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Get off to a flying start with advice from expert teachers and high-achieving ex-students. 

FAQs with expert teachers Jonathon Dallimore and Sally Johnstone

How do you refine a topic down to be manageable?

When starting their major project, a lot of students are drawn to a topic, rather than a specific question. In some instances, they may pick a topic that is very large and hard to answer in the word count.

As you only have 2,500 words to play with, you may find it beneficial to use some of the following strategies when attempting to refine your topic into something that is manageable.

  1. Focus on a specific place:
    To reduce the size of your project, it may be necessary to focus on a specific country or community. This will help you limit the scope of your research. For example, let’s say that you wanted to explore revolutions in Europe; to narrow down your research, you could decide to only explore revolutions that took place in France.
  2. Focus on a specific period:
    In some cases, it might be necessary to shorten the time frame you are researching by focusing on a specific period or year. Using the example above, you could choose to examine the revolution that took place in France between 1789 and 1799.
  3. Focus on a specific aspect:
    You can refine your topic down by focusing on a specific aspect, issue or area of debate. If you wanted to explore the English Civil War, for instance, you could narrow down your topic by looking at the causes of the war itself.

Focus on a specific methodology: Finally, you can refine your project by looking at how particular groups of historians view your topic or issue. For example, you could investigate what Marxist historians have written about the causes of the English Civil War.

How would you suggest working with time management of the project?

You need to manage your time effectively so that you can successfully complete your major project for History Extension.

Here are three different strategies that you can use to manage your time over the next year:

  1. Break up the major project into smaller pieces: At first glance, the major project can be quite overwhelming. For this reason, some students like to break the project up into more manageable parts. To do this, they will start by developing an outline of the things they want to talk about in the body of their essay. From there, they tackle each section separately.
  2. Use checklists and mini-deadlines: After breaking up the project into smaller pieces, some students like to create checklists and mini-deadlines to help them complete everything on time. When putting together this plan, they will also give themselves time to edit and revise their writing.
  3. Allocate time to the project: As you move through Year 12, you will need to complete assessment tasks, finish your homework and create study notes. To ensure that you successfully complete History Extension, you need to allocate time to work on the major project. Some students like to create a study timetable to help them balance all of the demands placed upon them. Alternatively, other students like to sit down for an hour or two each week so that they can work on the project. If possible, it can also help to allocate an entire day here-or-there to working on your project to keep the momentum.

What are some common mistakes made in history extension essays, and how can we avoid making them?

One common mistake in project essays is that the student does not focus enough on the key questions of the course.

When you are discussing your topic and the sources/perspectives in your writing, it is crucial that you engage with relevant issues in the construction of history. That is, you are not just comparing and contrasting the interpretations of different historians or producers of history but you need to put forward arguments as to why their interpretations differ. This might involve exploring the aims and purposes of a writer, their specific methodology or their personal, political or historiographical context or their personal theories about history more generally. It often involves exploring a range of these factors in some depth.

Another common mistake is that students fail to leave enough time for editing their work. Fine-tuning any extended writing is a crucial part of producing quality material. Ideally, you would have several weeks to work with a full draft of the essay before it is due. In that time you will most likely need to correct spelling errors, improve the flow of the writing and adjust the expression to ensure that your ideas are as clear as they can be. It may even involve adding a little detail in parts to make important claims more powerful. This all takes time and that needs to be factored into the process.

How much personal perspective should I be expressing in my essay?

When constructing your project, you will be expected to develop an argument that is supported by evidence. Ultimately, your personal perspective will shape how you construct this argument. For example, your views will influence what material you choose to include and exclude from your project.

Alternatively, your beliefs will shape how you view and evaluate particular historians. For instance, through the course of your research you may discover that the methodology employed by certain historians is problematic; in this situation, you may feel compelled to make some statements about the limitations of their work. This is perfectly acceptable. By its very nature, the writing of historiography will result in you making judgements and reveal your personal perspective.

That being said, the major essay is expected to be a piece of academic writing. Thus, it needs to have an academic register and tone. In effect, this means that you need to use formal language and be quite objective. Furthermore, you should avoid using first person pronouns; while there may be situations where it is appropriate to use ‘I’ in your essay, a number of writers prefer to avoid using this word. Take, for example, the following two sentences:

Sentence 1: “I think Smith’s central argument sucks.”

Sentence 2: “Smith's central argument is flawed in two crucial ways. Firstly…”

Both sentences show the personal perspective of the writer. The second sentence is stronger, however, because it conforms to the conventions of an academic essay.

If I wanted to focus on something connected to writers who are not necessarily historians, is that too close to literature or English?

It would depend on how you approach it.

Historical fiction could form the basis of a strong History Extension Project or these kinds of sources may be highly relevant to the topic you are researching. Your analysis of these sources, however, must remain focussed on exploring relevant issues to the construction of history (i.e. the key questions).

In other words, the aim of investigating a literary source would not be to evaluate the writing as a work of art but to analyse the way it comments on, uses or creates its historical representation. This would be the same as analysing a historical film. The question is not ‘was it a well-made movie?’ or ‘how was the film constructed’ but ‘what factors have shaped its interpretations or representations of the past?’

This would be the same for literary sources. You must ensure that any discussion or analysis of them remains focussed on relevant historiographical issues.

In short, it is good to keep returning to the key questions of the course to ensure that what you are researching and writing about links somehow to one or more of those questions.

Complete an outstanding major project

Top tips from high-achieving History Extension students

Why did you choose History Extension?

How did you choose the topic of your major work?

So what is the most important piece of advice you can give?

How often did you regret your choice?