A-level exam questions typically give you a clear steer on the approach to adopt when answering them, such as by giving you two opposing viewpoints to compare and contrast. Cambridge questions are usually much more open-ended, giving you the freedom to set your own agenda when writing a response. This will be difficult at first, but see it as a liberating experience; it is your chance to write a unique and personal response to the question.
However, you don't want to misread the question, or miss a really obvious dimension, so it is important when given a question to 'unpack' it and decide what it is really asking you. Consider the following:
Be sure you have recognised its chronological parameters
It is usually helpful to provide some context for your answer by outlining important issues of the day that may have a bearing on what you discuss. However, always keep such details concise and relevant and above all - be selective!
Are there any technical terms that need to be addressed?
Rather than listing other people's definitions of all key terms in the question, you need to define YOUR interpretation of any contentious words or phrases. For example, 'Feudalism'. You may also have to define your interpretation of concepts. In the example 'How successful was Edward I as a King?', use your introduction as the place to outline the definition of 'successful' that you will be using and expanding on in your essay.
Is there a historiographical debate lurking within the question?
If so, then you will be expected to throw yourself right into engagement with this disciplinary argument and show evidence of appropriate reading. Watch out for the current debates when you read. Don't assume that the most modern piece on a subject is the best one to use in an essay, but keep an eye on the date of any publication and organise your notes from reading around a subject so that you can track how the argument has unfolded. Look out for 'flash points' as a guide; why are these points contentious? Who agrees or disagrees with a particular interpretation of a subject? Exploring the development of a debate in this way in your essay will show that you have been able to follow the arguments and understand the change in 'the accepted view'.
Are there false assumptions or ambiguities in the title that need addressing?
If the question contains a false assumption or an ambiguous statement, then you need to say so quickly and clearly in your introduction. However, avoid picking holes in the question, just set out your intended interpretation of any grey area or state your correction of false statements as you outline how you will answer the question. See an ambiguous question as a gift, allowing you to more strongly define how you are going to answer!
Are you asked to 'discuss' a clear point of view?
Often questions set up a point of view to be tackled: "So and so was such and such. Discuss". This does mean 'discuss' rather than 'agree completely' or 'be as neutral as possible'.
Move beyond the kind of rigidly structured response that is commonly adopted at A Level. Presenting a list of all the points on which you agree followed by all the points of disagreement can weaken your argument; as does rigid agreement with the statement in the question. Your reader might interpret this as indecision on your part, or assume that you either haven't done the reading or are not capable of forming an opinion.
Questions that ask you to discuss are looking for you to hold and defend a position, an opinion on a subject. Use your introduction to briefly run through where you are heading and then you could try to get all of the difficult contrary opinions out of the way quickly (why did people think x? In your opinion, why are they wrong?) and then move onto your own opinion (agreement or disagreement with the statement in the question) and back it up with well-informed and well-formed argument.
We look at the skill of 'actively arguing' in a separate section.
Activity: question the question
'One big difference is that an A-level essay is usually your last word on a subject, following teaching; a supervision essay at Cambridge is your initial thoughts on a subject that you may not even have had lectures on'
With reference to this essay question: 'Were there any weaknesses in Edward III's system of government?' :
Make notes as you 'question the question' using these prompts:
- What are the chronological parameters of this question?
- Are there any terms that need to be clarified?
- Is there a historiographical debate?
- Are there any false assumptions or ambiguities?
- Are you asked to discuss a clear point of view?
Now click here to access Supervisor comments on the prompts above; but it is important that you attempt this exercise yourself first.