How to do well in History General points You need to be able to remember key points

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How to do well in History
General points
You need to be able to remember key points.

  • Make notes to use for revision as you work through the course

  • Spend a few minutes every week reading these notes

  • Get your friends or family to quiz you on the contents of these notes

You’ll do better if you have a wide general knowledge of the past.

  • Read newspaper articles and watch TV documentaries about current affairs and historical issues: they’ll provide you with a useful vocabulary and help you to put things into context easily.

  • Read for fun. Choosing a wide variety of books will provide you with a balanced understanding of society and improve your reading and writing skills. This should help you to answer things more appropriately in exams.

You need to remember that there is rarely only one cause or consequence of an event.

  • Always try to put two sides of an argument.

  • Use some supporting evidence to support what you have suggested.

  • Discuss which argument is the most valid.

  • NEVER dismiss an argument as being a load of rubbish. Different Historians have different opinions of what is the most likely or important cause or consequence… and you never know what the examiner will believe to be the ‘right’ answer!

Good historians are just like detectives, they USE the evidence that’s available and make judgements about the circumstances surrounding events.

  • If there’s no evidence to support what you are arguing don’t write it down.

  • You need to try and PROVE things. This can only be done by using evidence.

Not everyone is as honest as you are!

  • Just because someone’s been quoted in a history book doesn’t mean that they are right. Question evidence, if it looks unreliable say it’s possibly unreliable.

  • People have opinions, these will often be reflected in the things that they say or write: recognise this in your answers.

There isn’t an answer to everything!

  • Some things just can’t be proven. There might not be all that much evidence for example. Use what there is and then make a judgement based on this evidence: and make sure that you make the lack of evidence clear!

  • If you can’t make up your mind about something then don’t just jump to the support of one interpretation. Discuss the possibilities then suggest that there are a number of possible answers and say why you’re saying this.

Not everyone can read your mind

  • Remember that the examiner has never met you and will presume NOTHING. If you’ve not mentioned something you can’t get credit for it!

  • If your work is jumbled up it will make little sense to the reader. Make sure that you PLAN your answers and STICK to the structure you’ve planned.

  • Some things need to be explained. If something’s of vital importance to your answer it probably needs to be explained in a bit of detail. If it’s not then the marker will at best be guessing whether or not you understand it.

  • Use references to the source material to show that you’ve understood something: you don’t HAVE to define everything, it can be done in other ways.

Spelling and grammar counts!

  • 5% of your marks are for the spelling, grammar and punctuation of your work.

  • DOUBLE CHECK everything you’ve written if you have time. Editing can gain you enough marks to go up one grade!

  • Get used to editing work now. Be critical of what you have written, if something’s not perfect then it isn’t good enough! If you are self critical from an early stage then your written work should improve rapidly.

Structure of work is important!

  • Answers should be written in paragraphs. Plan these carefully before you start writing.

  • An introduction should summarise what your answer will be.

  • A Conclusion should state what you believe to be the most likely cause/ consequence/ interpretation.

  • The body of a longer answer should be in a logical sequence. If you jump from one thing to another and then back again the reader will get confused.


Revision isn’t something that should be done the night before an exam. It IS something that should be on going. It should start in week one of the course and finish a day or so before the examination.

Revision isn’t all about staring at books for hours on end. Effective revision can take many forms, some of which you’ll find more enjoyable than others.
The purpose of revision is to keep things fresh in your mind: you can’t have a recap on everything in every lesson after all!
What you already do:
You make a revision chart at the end of every unit of content and keep a glossary of all the key words that you have found.
You have recaps and occasional quizzes in class.

What you need to do!

Read through each chart at least once a week. Alter any parts of the chart that you find difficult to understand.

Test yourself. Ask a friend or someone in your family to ask you questions about areas of content that you haven’t studied for a while. You should be aiming to get most of these correct. If you don’t then you need to do some more reading!
Use revision guides to help you remember things. There are number of these that you can buy/use to help you improve your skills and knowledge. For example:
GCSE Question and Answers 2000: Schools History Project. Letts
GCSE Bitesize Revision: History: Schools History Project BBC Consumer Publishing
School's History Project (The American West and Medicine Through Time) Coordination Group Publications; ISBN: 1841463019

European Dictatorships, 1918-1945 by Stephen J. Lee

Other revision books are also available. These titles are examples rather than recommended revision guides.

There are also a number of web sites that you can use to test your knowledge and refine your writing skills:

Historical Skills

Using Sources

Source Work
As historians we rely on sources of evidence to provide us with information about the past. When looking at sources there are a few main things we should consider;

  • What can this source tell us?

