No matter which exam board you are using, the key to writing a successful essay or piece of coursework is choosing the right question to tackle. If your school has already selected the question for you, move to the 'Top Tip' at the bottom of this page by clicking HERE. If, however, you have been given the responsibility of selecting your own question, continue below.
What you are doing here, is building a house. You may not think that you are, but you are. What is the first step in building your house? Before you create a plan, or lay the foundations, the most significant undertaking - one which will determine the value of your house in the long run - is where you plan to build it.
What are we talking about?
Your history question must have a number of fixed locations around which you will plan your coursework - or rather, the building of your house. You have a number of decisions to make:
1. Geographical Location
2. Temporal location (what???). In what period do you want to build your house?
Should you build an unusual or unique house? If you do, your house will stand out on the street – which is a good thing as long as it is built properly and in an attractive style. If your house is unique for all of the wrong reasons – it is built with limited materials, in a poor location, in a style that is offensive to the eye, or has no style at all and seems to be cobbled together from random and incoherent building materials – then no one will want to look at it, never mind ‘buy’ it and ‘live’ in it.
You may choose an unusual question because you think that, by doing so, you will impress the examiner/your teacher with your individuality and independence of thought. We at The Coursework Club would encourage exactly this kind of individuality, BUT before you do this, we’d like you to undertake a risk assessment, and answer these questions:
Do you have sufficient resources available in order to provide your coursework/essay with the necessary breadth and depth of research? If not, your coursework will feel shallow and weakly supported (cobbled together like a house which has been constructed with whatever random materials you found lying around).
(This idea is linked to the point above). Choosing a coursework title that is unique in terms of the time period or the ‘location’ under investigation, can be something of a ‘double edged sword’: an obscure location or theme may limit the number of credible sources available for use in your work. Alternatively, uniqueness done well, with sufficient supporting material, is something that will make you stand out from the thousands of essays that examiners will mark and the hundreds your teachers have to grade during the year.
Don’t choose a question/title just because it’s different or unusual – if it is wholly unfamiliar to you, chances are it will feel unfamiliar to the reader, unless...
Being unfamiliar with a topic should not hold you back if you are keenly interested in it; unfamiliarity can be successfully overcome by the kind of attention to detail that can only come from an academic desire for investigation and understanding. The worst mistakes we see in coursework are those that are made when students ‘bite off more than they can, or are prepared to, chew’.
High level responses will require the incorporation of historiography/historical interpretation (the thoughts of other historians and academics – often in the form of direct quotation). Before you decide on a question, ensure that it is not so obscure that there aren’t enough historians/academic commentators having discussed the subject. In terms of historiography, strength can often come in numbers.
Do your teachers have any knowledge of this topic? Some exam boards will allow you to choose a title from any period in history – this may present a problem because, although your teachers know a lot, they don’t know everything; they may not be able to speak with any authority on the subject you have chosen. This will limit their advice to such things as structure, mark scheme, flow, organisation, grammar and so on. Find this out before you choose your question.
You may have chosen a geographical location for your house, e.g. the Middle East. You may also have chosen a timeframe for your title, e.g. 1880-1980. However, you may also consider choosing a ‘theme’ that transcends national borders, and encompasses a number of significant events. What we mean is, you may choose to investigate an ‘issue’ that threads through a given period of time.
e.g. The growth of Arab Nationalism in the Middle East during the period 1880-1980.
Once you have finished your essay/piece of coursework, you will hand it over to somebody who has graciously offered to read it and award it a mark/grade. These examiners (or your teachers) will spend a great deal of time inside your work looking for reasons to award it marks; make sure you give them every reason to do so. This person (the examiner), whom you’ve never met, may be tired, grumpy, or bored – this is the reality of life. If you have chosen a question that is perhaps inappropriate for your ability, or that you have no interest in, or that is poorly researched and supported then, right from the beginning, you have created a ‘no win’ situation: An examiner will not appreciate spending time reading your essay/living in your house.
Note: As you are choosing your question, always bear in mind your target audience.
Creating a Timeline
Before you start writing, in fact before you start planning, the best, most helpful thing you can do for yourself is to create a detailed timeline of the period you are studying.
Every significant event or issue that relates to the subject under discussion, should be detailed on this timeline. There are a number of practical reasons for this timeline:
Throughout this course, we will show you many examples of essay, exam, and coursework titles, from a variety of exam boards, from AQA, Edexcel, through to IB.
Then we will show you how to answer them perfectly.