A-Level History: Strategies for Success

A-level history has a fantastic reputation for developing students' analytical and critical skills which is a great preparation for university. However, many students struggle to demonstrate these skills in their exams, even though they put hours into their revision. In this article you'll find a summary of my conversation with Zoe Holland, a history teacher with over 20 years' experience and who has also been an A-Level history examiner for quick fixes and study strategies to help students improve their grades in A-level history fast.

If you'd like to listen to the full conversation, use the podcast player above or find The School Success Formula podcast on Apple podcasts or in your podcast player of choice.

A-Level History: Strategies for Success

Where are A-level history students right now?

Year 13 students were left wondering for a long time how they were going to be assessed this summer. Year 12 students have suffered an equal amount of disruption and there is a question mark over how they will be assessed next year.

Most students are hard-working and what the best grades possible – but they're feeling anxious and overwhelmed by the fact that their education has been so badly disrupted in the last year.

Zoe gives the example of the year 12 cohort that she teaches who have been put into a ten-day isolation for the second time since schools reopened in March.

It would be great to have some clarity for the current year 12 about how they're going to be assessed next year. Many teachers are already assessing them more as an insurance policy, in case they're asked for a bank of evidence to back up their grades next year.

The right mindset for the current situation

If students are being assessed more often than they're used to it's best to look on this as a positive thing. We know from the research that students who are tested more often have better recall of facts and exam skills – so it's good in the long-term to be doing this.

In many ways, particularly for those students who don't react well to exams, this is a golden situation. With a good attitude and positive mindset students can definitely bank some good grades.

What makes a good history A-Level student?

To be a good history A-level student you need the toolkit of a good historian. Many students say that history is the subject they find the hardest out of all their A-Levels.

Some students revise very hard, but that doesn't necessarily translate into the top marks. This is because history isn't about what you know, it's about how you approach the different types of exam questions e.g. extract questions and essays.

A-level history extract questions

Many students are good at talking about the reliability of a source, but many aren't as good at talking about the value of a source.

We judge of value of a source by how well it helps us to answer the question we're trying to answer – for A-level history students this is the exam question.

Students should avoid superficial comments, but give more sophisticated answers that delve more deeply into the provenance of a source.

There is so much a student can do, other than revising knowledge, to boost their grade. We will be looking at these during the How to Revise A-Level History Masterclass.

How to write an excellent A-level History essay

Sign-post your argument in your introduction

One of the best things you can do is write a really good introduction that acts as a sign-post to where your argument is going. Argument in history is very important because it distinguishes between the descriptive essays, which get capped with lower marks, and the higher-level essays which contain analysis and evaluation. Students can quickly sign-post to the examiner, their teacher of the examiner that their essay is going to contain argument, analysis and evaluation in the introduction – this will immediately put them in contention for higher marks.

Refer back to the question in every paragraph

Structuring paragraphs in a way that makes them refer back to the question also helps with accessing higher marks.

Some students might be families with the ‘PEEL' method of structuring paragraphs. It might be better to think of ‘PEER' where the ‘R' means refer, to remind students to refer back to the question.

Make judgements throughout your essay

Many students will include lots of facts and knowledge, but unless they make mini-judgements, that also refer to the question, at the end of each paragraph their marks will be capped.

A warning sign is when you've spent a long time describing historical events rather than analysing or evaluating them. If you notice you've done this, get back on track straight away.

Historians shouldn't be telling the story, they should be interpreting what happened.

There is no standard answer in A-Level history

You shouldn't be looking to give the ‘right' answer in history, in the way you would be in maths or science. Instead, you should be coming up with a good argument that is backed up by the work of respected historians and your analysis and evaluation of their work.

This is an excellent preparation for further study.

What do students fear the most about A-Level history?

The biggest fear is the vast amount of dates – particularly in the breadth study there's an awful lot of history to cover.

It can seem like a very big step up from GCSE in terms of the quantity of content.

A strategy to help with the breadth study is to take economic, political and social history and look at them individually. An alternative way to look at it is with a timeline, which is a visual technique and stops you from making copious notes. It's a great way of spotting change and continuity, and the rate of change if it's occurring. Was it fast or slow? Was it internally or externally produced? How did it impact different groups of people? There are so many ways we can train our brains to go beyond the obvious to remember this vast array of subject matter.

Knowing too many dates can actually hinder you because you're tempted to stuff your questions with what you know, rather than what you think.

Work out which dates are important to remember and forget the rest – the themes are more important.

What mistakes do A-level History students make?

The main mistake is students being too superficial. They'll know buzzwords like ‘reliability' when it comes to sources, and they'll talk about a source being ‘biased' but that doesn't acknowledge the fact that a biased source is often useful to a historian. Unreliable sources can be useful.

How important is your written style in A-Level History?

Anyone who is interested can be a good historian. Many students face challenges in their writing e.g. dyslexia but you can still be an excellent historian.

Written style is important because it helps you show the examiner that you are worthy of a certain level of marks. There are certain terms, whoever you are, that you can use in your historical writing e.g.

  • This lead to
  • This could be viewed as
  • Consequently
  • As a result of

Then put your more evaluative or analytical writing after this phrase.

An example would be talking about a certain historian, e.g. Eric Hobsbawm, one of the key historians of the twentieth century, was a Marxist. If students are able to say this and say why and how it will impact your interpretation of his work.

Would you like more help with how to revise A-Level History?

Join Zoe for the How to Revise A-Level History Masterclass which is happening live on Saturday 1st May 2021 – or you can watch the recording any time after this date.

In the masterclass you'll discover:

  • Which revision strategies to use for the breadth and depth studies so you don't get bogged down in dates, statistics and events, reducing your stress and concentrating on the important things to remember
  • How to get better marks by looking at model answers that demonstrate how to move beyond the superficial to analyse and evaluate historical extracts
  • The common mistakes that students make and how to avoid them
  • The language of success at A-Level history including the words and terminology that enable you to show your skills of analysis and your substantiated and sustained judgements
  • How to avoid just giving historial facts and answer the question to maximise your marks
  • And much more!

Click here to sign-up for the How to Revise A-Level History Masterclass


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