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Surviving History Extension

By Olivia Widjaja + Darcy Campbell in HSC
12th of March 2019
history extension

Welcome to History Extension! If you haven’t noticed yet, it’s a subject where you don’t really know what’s happening but you’re (hopefully) enjoying how it causes you to consider questions you have never really considered. History Extension can also be overwhelming. Your school might have taught History Extension differently to another school. This is why we, Darcy and Olivia, have decided to join forces and show you the different ways you can get an E4 in History Extension. Specifically, we’ve decided to focus more on the exam component, which is probably often overlooked by students since many students focus on the Major Work. If you need a bit of help with your Major Work, we have an article on the timeline of the Major Work.


Olivia’s Guide

The way my teacher taught History Extension was different. While a lot of schools taught everything chronologically, my teacher started off with contemporary examples. After spending a whole term on contemporary examples, we started looking at the foundational historians such as Ranke, Thucydides, Herodotus and Gibbon, though contemporary examples was also integrated throughout the term. By Term 2 of Year 12, we started going through our Churchill case study. The way the content was taught was also different. In class, we would discuss the issue, which eventually turns into a discussion. By the end of the class, we’d receive a bunch of handouts that we’d have to read. I guess the main difference between the way History Extension is taught compared to other subjects such as Modern History is that we had to come up with our own ideas.

My teacher made it clear that her job is to provide us the information and it’s our responsibility to formulate our own opinions. Thus, this is something I’d like to emphasise when completing the course. History Extension is all about debating so the best way for you to have a voice is to do as much reading on these issues so you can form a judgement. Another way for you to be able to have a voice is to use our Debating Thread so you could practice debating, as well as find more contemporary news that you can include in your essays. I personally found the Debating Thread useful because I was able to articulate my ideas and find some more contemporary examples. For example, I remember Susie linking an article in regards to Trump’s views on the US contribution in WW1, WW2 and the Cold War. Right up to my HSC, I always quoted Trump and how he declared that the US “won two world wars… and brought communism to its knees” because it’s an example of history being used as propaganda.

history extension

Since there is a lot of reading to do, my teacher always suggested us to organise the information into a table. I found this extremely helpful, especially when going through the historians because writing down their biographical information helped me understand their context (and as we all know from E.H Carr, context matters!). The table also included the significance of the historian and their impact on historiography, as well as a few noteworthy quotes, such as E.H Carr’s ‘fishmonger analogy.’

Once you have a substantial amount of ideas and quotes, the best way to prepare for exams is practice essays. The first time I submitted a practice essay, I received a 15/25. While this was extremely disheartening, I used this as motivation to improve. Throughout Term 1 of Year 12, I would submit one essay per week. My marks improved from a 16 to a 22. This is because as you write more essays, you start to flesh out your ideas and you start to have a clearer voice. You also get used to incorporating the source into your essays, which brings me to my next point.

Always read the source. I always brought a pack of highlighters to the exam so I could annotate the source. Part of the marking criteria is being able to select relevant quotes so spend at least ten minutes of your writing time reading the source. Another reason why the source is extremely important is because you should use the source to frame the structure of your essay. This gave me the freedom to either agree or disagree with the source, as well as ensuring that I engage with the source throughout my paragraphs. In fact, a lot of my paragraphs started with a quote from the source. This is why I never had a set structure when I walked into my exams. I remember asking a state-ranking student from the previous class how she structured her essays, and her response was “I don’t decide until the exams.” At that time, I found this statement ridiculous but as I started to write more practice essays, I realised how true this was because the content and examples in my essays depended on the source. In some essays, I would talk about the politicisation of history, and other essays I would talk about the rise of postmodernism- it really depends on the source. If you need more help structuring your essays, we have an article that explains how to plan and write History Extension essays.

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Moving on to Section Two, my teacher still gave us a lot of handouts and we still discussed the controversy surrounding Churchill, except we had more reading to do since we had to read two biographies. Personally, I found biographies difficult to dissect when looking for bias because their primary aim is to narrate a person’s life. However, the best way to look for hints of bias is to look for unnecessary adjectives. For example, in Martin Gilbert’s “Churchill: A Life” he often talked about Churchill disliking unfairness, which clearly shows his bias being the “official biographer.” When it came to films, the best way to spot bias is through music or artistic licence. An example of this is in Joe Wright’s film “The Darkest Hour” (2018) where Churchill travelled to the parliament house via train and asked the passengers for their opinion on the war. This definitely did not happen, yet it shows how they portrayed Churchill as someone who was “for the people” when others may argue against this notion. These are the ideas that you need to discuss in your essay. The good thing about essays for Section Two is that you can prepare a structure for your essay. Keep in mind that you have another source to incorporate but because the source is usually short and they tend to have similar ideas, it is easier to have a structure prepared. The structure I usually followed was: context, purpose and methodology. In comparison to my Section One essays, your Section Two essays don’t need to have complex ideas. Remember, you have to refer to a case study, which can be restricting.

