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'When historians offer contrasting interpretations of events or processes or sources, it can be tempting simply to put this down to 'bias'. This may be true, but it is rarely sufficient. One reason for such disagreements among historians can be that they are referring to different pieces, bodies, or even categories of evidence'

You also need to balance knowledge and argument - what facts you know and what argument you are trying to build on top of them.

Move beyond just demonstrating what you know to deploying this knowledge effectively in pursuit of a convincing argument. Whereas previously you are likely to have been credited for including everything you know on a topic, at university level this suggests that you were not able to select what will advance your argument from extraneous material. You are expected to take greater control of the material here and present a more authoritative argument.

The information you gather will give you possible lines of approach to the question as well as the supporting evidence. The more of both that you can gather, the better, but do choose and refine the most effective material for your purpose. The evidence should underpin your argument not overwhelm it, so you should introduce your points before referring to other material.

How much evidence do I need to refer to?

How much supporting evidence to use is up to you. One really good example might be enough, or you could use two or three examples from slightly different perspectives (if you can find them and they are all strong). In the latter case, that difference - and its implications - can provide an elegant springboard to your next point.

How much knowledge can I assume of my reader?

Students often ask how much they need to tell the reader (who could be assumed to know all this already). This question rests on a misunderstanding. Your essay is not about imparting facts but answering a question in your own voice with your own interpretation of the facts. Factual information earns its place (or not) by the contribution it makes to that process.

An extreme form of fact-driven structure is narrative. It is difficult to stop once you have started and the argument can then only emerge from the story piecemeal. This is especially problematic when you are under pressure of time in an examination. Drawing attention to change across time should be done within its own paragraph/ section of an unfolding argument.


Activity: constructing a convincing argument

Students often ask how much evidence is 'enough' to support the claims they make within an argument. You might make your point with one strong piece of compelling evidence or you might build up to a convincing case by referencing several sources. It is more a question of impact than quantity.

This exercise asks you to select from a list of possible evidence in support of a particular argument. Choose from the following two subjects:


Decide which of the following examples of evidence you would refer to in an essay. Attempt this yourself first before accessing the supervisor's feedback below:

1) It is argued that there is compelling evidence of very high population creating pressure on resources in parts of England in the late 1200s. To mount this case (and remember the case does not need to be absolutely proven!), would one of the following suffice or do you need to combine more than one? If the latter, which would you deploy?

  1. high rents on land
  2. low wages
  3. cultivation of less suitable soils for arable crops
  4. high death rates

2) Edward II, deposed in 1327. If you were seeking to mount the argument that he was a tyrant in the 1320s, would one or more of the following be needed?

  1. Arbitrary seizure of lands and property of a number of his subjects
  2. murder of political enemies 
  3. appointment of partisan sheriffs
  4. those who deposed him accused him of tyranny

Now click here to access the Supervisor's feedback on the examples above.


Modern (20th c.)

Exercise 1

Historians disagree about the reasons for and nature of Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin’s dominance of British politics between 1923 and 1937. Some, notably Ross Mckibbin, argue that his success was manipulating fear of socialism to persuade a large bloc of the new democratic electorate to support policies that favoured narrow, middle-class interests. If you wished to refute this argument, which of the following points would best support your case?

  1. Conservatives won support from a broad range of voters, winning many urban industrial seats throughout the 1920s and 1930s
  2. Conservative propaganda frequently emphasised positive reforms with a broad appeal – such as social housing, improved pensions, industrial protection – not just anti-socialism and spending cuts
  3. Labour politicians rarely spoke of ‘socialism’ in the 1920s – their focus was on proving the party ‘fit to govern’ and winning the voters of former radical Liberals
  4. Throughout the 1920s local Conservative activists complained that anti-socialism was not enough – they needed concrete policies to neutralise Labour’s appeal with working-class voters
  5. Baldwin’s appeal eschewed class feeling, explicitly emphasised the place of all social groups and interests in the new democratic polity, and insisted that protective trade tariffs, not socialism, was the key to improved living standards for all.

Exercise 2

Historians disagree about the timing and the meaning of falling church attendance in modern Britain. Some argue that ‘secularisation’ is exaggerated, that people can ‘believe’ without belonging to an organised religion. Which of the following points would best help sustain this argument?

  1. Broadly the same proportion of the population say they believe in God and in an afterlife today as in the first opinion surveys conducted in the 1930s
  2. Very few people are buried without religious rites being performed – faced by death most Britons still turn to God for consolation
  3. Attendance has flourished in new, evangelical Christian movements and also among non-Christian faith groups, many of them descendants of post-war immigrants
  4. In the past Church attendance often said little about belief – for many social conformity or need of charity demanded attendance (e.g. servants would be obliged to attend)
  5. Work on poor districts of London between the wars has shown that low levels of Church attendance could be compatible with a strong sense of conforming to a code of Christian beliefs and practices – especially in relation to personal morality

Now click here to access Supervisor's comments on the exercises above, but you should attempt these exercises yourself first and consider how this guidance applies to essays you have written or are currently working on.