Why students do not score well in Elective History?

1. Lack of content knowledge.

There are four case studies (Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, Cuban Missile Crisis and the Korean War) in O level Elective History. If the students have insufficient content knowledge, they might not be able to make sense of some or all sources.

For example, students must know the followings (not an exhaustive list):
Stalin’s Russia: Reasons for Stalin’s rise, Impact of Stalin’s five-year plans etc.
Hitler’s Germany: Reasons for Hitler’s rise, Impact of Hitler’s rule.

Cuban Missile Crises:

  • Who were the main actors in the lead up the Cuban Missile Crisis?
  • Why Cuba was significant for the USA as well as the USSR?
  • How Fidel Castor’s policies (economic, political) threatened the USA interest?
  • Who was to be blamed for the Cuban Missile Crisis?
  • Who were the winners and losers in the Cuban Missile Crisis and why?

The Korean War:

  • Actors in the Korean War
  • Reasons for the Korean War
  • Why the USA was concerned about the Korean Peninsula?
  • Who was responsible for the Korean War?

How to firm up content knowledge for elective History?

  • Read the school textbook.
  • Watch documentaries. Plenty are available on youtube about Stalin, Hitler, Cuban Missile Crisis and the Korean War.
  • Read books as pleasure reading on Stalin, Hitler etc.
  • Most importantly, start early. 

2. Unable to answer the question or meet question requirements.

Students have this tendency not to answer the question directly and ignore the question focus.

For example:

What can you infer from this source? [Open question with no focus]
Depending on the source, students can answer this question in a number of ways. This question does not restrict students to focus on one particular direction. Students can get hints from either the ISSUE question or the provenance to answer this question.

What can you infer from this source about Stalin’s rule? [Question with a specific focus: Stalin’s rule]

This question requires students to write about ‘Stalin’s rule’ only. Any answer without this focus would not be awarded any marks. Therefore, it is important for students to highlight/underline the key words and focus for each question. T

How to meet questions requirements?

Read and underline the key words (infer/tell/learn/message/purpose/similar/reliable/useful/surprise) and focus for each question.

3. Time factor: Race for quantity rather than quality thus unable to complete the entire paper.

‘Longer answer will get more marks’ is a common misperception among many students. SBQ is all about quality rather than quantity. If a student is writing half foolscap page for inference answer, he/she is writing unnecessary details. This eats into precious time and students are not able to complete the paper. So what is sufficient for an answer?

Inference question: 4 to 5 lines for

State your inference: 1st line:

Explain: 2 lines.

Evidence: 2 lines.

Total : 5 to 6 lines.


General inference:  5 to 6 lines.

Purpose: 6 to 7 lines.

Similar/different: 7 to 8 lines per paragraph.

4. Spending too much time on one question

Students find some questions more difficult than the rest such as surprise or hybrid/complex reliability. They spend too much time on one questions and in the process lose precious time.

Tips: If you find a particular question too difficult, leave blank space on your answer script and come back to it later.

5. Seeking help at the last minute

Most students/parents will panic either after mid-year or prelim examinations. They would call up every tuition centre to enrol their child for last minute crash courses. It works for some but not for all. Teaching two years of syllabus and skill sets in 2 months is quite a challenge.

Tips: Use secondary three end-of-year examination to gauge your ability to understand SBQ and SEQ. If you need help, you can do the following:

  • Use November and December holidays to read history textbook to firm up content knowledge.
  • Use your school worksheets/exam papers to find out your area of weakness (SBQ/SEQ etc).
  • Approach your subject teacher in school for extra help.
  • Use 10-year series and complete past year papers and request you subject teacher to mark your work. Your teacher will be more than happy to mark and provide constructive feedback.
  • If you think, you need one-on-one coaching, approach tuition/enrichment agencies that specialise in humanities subjects early.