Although Section One essay structures differ to a Section Two essay, I’d like to emphasise that in both essays, try to incorporate contemporary examples. Everyone can talk about Herodotus, Bede or Ranke, and in fact a significant portion of NSW goes through the foundational historians. This shows that you’re constantly aware on the issues present in historiography. I used Trump as an example previously, but I also talked about the use of oral history and the History Wars. I even had friends who talked about the musical Hamilton. And don’t be afraid to use your Major Work in your essays. In some of my essays, I talked about the impact of video games such as Assassin’s Creed in historiography (since I did my Major Work on video games). And in my Section Two essays, I talked about how Wright’s “The Darkest Hour” got nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor, as well as discussing how biopics are often nominated as Best Picture. I also talked about the Churchill War Rooms and the use of technology in the museum component. That being said, don’t completely ignore foundational historians. If you only have one paragraph dedicated to the foundational historians and another paragraph on contemporary examples, the HSC markers won’t like that since they want you to combine both foundational historians and contemporary examples. My teacher always talked about pairing Herodotus and Hamilton because both embody this idea of performing history rather than reading history. In my essays, I always talked about how Herodotus embodies postmodernist ideologies because of his methodology of incorporating various accounts of the Peloponnesian War, which linked with Keith Jenkins’ idea that different people attach different meanings to various events.

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Taking all of my personal experiences and advice into account, my final piece of advice is that no one ever feels fully prepared for the exam. No matter how many practice essays I wrote, or argument tables and quote sheets I made, I never felt ready for my exam. Part of this is because the source plays a significant role in your response and we’ll never know what the source is until the day of the exam. Even if you think you stuffed up, don’t stress over it too much! I forgot to include the title of one of my examples and managed to get a 48! So don’t stress out too much before and after your exam because everyone else doesn’t know what to expect from the exam!


Darcy’s Guide

So my process was very different to Olivia’s, largely due to the different teaching style. My teacher taught chronologically (for both What is History and Appeasement) in order to give a sense of structure and as I was in a class of only one, we were able to slow down and focus on whatever I needed extra help with. So I did a lot of my learning and engagement with the content in class and I used my study hours out of class to consolidate/write essays. In this very arduous yet rewarding journey with History Extension I gained many insights into how to study and do well in the subject, insights which I have divided into the following sections: What is History advice, Case Study advice, and general study methods.


Advice for What is History

Personally, this topic really wore down my self-esteem in the beginning but it ended up being one of my best sections in the entire HSC. My very long journey with this topic should prove to all of you that if you’re struggling with the content/writing HEXT essays at the moment, it does get better!

My first piece of advice, consequently, is to keep your chin up. Don’t let the tricky concepts and sample essays which seem worlds away from your current writing capacity scare you! HEXT is something which is developed over time and it cannot be known instantly – this is a problem which doesn’t just face students, but historians too! Historians still struggle to wrap their heads around abstract concepts and debates (as seen in the inherent inability to find a single truth when it comes to History) so no one is expecting you, a mere teenager studying the HSC, to know all the answers. If you’re struggling, try to be positive! Your abilities will grow the more you read, the more you write, the more time you have to ponder the complex debates which plague the Historical Discipline.

Something that really helped me with this section was doing my readings ahead of class. If this is something you can do as well, I would highly recommend it. By reading ahead, you’ll have a better understanding of any tricky words or ideas that will be mentioned in class. This means that you can focus completely on what your teacher is saying without having to frantically google search definitions for terms such as historical materialism. It also means that you’ll be more likely to engage in meaningful conversation about that week’s topic, something which is fundamental to developing your knowledge of the Historical Discipline.

