How should we assess History*?

*Or, ‘All Roads Lead to the Dissertation’.

Its exam marking time so assessment is on everybody’s mind at the moment – but how often do we stop to consider the forms of assessment we offer, its purpose, and its actual suitability for the discipline of history?

How much time do we spend explaining to students exactly why we assess them in the way that we do?


“Computer says Fact = True: First Class”

A brief Google search for ‘history assessment university’ brings up quite a range of assessment practices in UK institutions, some of which I am unfamiliar with. There seems to be a lot of similar practice, though, and most departments around the country still have the ‘essay + exam’ at the heart of the History degree.


Here are some of the most common assessment techniques (not counting short fact exams worth about 10% of an overall unit grade, presumably to check that we are actually learning some history, or course ‘diaries’ designed to ensure regular attendance/engagement with seminars and lectures):

The Essay: usually 2-3000 words in length, in response to a question set either by the assessor or the student themselves. The basic purpose of the essay is to assess the student’s broad comprehension of a topic, the specific issues raised by the question, and to see whether the student is able to turn their broad mass of knowledge into a coherent and convincing response to that question.

The Exam: usually 2 or 3 hours, answering one question per hour from a choice of 8-10. This tests the student’s ability not just to learn a heap of material, but to rapidly organise and synthesise that material in response to a previously-unseen question. The beauty of the exam is that it forces a person to develop an opinion (sometimes an opinion they didn’t previously know they had!) and then to go about substantiating it.

The Book Review, or Review Essay: Sometimes short at about 1000-1500 words, occasionally longer at about 3000. The purpose here is to turn focus on the historian herself, and force a consideration of their approaches, methods, and impact. Why and how do historians do what they do, and how has this changed across many generations and different intellectual/political/cultural contexts?

The Gobbet: A swift deconstruction of a primary source or source extract, usually only 500-750 words. This places the focus on the ‘raw material’ of the historian’s trade. A gobbet response includes things like: the context in which a source was produced; its content and reliability; how it has been used by historians and for what purpose. Of all assessment methods, gobbets are a particularly great way of testing historical knowledge.

The Presentation: This can be research-oriented, and can be done as an individual or a group. The main point, though, is in how history is communicated. How do we explain our topic to a field of ‘learned non-specialists’, while also pointing out our own contributions, thoughts, research, and their value?


There is a reason why I’ve left the biggest and most well-known one until the end.

The Research Essay/Dissertation: Often c. 4-6000 words for the former, 9-12000 words for the latter. An extended piece of research which contains a bit of everything mentioned so far. The author has to identify a suitable area for research, a cache of usable primary sources, an appropriate method for their scrutiny. They must demonstrate competency in the way those sources are handled, while at the same time constructing an argument that contributes something to existing scholarship. How does this piece of research build upon our present understanding, what does it do differently, and why should anybody care? Not only is the dissertation a test of organisation and the ability to work consistently across an extended period of time, its also a test of our ability to revise and nuance our initial ideas as we go along – without creating a messy and confusing final product.

The dissertation was not the culmination of my own undergraduate degree – a year long, 60 credit Special Topic took that role (how very Rankean!). At my own institution, the dissertation firmly rules the roost. What I have learned is not that one form of assessment is ‘better’ than another, but that history instructors should be clear to their students about what the overall purpose of their degree is: what kind of thinker will you be after 3/4 years of study and assessment?

We all know the power of a good story so we should strive, I think, to tell a blooming good one about the degrees we offer. They need to be going somewhere. Wherever it is that they are going, the direction of travel needs to be clearly mapped out, and we need to be able to explain the actual point of doing essays, exams, gobbets, presentations, and so on, along the way.

“By writing an essay, you are developing and demonstrating these sets of skills. This supplements the skills you picked up in your examinations and presentations. You will require all your experience by the time you come to do your Special Topic/Dissertation – because X, Y, Z – and then you will be an historian in your own right”

The risk we always face is that the history degree becomes about grade counting, where marks are desired for their own sake, rather than for what they represent. If we can do a good job of explaining why we do what we do – and not just because we are sadistic and love classifying people according to abstract criteria – then we are more likely to succeed at helping a new generation of bright sparks discover their own value for themselves.

The beauty of this approach, I would argue, is that it makes the whole historian the main selling point after graduation. ‘I can do this job because I am an historian’, rather than ‘I can do this job because I wrote some essays once’.




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