Short extracts of sources or interpretations have been a feature of history exams for decades, and, I would argue, they have never been done well. For those unfamiliar with how this works, in most history exams pupils get given a short extract of a contemporary source or subsequent interpretation accompanied by pitifully little contextual information, and then they are expected to use those sources and interpretations to answer questions. We have now just about moved on from dire questions such as ‘is this source reliable?’ but the questions that remain (‘how far does Source A support…?’) are hardly great questions. The underlying weakness in all of these is that, in order to make sense of a source or an interpretation, one needs to know a great deal about the context of that particular source or interpretation. In no way does the use of sources in history exams reflect what historians do in practice: historians nearly always know far, far more about a source (how it exists, how it came down to us, who said it, in what context and so on) than pupils get given in an exam. This results, inevitably, in ‘stock evaluation’ where pupils roll out trite, generic responses that do not show any great understanding of the historical method.
History exams have been stuck in this rut for over a generation. And I think we need to look beyond our subject for a possible answer: I think we need to look at how things are done in English Literature.
Now I do not think English teachers have it all worked out and I know that there are all sorts of criticisms that can be made of English exams. But one thing I like about English Literature exams is that pupils go into an exam with an in-depth knowledge of the texts about which they are going to be asked questions. If they are given an extract from Romeo and Juliet, then they at least know about the rest of the play: they know about the themes that run through it, who the main characters are, and where the scene given to them emerges in the play. The same is true of poetry: if pupils are answering questions on Sylvia Plath, then they will have spent a lot of time studying Sylvia Plath: they will know about her work, the kinds of poetry she wrote and the critiques that have been made of it. It is specific knowledge of the writers and their work that make it possible for pupils to address questions about literature in meaningful ways.
I would argue that we as history teachers might learn from this approach. The use of set texts would seem an obvious way of resolving the problem of short, decontextualised sources and interpretations in history exams. How might this work in practice?
Let’s start with interpretations. I could very much imagine, for example, a GCSE History exam where there is a paper based on two or three particular, named works of historical scholarship. In a paper on the Cold War, for example, it might be a requirement that pupils have studied the work of John Lewis Gaddis. Imagine an A-Level paper on British social history in the nineteenth century in which pupils know that they will be asked questions on E.P. Thompson’s interpretation of the period. Having specified interpretations would mean that teachers could read the works of those historians with pupils, outlining the arguments those historians advanced, the evidence base on which they drew, the conclusions they reached and the criticisms that have been made of their lines of argument. Rather than reducing the study of historical interpretations to some generic skill of ‘evaluation’, we could then assess pupils directly on how good their knowledge is of particular interpretations and the criticisms that can be made of these.
In the poetry section of English Literature pupils get an anthology, and I see no reason why the same approach could not be used for source material in history. This was in practice how my third-year undergraduate ‘gobbets’ paper was organised at Cambridge: I was given a list of possible sources that might come up in the exam and I had to make sure that I was fully familiar with all of these: the context of their production, the way in which they had passed down to the present, the ways in which historians had used those sources and the specific questions that might be asked of them. Imagine a GCSE History exam that came with an anthology of ten sources, two or three of which would appear in the exam. The kinds of questions that could be asked in the exam would immediately become more specific, and pupils would be able to draw on in-depth knowledge of those sources gained from studying them in class with teachers.
History specifications for GCSE and A-Level have moved on in recent years, and I do like some of the new specifications that have come out for the new GCSE (2016) and A-Level (2015). Not one exam board has however yet addressed the problem of using short, decontextualised sources and interpretations in exams. We missed the boat this time round but, sure as the seasons roll around, we can assume that the specifications will be re-written in the next five years or so. When this happens we need to be ready to advance a new approach that finally deals with this flaw at the heart of history exams: I would argue that set texts and anthologies would be the way to go.