/relevant/etc… than others. But this is not the only way to conclude, it all depends upon your essay question though – the key thing to remember is to make sure you answer the question and do so convincingly with links to what you've mentioned in the body. But make sure you don't repeat yourself to much – if at all – and equally try not to bring in anything new. These are the taboos of conclusions. You want to briefly recap, conclude and provide a definite answer to the question. At GCSE if I remember correctly emphasis is placed upon coming to a distinctive answer, AS’s emphasis is upon priority and saying what is most important/significant (dependant upon the question), A2 all the listed previously and personal opinion along with being decisive, and at degree its originality. In general, including your opinion is a nice and effective way of rounding off a conclusion – although ask your teacher first as you could be marked down for this, but I don't think it should be an issue if relevant and conclusive.

A word on approach as this is very important and can significantly effect your mark. Again if I remember correctly, at GCSE your structure is a balanced argument rounded off with a conclusion, “some people suggest this…” “others would disagree and say…”, I haven't much comment on this as its pretty basic – just learn your stuff! At AS the format is the same except the content is more detailed and the emphasis is on prioritising and getting in your statistics. A2 is the big jump; for both exams and coursework you need to nail your colours on the nail, forget balance you need to be one sided and this is where a key first line in your introduction is essential as it dictates and is respective of the rest of your essay. Throughout A2 you need to be decisive and persuasive to your strand of argument – historiography is used to back up why your view is right and others may be wrong. Your PEALS’s need to be related and all aiming towards that one view, with a conclusion that is generally just a summary and is of lesser importance than AS and GCSE – the emphasis at A2 branches from a strong introduction. 1st year of degree this is essentially the same, except with more detail and a hint of originality.

At the end of the day though you need to know your stuff, treat your course textbook as a bible and go in to an exam /coursework knowing all the key events and the historical arguments, the events are the easy part knowing what the strains of thought is and the different schools is the hard part. As long as you know your stuff the structure will follow. At the end of the day the effort to learn the content has to come from you. You can read, understand and recognise all what is said above but without knowing the stuff it is pointless – and there is no easy way around this!

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