Paper 1 – the source-based test

By Wednesday, February 19, 2014 , , 0

This examination is where students demonstrate their skills as historians in a very clear and concrete manner.  This exam is not a lottery – the students know precisely the potential subjects of the sources they will be asked to evaluate.

The class has a designated prescribed subject.  In route 2 the choices are:

  1. Peacemaking, Peacekeeping, 1918-1936;
  2. Arab-Israeli Conflict 1945-1979
  3. Communism in Crisis, 1976-1989

In each prescribed subject there are bullets that give a list of potential topics.  If materials are not in parentheses, those specific aspects of the bullet points can be the topic of an exam – and probably will be in the 7-year cycle of History.

All exams follow the same format (including Route 1 source-based papers).  There are 5 sources all on one subject that is explicitly stated at the beginning of the exam in italics.  4 of the sources are print, and are a mix of primary and secondary sources.  The fifth source is non-print; it may be a political cartoon, photography, painting or table of information.

There are always four questions and they follow a progression similar to Bloom’s Taxonomy:

Question 1 is divided into 1a and 1b worth 2 and 3 marks.  Here the students show that they understand the meaning of the sources and all the information they need can be derived from the source.

In question 2 the students are asked to compare the content of two sources.  The question always states  ‘views expressed’ so that the students don’t try to analyze the provenance of the sources here.  It is important that they provide concrete support by explicitly referencing the sources.  It is worth 6 points so students often think that they need to make 3 points of comparison and 3 points of contrast, but it is rarely that simple or balanced.

The best way to coach students on this section is to have them write a paragraph of similarities and a paragraph of differences.  Otherwise, they tend to describe one source, then the next, and then explain the relations in a final paragraph.  This sequential account never works out as well as the integrated approach.

On the other hand, in question 3 (6 marks) they want to treat the two sources as discrete entities.  The question always asks the students to evaluate the values and limitations of two sources, ‘with reference to origins and purpose’.  This is a skill that may be familiar to them if they’ve already completed their Internal Assessment, but they really struggle with the different parts of the section.

  • Origins: provenance – who what when where.  This should be really brief as it is mostly regurgitation.
  • Purpose: why the source was produced.  Usually this is also brief, but sometimes there may be an official and a covert reason, so then it might be lengthier.
  • Value: why historians find this source useful.  Students often want to describe the contents and explain what about the contents make it valuable, but the provenance and purpose are what give form to value.  Certain types of sources have certain values and students should learn these.
  • Limitation: why historians are hesitant about using a source; or why they may not find it reliable.  Most students will write that a source is biased (or biast [sic])and this is an incomplete answer.  The really need to explain what that bias – or perspective is – and why that would make a historian consider the value more carefully.  Again, provenance and purpose are critical to understanding the limitations.

Question 4 is often called a mini-essay in teacher shorthand, and this can sometimes scare the students.  Students are asked to use the sources and their own knowledge to answer the question.  They worry about producing a lengthy introduction and a well-structured essay response.  In reality, a direct answer to the question followed by an explanation of how the sources and own knowledge support that answer is needed.  They should try to use all the sources if they can but should not worry too much if they can’t figure out how to use one of the sources.  By the time they do the final question they have used all the sources and have a good sense of how to use them in this question.  The problem is bringing in their  own knowledge.  While most have some success, they are usually lacking.  This is the final question of a very fast test and they sometimes run out of time.  However, the only way to achieve full marks (8) is to have both, so it is worth their time to include some even if it is limited.

How long on each question? There is no pat answer, but based on question values:

1 a + b: 10 minutes

2: 15 minutes

3: 15 minutes

4: 20 minutes

At this point, I think we all need to ask ourselves if we could manage this task as well as our best students do.  I am amazed at how thorough they can be, given the time constraints.   Every so often I challenge myself to do this and find that, as I see the 1-hour mark arrive, I wish I had 5 more minutes to review and produce a better answer.

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