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How to answer questions effectively in Leaving Cert History

June 8, 2016

Leaving Cert History. How to answer questions effectively.

Get better prepared for your Leaving Cert History exam

Leaving Cert History can be quite confusing.  Here, the student is expected to know off by heart a lot of information about a historical topic, figure, movement, or period. 

While knowing the facts is a must, it is also extremely important that students take the time to read the question carefully and properly. In my experience as a History teacher, it is very common for students to lose a lot of marks by actually misreading – and then mis-answering - the question that they are asked! A student might write a brilliant, factually correct essay on the ‘role of women in the Irish literary revival’, but that student might get minimal marks because that is not what the question actually asked them to do!



Therefore, answering the question correctly is extremely important, and of equal importance is actually ‘reading’ the question properly. This might sound silly or obvious, but it is surprising how many Leaving Certificate students lose a lot of marks not because their information is inaccurate, but because they actually misread the question! Therefore, if you want to do well in your history exam, it is worth taking some time to pay attention to the smaller things that might make a huge difference to your grade! This section focuses on reading questions carefully, understanding questions correctly, and answering properly.   

Questions in Leaving Cert History, regardless of what examination paper you are writing from, or what level you are studying at, will ask you to do one of two things, depending on what question of section you are answering. You will be asked to examine and use evidence from a source to form an opinion or answer a question about a historical issue/topic/person etc., (you will need to justify your opinion by the way) OR you will be asked to recall what you have learned about a topic, and use that information to form the basis of an answer/argument. So to take the example of the Later Modern Irish History again, what if you were asked a question like ‘how did the threat and use of physical force affect Ireland during the period 1912-1923?’ That particular question was asked in the 2012 Higher Level History Paper II, but how do we answer such a question?

Well, first things first, you need to ‘understand’ or ‘figure-out’ what the question actually wants you to do: with a question like this, the buzz-words like ‘violence’, ‘threat’, ‘Ireland’ are very misleading, and they might cause you to slip into writing an wonderful essay about the causes of the Easter Rising or about Padraic Pearse’s ideas ‘Blood Sacrifice’, but that is not what the question is asking! This normally happens because of panic or stress on the day of the exam or the sheer mental exhaustion of the Leaving Cert in general. Mis-reading a question can certainly happen, it is a real possibility, and it is definitely something to be careful of. So, how do we avoid it, and answer the question properly and get the maximum amount of marks?


Well, it’s actually very simple. First, you should take two minutes at the start of the exam to read the paper, and then identify the key-words in the question: this can be demonstrated here by underlining and/or highlighting the key words in the 2012 Higher L. Paper II question: ‘how did the threat and use of physical force affect Ireland during the period 1912-1923’. Use a highlighter, a different coloured biro, circle or underline the key-words, place an asterisk beside them – whatever works best for you - but however you do it make sure that you separate those key words from the question!  Identifying the key words in this manner allows you to get to the core of the question, and figure out what the question is actually asking.

In the question I have chosen, you are basically being asked to examine instances where force was used and threatened,  and how this affected Ireland. “That’s easy”, you might say, but be careful: there is a pit-fall in this question that might be easy to overlook:  notice the presence of the word “AND”? You are being asked to examine the ‘threat AND use’ of force. It is no good talking about the threat OR the use of force, i.e., one or the other: you need to discuss an example of each in order to answer the question properly and fully and get full marks. 

Granted, 1912-1923 is a period of 11 years, and a lot happened during that time: Ireland had the Home Rule Bill, WWI and Irish neutrality, the Easter Rising, the partitioning of Ireland, the partitioning of Ireland, the Civil War, and the assassination of Michael Collins, to name but a few! Therefore you need to narrow your answer down and make decisions about what to include in you answer and what to leave out.  

Good decision making is a very important technique for getting high marks: successful students make good decisions. Therefore, be sensible and confident in your own decision: remember, you don’t have a lot of time in an exam – the time really does fly. Do not dwell too long on what to leave in or take out: make your decision and move forward into answering the question.  In this case, you need to include (at least) one example of direct physical force (the Easter Rising, 1916 perhaps,) AND (at least) one example of the threat of force (Britain’s threat of open war to the Treaty Delegation, for example). You should then explain how each event affected Ireland politically/socially/economically. In other words, what happened during/after each event that had a significant effect on the Irish people or on the country itself? Once you have the question figured out, everything else will fall into place.

In order to get marks you need to answer the questions – that’s a no-brainer! But what many people forget is that to order to get the most marks, you need to answer the question properly. This means reading the question carefully and properly, identifying the key words, and knowing exactly what the question wants before you answer it… Take your time and pay attention to the small things: this will give you an enormous advantage in any exam situation, especially leaving cert history


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