Surviving IB: HL History

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Today I’m going to be writing a short Q&A piece on one of the more uncommon (and weirder?) subjects that people take at IB.

A quick disclaimer: this isn’t an article intended to persuade you to take History HL. I’m assuming you’ve already decided, for better or worse, that studying History is a worthwhile investment to make.  Likewise, I’m not intending to provide a technical formula on how to do well at History papers – I’m doubtful that such a winning formula exists, and if it did Y2Y probably has a lot of robust material about it already. Rather I’m just going to offer some (completely subjective) opinions about what skills you may need to navigate HL or HSP History and what reflections I had about the process. Also, I’ve been told that the syllabus has undergone some minor changes, so not everything I say may be applicable.

The following questions were supplied by the editors.

Q: What do you feel about History HL?

A: In my view, History at IB (SL and HL) is one of the harder subjects at IB in terms of course load. What I mean is that you may devote a proportionally larger amount of time to studying History than you do to your other HLs because there are a large amount of notes/readings/assessments to get through. That being said, much of the curriculum has a lot of real world resonance (e.g the History of Single Party states, the history of modern China and so on) so I guess one direct benefit of studying History is that you can gain a stronger understanding of the historical context behind current affairs. I’ve also been told that people felt writing history essays for the IB made them better critical thinkers and communicators, so I guess that’s an added benefit.

On a personal level, one thing that I felt was unique and noteworthy about History HL (and not many other subjects I encountered in school) was that the way the subject is structured and taught by ACS (Independent) encourages a lot of open-ended thinking and reading outside the classroom. You probably already know that the History IB exam (worth 80% of your final grade) has 3 components. Paper 1 is a source-based paper with a short mini-essay at the end. Paper 2 requires you to write 2 essays in 1 hour and 30 minutes, both from a separate area of modern history (ACS(I) teaches the units Single-Party States, The Cold War, and Causes/Practices/Effects of Wars). Paper 3 is a “regional paper” where three essays are written in 2 hours and 30 minutes – for reasons that I never fully understood, our school prepares us for three topics in the history of Modern China, rather than South-East Asian history. I feel that the way these papers are assessed, along with how they are taught by our teachers, encourages open-ended thinking. The reason is that none of the questions in papers 2 and 3 have rigidly fixed answers, or more accurately: marks were not awarded on the basis of regurgitating very specific facts/pieces of information (this statement is less applicable paper 1 since the marking for Source-Based questions is more rigidly defined). For example, an essay question in paper 2 of “to what extent was Stalin’s state a totalitarian regime” would not require you to regurgitate a list of facts about Stalin’s regime and his political policies, where each additional fact raised would earn an extra mark. Making mention of the general details is required – for example, the essay on Stalin would probably not score high if it omitted his use of Soviet gulags, or made no reference to events after 1935. Beyond these basic facts, essays are graded holistically  – based on the strength of the argument, the depth of analysis, and understanding of “historiography” (i.e competing perspectives by historians). This form of grading encourages reading beyond the notes prepared by teachers (although these on their own are quite comprehensive and sufficient) and a culture of continuous learning. Teachers in school (or at least, those I had the privilege of being taught by) are also very happy to discuss new perspectives, supply students with additional readings, or do fun things like screen documentaries in class.

Personally I found this quite refreshing compared to the way other subjects in IB were taught. But this can be a bane if you aren’t particularly interested in history – since it means you have to read more material that you find irrelevant or of no immediate value.

A final, minor thing that I felt was odd about history was that the raw numerical values of marks were very low. The average score for a “good” HL class can hover around 60%. Typically grade boundaries for a 7 are about 65%. I have not personally seen a score higher than 77%, neither have I seen an essay score for Paper 2 higher than 16/20. I’m not sure why this is a case and why there exists a mythical 16-20 range if it is never utilized. What this means is that having what appears to be a bad score on a paper (e.g 18/40 for Paper 2) may not be that damaging if you take into account grade boundaries. Most people do in fact do better than they expect. Marks are just a number.

Q: What are some vital survival tips to studying history?

One thing I found helpful in navigating the History papers (1, 2 and 3) was to go through the booklet of past year questions (which should be provided by your teacher) and attempt to write outlines for questions that you think might appear challenging. In particular, IB sometimes has a tendency to set strange questions which do not fit within conventional molds (e.g ““Greedy, self-seeking and corrupt, she had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” To what extent is this a fair assessment of the Empress Dowager Cixi and her policies for China between 1870 and 1908?”). It’s useful to think about how you would approach these questions to get practice for answering unorthodox questions during an actual exam.

