Answering Structured Questions
Goodlad, Graham D., History Review
As we enter the new dispensation, wherein AS and A2 equals an A Level, Graham D. Goodlad gives some timely and pertinent advice.
One of the most common criticisms of the old A-Level History examination was that it placed too heavy an emphasis on essay writing. The new AS and A Level specifications address this problem by making greater use of `structured' or `stepped' questions. In appearance they resemble the kind of questions with which you will have become familiar at GCSE. Remember, however, that the standard expected at AS will be pitched midway between GCSE and the full A Level. The exact format of the questions will vary from one examining body to another, but there are broad similarities in the requirements of all the boards.
It is important to be aware of the weighting of the various parts of a stepped question. Some parts may be answered in a short paragraph; others will require a more extended discussion. If you want to score good marks, you have to be disciplined in your approach: the mark scheme must be your guide in deciding how much time to allocate to a particular sub-question.
A typical stepped question will highlight a key issue from the period that you are studying, and the various sub-questions will probe your knowledge and understanding of its significance. You will be asked to present historical explanations and to assess differing interpretations of events and issues. This will mean deploying relevant information and thinking analytically about it, rather than simply providing a description or a narrative account. The introduction to AQA's scheme of assessment, for example, stresses that History is `concerned primarily with investigation, debate, analysis and conceptual understanding appropriate to the period or topic'. You will also be tested on your ability to organise and communicate ideas and to reach reasoned judgements. A student who recognises a key word in the question, and then tries to put down all that he or she knows about the topic, will not be rewarded by the examiners.
Consider, for example, the following question on a nineteenth-century British History subject:
In the period 1846-1874 the Conservative Party was rarely in power. It faced the following problems:
* the effects of division over the repeal of the Corn Laws;
* distrust of Benjamin Disraeli as Conservative leader;
* the popularity of Lord Palmerston as leader of the Whig-Liberal Party;
* public demand for parliamentary reform.
Explain how any two of these problems affected the fortunes of the Conservative Party in the period 1846-74. (45 marks)
Compare the importance of at least three of these problems as explanations for the position of the Conservative Party in this period. (45 marks)
The first sub-question is designed to test the quality of your understanding of the topic. Be careful to choose two problems that you can write about with confidence. You are being tested on your level of recall and on your ability to show precisely how each problem contributed to the overall difficulties faced by the Conservatives. Aim to maintain a balance between your two chosen problems. Do not, for example, write at great length about the Corn Laws and then throw in a couple of quick comments on Disraeli.
In answering the second sub-question, you will be expected to weigh the evidence for and against the importance of particular factors. For example, the discussion of Disraeli would need to acknowledge that he was unpopular with a large section of his party, and that his position as leader remained insecure until near the end of this period. On the other hand, the answer should also point out the ways in which he made a positive contribution to his party's eventual recovery. There can be no final answer to this type of question; what the examiners are looking for is your ability to reach a conclusion and to support it with evidence. …