  • What does this source NOT tell us? (i.e. What other information would we need?)

  • Is this source reliable?

  • What is this source useful for?

  • In what ways might this source be biased?

What about the Author?
You will often be asked “What do you think the author meant by this”, and it is a very important question to ask. We must not take sources at face value. An author has written or shown his opinion in some way, this does not necessarily mean its true, neither does it mean the author is lying. The author is giving their opinion on the matter which, even if it is bias, is still as valid as any other source. These are questions that you should ask yourself when you analyse a source;

  • What does the source say?

  • What is it about?

  • What information does it contain?

  • When was it produced and where?

  • What about the author?

  • Who was he or she?

  • What did the author do? (be careful : does what a person did mean the evidence is more or less reliable? )

  • What views or opinions is the author putting forward?

  • Is the author expressing his thoughts and beliefs? What are they?

  • What is the value of the author’s opinion? Is there any suggestion of bias?

  • Is the author telling the truth? Or is the source designed to show the author in a good light?

  • Why did the author produce the source? What motives or intentions can be seen?

These are all the questions you should ask yourself when you look at a source. Depending on the question you have been asked either by the teacher or in an exam, you should write down and explain everything you can, even if it seems obvious.

The first question you should ask is about the author. The next is about bias.


When someone creates a source they often have a motive for it, because of this you have to ask yourself what they are trying to show. They may be trying to show themselves or someone else in a good light, or they may be trying to show someone else in a bad light. If this is the case the author is biased, and you have to work out why. Bias means one sided, or taking one side of an argument, so often sources are biased. This does not mean the source is lying or not telling the truth, nor does it mean the source is useless. The source is useful for telling us about this persons opinion. There are lots of other reasons why someone’s interpretation of a situation may be different from another. For example the authors could be from different places (towns or countries), they may have different political ideas, they may be from different social backgrounds. Comparing sources is very important as this tells us more about history. We can find out about peoples different ideas and experiences and also find out why they were different. Here are key questions that you should consider when looking at bias and interpretations;

  • Is the source biased?

  • In what way is the source biased?

  • Why is the source biased?

  • What does this opinion tell us?

  • Does this source differ from another ? (you should compare sources)

  • Why might these sources differ? (i.e. were the authors enemies, from different backgrounds)


A source may or may not be reliable for a number of reasons. An author may not be telling the truth (this does not mean the source is useless), or the source may have been tampered with. For example photograph sources can be unreliable for a number of reasons. Firstly a photograph is only one second in time, a lot can happen before or after the photograph was actually taken that would totally change or disagree with what you think the photograph is showing. Also the photograph only shows a small space, a couple of metres away from the where photograph was taken could be a situation completely different. Also the photograph can be set up to show a certain situation. For example if someone wanted to show lots of people who were very unhappy and poor, they could set up this situation, the characters could even be acting! Finally the photograph itself can be tampered with in some way, or only a small piece of it could be used. This is true of all sources. In some ways they may not be reliable. What you must decide on, and say, is the extent to which they are reliable or not. Remember even if a source is not reliable this doesn’t mean it isn’t useful.


The main thing to remember about sources is that all sources of evidence in the past are useful to some extent, this depends on what you want to find out. Obviously a source about Napoleon will not be useful if you are researching Hitler! You have to say what the source IS useful for, (i.e. what information can it give you) and you must also say what the source doesn’t tell you, and what extra information you would need to back up this sources. This will get you valuable points in your exams - SO REMEMBER THIS!

Answering ‘Why?’ questions

Causation or 'Why?' Questions


Whenever you are asked to give reasons why something happened, a good starting point is to think of different types of causation.


  1. Social - to do with ordinary people

One reason the Prohibition laws were introduced in America was the effects drunkenness was having on the family

  1. Economic - to do with employment/trade/money

An economic cause of World War I was Germany's jealousy of Britain's trading power.
(iii) Political - to do with decision-making or elections
A political cause of World War I was the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand
(iv) Military - to do with fighting
One reason for the dropping of the A-Bomb on Hiroshima was that doing so would end the war quicker.

There are other reasons (technological, environmental) which could be used






For causation questions you need to explain why, not describe how, something happened. So don't just tell the story. Structure your answer by making a plan and dividing the causes into short, medium or long term, or more or less important ones.

Divide the causes/ reasons into longer and shorter-term ones, and develop each point into a paragraph.

Identify several different causes or factors. If possible, set these out according to a timescale (long, medium and short term). Show which you think are more important and which are less important.

For causation essays - always make a plan. Don't just describe what happened, explain WHY it happened. Then summarise in an opening or concluding paragraph.

Causation in History – Why do things happen?