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In What is History, don’t be afraid to think outside the box! As Olivia mentioned, effectively using cool contemporary examples such as Hamilton is a GREAT way to boost the marker’s interest. In the HSC exam, I ended up referring to history video games and new websites which bring history to the masses in order to prove that democratisation of history is pretty fundamental to the future of the discipline. Using contemporary or niche examples is really important as it proves the depth of your understanding and further study, as well as your comfortability to talk about the diversity of the discipline.

I studied for this section by compiling a big set of notes with a page for each historian/school of thought/concept I thought could be useful in an exam. For each section, I listed the five focus questions and then underneath each one I included quotes, ideas, or detail pertaining to the historian/school of thought that could help me answer it. This meant that my notes were focused, well-structured, and easy to refer back to. I didn’t, however, include all of the historians/schools of thought/concepts that I had been taught. I only included historians/topics that I found interesting, meaningful, and versatile. For example, I wasn’t particularly drawn to Enlightenment or Marxist historians, but I really loved using Venerable Bede, the academic vs popular history debate, and the Annalists in my essays, so I made sure to have plenty of quotes for the latter areas and only kept a brief overview of the former topics.


Advice for the Case Study (Appeasement)

This section was personally my favourite to write in the exam, as I understood the content well and really loved my case study (appeasement).

Develop a structure which suits you! As Olivia already mentioned, it’s MUCH easier to create an adaptable structure which you can take into the exam in this section. I followed a very similar structure to Olivia but it’s important that you come up with one which suits you and your knowledge! You also don’t need to have a take-in structure, but I personally loved feeling like I had some sense of security when it came to the exam.

Know the context! The context of each historian inherently influences their work and this section is ALL ABOUT how the historiography for a certain issue has been influenced. I personally loved talking about Patrick Finney’s The Romance of Decline to prove that perceptions of British status and strength deeply influenced the historiography of appeasement. By knowing the context of the historians, you are able to demonstrate that historiography is fluid and inherently dependent on the historian.

Use the less common historians. Each case study tends to have a few historians which absolutely dominate the field (for good reason) but to show the full depth of your study, I would suggest using some of the lesser known. By being able to discuss some of the less popular works, you are showing how sophisticated and developed your understanding of the field is.

In my study notes for this section, my subheadings for each historian were: purpose, context, and methodology. As Olivia mentioned, this is a great way to attack the second section (a structure taught by the ever-brilliant Susie), so it’s useful to format your notes accordingly. These three areas are the main influences over historiography, so by providing quotes and detail which prove each influence on the historian, you will gain a broad insight into how history is constructed and manipulated.

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General Study Advice

Not everything is as strict as it seems. History Extension can certainly seem intimidating – I know I felt plagued by the fear of making mistakes in the subject. The content seemed so nebulous that I often didn’t feel like I could pull off a perfect response. But as the year went on, I realised that my responses were never going to be perfect because history is inherently imperfect (in my opinion, at least). My point is that you shouldn’t stress over the small stuff. In my exam, I accidentally called one of my major texts by the wrong name, but I still ended up with a 47! I remember feeling really panicked that I had messed up, but because I had answered the question well and didn’t make any other mistakes, it ended up perfectly fine!

Be nice to your teacher! I would highly recommend being in your teacher’s good books, ESPECIALLY if you’re intending to hand in practice essays regularly for marking. My teacher was always willing to give me detailed feedback and insight on my responses (no matter how boring or terrible they were) and I think that’s because I treated them with a sense of respect and kindness. Furthermore, it’s important to develop a positive classroom environment in which you can debate some important historiographical issues, and that kind of environment isn’t possible if you act with disrespect or disinterest.

Do as many essay plans as you can! I personally get quite bored when writing an essay, so to practise for HEXT, I would complete as many detailed plans as possible, as opposed to writing full essays. This worked well for me as it enabled me to cover vast amounts of content in a short period of time as well as developing my ability to think on the spot. Personally, my problem was never writing the essays, but actually coming up with clear ideas was a struggle, so repeatedly doing essay plans really helped develop that skill.

Do as much wider reading as you can. History Extension is all about formulating opinions about some pretty complex problems and those opinions are best created within a context of rich and wide reading. Technically speaking, the readings you are given are curated by both the subjectivities of the NSW curriculum advisors as well as your teacher, and while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it could be a good idea to reach further and broaden your horizons.



Overall, History Extension is a pretty full-on subject. Not only is the content completely different but even the assessment structure is different to other subjects. But it is an enjoyable subject and is a decision we don’t regret. Hope you enjoy History Extension!