The third part of the VCE History (Revolutions) exam is Section B Question 1. For this question, you must write a short essay.
This question tests your understanding of Area of Study One (Causes of revolution) in the second revolution you are writing on. Your essay should, therefore, show a solid understanding of how the revolution began and knowledge of significant events, leaders, movements and ideas.
It should also use important historical concepts, make effective use of evidence and demonstrate your historical writing skills and ability to construct an argument.
The Section B essay is assessed against four specific criteria. These criteria are outlined in the exam question book. Let’s look at these criteria in greater detail:
1. Construction of a coherent and relevant historical argument that addresses the specific demands of the essay question.
Good essays begin by providing a clear and firm argument or contention in response to the question. Get straight into this in your first sentence or two. Address the question directly and set down your argument. Don’t forget to use the key terms of the question as you write.
Having a clear and strong argument is important. Write assertively and avoid ‘sitting on the fence’ by trying to acknowledge other arguments and perspectives. Instead, take a firm stand and express your argument with confidence, clarity and strength. Sound as convincing as you can – even if you are not entirely convinced!
As you know, the introduction is the most important part of your essay. It is where you respond to the question, lay down your argument, provide some background or context, then outline the direction your essay will take.
A clear and convincing introduction sets the tone for the rest of your essay. Give careful thought to your introduction and how you construct it. Refer to the sample responses below for some ideas and examples.
2. Demonstration of historical knowledge that is accurate and appropriate for the essay question.
Historical knowledge refers to your factual understanding of the revolution. This includes the chronology or timeframe of the revolution, as well as specific information like people, places, events, ideas, documents, dates, policies and quotations.
Historical knowledge will be the ‘meat and potatoes’ of your essay. You can have a compelling introduction and outstanding written expression – but your essay will not score highly without a suitable amount of historical knowledge.
Use a range of revision techniques like timelines, note-taking, concept maps, quizzes and flashcards to build and strengthen your historical knowledge.
3. Use of historical concepts.
Historical concepts are the ideas and thought processes used by historians and good history students as they study the past. They underpin good analysis and effective historical writing.
The most important historical concepts are “change”, “continuity”, “cause”, “effect” or “consequence”, “significance”, “evidence”, “perspectives” and “interpretations”. Framework terms like “political”, “social”, “economic” and “cultural” are also important.
In most cases, you will have used these concepts throughout the year: in your SACs, class activities and discussions. Using these concepts shows you are thinking like a historian. They show you are thinking critically and analytically about the past, rather than simply recalling or describing it.
You should use historical concepts regularly in your essay. There is no fixed amount but ideally, each paragraph will include one or two signs of historical thinking.
You can read more about historical concepts here.
4. Use of primary sources and historical interpretations as evidence
Evidence is material that historians and good history students use to support their argument. Evidence can include primary sources like documents or images, statistics, quotations and historical interpretations.
Be sure to include evidence as you write. Ideally, each paragraph should have at least one or two pieces of evidence. This evidence should be attributed to a particular person, document, source or historian.
You can incorporate evidence in a number of ways, for example:
According to Pipes, Lenin was a “ruthless and manipulative leader” who exploited the weaknesses of the government to seize power.
The historian Pipes describes Lenin as a “ruthless and manipulative leader” who exploited the weaknesses of the government to seize power.
Lenin was a “ruthless and manipulative leader” who exploited the weaknesses of the government to seize power (Pipes).
See below for more information and advice about using historical interpretations in your essay.
Here are some other important factors and hints for planning and writing your Section B exam essay:
Think carefully about the length of your essay. The assessors provide three blank pages for the essay. They do this for a good reason: they consider three pages an achievable goal for most students.
You should aim for a longer essay only if you are capable of producing one. Remember that there is overflow space at the rear of your answer book, should you require it.
Be realistic about your goals with the essay. Know what you can produce in 30-40 minutes under exam conditions and avoid getting too ambitious. Most students should be able to write three pages in this timeframe. High achievers may manage four or five pages.
Prepare by completing at least one timed practice essay before the exam. Remember that quality is preferable to quantity. Writing a thoughtful, well-planned essay of three pages is better than rushing, rambling or stretching to fill four or five.
Good structure in your Section B essay is very important. Essays with poor structure tend to ‘ramble’ and drift away from the question. Make sure that your essay has a clear structure. Take a minute or two to jot down a dot-point plan before you begin writing. Referring to this will help you stay on track and maintain good structure.
There are several ways to structure a short essay. One method is to write chronologically, covering important ideas, events or developments in the order they occurred.
For broader questions, some students may prefer to use the PES (‘Political, Economic, Social’) framework used in many classes. Alternatively, just choose four or five key points and write a paragraph on each of those.
Whatever structure you use, remember the importance of topic sentences (see below under ‘Focus’). Topic sentences flag what each paragraph will focus on while linking back to the essay question and your argument.
Focus and relevance
Staying focused and relevant is a common problem with exam essays. Many essays begin well but veer off topic or include irrelevant information that will not earn marks. A few students write completely irrelevant essays. Some answer the essay question they would like to have seen, rather than the question actually given.
Be sure to revisit your question and argument as you start each paragraph. Are you repeating and focusing on the key terms in the question? Are you explaining how each paragraph supports your argument? Are you including historical knowledge and evidence that is relevant to the question?
Historical interpretations are views of the past formed by historians, academics and writers. They inform and shape our understanding of historical events like revolutions.
You can strengthen your essay by referring to historical interpretations as evidence. Do this by mentioning specific historians or writers, either with direct quotations or by paraphrasing their views and interpretations.
It is not necessary to write a full citation or footnote. Simply writing the historian’s name, either in your sentence or in brackets, is enough. Again, refer to the sample responses below for examples of how this can be done.
Some cautionary advice – avoid getting bogged down in a complex discussion about different interpretations. The aim is to use historical interpretations as evidence to support your argument, not to analyse, evaluate or compare different interpretations.
Also, refer to historical interpretations from specific historians – but avoid name-dropping historiographical movements or schools of thought, such as “Marxist historians” or “revisionist historians”. These labels are easily used but the assessors do not like them.
Here are some excerpts from sample Section B essays. These excerpts include a suggested introduction, a suggested paragraph and possible topics for other paragraphs. Important components like historical concepts and knowledge are also highlighted.
Note: these excerpts are indicative of what high scoring responses in a Section B might look like. They are neither the best way or the only way of approaching these questions.
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