Approaching the New Personal Study Module
Ian Garrett advises on how to succeed under the new AQA rules.
According to the newspapers, ‘coursework’ is in the process of becoming a thing of the past, and there is a new emphasis on exams. Yet it isn’t quite the same for A level History. For various reasons, not least that University History departments are reluctant to see it disappear, the requirement to produce a Personal Study remains for A Level historians. Coursework isn’t history – it is still History.
However, this is not to say that things are exactly as you were before. In fact, for AQA students at least, the Personal Study module has changed significantly. The examined modules remain relatively similar to previous options, although the total number to be sat is reduced from six to four. The coursework element of AS, the unloved Course Essay option, disappears altogether. But the Personal Study option in Year 13 remains, in effect taking over from one of the hitherto examined modules – and this has several implications.
One fundamental change is that students will no longer be at liberty to choose whatever they wish to study. (In practice, this might always have been limited. I strongly advised my students to choose something that related to what they had covered on one of their two examined modules, since – if something on their study then came up on the exam paper – they were in a very strong position.) Now such freedom has disappeared. The Personal Study option is now a taught option, and all candidates will have to choose something from within the century or so framework of the module they have been taught. Whereas before, all students could at the least choose between, say, their British and European or World option, now it will be one or the other. Nor can the period chosen for the Personal Study overlap with the units studied at AS level.
This leads to what, in a way, is a more fundamental change. Studies in the past usually focused on a comparatively narrow and specific historical question. Teaching late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, I have this year marked studies on why the Liberals won a landslide victory in the 1906 election, the impact of the Ulster Crisis of 1910-14, the reasons for Tory dominance in the 1890s, and so on. Whilst a study might still hang on a similarly specific moment or incident, it now has to show knowledge of the broader context, spanning a century or so. How candidates are to balance the specific, enabling clear judgement and analysis, with the context of developments over a century, is problematic. The obvious danger is that setting the scene and ensuring an overview of the century leads a candidate into writing copious narrative – telling the story in seeking to set the scene. Yet this will be penalised just as much under the new system as it would have been under the old.
So how does a candidate square the circle – showing all the skills required of the old Personal Study, in terms of judgement, analysis and interpretation, and putting this into the context of a hundred years, without simply padding out the study with narrative? Here are a few suggestions for both students and teachers.
Look for themes that run through your period
My students will be looking at Britain 1851 to 1951. So one issue could be why Ireland was such a problem for British governments through most of the period, and why Ulster in particular proved a barrier to settlement. Other manageable issues include why the Tories had extensive periods of political dominance (for example 1886-1906 and 1919-39), or why the role of the State grew throughout the period, and especially in 1906-14 and again 1945- 51. In other periods, a candidate might ask how effective religious persecution was in the sixteenth century, why religious toleration grew in the seventeenth century, or why virtually all seventeenth-century rulers, Oliver Cromwell included, had difficulty in managing Parliament. In other words, look for issues that enable you to ask a similar question at different points within your allotted century, and look for patterns of similarity or difference.
Be confident enough to avoid a chronological approach. Examine the reasons for Tory success in the interwar period first, then go back and compare that to the era of Salisbury. Is there a dominant factor common to both, or in fact do the two periods provide quite different reasons why the Conservative Party was so dominant?
Avoid military or biographical studies
This has always been good advice – because it is precisely these sorts of studies that are most likely to drift into story telling. Looking at changing methods of warfare over a century may be effective, but in my experience this sort of study easily gets bogged down, as if in Flanders mud, in the blow by blow details of campaigns or battles. Examining the late Victorian period to the mid twentieth century through the Churchill family sounds attractive, but is very difficult to do convincingly. The personal failings of Stuart monarchs were certainly a key factor in their political problems, but a study needs to go beyond James’ cowardice, Charles’ stutter, and Charles junior’s susceptibility to a pretty face. The classic ‘Was Hitler responsible for the Final Solution / Was Stalin responsible for the Purges?’ has more merit, but needs to be firmly anchored in the intellectual and governmental context if it is to meet the criteria. It must go beyond biographical speculation about the impact of harsh upbringings and brutal fathers. Best avoid such an approach.
