The level ceiling

As we approach the exam period,  I think there is nothing more upsetting for a teacher than seeing a student labour over their revision and essays and still get no more than a C/D (or 3 or 4 at GCSE). The student can often then fall into the trap of thinking that if they keep writing more, they will earn more marks. Of course, there is no ‘minute a mark’ at A level. In fact, the more they are writing, the more likely they have become descriptive. One common reason for this is that they have not yet mastered the higher order thinking skills required to them move up the levels. The skill of analysis is often the toughest nut that needs to be cracked. They can be afraid to make a judgement too. So how do we fix that? There is no silver bullet unfortunately, but here are five suggestions you can try with them.

5 solutions you can try



  1. Explain the difference between analysis and description

Explain explicitly what is meant by description/narration and what is mean by analysis. We say it all the time, but the kids don’t understand us. I explain it like this – narration/description is all the stuff of when? Who? Where? and What? Analysis focuses upon why? To what effect? Why then and not before? Why was that more significant/effective/important? Etc. A good method I have found, is to get them to highlight where this is present in their essays before they submit them. This really focuses their attention on what is missing. Alternatively, give them a weak model answer and add the analysis in.


  1. Make links

Where there are factors or themes within paragraphs, get them to compare the factors/themes together and assess relative significance/convincingness. So I instruct my students at the start of their second paragraph to compare the Economic with the Political causes for instance and assess why the later played a more significant role with a justification. These links between factors makes the students essay read less like a shopping list and more as an analytical piece. Exercises in class wherein they need to prioritise (Washing lines, Diamond 9s etc.) really help them to develop this skill.


  1. Make strong judgments in the introductions and conclusions

Students are often scared of making a judgment. They use phrases such as ‘on the one hand and on the other’, ‘Some Historians argue’, ‘It could be argued that’, none of which make any judgement. I steer my students away from doing this right from the outset. Their introduction will acknowledge other factors or arguments, but they will (if they are doing it properly J) make a clear case as to which factor(s) or arguments are most significant or convincing from the start and hopefully, sustain that throughout. They should analyse the arguments and justify their judgement accordingly. This should be then mirrored in their conclusion. Exercises in class using whiteboards (so the students feel they can rub things out and get things ‘wrong’) can help build their academic confidence in making judgements and justifying them.


  1. Go beyond identifying Continuity and Change/Similarity and Difference

Especially important in breadth questions, students need to be able to identify continuity and change and similarity and difference over time. I do lots of exercises in class to identify patterns and this should be reflected in their essays. However, the very good essays will not only be able to say what has changed and continued for example, but be able to explain why. Exercises that get them to explain this phenomenon will serve them well in their essays. For instance, why did each of the Soviet leaders continue to spend such a high proportion of their GDP on the military industrial complex? Answers – continuance of hostilities with the west, vested interest within the party etc.


  1. Counterarguments and judgments

Students commonly think that an alternative factor is a counter argument, which of course, it is not. A good place to start here is use some contemporary (and controversial) examples. A comment on Manchester United can start the ball rolling (pardon the pun) where I am. I ask them to find a counter argument and back it up with specific/precise evidence as I have used in the comment. Then, students will be invited to make an overall judgment on the issue. The same applies in their essay. Counter arguments do not need to be throughout the essay, but they serve as an effective way for the student to demonstrate both analysis and judgement. They must analyse the arguments and justify their reasoning. I use a gap fill essay template with my students that remind them to do this. With frequent reminders and opening lines, even the struggling student is able to offer something. And that is often better than a D grade answer.

Why not also check my History Rocks podcasts on essay skills