Historical Concepts and National Examinations: Have O-Level Structured-Essay Questions Encouraged the Teaching of Historical Concepts?, pp. 5 of 10

The assessment section of the 2007 O-Level History syllabus is similar to the 2001 syllabus.  The following description of the SEQs can be found in the assessment section of the 2007 syllabus: “Each structured-essay question comprises two sub-questions.  The two sub-questions will test candidates’ ability to explain, analyse and make judgements on events and/or issues” (Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board [SEAB], 2013, p. 4).  Much like the 2001 syllabus, this description pointed to events as one of the major focal points for the questions.  Once again it seemed that students were expected to know how and why historical events occurred, and that they were supposed to be able to make judgements about these events (and issues).  While there was a change in question rigour after the release of the 2007 syllabus, the questions remained focused on causation.

The analysis of the SEQs from 2002-2012 seemed to show that causation was privileged above other second-order historical concepts. Two possible reasons may have accounted for such a preference. First, as the assessment guidelines required students to demonstrate ability to interpret and/or assess events, question setters may have focused on cause and effect, as well as consequence, because all events in history have causes and effects that can be studied.  Second, the examination board might have ignored non-causation types of questions as they viewed them unnecessary in light of the fact that second-order historical concepts were not identified as assessment objectives, nor were they explicitly described in the assessment sections of the 2001 and 2007 syllabi.

However, it is interesting to note that the question design appeared to suggest that the examination board may not have interpreted causation as limited only to causes or effects.  For example, while each of the following questions could be said to have causation as a reference point, each one assessed students on a different variation or permutation (that varied according to the nature of questions) that tested students’ understanding of causation in history.

As the examples in the table show, questions that dealt with causation did not focus solely on broad factors that led to the occurrence of historical events.  For example, the question from the 2007 examination asked, “‘The main reason why Communism failed in the Soviet Union was Gorbachev’s weak leadership.’  How far do you agree with this statement?  Explain your answer.”  This question connected the reasons for the failure of Communism (causation) with the agency of Gorbachev as a historical actor.  In order to answer the question, students would have had to consider not only the main causes for the failure of Communism in the USSR, but also how much of a role Gorbachev played in the failure.  To do this well, students would have needed to determine what power and influence Gorbachev had over the events of his day, and this would have had the potential to significantly deepen their understanding of causation because the question went above and beyond simply asking students to explain the reasons for the failure of Communism in the USSR. The other examples in the table illustrate questions with similar potential to extend students’ understanding of causation.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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