The Personal Study Dealing With Significance

Student Guides

By Melanie Jones, published 19th June 2010

The Personal Study Dealing With Significance

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History courses at A-Level contain a personal study that ranges from 2,500- 4,000 words in length, depending upon the exam board. Many of these deal with the theme of significance.

Here are some tips for your personal study as recommended by the National Archives:

  • Choose a valid historical issue that interests you and that is not too narrow or too general
  • The wording of your investigation question is absolutely central to a successful study. The exam board AQA stresses that it should always be in the form of a question like 'how far' or 'to what extent?' This approach will allow you to show the examiner your ability to evaluate, analyse and conclude. It will also help you to focus on concepts rather than narrative description
  • Make sure there is enough primary and secondary material to allow you to study in depth - textbooks, biographies, diaries, documentaries, films, historical sites, letters, maps, paintings, novels, newspapers and museum displays
  • Show you can select, interpret and evaluate sources (primary and secondary)
  • Present a consistently analytical response to the question posed by the study
  • Offer interpretations of events and reveal the context in which ideas are produced
  • Show awareness of the main debates of the issues involved
  • If you have chosen to write about a figure in history, always consider their social and political context and assess your person's historical significance
  • Organise your material to produce a well-structured piece of work
  • Focus on communicating ideas well to present a cohesive argument
  • Draw your own conclusions supported by evidence
  • Produce a study with a bibliography listing all sources, books and articles you used. Add appendices and footnotes where appropriate
  • Study previous examples of good practice if your teacher has them
  • Seek the advice of your teacher, within reason. The object of the exercise is to show that you can work independently


As part of an enquiry based personal study, you may be asked to examine the significance of a person, period or event in history. This is not always as easy as it sounds because you have to ask yourself, significant compared to what? In whose opinion? How is it measured? The fact is that a personal study is PERSONAL. This means it should be about your response to the question. How does it make you feel? What story does it tell you? What do you conclude from looking at the evidence and opinions of historians? The study should be about your opinions and feelings. You can refer to other people's interpretations, but you should use this as an opportunity to show off your own arguments. Remember, significance is a constructed theme. It is ascribed to events and people by others, or sometimes by themselves through propaganda. Ideas about significance can change from person to person, over time and with different evidence.

Getting a personal study right when dealing with significance is not as easy as it sounds. In order to weigh up how significant something was, perhaps it may be useful to go back to basics. The 5 Rs are a good set of questions to use as a starting point in order to determine significance; however, they should not be used as a tick-box exercise or an essay plan! Your study will need to be much more fluid than that and delve into the context of the time and the wider context, as well as other issues particular to the question that may affect the significance of the person or event. However, the 5 Rs might help you to decide upon which questions or topics lend themselves well to the theme of significance.

What to look for

  • Importance - to the people living at the time
  • Profundity - how deeply were people's lives affected?
  • Quantity - how many lives were affected?
  • Durability - for how long were people's lives affected?
  • Relevance - the extent to which the event has contributed to an increased understanding of present life?

Example: World War I:

  • Who was affected by the war?
  • How were people's lives changed during it?
  • How many died or lost key relatives?
  • Why is it important to remember? (lives lost)
  • Why is it important to study?

5 Rs

  • Relevance
  • Resonant
  • Reveal
  • Remembered
  • Resulting in Change

What do I have to do?

You must produce a piece of work no longer than 3000 words in length. The question must focus on significance and must allow you to demonstrate the following understandings:

  • Historical significance can be measured by using appropriate criteria.
  • Historical significance can be measured across time or over time.
  • Other people's claims about historical significance are provisional and negotiable.

Your question must also allow you to demonstrate the following skills:

  • Propose a title question that defines the study;
  • Explain and analyse the significance of an individual, event, idea or site;
  • Use criteria to organise an answer and to determine significance;
  • Measure significance either across time, or over time, or by reference to both dimensions - by comparing and combining them;
  • Explain, analyse, and reach and support judgements about, significance that may include explanations of ideas, actions or events, critical use or primary and/or secondary source material as evidence and /or critical evaluation of historians' interpretations.

