How to improve student answers in the Thematic Study

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In this second contribution by the Secret Examiner, they explore how teachers could help pupils improve their answers in the Thematic Study. We need to focus more on the meaning of those factors that are highlighted in the spec. This is a really thoughtful and insightful short article for all who want to see an improvement in student exam responses.

We talk a lot in the Thematic Studies about factors and how they operate in various ways over time to produce changes.

In some examination papers the factors are explicitly referred to. In others they are implied.

The evidence of students’ responses in exams is that there is often a weakness in student understanding of some factors and how they relate to their knowledge. 

What I mean is that the students rarely explain fully how the example they know, demonstrates the factor.

Perhaps we use factors such as government, or the individual etc rather too glibly in the classroom. We assume too much. 

The Role of the Individual

Let me give you an example. Take the “role of the individual” – student answers will usually refer to what someone did. But what does the role of the individual mean?

It means that we look for the unique or special contribution that an individual makes. This can often be expressed briefly. But it is not simply what they did. 

So, for example, in student answers about Fleming and penicillin, we often see a description of Fleming and his mouldy petri dish.

However, what is special about Fleming is that he was known for his precise, meticulous work and observations.

Someone else might not have noticed that something in the dish was killing the mould, or thought it worthy of further investigation. This was Fleming’s unique contribution. 

But, left to Fleming, we would not have mass-produced penicillin. We would need to look at the unique contribution of Howard Florey. He took the initiative to look for bacteria-killing substances.

That in itself is inspired, but when he found one that looked promising, such as penicillin, he had the courage to devote (during wartime) the resources of his university laboratory to researching only one substance.

Rather than provide a narrative of the discovery of penicillin when asked about the role of the individual, it would be better if students showed they understood what it was that nobody else did or could have done that matters, and to identify the unique abilities or contribution of the individual.

The Role of Government

Another example is what students make of Government as a factor.

Answers about public health, usually involve lists of Acts of Parliament, particularly those of the 19th Century.

Many students assume that these implicitly demonstrate the action of government. But what is unique about government as a factor?

Governments have power, authority and resources. Do we tell them explicitly this is what the factor is about? In their studies can they find it in the history?

Few students when asked about government, refer to the government of a medieval monastery or town.

Here, there was an Abbot or Mayor who had power and authority to make rules or laws which tried to control behaviour.

Both the Abbot or Mayor had access to money or resources which could make things happen. In short – they governed.

Similarly, in the 19th Century with the frequently cited 1848 and 1875 Public Health Acts, students would be better advised to explain how government had the authority to pass laws that affected everyone, and the ability to enforce them through the courts.

Government had resources that could be used, for example, after the Great Stink of 1858 to pay for the rebuilding of the sewers of London.

It is only a short step to link a little more explanation of the factor, explicitly, to what the student knows, to show a deeper grasp of how it affected change.

The factor that students assume is obvious is “Science and Technology”. Science and Technology are different things. Coupling them together so easily and frequently may make it difficult for students to grasp or remember this.

History Resource Cupboard KS3

Students may give an example of science in medicine but rarely follow it with an example of the technology that resulted from it. There is an opportunity here to show two pieces of knowledge as well as understanding.

It is rare to see in examination answers, students who recognise drugs or chemicals as technology. Yet the use of antiseptics is a chemical technology, and the development of penicillin as a mass-produced drug, was a great example of pharmaceutical technology.

Another feature of student answers is how little students understand scientific method … despite spending far more time being taught science than they are history!

If you don’t believe me, ask them to explain to you what “scientific method” is!

I am sure they will tell you it’s about “doing experiments”. Scientific method involves observation of phenomena, hypothesis, design of an experiment to test the hypothesis, the running of the experiment, and the recording of results leading to a conclusion.

The important point about this, is that it is repeatable. Do our students know that? Can we ask students to apply that model of scientific methodology to some of the medical history they studied?

Does it work for Jenner and vaccination or for Joseph Lister and antiseptics? It certainly can be used for Louis Pasteur and Germ theory.

And then how does it relate to technology? In writing about the impact of Science or Technology it is important to give examples but not to leave implicit how they led to change.

So, it might be useful in the classroom if we did not assume that because the students understand the words (Government, Science and so on) they also understand completely the action of that factor to produce change.

We might spend a little more time probing, pushing the students to understand the special way in which a particular factor works.

In the examination, encourage them to forego narrative for one or two sharper sentences that explain precisely, the unique way their chosen example demonstrates the action of a factor.

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