Effective formative essays – without marking every word

We know it is excellent practice for students to write formatively. The down side of course is the huge amount of marking that it creates if every week you have to mark every essay for every student for every class. Say goodbye to your weekend!

For senior classes who need to practise handwriting essays under time constraints in preparation for exams, I get them to write formative essays quite regularly but tell them that I am only going to focus on one or two of the following aspects – and they are absolutely NOT going to be getting ‘a mark’ – they will get comments.

  • Introduction
  • Topic sentences
  • Plan (and adherence to it)
  • Specific historical information / examples
  • Historiography
  • Highlight each place where you used key words from the question
  • Highlight / comment where you tried to improve based on comments from last week
  • Referencing
  • Bibliography – format, academic, used in text etc.

The other way of marking essays is peer marking. Using the criteria used in the exam, get students in groups of 3-4 to mark and comment on each others’, then give feedback. This one is best done with prior warning: it is a great incentive for a little bit more attention if they know their peers will be seeing it. And they are often far more critical on things like handwriting than we ever are! Only after they have had some experience in marking work they are not emotionally invested in do I get them to mark and comment on their own.

As far as questions go, again I structure it from me giving the specific question, to ‘come up with an appropriate question on …’ until towards the end of the course it is even less structured ‘These are the syllabus requirements: you give me a plan of what and when you will be writing essays and what aspect you want me to look at.’

What I am aiming for is a self-sufficiency that will see them able to construct a study plan for when they are at university and the ability to be self-critical. Of course, the last few revision weeks before exams I will mark and comment on everything that they submit.

I hope this gets your students working, and gives you some spare time!

History topics that are ‘overdone’ by students each year

This is my (edited) response to a question on the IBO’s ‘Online Curriculum Centre’ History Forum, asking if the question ‘To what extent was the dropping of the atomic bombs necessary for a U.S. victory in the Pacific War?’ was ‘overdone’.

I understand teachers’/examiners’ complaints about certain topics being ‘overdone’, but I think it misses the fundamental aspect of teaching: each year a new cohort is introduced to content that is new to them. And so what to us is the same old boring questions about WWII or Nazis or Cold War are for each new cohort of students the fundamental questions that they want to get their heads around. Perhaps it is time we started offering other aspects of history beyond military/political – or choose to offer topics that we have not taught for the last twenty years. It seems to me that we still offer a very (western European) Cold War-centric understanding of twentieth century history. Is it because it is the most important (as defined how/when?), it is what most of us were initially trained in or have taught for years, or it makes sense of the present?

Of the OP’s question (and most ‘overdone’ questions) I think that it can be answered simply by a younger years student or in can be answered in a great deal of depth with research, drawing connections between events and decisions and the use of primary documents which provide the rationale for the decisions: which should be the difference between a 10 or a 22 for the IA, not whether the examiner has seen the question before.

I struggle with the concept that students need to come up with something original – they are final year high school students doing 6 subjects, plus TOK & EE, not PhD students dedicating four years to one tiny subset of one area of one subject area.

I also think that we mark far too hard – surely someone else out there thinks 67% for a 7 is a joke – and we expect too much from teenagers to produce in a forty-five minute exam essay. I am absolutely for academic rigour, but not to the point where the IB cannot give exemplars of what a 25 for an IA looks like or examiners at subject workshops have only ever seen 16/20 for essays.

For all the rhetoric of creating inquirers, risk takers and problem solvers, we do not encourage it (in either teachers or students) when it comes to putting university entrance on the line.

A good IA should be able to stand on its own, whether the question appears every year or not: it is this student’s first foray into the topic even if the examiner has seen it 1000 times.

Niall Ferguson: Britain should have stayed out of WWI in 1914

A Facebook friend tagged me to a link of the historyextra.com preview and asked my thoughts. I had too many to thumb out on my phone, and I’ve been meaning to get this blog going for a little while, and it’s Chinese New Year here in Singapore, so I had some time. The perfect storm for Blog Post No 1:

Harvard Uni’s British historian Niall Ferguson has claimed in an interview with BBC History Magazine that Britain should have stayed out of World War I in 1914 until it could do so “on its own terms”.

