The A2 Personal Study: Ben Vessey Provides Advice on the Most Challenging Element of Advanced Level History

By Vessey, Ben | History Review, September 2003 | Go to article overview

The A2 Personal Study: Ben Vessey Provides Advice on the Most Challenging Element of Advanced Level History


Vessey, Ben, History Review


At first glance the Personal Study unit can seem daunting. You are being asked to produce a 2,500-3,000 word essay on a subject which may interest you very much, but which you may know relatively little about when you begin work on it. What is worse, you seem pretty much on your own, with no structured lessons from your teacher. It is also worth 15 per cent of your total History A Level, a significant total when every mark is critical in the chase for a top grade.

The aim of this article is to help you select, research, write and present your study--and to reduce the sense of panic which may hit you initially. The Personal Study in fact should be looked upon as a challenge to be relished. It is certainly the most valuable part of the A Level in preparing you to face courses at university, where many of the assignments closely resemble such an exercise as this.

Choosing your Topic and Selecting a Title

This is one of the most vital stages, as selection of the wrong topic or an uninspiring question can make the whole exercise very tedious and more difficult. The critical thing is to seek advice from your teacher, and to give a lot of time and thought before finalising your choices.

Boards such as OCR do issue a list of broad titles on a range of topics, such as the role of the individual or the role of technological change in history, and you may wish to adapt one of these to suit an area of particular interest. However, you may feel that these questions are not offering what you want, in which case you can create you own--seeking advice from your teacher first.

If you have no clear preference, there is some merit in selecting an aspect from the units you are studying. This may not be exactly adventurous, but it can have the advantage of enhancing your understanding of the topics on which you will later be examined. It is also likely that your teachers will have more knowledge, and the department more resources, in this area. But if you have a burning ambition to study Gandhi or the Arab-Israeli Conflicts, then go for it!

Once you have targeted a topic you need to ensure that there are sufficient resources available to conduct a viable study. Ideally, you need to gain access to a range of secondary sources and some primary material. Evaluation of a range of different sources is generally allocated specific marks. Aim to include at least eight serious titles in your bibliography. The Horrible History of the Tudors will not win the approval of the examiner.

There are many places to locate resources. Your local library will help, but don't forget that loan periods are often short. Your school librarian (if you have one) will also help to track down titles. A good source of information are the various historical journals, such as History Review, which carry accessible articles on mainstream topics, and which usually provide titles for further reading. The internet can be helpful, but beware: it is a huge resource and identifying what is of value can be time-consuming. It is best to use the net when you have some specific angles to research. Record Offices may yield some information for local projects, but again this can take up time. If you are considering buying a book make very sure your purchase is worth the money.

When you have selected a topic and identified some resources, you need to finalise your title. This must take the form of a clear, analytical question which raises some specific issues for discussion. For example, 'Was the Collapse of the Tsarist regime primarily the fault of Nicholas II?' is a title which allows a candidate to explore a range of different causes and to make judgements about the degree of significance of each one. It will also allow a study of the views of historians who will have differing interpretations on this question--again a common assessment criterion.

It is important to get your question right at the outset or the exam board will reject your proposal, wasting your time and energy. …

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