Monday, 24 March 2014

History Exam Revision


This advice is based on four decades of experience as a teacher and as an examiner. I hope it is useful to you.

1. Practise.

My good friend the Director of Sixth Form (now a headmaster) once brought in a university expert on revision to talk to our senior pupils. He gave everyone a post-it note and asked us to write down (a) something they were good at and (b) how they got good at it. Answers to (a) ranged from hockey to playing the bagpipes, via cooking. Answers to (b) almost all included the word “Practice”. I have rarely seen a point so effectively made.

All exam boards publish past papers on-line. Even if your teacher does not provide you with past papers, get hold of old questions and use them for practice. This is by far the best thing you can do for revision.

Earlier in the course it can be useful to write massive essays of thousands of words in length, as a way of getting to grips with a topic. During revision-time, however, practice essays should be strictly limited to the length possible in the exam. The obvious method is to set a timer for the appropriate length and stick to it. However, it can also be useful to spend as long as you like researching and crafting an essay that is of the same number of words you would manage in the limited time.

My two other recent posts on essay-writing may be helpful here. I very much hope your teachers will read your practice answers and take a few minutes to go through them with you. If you are doing self-assessment, make sure you refer at all times to the published exam-board mark-schemes.

Not all exam questions are essays. Also practise source questions, short answers and so on. Always practise with an appropriate time limit.


2. Learn stuff

This obvious advice comes second in importance to practise, but it is still important. There is no quick and easy way of doing this; you just need to put the time in. Some pupils would say “Oh I find it so hard to remember things” – and then one would find they knew the names of all the Premier League managers, or had recently played a large part in a school play. You can do it, but you have to give time to it.

In History there is no precise list of what you must know. The best candidates know lots, but they do not all know the same things. However, your factual revision should be closely related to the syllabus content as listed on line by the exam boards. When I sat A-level (before the first Moon landings) we had a loosely defined syllabus and a wide choice of questions. The modern approach is to have a tightly defined syllabus and a very limited choice of questions. Make sure your memory work fits with the syllabus topics.

Your memory work should include broad outline and general points. But do also make your own list (not too long) of statistics and quotations and other specific details for each topic and memorise them. This sort of detail, well used, can give answers a terrific lift.

Different people’s memories seem to work in different ways, so I’m not going to tell you how you must go about the learning. Do what works for you, whether it is saying aloud, mind-maps, coloured highlights or whatever.


3. Plan out your time

You should by now have a copy of your exam timetable, and it is essential that you use this to work out when you are going to revise what. If you have French, Biology and History on three consecutive days it will be no use trying to do all your History revision once French and Biology are over. Many people seem to have greater powers of focus and time-management than I have, but I have learned the hard way that it is well worth doing.


4. Keep interested

If you are a conscientious pupil you probably studied the topic well in the first place and revised it carefully for the “Mocks”. Revising all those notes and text-books again can make the whole business insufferably boring.

To combat this I would always include some new, stimulating material in your revision. Do not start reading some weighty tome at page one. However, the following are recommended.

-         Go to a library for an hour, gather round you a stack of relevant books and look up a few relevant pages in each.
-         Look out for books that are collections of essays. Forty years ago Penguin published a collection of AJP Taylor’s book reviews, lectures and so on called “Europe, Grandeur and Decline”. That was ideal for this purpose, on the nineteenth century. There will be equivalents.
-         Those magazines specially produced for history candidates are very good at this point. “History Review”, “New Perspective” and “Modern History Review” are all written for this purpose.
-         Use the internet. You are NOT looking for the labour-saving quick fix. You are planning to use search engines to roam around your topics looking for a few new details and ideas. (BEWARE: Much dedicated revision material is designed to help very weak candidates pass. If you are a strong candidate hoping for an A, this may do you more harm than good.)


5. Work with a friend

If you can find a like-minded friend for some joint revision sessions, this can be invaluable. Where you know more than they do, it helps your get your ideas in order to explain it to them. Where they know more than you, their points may be really useful. To give purpose to such sessions I suggest using past paper questions as the basis for discussion.