Another related but understated skill is learning how to understand the demands of the question and respond clearly. As mentioned, the vast majority of history questions are probably quite standard and classroom preparation should be sufficient to tackle them. However, occasionally a question with more nuanced and subtle demands is set, in which careful attention to detail is required. A good example is the Paper 3 question: “To what extent was the New Culture Movement (1915–1924), which included the 1919 May Fourth Movement, an intellectual revolution that changed the course of Chinese politics? (M13)” To give an above average answer, not only must candidates display a knowledge of the New Culture Movement, they must also address the dual question of why it was an “intellectual” revolution and how it “changed the course” of politics. This, of course, necessitates a clear definition of what “intellectual revolution” and “changed the course” means. A common source of frustration is getting sub-par marks in essays because of an inability to address the demands of the question, despite brilliant content knowledge.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, a good strategy if you want to aim high in IB History is to go slightly beyond the notes provided. Your teachers will probably point you in the right direction and recommend readings (e.g Richard Overy’s The Dictators, Immanuel Hsu’s The Rise of Modern China), and it helps if you spend at least a little time exploring the writings of historians. Note that IB rewards you for showing an understanding of different historiographical perspectives (not merely name-dropping famous historians!) so reading more may have direct benefits to your performance in exams.  If books are not your thing, there are plenty of good documentaries (e.g CNN’s series on the Cold War) that could supplement your reading.

Q: What are some vital survival tips to taking the History exam?

Don’t panic if you see a question that you don’t know about or can’t tackle – the scope of each IB History topic is quite broad, and our school doesn’t prepare us for all the possible questions under each topic (for example, we are not taught the subset of topics relating to the impact of historical events on media or gender roles). Chances are that there are at least 2 questions in paper 2 and 3 questions in paper 3 that you are able to attempt. For this reason, I have also been told that it’s unwise to deliberately not study difficult sub-topics that were taught, under the assumption that there will always be another option in the exam. I think the History department already does the fine-tuning and strategizing to ensure that they teach the right number of sub-topics – if you don’t study any of the sub-topics taught, you might not be able to answer 2 questions in paper 2/3 questions in paper 3.

Another understated skill in History papers is the ability to prioritize your points and state the most pertinent ones first. The thing is, history exams require you to write at an absolutely insane pace (especially paper 1). Unless you didn’t study any of our school’s notes, chances are you will always have more things to write than can be written down within the allotted time (paper 2 gives 45 minutes for each essay, for instance). Unless you can write at a crazy speed (I knew someone who could write one foolscap page in 8 (eight!) minutes) you probably will need to learn how to prioritize the more important points and arguments.

One thing I’m sure you’ve heard is that IB likes students who can evaluate contrasting arguments, not just list out factors and individual points. That’s definitely true, and you can’t progress into higher mark bands if you don’t show a way of evaluating arguments (e.g showing why one factor was more important than the rest or ultimately decisive). However, if you’re really pressed for time, demonstrating knowledge of the subject matter may take priority.

A final note. If you’ve come from Y3-4 IP, most of the exam skills learnt in History/IHS remain quite applicable. There are some peculiarities though that are just quirks of the secondary curriculum though: I remember that we were taught in IHS to insert these banal/meaningless/weird meta-cognitive statements as awkward appendices to the main body of our essay (cringe-worthy stuff like: “This essay about the fall of the Soviet Union may be inaccurate because I suffer from bias due to Singapore’s ideological commitment against communism,” or, “We must also be sympathetic to the concerns of such-and-such party due to such-and-such reason and not be quick to judge them”). When we did our first timed practice for a history HL essay in year 5, most of us IP kids ended up writing statements of this form at the end of essays, maybe out of habit. We ended up being told by our teacher in the next lesson, rightly so, that they were stupid.

Q: What are some vital survival skills for the History IA?

A: The History Internal Assessment constitutes 20% of your grade and is a research paper on a specific historical question that you want to investigate. I think the format is about to/has undergone fundamental changes so I don’t think I can offer specific advice. In general I think it’s a good idea to choose a topic that you are personally interested in (I mean, some part of history must interest you, right?) and demonstrate that you can evaluate an argument, beyond just reciting historical facts.

A thing that’s sort of good about History IAs is that it was often easy to score so long as you put in effort – marks were awarded for things like formatting, evaluating the Origin/Purpose/Content/Value/Limitation (OPCVL) of sources and so on. To me, the markers were also keen on crediting efforts at research and having a range of sources. I felt the marking was a lot less arbitrary than for other humanities components of IB – think of TOK where essay grades are unpredictable and you seem to be inconsistently rewarded for referencing things like “Ways of Knowing” which give it the pretense of a real, serious academic discipline (it isn’t).

Also, having accurate citations is very, very, unbelievably important.

Q: What’s one thing to look out for in history HL if you could turn back time?

A: I don’t think I have any big regrets about my journey studying History at IB. On the whole it was quite educational/fun/fulfilling. I think this is a common feeling – most people take history HL (or SL, even) because they think in some way history is interesting or enjoyable or informative. So I hope you have a good time, and you don’t feel like you’re studying history just to pass an exam or do well in an IA.

Arthur Lee graduated in 2015 from 6.18. He received the Subject Award in History HL in both 2014 and 2015.

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