History: putting it together

Extended writing piece: historical discussion essay  

Historical discussion essays incorporate an analysis of a range of viewpoints and interpretations on often contested historical issues. They examine viewpoints based on the interpretation of evidence, rather than on unsubstantiated opinion. 

Students are required to locate and analyse a range of sources of evidence. This will include primary and secondary sources in a range of modes and genres.

Examples of possible sources used in historical discussion essays are:

  • Textbooks
  • Websites
  • Material objects in museum collections
  • Letters
  • Newspapers
  • Cartoons
  • Paintings
  • Sculptures
  • Government documents
  • Narrative accounts

Subject-specific terminology

Before beginning to write a historical discussion essay it is essential to introduce students to key vocabulary.

For example, when writing about Australia's involvement in World War 1, an understanding of terms such as conscription, military alliance, nationalism, propaganda is necessary to analyse and evaluate sources and articulate an argument.

Analysing and evaluating sources

After gathering a range of relevant sources students need to

  • identify the source
  • identify the creator
  • determine if the source is primary or secondary
  • consider the purpose for which the source was created e.g. propaganda poster to encourage enlistment
  • consider the intended audience for the source e.g. a letter from a soldier in the trenches to his mother
  • evaluate the influence of audience and purpose on the content, tenor and medium of the source
  • consider the possible bias to assess reliability and significance

An example of a historical discussion topic might be:

World War 1 helped Australia to develop a national identity. Discuss this statement using evidence from a range of primary and secondary sources. 

Historical discussion essay structure

Students should use the historical discussion essay structure outline below to help plan and organise their ideas, and to write the first draft of their discussion.

Students can then edit their drafts themselves, or engage in peer editing (see 'Peer editing process' in the English section of the Toolkit).

Introduction

  • The essay is written in the third person.
  • The Introductory paragraph introduces the topic and the main issues to be discussed.
  • Introduces subject-specific vocabulary.
  • Indicates the meaning of key terms in the topic e.g. national identity
  • Introduces the context of the topic. e.g. When did World War 1 occur? What was Australian society like at the time?

Main body

  • Includes a series of paragraphs which outline, analyse and evaluate a range of arguments and interpretations supported by evidence.
  • Each paragraph begins with a topic sentence which indicates the main idea to be explored in the paragraph.
  • Subject-specific terminology used in the topic sentence should be defined. 
  • The topic sentence is then supported and unpacked in the paragraph.
  • A historical discussion essay generally follows this structure
    • Paragraph 1 summarises the main evidence supporting one aspect of the argument. In this paragraph, the student needs to indicate whether sources are

      • primary or secondary,
      • visual or textual,
      • by whom they were written,
      • when and for what purpose and audience.

      Example sentence: According to several primary sources, World War 1 was an opportunity for young men from Australia to seek adventure.

    • Paragraph 2 summarises evidence from sources which provide divergent arguments.

      Example sentence starter: There are several other sources, however, which provide evidence that…

    • Paragraph 3 analyses sources regarding validity, reliability and bias.

      Example sentence starters: When we use these sources of evidence, we need to be aware that some are quite biased because …; Source A is not as reliable as source B because …

    • Note: Each paragraph in the body of the essay include a topic sentence with elaborations (such as an explanation, analysis and discussion).
  • Below are examples of connectives students can use to:
    • explain the evidence
      • The two letters are written in warmly and anecdotally because the soldiers wrote them to their mothers. In contrast, the newspaper articles referred to are accounts of victories in battles.
    • discuss evidence
      • The evidence in the primary sources discussed strongly suggests that some young men joined up in World War 1 as a result of propaganda posters.
    • analyse evidence
      • Whereas several of the diary entries talk about fighting for country and Empire, equally many entries record accounts of great suffering and disillusionment.
    • evaluate evidence
      • Although several of the primary and secondary sources discussed in this essay provide evidence of a new and developing sense of identity for Australia as a nation, it can be argued, based on other sources, that ties to the British Empire were still very strong.

    Conclusion

    • Draws together key ideas from the analysis and evaluation in the body of the essay.
    • Includes a clear statement of the writer's position supported by evidence from the sources discussed.
    • The conclusion should be written in the third person. For example:

    The evidence suggests …; Based on an analysis of this evidence it can be argued that …

    Footnotes and references

    • It is a convention in History writing to use footnotes or endnotes, not in-text citations.
    • All sources must be cited. The reference list should only include material which the author has read and referred to. 
    • Teachers should explicitly teach the reference style used in their school.
      • Chicago is a preferred citation style for History. It uses notes and a bibliography.
      • Harvard is a different citation style that uses author-date in-text citations and a bibliography.
      • Note: Whatever reference style students use, they should be consistent in its use.

    (Adapted from Oxford Big Ideas 8 p. 384; Oxford Big Ideas 9 p. 247; Oxford Big Ideas 10 p. 305.)

    Curriculum link for the above example: VCHHC101.

    References 

    Carrodus, G., Delany, T., & Howitt, B. (2016). Oxford big ideas history 10, South Melbourne, Vic.: Oxford University Press. 

    Carrodus, G., & Smith, R. (2016). Oxford big ideas history 9, South Melbourne, Vic.: Oxford University Press. 

    Saldais, M., & Smith, R. (2016). Oxford big ideas history 8, South Melbourne, Vic.: Oxford University Press.