Cultivate your school Librarian
And, I might add, your local second-hand book shop. The pressure on resources may be considerable, particularly in large centres, now that all candidates are tackling studies based on the same period. Obviously, it will be down to candidates to find their own resources – equally obviously, the more help the centre can give the better. But budgets these days rarely run to stocking the department store cupboard with the latest monographs. Living in a university city, I am lucky to have a large Oxfam bookshop in a local high street that has been a regular source of affordable texts, and also a librarian willing to spend the petty cash gained from selling pens and rulers to forgetful pupils. What have been especially useful are books in series like the Seminar Studies in History, or those published by Manchester University Press. Their value lies not so much in their main text as in their sources. Even though, unlike some old boards, the AQA Personal Study does not demand archival sources, it still requires evaluation of the utility and reliability of source material. The extracts in the appendices of these little books are often an excellent way to approach and analyse primary source material. More generally, the more you read, the better you will probably do, and a well stocked school library is a way of at least making a start.
Find an issue about which historians disagree
This is not a new piece of advice. But the most difficult part of the mark scheme to access for students was always that to do with historical interpretation. Under the new framework it remains just as important. The current mark scheme speaks of demonstrating how the past has been ‘interpreted and represented in different ways’. Vital, then, to find a topic which has been! If it can be shown how historians’ perspectives have helped shape their viewpoint, all the better. The rise of the Labour Party / decline of the Liberal Party is a case in point, where on the whole historians supportive of Labour have tended to see its rise as inevitable and important by 1914, while those more sympathetic to the Liberal Party have usually found the Liberals still in at least relatively good health at that point. But the key thing here is judgement – it is not enough to simply recount that Historian X says this, whereas Historian Y says that. Nor is it effective to talk in general terms about ‘schools’ of history – ‘Marxists disagree with Whig historians because …’. You need to avoid giving the impression that all your historical interpretation is second- hand. A genuine engagement with debate, however, will score very well, in an area where many candidates will lose marks.
Each year, my students look aghast at the prospect of producing 3,000 to 3,500 words on a historical topic of their choice. ‘Believe me,’ I tell them, ‘what you will find difficult is writing that little, not that much.’A few months later, this is almost invariably true. What is also almost always true is that whatever students have chosen to study, they are gripped by it with an almost embarrassing degree of enthusiasm. This is being a proper historian – or at least, as close to it as you are going to get as a sixth-form student. The impossible task of writing 3,000 words actually becomes the impossible task of writing only 3,500. One piece of good news for this year’s students – the maximum word limit has been raised to 4,000 words (and that is good news!). The evaluation of sources is now a separate piece, covering 500 words.
You will still end up editing furiously, wondering how anyone can be expected to fit everything necessary into such a small space. But you should end up with work you can be proud of – something that will both earn you good marks at A Level and prepare you well for studying History at University. You will be employing all your skills – of analysis and explanation, of evaluation and interpretation, in short of making judgements – because that is what a historian does. You will think for yourself, and develop your ideas, with the guidance of your teachers of course, but fundamentally this is about developing your ability to argue your own point of view. Some of the best studies I have ever marked have been ones I profoundly disagreed with (one student had the nerve to use as a source an undergraduate essay I’d written which he’d borrowed – and then rubbished throughout!). But isn’t that what makes our subject worthwhile – and, dare we say it, so different from all those other subjects? At any level of history, the absence of ‘right answers’ is what makes the subject fun. This is your best chance yet to go out there and demonstrate that for yourself.
Ten Key Things To Do
- Read the question and understand what it is asking.
- Work out your approach.
- Write a detailed essay plan, with different points per paragraph.
- Have an introduction in which you reveal your understanding of the current debate in interpretations.
- Remember to handle the concepts in the question and in your answer clearly.
- Remember to introduce the relevant historical methods explicitly.
- Engage with the historiography, the views of different historians.
- In doing so, show how your work is part of the debate.
- Have a clear conclusion that brings out the relevance of the topic and your answer for wider historical issues.
- Include a reading list and a word count.
Ian Garrett is Head of History at St Francis of Assisi School in Aldridge, Walsall.
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