What is the difference between History GCSE and A-Level?
Many students who have enjoyed GCSE History choose to continue studying the subject at A-Level, making it one of the more highly ranking courses in lists of the most popular A-Levels.
One of the key differences between GCSE and A-Level History is the breadth and depth of content. Whilst some students might relish the opportunity to continue studying topics with which they are already familiar, such as the Tudors and the Cold War, exam boards offer an increasingly wide range of options at A-Level. With courses on twentieth-century Chinese history, medieval France and the rise of Islam in sixth to eighth centuries, students are frequently faced with entirely new material that they must master in breadth and depth. This is exciting for enthusiasts of the subject. However, with three to four topics to cover it is also one of the main challenges of the course.
Another key difference between the A-Level and GCSE courses is the number and nature of essays required. In the GCSE exams, students may write one extended answer per topic across around four topics. At A-Level, students have to write double that number. Fundamentally, the structure of questions can be similar to those set at GCSE, with questions asking students to evaluate causes and consequences or the success of a particular figure or movement. That said, as students cover topics in greater depth and complexity there are higher expectations about the amount of detailed evidence that is required for high marks, as well as the insight and sophistication of argument. Indeed, the A-Level offers an excellent opportunity for students to develop their skills of argument, using analysis and evaluation with clear criteria and reasoning to form their own judgements.
The final major difference between the GCSE and A Level History is the amount of primary and secondary sources that students are required to work with. All of the major exam boards require students to write essay-length responses to questions on pieces of historical evidence and writing, which are longer and more challenging than those set at GCSE.
What are the best approaches for A Level History revision?
Given the large amount of content, the best approach for revising for A-Level History is frequent, small sessions, with students beginning independent revision early on in the course. It is not always explicitly stated but reading outside of class is key for mastering the content in enough detail to score highly in the exams. This could involve reading and note-taking from textbooks and other books recommended by your teacher, or going over your notes to check that you have the most important information from your teacher’s Powerpoint. Whatever you do, the key thing is to ensure that you have understood what you are covering and that you have a decent set of notes to use when you come to revise for the final exams.
In terms of specific revision tasks, there is a huge range of effective and engaging activities. The key criteria for an effective revision task should be review and application. Sometimes students are daunted by the amount of content that they have to cover and try to re-read their entire textbook immediately before the exams. This approach is not only overwhelming and arduous, but also ineffective. As a passive exercise, the brain will struggle to retain the information read long term. In order to commit details and broader narratives to your long-term memory, it is vital that you apply and test the information using more active tasks. These might include making and using flashcards of key dates, causes and consequences, or making spider diagrams on themes. Another really effective revision task is using recently reviewed content to answer questions from past papers. Whilst writing out an entire answer will allow you to work on your essay-writing skills too, even planning a response will help you to remember the information whilst you practice using it in the context of an evaluative argument.
What is the best approach for structuring essays for students aiming for an A* in A Level History?
For the highest marks, a structure focused on analysis and argument - rather than narrative - is absolutely key. A sharp focus on answering the question is also vital. Generally speaking, there are three different types of essays in the A-Level exams:
- Essays that require students to make an argument in response to a specific question using their knowledge of the course content. These questions require students to analyse historical events and developments that they know about in support of their argument.
- Essays based on one or more primary sources. These questions require students to interpret and evaluate one or more primary sources using their knowledge of their historical context and to make an argument in response to a specific question about the sources’ value.
- Essays based on secondary sources. These questions require students to interpret secondary sources using their knowledge of the historical context, evaluating the content in response to a specific question.
All of these question types demand that students build an argument throughout the essay, from the introduction to the conclusion. Whilst ways of approaching this goal can vary, the most effective structures tackle one key point per main body paragraph, opening with a sentence that answers the question directly. In the remainder of the paragraph, detailed evidence should be interwoven with analysis that explains precisely how that evidence proves the point stated in the opening sentence. In the first type of essay, the evidence can be drawn from the student’s own knowledge alone. In the other essay types it must be drawn from the sources given in addition to the student’s contextual knowledge.
Most essays should open with an introduction focused on summarising the argument, with a clear judgement answering the question and an overview of the topics or points that will be addressed in each paragraph. At the end of the essay, that judgement must be restated with a summary of the reasoning behind it.
What is the best approach for answering primary source questions for A Level History?
The most important thing to remember for gaining high marks in primary source questions is to treat the sources as pieces of historical evidence not repositories of content that may or not be reliable. Even if the author of an historical source is entirely unreliable, his or her lies might reveal an awful lot about his or her aims, priorities and concerns. For this reason, I always suggest that students read the provenance before tackling the text of the source. This information, usually given beneath or above the source, is vital for considering the author, nature, purpose and audience of the source and how these might shape the content you are about to read. Students should then move onto the content with this information in mind, paying attention to the tone of the source, to work out what it is telling us explicitly and implicitly.
Once again, it is vital to remain focused on the question. With a range of historical sources, none of which were written with A-Level exam questions in mind, it is easy to lose track of the specific question that you have been asked. To score highly, it is crucial that your interpretation of the source is focused on the demands of the question, which usually require students to judge a source’s value for a particular enquiry on a particular topic. A good plan, noting down points that answer the question directly, will help you to stay on track as you select evidence and establish your argument.
What are the best resources for A-Level History (past papers, content)?
Many past papers can be found on the websites of various major exam boards, though some boards only make a limited number of papers available (and often exclude the most recent papers). A Google search using the name of your board can bring up more papers, but be careful: exam boards frequently remove past papers from their websites when they have made tweaks or more significant changes to the course. It is always advisable to check with your tutor or teacher to see if the papers that you have found have the same structure and demands as those you will face at your assessments.
For revising content, the following websites offer articles on a range of A-Level topics, which you can use to supplement your notes and textbooks:
Mr Allsop History covers a more limited number of topics specifically for A-Level but has a range of podcasts full of detailed information and discussion of the significance of various events and developments. Students who like to diversify their revision with podcasts might also find relevant episodes of BBC In Our Time. For video content focused on specific topics and even specific exam boards, The Learning Academy have a good Youtube channel.
What are the best universities to study History?
As with many university courses, Oxford and Cambridge often top university rankings for History, along with the University of St Andrews. Birmingham, Bristol, Durham, Exeter, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, UCL, Warwick and York are also excellent choices.
A LeveI History tuition
Keystone Tutors have a number of highly experienced A Level History tutors who can help with exam and interview preparation, wherever you are in the world.
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For more details on how Keystone can help prepare your child for A Level History, please call the office for a chat with one of our client managers, or contact us via our request a tutor form.