Good historians have to be able to weigh up and provide an opinion on different arguments, to read critically and carefully and be attentive to detail, and to express their views clearly, usually in written form. The aim of this Virtual Classroom is to help you develop those skills.

Different Arguments…

The best way to learn to evaluate these is through reading. We don’t recommend any particular history books to read, because we feel that you should follow your own interests and read what you enjoy most. How can you read well? To do this there are three key things to remember: 1) be sure to make a précis (or short summary) of what you consider to be the main argument or arguments of the book/article you are reading; 2) Note down the main evidence that the historian has used in order to build the argument; 3) Evaluate what you’ve read: does it make sense? Is it logical or self-contradictory? Does the evidence support the claims the author is making? Are there other historians who argue something different? If so, which argument makes more sense? What do you think? All this will help develop your analytical and communication skills as you write down summaries and your opinions.

Communicating clearly…

In doing all this, always think carefully about how you express yourself. Is the word you’ve chosen the best word to describe what you’re discussing or is there an even better word? You might get hold of a thesaurus (beyond the one to be found in most word processing programmes, which tends to be quite limited in its scope). You can use this to look up a word and find alternative words, which sometimes would describe more exactly what you want to say. It’s important to be precise: using one word instead of another can alter your meaning significantly, so always think hard about the way you express yourself. You should also think about things like sentence length – you might write a short, punchy sentence to send a point home quickly and effectively; a longer sentence might enable you to express a more complex argument. Use of words like ‘however’ and ‘but’ indicates turning points in your argument: I’ve said this, but I want to qualify it, or make a counter argument. So you should use these words carefully. Always think of the impact on your reader of what you’re saying, and don’t bury your meaning. If it’s not clearly written, don’t expect your reader to understand what you’re saying! Writing good history is in some ways as much of an art as writing a novel!

Close reading skills…

Above, we also pointed out the importance of good close reading skills and attention to detail – noticing the use of one word instead of another, and perhaps the tense of verbs, for example, all of which can affect meaning and interpretation. On the next page, we have a document exercise which you can use to develop these skills. It is of the type that we quite commonly use in our admissions interviews, giving candidates some time before the interview to read and make notes on a short series of documents.

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