Historical significance (and what it is not)

It is important that you have understanding of how 'significance' is being used. It might help by thinking of 'historical significance' rather than just significance. 'Historical significance' involves a broad judgement about an individual, event, idea or site. Traditional causation questions e.g. 'Was Charles' leadership the most important reason he lost the Civil War?' should be avoided. This type of question usually ends up with the candidate explaining the role of Charles, then writing about the role of other factors, and then comparing their importance and reaching a conclusion. Such a question, and its answer, will fail to take you beyond the explanation work they were doing at AS level.  It does not address historical significance. By asking a question about the causation of a particular event the scope is limited by placing the focus on a particular outcome e.g. losing the Civil War. Questions are more likely to provide you with an opportunity to judge historical significance if the question is not limited to a particular outcome. A question such as 'How significant was Charles I's defeat in the Civil War?' is much broader and allows you to consider the importance of the defeat at the time and immediately afterwards, but also whether it has any longer term importance.

Significance questions need a clear context and a timeframe - how big a period of time does an event need to be placed in?  The Tudor Rebellions look quite big in the context of the 16th century but if you put it in the timeframe 1400-1700, the rebellions are book-ended by the Wars of the Roses and the Civil War which puts a different perspective on the significance of the rebellions - therefore it is clear from this example, that when examining the significance of any event, the timeframe needs to be very clear.

Correcting some misconceptions about significance:

  • Significance is not the same as relevance to today, although this may be part of it.
  • Significance is much more than just importance.
  • It is more than just causes or consequences. Some individuals or events are significant because of their consequences. Others may not have had major consequences but they can still be significant.
  • Significance is a value given to individuals, events, ideas and sites. It is not a quality intrinsic to the individual, event, idea or site. It is provisional and negotiable. Historians and others will come to different judgements about it.
  • Significance should not be confused with fame or rank.
  • It is not necessarily to do with size e.g. large sites are not significant simply because of their size.
  • Significance can be negative or positive BUT: interpretations of significance should not be affected by moral judgement e.g. Cromwell is not significant because he put the inhabitants of Drogheda to the sword, Hitler cannot be significant because of the Holocaust. These claims confuse significance with greatness or being infamous.  

How to measure significance

Claims made about significance need to be based on more than assertion. You should be encouraged to demonstrate the significance of individuals, events, ideas or sites. This involves:

Recognising that significance can be considered in at least two dimensions - across time (impact at the time) and over time (impact on the longer-term course of events);

Using criteria against which to measure significance in each dimension - extent of immediate impact (across time) and relationship to prior and subsequent events (over time) i.e. did any other events or people bear a relationship? Did anything happen as a consequence?

Criteria for measuring significance might be:

  • Nature of the individual, event, idea or site
  • How typical/how unique?
  • How expected/how unexpected?
  • How reported/how received?
  • How iconic or symbolic?
  • Width of impact (could be materially, or ideas, action...)
  • How many people, groups or institutions were affected?
  • Were rich/poor, men/women, old/young affected in the same way?
  • Were different parts of the country affected in the same way?
  • How wide, geographically, was the impact?
  • Depth of impact (could be materially, or ideas, actions...)
  • How deeply were people's beliefs and attitudes affected?
  • For how long were people affected?
  • How important was it to people at the time?
  • How far it was it remarked on by people at the time?
  • How powerful was the impact?
  • What kind of reaction was caused?
  • Nature of the impact
  • How far was it beneficial?
  • Relevance for historians
  • The extent to which the impact increases historians' understanding of the period
  • What does it reveal about the period?
  • How iconic or symbolic?
  • Why have different judgements about its significance been made by different ages, and/or historians? What criteria or values influenced their judgements? 

Criteria for measuring significance over time:

  • How much of a change occurred between what went before and what came after (event etc. seen as a turning point)?
  • How much continuity occurred between what went before and what came after (event etc. seen as part of a trend)?
  • How is the amount of change/continuity affected by variations to the time scale (event etc. seen as a ‘false dawn')? 

Other criteria:

  • It has been remembered at some stage in history within the collective memory of a group or groups;
  • It has had a resonance. People make analogies with it; it is possible to connect it with experiences, beliefs or situations across time and space.
  • Try a visual graph to help you plan your answer or plot a timeline or flow diagram of all of the things that came out of the person/event/discovery/period like the one attached below.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Do both judgements (across time and over time) agree about the significance I can attach to the individual, event, idea or site?
  • If so, how do I combine these similarities within a single account?
  • Do the judgements (across time and over time) disagree about the significance I can attach to the individual, event, idea or site? In which case, how do I account for this?
  • Do the results of the person/event/circumstances resonate across a long period of time? If not, does this affect significance?

Good Luck!

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