If these sessions turn out to be waste of time, or merely work you both into a panic, abandon them!


That’s quite enough. There is no short-cut. Above all, practice.


6. Build in some relaxing, leisure time.



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If you find this post useful you might like the pieces I have written for Kindle that cover various popular exam topics. I guess they fit under sub-heading 4, above. I’m afraid you have to pay for them but they are only about a pound each in the UK.

There is a list of them all here:



Tuesday, 11 March 2014

More history essay-writing advice: thinking about the title

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 Normans 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 Hastings. 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.)

For example:
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, France 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.

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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 UK).


Thursday, 6 March 2014

For World Book Day: My Childhood Reading


Most adults talk of the books children ought to read. Teachers (and I was one) have an obligation to do this. However, in this post I am going to talk of the books that, according to my memory, I loved as a child.

The first “proper” book I read for myself was “Five on a Hike Together”. I was six. My sister had just been ill and someone had given it to her. I soon followed that with most of the other Famous Five books. You can say what you like about Enid Blyton, and some of what you say is probably true, but she certainly encouraged my generation to read a lot. I was particularly attracted to those of her adventure stories that were set in the country – the Famous Five, as I have said. Also those “…of Adventure” books. Was it the “Island of Adventure” that involved bird-watching on one of the Western or Northern Isles. I remember when I was maybe seven or eight getting “The Mountain of Adventure” out of Coniston Public Library, finishing it soon after lunch and then immediately turning to Page 1 and beginning it again.

I have always re-read novels that I like. I read fiction then and now partly for escape. (After all, I am a historian. I get quite enough gritty realism from history, for goodness sake.) So stories with characters I enjoy spending time with, in places that I like to visit, have always attracted me. The fact that I know the plot and become increasingly familiar with the dialogue does not reduce my pleasure in the book. Most of the children’s books on this list are ones I have read again and again, and many of them I rediscovered when reading them to my own children.

At my little infant school any one whose birthday it was could choose the story for the day, which would be read aloud. On my seventh birthday I chose the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” from “The Wind in the Willows”. It is left out of most adaptations because it has nothing to do with the Mr Toad plot. It describes how Mole and Rat spend a night on the River searching for the baby otter, Little Portly, and are bewitched by the god Pan. “The Wind in the Willows”, of course, is one of those books like “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped” where it is hard to remember when one read the full and unabridged version, rather than a Ladybird book, or some other highly illustrated and much cut setting.

My parents’ cottage in the Lake District (advertised by the seller as “derelict outbuildings”) had no floor in places, only one cold tap and no electricity. Naturally reading was one of the main activities. The books of my infancy are still on the shelves there: “Rupert” (two big volumes) “Uncle Mac’s Children’s Hour Stories” some of which are very good indeed. Who could be without “Odds Bobs and Mackerel and the Pirates”?

When I was eight I was given a school prize (boast boast) and it was a version of the King Arthur stories: “King Arthur and the Round Table” by A M Hadfield. It followed (I discovered later) Mallory’s extended tragedy fairly closely, and was a pretty meaty book for a young child. By the time o was nine I pretty well knew it by heart, and it illuminated many of my dreams and fantasies. There were two of R J Unstead’s books around as well “Looking at History” and “People in History”. The first was social history, wonderfully illustrated. The second a series of biographies, from Caractacus to Alexander Fleming. I was given it when I was nine and knew it all by heart by the time I was ten. My future career was pretty well decided.

My parents were devoted to the Lake District – a devotion they have passed on to me and which I have never regretted. Naturally the works of Beatrix Potter were all around when we were little. Now that I am old enough to tell, I can see that her greatness is only partly based on the famous pictures. She was also a master of elegant, precise and beautifully crafted prose. Incidentally, I have heard knaves and fools describe “The Fairy Caravan” as less good than her famous little books. They are wrong. It is superb.

