Moving Up from AS to A2 History

Paul Ward gives guidance to students on making a key transition.

Many of you reading this will have successfully completed your AS History course and will be beginning your A2 year. You may be finding the level of work more challenging, and you may be adapting quite well or you may feel lost in the content and unsure of what you should be doing. The aim of this article is to help by offering tips to enable you to focus your minds on what examiners are looking for at A2. It is also hoped that it will provide you with some ideas on how to make good notes and on how to prepare effectively for the exam. 

The Skills required 

It is important that you have a clear awareness of what skills are required for A2. The intention is that you are building on those introduced to you at AS level. Yet different skills are also required, and although each examination board varies in its approaches to testing these new skills, it is possible to identify important core abilities that you need to be aware of and that you should be improving.

At A2 the ability to write essays under timed conditions is essential. By an essay I don’t mean a narration of historical facts regardless of what the question demands. The examiners are looking for focus on what the question is asking you, and there is a much greater emphasis than in AS history on historical analysis. In addition, they expect you to engage with debates on historical interpretations. These new requirements are all too often overlooked, and many students are surprised when they don’t get the mark they expect for an essay or a practice exam question which may appear, at first glance, to be a good answer. If an essay does not meet the requirements of the mark scheme then unfortunately the mark will reflect this. 

Another skill that is developed at A2 is the ability to look at source material of quite a complex nature and be able to engage with the arguments contained within primary and secondary documents. The mistake that many students make at this level is rehearsing GCSE/AS source skills that centre exclusively on usefulness, reliability and provenance. These issues are important to a historian, but they are not in themselves sufficient at A2. Clearly there is a need to be aware of provenance, for instance, but it should only be referred to if part of a wider argument not merely in the hope that it will gain marks. Yet again it comes down to the idea of focus.  

Finally the skill of integrating and synthesising is crucial to success at A2. In other words, you must be able to combine arguments collected from sources with your own knowledge. This skill needs to be developed throughout the A2 year and, once mastered, will put you in a good position. 

All this may appear somewhat daunting. You may even be thinking: ‘I can’t do this’. Yet you should take confidence from the fact that an awareness of what the exam is about – and a clear focus upon this throughout the A2 year – will increase your chances of success.

Making effective notes from lessons

As you may have discovered at AS, you are often sitting there listening to the teacher talking about a particular topic and you respond in one of two ways. Either you try to write everything down or you write nothing down, and either way you get lost. Both are extremes that should be avoided.  

It is very unlikely that a teacher would expect you to write down everything that is said, but most lessons will have an intention that is summarised at the beginning, and the material will be presented using very different methods. Some lessons may involve you in research and presentation tasks; some may be led by teacher explanation; and there may be use of power point presentations or the use of video. The key is that you don’t go to lessons expecting to be spoonfed with information and that you don’t judge the effectiveness of a lesson by how much you have written down by the end of it. Remember that you have access to a course book and directed articles from the school or college library, and of course to the internet. Hence it is far better that you engage with the lesson, and the opportunities within it, and then complete the follow-up reading after the lesson. 

I strongly recommend making your own notes from books and articles, so that when it comes to revision you will then have information that you can make sense of. Also, never simply copy out passages that you don’t understand. The note-taking process should involve you reading, absorbing and then suitably summarising; and so if you can’t follow the logic while making notes, you certainly won’t grasp it during revision.  

The Timed Response

As you will have gathered from your AS History experience, there is an emphasis upon the skill of writing an essay under timed conditions. Although a cliché, ‘practice’ can indeed ‘make perfect’ in this skill. Your teacher will be presenting you with opportunities for this in class. It is important here that your essays don’t descend into a narration of historical fact. Examiners look for well structured responses that answer the question as set, but additionally at A2 there is a need for you, as a student of history, to try and arrive at judgements about key historical issues. This is a skill that you will need to practise and improve as the year progresses. 

It is essential that you get into the habit of planning your timed response before writing the essay. This should be second nature to you by the time the exam season looms. Clearly you can’t write about everything in the time that you have, but you must be able to construct an argument that answers the question and you must be able to support your analysis with relevant knowledge. The point here is the level of analysis that the examiners can see in your answer and how you link this explicitly to the given question. 

A good way of checking your timed responses is to look at each paragraph in turn. Towards the end of each, there should be an explicit reference to the question. A narration of historical fact, however impressive in itself, will not impress the examiner if there is no relevance or analysis. This is crucial, for at A2 the examiners are looking for the demonstration of particular historical skills, of which the recall of knowledge is but one. 

It is important not to panic about the pressure of time, as this can sometimes lead to poor writing. I would suggest spending five minutes at the beginning of the exam collecting your thoughts carefully and constructing a plan that incorporates the areas of knowledge that are relevant to the question. It is vital that your answer should not simply come to an abrupt end; instead the examiner should be able easily to spot your conclusion. A conclusion must avoid repetition: this is where your judgement should come in and where the question should be fully addressed. Try to refer back to the question and make judgements based on the main responses you have offered earlier in the essay. Remember that the conclusion should not repeat factual material included earlier in the essay.

Purposeful Revision 

Revision is crucial and it should begin early. The A2 units have a lot of content, and therefore last-minute cramming will be difficult. The key thing to remember is that you must, as part of your revision programme, allow time to revise the skills that are important at A2. It is no good simply revising the material without an awareness of how the subject knowledge fits in with the broader demands of the syllabus. 

You will need copies of past papers, and you should tackle these questions after you have revised a body of knowledge on a given topic. I also think that it is important for you to be confident with the mark schemes and assessment targets that examiners use when marking your work. (These specifications may make for dry reading, but you ignore them at your peril!) Time spent on this is just as valuable as time spent revising content. The point I’m trying to stress is that you need an awareness of both content and skills.

You will also need practice at looking at sources and selecting the arguments and opinions contained within them. This skill is very important at A2 where source material is expected to provide the ‘building blocks’ of more extended responses. If you have spent time looking at a variety of primary and secondary sources during revision, the prospect of an exam in which you will be faced with them should not daunt you.

In short, revision should focus on content and historical skills. It must not neglect source practice. Try to identify an area where you are relatively weak and let this inform the amount of time you give to that particular topic or skill.

Take confidence from the fact that at this level you have probably proved yourself good at retaining facts. At A2, this skill has to be supported with the broader demands of historical analysis and the formation of judgements.

Paul Ward, formerly a lecturer at Truro College, is now Head of History at the Heritage Private School in Cyprus.

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email