 Historians are interested in how and why society changes as it does, and what role we as individuals play in the process.

 In other words, historians look outwards at the world, and inwards to decide what they as individuals feel about such key concepts as racism, freedom, propaganda, rights and duties.

 It is this process of investigation, consideration and reflection which allows people to form mature opinions and judgements, rather than wallow in the ignorance which produces prejudices, bigotry and bias.

1. Avoid the two extreme views.

There are 2 extreme theories of causation that no historian worth their salt will go along with (because they both reject the idea that human beings can influence the world around them in any meaningful way, whether they try to learn from the past or not).

(a) Determinism – the idea that everything is simply the inescapable product of what went before, in a direct chain, leading back to God creating the universe.

Example: Charles I was executed because he refused to give power to Parliament, because he thought he was appointed by God, because that is what the Bible said, because that is God’s will. Therefore, Charles was killed because it was God’s will.

(b) Chaos theory – the idea that everything is simply down to chance events which we have no control over.

Example: Charles I was executed because his head got in the way of the axe.

2. Instead, draw elements from both of these extremes.

 Historians will tend to occupy the broad middle ground between these two positions, both chronologically and thematically.

(a) Chronologically - be broad ranging

 Like the determinists, historians will look at long term factors (e.g. the Annales School of historians, who consider the impact of geography and climate as a key factor in causation).

 Like the chaos theorists, they will look too at short term factors (e.g. AJP Taylor, who loved to stress the role played by the "Great Man" coming along at the right time).

(b) Thematically – be broad ranging

 By looking at a broad chronological range of factors, they will be broad ranging thematically. Hence they will look at such things as Economics (favoured by Marxists, who see all history as the history of class struggle), Politics (the so-called Namierites), Geography (Annales) and the role of key individuals (AJP Taylor).

3. Result of this approach: sophistication rather than paralysis.

 By adopting the middle ground, and accepting that history is all about debate, we have to resign ourselves to the fact that there are no Final Answers or Golden Rules, only an ongoing cycle of question and answer, leading to progressively deeper personal understanding about the way people behave in certain circumstances.

 Some people argue that as it is devoid of "final answers", history is not worth studying. This is like saying that it is not worth forming an opinion on anything because others will always disagree with you. Similarly, you could say that it’s not worth learning to read because there are too many books in the world to get through.

 Nevertheless, by accepting the fact that each event / situation has a massive variety of causes, we run the danger of concluding that none was more important than another. In other words, we fail to draw any sort of conclusion at all, and fail to learn anything from the investigation.

 How do we get around this problem? In other words, how do we identify, group, link, and prioritise our factors?

 A lot of students find this difficult. Their usual response is to slip into a meaningless approach which ranks importance by chronology ("This factor is the most important because it was around for ages" - or the opposite - "This factor is most important because it was the spark just before the event")

 The painful fact is that there is no golden rule about how to approach a history question. You must look at every event / situation on its own merits, and slowly build up more general opinions about how society works.

4. How to use this in practice:

 Take a question (e.g. "What caused the Russian Revolution of 1917?").

 Brainstorm as many factors as you can.

 Boil these down to about 5 groups, by crossing out ones you don’t want to look at, and grouping others together under a more general heading.

 Now that you have about 5 factors left, take each and jot down why you think it is important.

 Take 2 factors at random.

Ask yourself "Did Factor X only become really important as a result of Factor Y, or vice versa?".

 Connect the two with a round bubble with an arrow, directed towards the less important factor (it might be that you think the two factors fed off each other, in which case you will have two arrows and bubbles). On the arrow, explain the connection between the two factors.

 Take another factor. Try to repeat the process by connecting it to one of the two factors that you have just worked with.

 Repeat until all are connected.

· Now sum up your findings in a paragraph, which in turn will provide you with a framework for your essay. The mark of success here is whether a person reading the paragraph can recreate your original diagram from it.

· Example:

In my view, the most important factor is factor A, because….
Related to this is factor B, which is important because…. (ETC)
This is less important than A, however, because…
Another factor stemming from A is factor C, which was important because…(ETC)
However, it is less important than A because…


Test your theory against similar events / situations – e.g. if you are considering why a communist revolution took place in Russia, does your theory explain why a communist revolution did not occur in Germany in the same period?

Challenge the phrasing of the question – are there any words it uses you think could be improved on?


Any question about causes / effects can be approached from a variety of angles, but good the historian will always reach the conclusion that "it depends" – see below:



Approach 1: Basic

Take one branch, base essay around it:



What part of life?







Approach 2: More advanced

Take one branch, then another



What part of life?










Approach 3: Sophisticated

Combine branches.



What part of life?












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