VCE History exam FAQ

This page contains answers to some frequently asked questions about the VCE History (Revolutions) exam. This information has been written and compiled by experienced history teachers, using information and advice from VCAA. If you have a question you believe should be addressed here, please contact Alpha History.

Q. Should I decide on the order of revolutions before the exam, or after seeing the paper?

A. This is really a matter of personal choice – though your teacher may give you advice or direction. Deciding on your revolutions and sections after seeing the paper gives you greater flexibility and allows you to dodge ‘stinker’ questions. The flip side is you must be prepared for all eventualities, such as writing an essay on either of your revolutions. The majority of students seem to go into the exam with a pre-determined plan for Sections A and B.

Q. What happens if I write on only one revolution through the whole exam?

A. If this happens (and it occasionally does) then your answers for Section A are assessed and marked – but not your answers for Section B. In other words, only half your exam paper is examined and graded. It is therefore important that you attempt both sections and write about both revolutions, regardless of your lack of confidence.

Q. Can I take a dictionary into the exam?

A. No. You are not allowed to take anything into the exam room except for writing material. Dictionaries, thesauruses, calculators and other electronic devices are strictly prohibited. You are not allowed to take in any paper, blank or otherwise.

Q. How should I use the 15 minutes of reading time?

A. It should take only a few minutes to read through questions relevant to your revolutions. Be sure to read your questions more than once: at least three times is recommended. Use the rest of your reading time to closely examine the sources in Section A Question 1 and Section B Question 2. It is also a good idea to start mentally planning your first answer.

Q. Can I use dot points in the extended responses (Questions 2-3 in Section A)?

A. No, you should avoid this. The assessors expect to see fully formed paragraphs, with good structure and signposting. Information in dot points may earn you a few marks if they are correct, but nowhere near what you would score with a properly constructed answer.

Q. Can I use abbreviations?

A. Yes you can – but you should first use the full name or title you intend to abbreviate. For example, it is perfectly acceptable to write “Chinese Communist Party (CCP)” first, followed by “CCP” thereafter. This demonstrates your understanding of the abbreviation.

Q. Do you lose marks for spelling mistakes?

A. The assessors are reasonably forgiving about spelling errors, particularly when using foreign language names or terms. You should not be penalised for misspelling difficult foreign language words or names such as “Dzerzhinsky” or “Okhrana”. Jumbling the vowels in “bourgeoisie” is another common problem. The exam is not a spelling test so assessors generally overlook these errors. Misspelling more common or simple names – like Lenin as “Lennon” or Marx as “Marks” – is a bigger problem because it suggests gaps in knowledge. Try to spell words and names correctly but do not panic or stress unduly about really difficult ones.

Q. Do I need to know dates? Will I lose marks for getting them wrong?

A. As with spelling, some common sense applies here. Dates are specific knowledge and stronger answers will include them. As a rule of thumb, knowing the month and year is enough for the vast majority of events – for example, “the Boston Tea Party of December 1773” or “the Kornilov Revolt (August 1917)”. It is not necessary to know the exact calendar date of every notable event, so memorising them is not essential. You should only be penalised for getting important dates wildly wrong, like writing that the Bolshevik Revolution occurred in 1918.

Q. If a question asks about events between particular years, do I include events in that year?

A. Many questions ask about events or conditions in a particular timeframe – for example, “Explain the effect this had on the revolution in France between 1774 and 1789”. These dates are inclusive, which means you can include events in the years 1774 and 1789. Always be mindful of staying within the relevant Area of Study.

Q. What happens if I write outside or over the space?

A. All students write in a special answer booklet, which is formatted for electronic scanning, marking and storage. This answer booklet contains a shaded border; you are not permitted to write in this area. The answer booklets also contain ‘overflow’ pages for students who require more space than that allocated. You can also request an additional answer booklet. If you use the overflow space or an additional booklet, the assessors will still read and mark your writing. You will not be penalised for using this additional space – provided your writing remains relevant, focused and does ramble or repeat itself.

Q. Which exam sections/parts should I do first?

A. The question of how to begin the exam, or what order to complete it in, is entirely up to you. Many students complete the exam paper in chronological order; some leave the essay until last. There is no ideal method; you should simply do whatever you are most comfortable with. Tackling ‘easier’ questions first may be useful as it will build confidence while giving you time to consider approaches to other questions.

Q. Are images on the exam in colour?

A. In exam papers before 2013, all images were in black and white. From 2013 images in the VCAA exam question book will appear in colour – if the original image is in colour and the exam setters believe its colours are significant.

Q. How many images should I look at to be sure I am prepared?

A. It is impossible to study all images that might appear on the exam paper. What you should do is practice responding to a range of different images. This will broaden your skills and help you become more familiar with common symbols, representations, types of propaganda and so on. Many of the images hosted on Alpha History are useful sources for exam practice.

Q. What if there are foreign language captions or text in an image?

A. If an image or document contains text in French, Russian and Chinese – and assessors expect you to understand or discuss this text – then a translation will be provided in the question booklet. Definitions of difficult or obscure English words may also be provided.

Q. Should I annotate the questions, documents or images on the exam paper?

A. Time permitting, this is a good idea. Circle the keywords in a question, the key phrases in a document or important elements or symbols in an image. It will help you to deconstruct and understand the source. It will also remind you what to mention in your answers.

Q. What do I do if I don’t understand a question or source at all?

A. Above all, do not panic – and do not give up on the question. Stay calm and think laterally. Write down any information you believe is relevant. Do not leave answers blank. A few lines of relevant information is better than a paragraph of irrelevant rambling – or nothing at all. If the source depicts or refers to a particular leader, group or event, write as much as you can about that. Try to salvage a few marks, rather than risking not scoring any.

Q. How many quotes should I memorise or use?

A. Quotations can be useful and impressive when used as evidence. Be wary of trying to memorise quotations though. Going into the exam with a head full of memorised quotations is unnecessary and is not effective preparation. Paraphrasing is better than ‘drop-in quotations’ because it demonstrates knowledge and understanding.

Q. How many historical interpretations should I know?

A. Again, this is a question with no definitive answer. At the very least you should have three or four interpretations for each Area of Study. High-achieving students will use more.

Q. Do I need to know the ‘schools of thought’ or labels for historical interpretations?

A. Many historical interpretations can be described with labels or schools of thought – for example, “Marxist historians” or “Marxist interpretations”. Unfortunately, these labels have become something of a lazy method for incorporating historical interpretations into student writing. As a consequence, they are overused and applied too casually. You should avoid using these labels, as a rule of thumb. It is much better to summarise or discuss the interpretations and arguments of a historian, rather than applying a label to them. “Richard Pipes viewed communism as a flawed ideology and Lenin as a political usurper obsessed with power” is much more effective than “Richard Pipes, Western liberal historian”.

Q. What parts of the exam do I need to know historical perspectives and interpretations for?

A. Historical perspectives and interpretations should be used in the 10-mark questions in Section A Question 1 and Section B Question 2 (source analysis). They can also be used as evidence in Section B Question 1 (short essay).

Q. Should I spend more time on the essay?

A. Only if you can work through the other questions quickly AND still produce your best answers. Since all questions are worth 20 marks, it is not worth robbing time from one to work on another. That said, well-prepared students may find they can work through short-answer sections in under 30 minutes, which may leave additional time for the essay.


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