Many of the various Swallows and Amazons books are set in the Lake District as well. Between the ages of eight and eleven I read them again and again. “Pigeon Post” was a special favourite, and I do not think any children’s book has a more exciting climax and a more astonishing twist in the final chapter. Talking of knaves and fools, I have heard it said that they are bad books because they are “dated” and “middle class”. Well, of course they are dated. So is “Pride and Prejudice”. As for being “middle class” – well, what sort of half-baked neo-Marxist literary criticism is that supposed to be? One could hardly expect a children’s book to have members of all social classes included, from decayed gentry to lumpen. As a matter of fact one of the remarkable things about the books is the way that the different middle class families – children of naval officers, rentiers and academics – are subtly differentiated. Arthur Ransome himself was a left-leaning journalist, and he was sensitive to this “middle class” criticism, which is why the chief characters in “The Big Six” are the children of skilled workers. It was when re-reading the whole series to my own children that I discovered what good books they are. Incidentally, they are pretty advanced in attitudes. I think it was Jonathan Porrit who said he first learned his environmental awareness from “Coot Club”, and as for gender equality – well don’t tell Nancy Blackett that girls are not “equal” In fact there are some even better gender equality moments, such as when John falls asleep, after they have drifted into the North Sea in a storm, and Susan steers the ship without waking him. Or in “Secret Water”, when Roger and Titty are racing the Amazons and Roger asks Titty to taken the helm for “ she was the better steersman and he knew it.” This is all in the 1930s.

At my prep school there were lots of good old adventure stories, many of which left little impression. “Tintin” was a joy, of course. Biggles was never a special favourite of mine except for two which I was given “Biggles fails to return” and “Biggles delivers the goods”. They are Second World War stories, not the unreadably “incorrect” imperial ones of the ‘20s and ‘30s. They certainly boosted my fund of general knowledge. With an older sister fairly close in age we acquired a good few of books as presents. “Dr Dolittle’s Puddleby Adventures”, William Mayne’s choir school books and some Rosemary Sutcliff. Her “Shield Ring” was a special favourite, with its Lake District setting, and I can now see that it is quite a tough story of love and rivalry in a desperate war-zone. Of Cynthia Harnett’s books I specially liked “The Load of Unicorn”. As for her forgotten classic “Sandhoppers”, it can bring tears to the eyes. I was given “The Silver Sword” by Ian Serallier at about the same time. Oh, and “A Hundred Million Franks”, and “The Otterbury Incident”.

When I was about nine John Masefield’s “The Midnight Folk” was serialised on the BBC Home Service “Children’s Hour”. I was gripped by it, later acquired the book, and still think it is very fine. I suppose it is a book for children who like history, with which it is packed. I wonder if this was before, or after, someone gave my sister “Three Men in A Boat” and we hooted with laughter as our mother read it to us at bed time. It is with this period that I associate the “Just So Stories”, too.

Meanwhile at school we had an English teacher, Mr Packwood, who used to read aloud to us a lot. He had old fashioned tastes, as befitted a man who still had a 1918 bullet in his wrist (a ricochet from a training exercise). From him I learned to enjoy Jack London, W W Jacobs, and above all those Conan Doyle stories that are NOT about Sherlock Holmes. Who now knows “The Missing Special” or “The Croxley Master”?


We did not own a television when I was small, but my father used occasionally to hire one if he thought the summer Test Cricket series was going to be worth watching (1956 and 1959, for sure). In those days there used to be a classic story serialised for children on Sunday afternoons, before Richard Green in “Robin Hood”. One that caught my imagination then was “Huntingtower” by John Buchan. It isn’t a children’s book at all, but a very fine comedy thriller, but that children’s version opened up fresh avenues of escapist reading. (Did I make it clear at the start that I refuse to regard escapism in fiction as a bad thing?). Another serialisation was “Kidnapped” again not particularly a children’s book. Robert Louis Stevenson says something somewhere about writing for the boy who is half a man and the man who is half a boy. And so around the ages of eleven and twelve there was more and more Hornblower, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Richard Hannay, and childhood reading was technically over. But escaping to the country was still important. I’ve still got my copy of “My Family and other Animals” given me for my twelfth birthday.