Of course, the headlines have it shortened to, “Britain should have stayed out of First World War” (BBC History Magazine, The Independent etc.) although to be fair others have highlighted the much less contentious “biggest error in modern/its history” (eg The Guardian, The Australian).  I have refrained from reading other responses so that I can express my own views first, then I’ll link a few at the end.

I don’t have a subscription to BBC History Magazine or its online historyextra.com so I haven’t read the full article but the free preview’s first seven paragraphs should give the general gist of Ferguson’s thesis:

  • Britain could have lived with an initial German victory
  • It was in its interests to not get sucked into the war until it was ready
  • It should have played to its strengths (ie Navy) until it was ready to fight a land war
  • You can pay too high a price for honour (ie honouring the Treaty of London to defend Belgian neutrality).

I know I am a no one publishing his first blog article versus a Harvard professor, but what the hell: Ferguson is giving a simplistic, naïve, anachronistic view that has rarely been raised in a near-century of analysis because it is so obviously a case of imperfect hindsight. (It is giving him some publicity though…)

I don’t think there is any question of any British government not honouring its obligations, especially at the height of Empire. This is the country that spawned the term “It’s not cricket” to explain why the laws of the game and gentlemanly conduct are more important than winning and this applies to statecraft as well, old chap. At the same time, however, Britain was keen to ensure the status quo in European power. It is certain that the UK paid a much higher price than they expected, given the war was not “over by Christmas” but what is impossible to ascertain is the cost had Germany been able to establish a hegemony in Europe. Despite the headlines, Ferguson is not suggesting that Britain stay out of this for ever, but just not send the underprepared British Expeditionary Force in 1914.

It would be interesting to read the full explanation but I doubt the use of the Royal Navy, as dominant as it was, would have been much of a factor at all if Germany was allowed to run rampant through western Europe. Indeed, with the French countryside under German rule, the impact of the naval blockade that contributed so successfully to limiting the German food supply could well have been neutralised. With a belligerent Germany ruling western Europe, there would have been no exports to the UK nor friendly suppliers once they decided to eventually send in the army. And as the United States have found out multiple times since, you will not win without boots on the ground no matter how good your technological dominance.

Could Britain have launched D-Day almost thirty years earlier than it did – probably without the support of the United States? If Britain had stayed out of the war, then US shipping to the UK would not have been attacked without risking bringing both powers into the conflict. So Britain would have needed to launch a sea-borne invasion that in August 1914 it was absolutely not prepared for. How long would it have taken to design and build a landing fleet big enough to land enough troops to establish a beachhead against an established force? Could this have ever been successful? There is a big difference between ferrying hundreds of thousands of troops to functioning ports versus launching an invasion.

What was not mentioned in the opening paragraphs of the article (and perhaps crucial to Ferguson’s premise – but surely would have been mentioned if Ferguson raised it) was the impact of the loss of World War I – and the hated Treaty of Versailles – on German politics post-war. Could Britain have established a diplomatic relationship with a ‘Greater Germany’? The monarchs of both were cousins and in the real politik of international relations it is not unfeasible that the Germans would have been quickly forgiven and trade reestablished. In this scenario, it is difficult to see not only the rise of the National Socialist German Workers Party’s popularity, but probably even Hitler’s membership in it.

So, with the benefit of one hundred years of hindsight, we can come up with whatever conclusion we like. At the time, however, the British Government was concerned with not allowing a seismic change in European power and was diplomatically obligated, but knew 1914 was their best chance to limit German aggression.

Other opinions:

The other side of the debate in BBC History Magazine, Gary Sheffield argues that Britain realised that worse than war was a German victory, borne out in its treatment of occupied territory in Belgium and France.

The Australian offers a range of reactions, including 75% of British food imports would have been lost and that British foreign policy for centuries had been to ensure no one nation created a European empire.

Most of the other pieces I found seem to be mostly a rehash of the free preview of the original article.