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History Coursework: how to Choose the Best Question

So, just when you thought your first A-level History year was over and you could relax before tackling next year, you have to think about your history coursework. This will be the non-exam assessment (NEA) or Historical Investigation.  It can cause a lot of angst amongst students but taking some time and thinking it through carefully before you start can make the world of difference.

1. Choose to study something interesting for your history coursework

If you have the chance to choose whichever topic you like for your history coursework and set your own question, or if you are given a list of different topics, choose one you are genuinely interested in. You will be working on this piece for months, so it makes sense to choose something that will hold your interest.

2. Make sure there are no clashes with your other topics

In practice, there are constraints set by the various exam boards to make sure that your topic does not overlap with the components you are already studying for your A level or Pre U. Your exam centre (school, college or independent centre) will need to have your question approved by the exam board and they will not approve a topic with an obvious overlap. For example, if you are already studying the Tudors for AQA, it is unlikely that you can  study a topic set in England between 1485 to 1603. Therefore, if you are setting your own question, ask yourself if it overlaps in date or topic with one of your components. If it does, you will need to find an alternative. Each exam board has slightly different rules, so check on their website to see what the rules are for your exam board.

3. Find your source material early

For your history coursework, you will need to find two types of source material – primary and secondary:

  • Primary sources are those that were written at the time and you will also need to find a range of these to support your investigation. To achieve high marks you should look for a variety of primary sources, for example, a letter, a report, a painting, a speech etc.
  • Secondary sources are scholarly books or articles by historians, or what the A-level exam boards call ‘interpretations.’ This means that your investigation will only be viable if historians have written about the topic and, preferably, argued over it. You will need to understand the arguments that provide a framework for your chosen topic. Historians call this the historiography.

Therefore, the question you set yourself will only be able to achieve high marks if you make sure there are both secondary sources (scholarly argument) and primary sources (original material) to support your investigation. If you cannot find these, you should re-think your question.

History Coursework


4. Remember you actually have to answer the question!

It sounds really obvious – but remember that you actually have to answer the question you set yourself!  You need to choose something that is achievable in the time frame and gives you a good chance of success. A good question will give you a framework within which to research and write – you are looking for something that is not too vague nor too wide.

You also need something that you can address in the historical time frame (e.g. around 100 years for AQA) and a topic that you can analyse and evaluate in approximately 3, 500 words (check the word limit for your own exam board). In practice, any question that is too wide, too vague or unlikely to be achievable should be vetoed either by your school/college/independent centre or the exam board. However, this will waste your valuable time and is not totally foolproof, so choose an achievable project to give yourself a fighting chance of achieving that elusive A grade.

5. Choose a good format for your history coursework question

The standard ‘for and against’ question format will always be a good choice and will give you a framework within which to set your investigation. There are various ways to word such a question e.g. ‘How far…’, To what extent…’ ‘Within the context of … how important was…’ which will give you a clear framework and a direction for your investigation. Keep it simple is good advice here. Remember, though, to define your framework by including the date range in your question. For example ‘Within the context of 1790 to 1890, how important was…?’

Done well, the NEA or Personal Investigation will teach you a huge amount about how historians work, how sources are used and how to construct an argument. This will help you enormously when you come to the final exams and it can be a very valuable contribution to your qualification. It can also be enjoyable as it is your first chance to ‘do’ some real historical research. Choose your question with care and you automatically give yourself a head start.

Exam Board History Coursework Guidance


AQA Guidance

Cambridge Pre U Guidance

OCR Guidance

Edexcel Guidance

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