Updated: Sep 10, 2021
Tackling the Exam and Essays
This week’s topic is tackling the exam and essays. It’s time for us to start properly thinking about the History exam – what it’s going to look like, how to write one, and the decisions that need to be made before going into the exam room. As usual, today I’ll be giving you my personal advice, shaped by my own experience of VCE History and the many practice exams I’ve written in my time.
PART 1 - The Exam
Let’s start with the basics. The History exam is notoriously difficult, fast-paced, and demanding. It is a two-hour exam worth 80 marks in total, but comprising two source analysis questions with three parts each, two extended response questions, and one full-length essay. There are pages upon pages of writing for this exam, spanning content from throughout the entire year. Specific dates, quotes, statistics, and more are also required for each response type in the exam, resulting in the notoriety of the History: Revs exam.
In addition to your writing book – a VCAA-issued booklet of lined pages that somewhat resembles NAPLAN writing space – you will have the question book. It is important that you familiarise yourself with the guidelines for using the writing booklet, following all instructions about writing within the bounded areas and labelling which revolution you are responding to in each section. As for the question book, its purpose should be pretty evident. Here is where you will find your sources, prompts, and questions for whichever revolution you’re writing on. There is a set of questions of each revolution under Section A, and a different set for each under Section B.
Flipping the Exam?
Section A consists of a source analysis task for the ‘causes’ of a revolution and two extended response tasks for its ’consequences’. Section B consists of an essay for the ‘causes’ of a different revolution and a source analysis task for its ‘consequences’. You may not write on the same revolution for both sections.
The first decision you should make before sitting the History exam is whether you will ‘flip’ it or not. What I mean by this is that you should decide which revolution you will write on for each Section. My school, as I’m sure most schools do, taught us each revolution alongside certain text types. For example, our SAC for Russia AoS 2 was an extended response while our SAC for China AoS 1 was an essay. This meant that we were primed for writing the exam a certain way – Russia for Section A and China for Section B.
Early on during exam preparation, I avoided choosing a set way to answer the exam. My thought process was that if I didn’t like the questions for Russia-China, I could flip the exam and do China-Russia instead. I was very quickly proven wrong when I attempted my first flipped exam. As it turns out, writing an essay on a revolution you have not practiced essay-writing for is not the easiest thing to do. It was surprising how difficult it was to apply my knowledge of a revolution and its content to a different text type.
As a result, I ended up deciding not to flip the exam. From that moment on I decided that no matter what the questions we received were, I would answer the way our school had taught us. I thought about practicing both methods, but very quickly decided against it. Time is limited in VCE, and the last thing I wanted was to halve my preparation across two approaches.
This decision is what worked for me, but definitely may not work for you. You should explore your options and figure out what feels right. But it is a process you should start sooner rather than later in order to maximise your preparation time.
Writing the Exam
You sit down at your exam table, and the invigilator announces the beginning of reading time. What do you do? To help you figure out your own plan, here’s what I’d do:
First I scan quickly through each of the questions for the revolutions that I’m going to answer. I do this only for their respective sections – no use looking at the Russia Section B questions when I know I’ll be responding to Russia Section A. I take mental note of the concepts, people, or events that the questions want me to talk about, getting my brain to access the best information it has on file.
After a quick flick through, I return to the essay prompt and immediately plan out my paragraphs in my head. Obviously I cannot write on anything during reading time, but I plan mentally anyway so I can jot it down as soon as writing time starts. I plan out my contention, including my key focus for each paragraph and the quotes I want to use (quotes are particularly necessary for the essay).
Once I’m satisfied, I do something similar for the extended response questions, although I focus more on evidence than quotes or ideas. Then, with whatever time I have left, I think about how I’d answer the source analyses.
When writing time begins, I write in my response booklet from start to finish – I never liked swapping between sections because the booklet can get pretty unwieldy. I ease myself into the essay with the first source analysis and continue sequentially until the end. I’m careful to draw an arrow at the bottom of a page to indicate when I’ve written more in the extra space given, and I’m careful to write fast, but legibly.
I continue writing non-stop until writing time is complete. When it is, I look around and smile because I never have to write a History exam again!!!
