Answering ‘To what extent’ and ‘How far’ History Questions

Answering ‘To what extent’ and ‘How far’ History Questions

Answering ‘To what extent’ and ‘How far’ History Questions:


Exams start in May, so it seems timely to discuss how to answer a typical question on an exam paper. I will use an IGCSE example, but the skills required for GCSE and IGCSE are the same. We will focus on answering ‘To what extent’ and ‘How far’ History Questions.

Let’s imagine that you are answering a question from the IGCSE syllabus of one exam board on World War One. The structure of the paper will typically be divided into three parts. First, there will be a question testing your knowledge acquisition. Second a question that tests your skills of source evaluation and interpretation. Finally, a question that asks you to combine your knowledge with source analysis to express your opinion on an interpretation. I will focus on this last question, as it is the one that students have the most difficulty with. It is also the question that offers the most marks, so it’s important to answer it well.


WWI tank in action

British Tank from WWI







The Question

A typical question might be:

Extract ‘Z’ implies that the use of tanks was the most important reason for Germany’s defeat in 1918. To what extent do you agree with this interpretation? Use Extract Z, Sources X and Y and your own knowledge to explain your answer.

I cannot reproduce sources here due to copyright, so I’ll describe how to approach this question and suggest possible content.


The Approach

The first thing to do is analyse the question itself, so you’re clear what you are meant to focus on. In the question above, focus on tanks as the most important reason. Important is not enough: you need to be addressing if they were the most important factor. As with all ‘to what extent’ or ‘how far’ questions, you are expected to give a balanced answer. If you can’t find alternative interpretations within the sources, you’re missing something, though balance must also be given through background knowledge. Make sure you use the extract, sources and your own knowledge. If you do not, you will lose marks. You should also be focusing on 1918, specifically after the failure of the Ludendorff Offensive.

Please note that to gain top mark-band grades, you need to use knowledge other than that mentioned in the sources. This is a very important point. Too often students think that they don’t need to revise for source-based questions: wrong! If you want to get top marks, the same amount of revision is needed as for knowledge-based questions. Otherwise your argument will lack the force needed to convince the examiner of your opinion. You’ll be ill-equipped, like a football team that has defenders, midfielders, but no strikers to hammer home the point!

You will also need to ensure your answer is analytical, focused and shows a clear line of argument. It is advisable to give a definite opinion in an opening statement, then justify it in the rest of the text. You must use your knowledge with discretion: it’s tempting to want to show off what you know to the examiner. Instead you must select what is precisely and directly relevant to the question. Finally, you must come to a reasoned conclusion. The conclusion is the last thing an examiner reads, so a strong conclusion leaves a powerful impression. You’ll make mini-conclusions throughout your answer, but you should be reaching an overall judgement in your main conclusion.


Indicative Answer

Above is an abbreviated approach, so what content is applicable to the question above? Below are some suggestions of what examiners would expect to see in an answer. Not all are necessary to get top marks, but your answer should cover a wide range of aspects.

To argue that tanks were the most important factor:

·         You could suggest that the tanks were very effective during the Battle of Amiens (August 1918). They advanced rapidly and broke through the German trenches.

·         Tanks were important in improving the morale of the British troops. In contrast, they crushed enemy machine gun positions, which demoralised the German army.

·         The British learnt the lessons of 1917, especially the successful breakthrough achieved at Cambrai.

·         Tanks were used very effectively during the Allied counter-offensives of August 1918. They were at the forefront to achieve a breakthrough that was followed up by advancing allied troops.

To argue that tanks were not the most important factor:

·         You could suggest that tanks were not that effective. They faced problems in enemy territory where there were huge craters and damaged trenches.

You could then move on to other reasons for Germany’s defeat:

·         The failure of the Ludendorff offensives (spring 1918) left the German troops exhausted, with a greater area to defend.

·         Another crucial factor was the British naval blockad, which had seriously weakened the German war effort. For example, it had led to a shortage of chemicals and iron ore.

·         The USA played a pivotal role. The Allies were constantly being reinforced by fresh American troops and supplies.


I hope the above advice is helpful. Please contact me if you have any questions or require specific advice on particular sources.

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