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A quick scan of the history in-box shows that this is a question that has come up quite a lot recently, and in fact that’s nothing new. Examiner Reports for the legacy A Level on several occasions highlighted turning point questions as an area of difficulty for some candidates, and offered some advice (eg June 2014 p60 and June 2011 p49). In essence, what many teachers are wondering is summed up by this one query from a Head of History in York – “I've seen a turning points example which went through different turning points with one paragraph on each turning point, considering themes within each paragraph. Does this sound to you as though it could work without it easily turning to chronology?”. Let’s call that approach (a).The alternative, of course, would be to do the reverse: to structure the answer around themes, and consider turning points within those. We’ll call that approach (b).
So, which approach is right? The answer, as with everything in history, is inevitably that there is no single correct way, but that there are strengths and weaknesses. This blog will consider some of those.
Whereas the first of those two points would strongly seem to encourage adopting approach (b), the second could arguably be seen to favour approach (a). (It might be worth pointing out at this stage that the answer is not simply to avoid turning point questions altogether: students answer two from three questions, and there could easily be two turning point questions set for their topic. We also don’t think that turning point questions should be seen as any more or less difficult than the other question types for unit 3.)
Let’s consider the question, How far do you agree that the abdication of Nicholas II in February 1917 was the most important turning-point in the development of Russian government in the period from 1855 to 1964?
Under approach (a), the student will start (hopefully!) with the abdication, and analyse that as a turning point. Subsequent paragraphs will be on other ‘turning points’ eg the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, the 1905 Revolution, the October Revolution of 1917, Stalin’s rise to power or Stalin’s death in 1953 and replacement by Khrushchev by 1956, and a conclusion reached about which is the most important. And that would be fine – at least in theory, and with some ifs and buts. Is the student on a train rather than a helicopter (sorry for trotting that analogy out again), in effect writing a unit 1 or 2 period study style essay – in other words, where is the synthesis? Well it could be there, of course: if having established for a given turning point its relative importance, they also compare with other turning points, in order to maintain the helicopter’s eye view. We’ve seen this done well, but also it can become messy or repetitive, and control of the material is lost. More often, however, synthesis simply isn’t present.
Whereas approach (b) leads more naturally into synthesis. The abdication is considered in terms of its importance for the sub-themes of aspects of Russian government such as (eg) reform and repression, the fate of opposition, changes in ideology, the one party state and the absence of democracy across the period. The rest of the essay takes those sub-themes as the basis for its structure, and considers continuities and changes arising from certain events for each. This naturally leads to a conclusion that answers the question, allowing a developed synthesis supporting a convincing and substantiated judgement (just as the mark scheme requires).
We’ve recently been demo-ing sample answers at our network events (if you haven’t seen ones for your topic, and you’d like to, please email us at email@example.com), and I’ve been using this opening paragraph as an example of an effective approach to turning points. It’s for German Nationalism, and you can tell what the question is, and the approach the essay is going to take from the opening sentences:
It would be difficult to dispute the importance of Bismarck’s appointment as minister president of Prussia in 1862. In less than ten years Germany had been unified and there is little doubt that he had a profound impact on the events of 1862-70. However, although he had a considerable impact on the political and military development of Germany, he had far less impact on either its cultural or economic development and therefore, although his appointment was a significant turning point it was not the most important in all areas of German development.
So my advice to that teacher in York was that either approach can satisfy the mark scheme’s requirements, but she was correct to have the concern that a turning point by turning point essay runs the risk of an overly chronological, and synthesis-free, analysis. It can be a valid approach, but it is probably not the most natural one for this task, especially given that students have probably only 40 minutes writing time for their essays. It is a thematic unit and it may be simpler to let that fact dictate the approach to turning point essays too.
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Mike Goddard - Subject Specialist - History
Mike is a history subject specialist and has worked at OCR on the history portfolio since 2007. Previously he has held roles at Cambridge International Examinations and for an educational publisher. Mike has a degree in Economic and Social History from the University of York and a Masters in Modern History from UCL. In his spare time he enjoys crosswords and snooker.