Paper 2 20th century world history


Paper 2 is an examination that is required for both HL and SL students. The exam is the same and the students are graded using the same markbands – the only difference is in the weighting of the exam for the final IB grade – it consists of 25% for HL students and 45% for SL students.

Paper 2 is an essay test that examines students’ knowledge of 20th century world history.  Students are required to have knowledge of 2 of the 5 20th century topics.  Those topics are:

  • Causes, practices and effects of wars
  • Democratic states: challenges and responses
  • Rise and rule of single party and authoritarian states
  • Nationalist and independence movement in Asia and Africa and post-1945 Central and Eastern European States
  • Cold War

The exam is divided into 5 sections – one for each topic – that consist of 6 questions.  Students must answer 2 questions from 2 different topics.  They have 90 minutes to complete the exam, plus 5 minutes reading time.  Within the topics, teachers choose the examples they will use to cover the topic.  For example, a teacher who chooses Democratic States may choose Weimar Germany, Canada under Pearson, South Africa under Mandela and India under Indira Gandhi to cover the topic.  One key is to covering 20th century world history appropriately is to ensure that the students have knowledge of the subject that comes from more than one region.  A teacher can choose examples from all 4 regional options but that is not necessary – most examples can come from one region as long as there is knowledge of the subject outside of that region.  So, for Single Party States, a teacher could cover Nyerere’s Tanzania, Kenyatta’s Kenya, Nkrumah’s Ghana and Hitler’s Germany and the students would be effectively prepared.

world map

Once the content has been decided upon, that content must be covered in depth so that the students have sufficient detailed knowledge of the material to write well supported responses to the essay questions on the exam.  A senior Paper 2 examiner recently wrote that the main problem he sees in Paper is a lack of detailed content – students have a good general grasp of the concepts but have a difficult time supporting their arguments effectively because their essays lack factual detail.  One way of ensuring sufficient content is to link the 20th century topic to the HL option and the Prescribed Subject as much as possible so that information gets reinforced and explained in a variety of ways.  Another way is through supplementary readings, but this can be a very onerous assignment for ELLs.  Yet another way is to have students choose one area of interest to them with each topic and have them write a series of research papers that explore one issue in greater depth, e.g., the role of women in Single Party States.

Students also need to know how to write persuasive essays in a timed situation.  Writing 2 essays on vastly different topics in 90 minutes is a very challenging task, and only practice will help students learn how to do this.  There is no one prescribed method for writing a history essay, but students must focus on the question they have been asked – which is far more difficult for most students than it sounds.  They need to formulate an argument – there is no requirement that they present a thesis, but many successful essays do indeed have one.  And, they need to support their arguments with both analysis and relevant factual evidence.  Most teachers spend a lot of time over two years teaching students these skills and helping them to refine them.  If an extended time period is available for students to do a mock exam of Paper 2, that is ideal as that gives the students concrete experience with the exam format that will be expected of them.

When all of this is accomplished is dependent upon how the curriculum has been developed but essay writing obviously must be developed and refined over the course of the entire two years.  Even students with a strong background in essay writing prior to IB history will need time and practice so that their skills can mature.  And that, in some respects is the final piece of the puzzle regarding success on this exam: academic maturity.  Once again, as teachers, we are expected to help students develop unquantifiable but necessary qualities in our students – no small chore, and not the same for every student, but very important nonetheless.

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