PART 2 - Essays
Essays are the bane of the existence of every History: Revolutions student. Worth 20 marks, written in 30 minutes, and spanning more than 2 pages, the essay is a non-stop writing hysteria for most students. But to be fair, that’s the History exam for you.
Today I’ll be giving you some of my personal tips on how to write the best History essays, based on the techniques and strategies that worked for me.
Above is the assessment criteria for the Section B essay, taken straight from the VCAA 2019 exam. Interestingly, the essay is the only text type for which students are told how they will be assessed. This means you should pay careful attention to each of the dot points given, as you are expected to know them.
This is probably the single-most important element of the essay to master. An essay is guided absolutely by its contention and argument, which is usually expressed explicitly in the first sentence of its introduction. You cannot write a high-achieving essay without a high-achieving argument, so let’s talk about how to plan a high-achieving argument.
Below is the VCAA 2019 essay prompt for the Russian Revolution (emphasis mine):
'From 1896, long-term causes in Tsarist Russia so weakened the government of Nicholas II that it simply collapsed in February 1917’ To what extent do you agree with this view?
During an exam, I would dedicate most of my reading time to planning my essay contention. It’s that important. First it’s important to identify the bounds of the question and its theme.
The bounds are the limitations placed upon the question that narrow down its scope. Here, we are bound by the date range given – “From 1896…. In February 1917”. This means our ideas and contention must be centred on this period and must not go outside of it.
The theme is the type of ideas that the prompt wants you to discuss. Generally these will cover events, key individuals, groups of people, or ideological concepts. In this case, “long-term causes … weakened the government” gives our theme. Our ideas should relate to the causes of the collapse of the Tsarist regime.
Once these two have been identified, it’s time to plan out the three key ideas that will make up our contention. The History essay is distinct in its allowance of alternatives. What I mean by this is that the historical argument you construct needs to be informed by your own knowledge, introducing elements outside of the essay question itself. These must be thematically related (i.e. relate to causes of the February Revolution) and bounded by the question (i.e. from 1896 to Feb 1917).
For example, I might agree that long-term causes such as the Great Spurt of Industrialisation weakened the government due to the strain on infrastructure and urban living. That could make up one paragraph in my essay, but certainly not the whole thing. So then I’ll need to find alternatives – other causes that caused the fall of the Tsarist regime. I might go with another long-term cause, such as the Tsarist regime’s commitment to autocracy, to further agree with the question. But then I might disagree that this caused it to “simply collapse”, and cite the February marches as the short-term spark that ultimately caused the government to collapse.
And with these three ideas, I finally have my contention, which may look something like this:
'Although long-term causes such as rapid industrialisation and Tsar Nicholas II’s commitment to autocracy weakened the Tsarist regime, it was ultimately the people’s civil discontent that collapsed the government in February.'
What I’ve done here is weave the three ideas together into a holistic argument that draws upon the interplay between each of the ideas. That’s the kind of nuance you want to work towards having in your essay contentions.
Sources as Evidence
In my opinion, quotes are the other crucial element of essay-writing. More than in any other text type, quotes are vital for constructing a considered historical argument that engages with existing perspectives.
In your essay, you should analyse both primary and secondary sources. Including them as evidence is fine, but for those high-scoring responses you’ll want to be doing more.
Primary quotes do serve mainly as evidence, but this is evidence you should carefully tailor to your argument. Simply including the quote and saying it supports your point is good, but better is detailing what specific aspect of the quote supports what you’re saying and how it does so. Here I recommend using smaller quotes and really analysing the words being used – what are the implications and connotations? What is being said or left unsaid? What is the context of the quote?
Secondary quotes are what make responses really stand out. Here you want to not only include historians’ perspectives, but engage with them. Do you agree with their assessment? What have they failed to consider? Does another historian offer an opposing view? Which do you agree with more? Structures along the lines of ‘While Historian 1 argues X, Historian 2 acknowledges Y’ should allow you to evaluate different perspectives and identify which suits your argument best.
Have a question?
In the final weeks before exams Diego will be hosting 2 Live Q&A sessions to help everyone get fully prepared for exams. If you have a question on how to best get prepared, have been stuck on an exam question or want to clarify an area of content send it through here, and Diego might answer it live!