Supporting students who struggle with GCSE History

As teacher educators, working with PGCE trainees in many different History departments, we knew that a workshop which focused on supporting struggling GCSE students would draw people in when we presented it at the Historical Association Annual Conference.

All new exam specifications create huge anxieties for teachers, but the sense of pressure associated with the 9-1 GCSEs has been particularly acute: a desperate concern to help students master the necessary content, often combined with worries about how to support the wider range of students being entered for History because of EBacc targets. The Historical Association’s most recent survey confirms this impression: only 6% of respondents regarded the new courses as ‘appropriate for low prior attainers’, while 75% viewed the amount of content as ‘unmanageable’.

Faced with these demands, many teachers have turned to ideas from cognitive science, identifying retrieval practice as a key strategy. We have seen lots of these ideas in operation in our partner schools, such as regular tests (variously described as ‘memory platforms’ or ‘low-stakes quizzing’ – sometimes making use of ‘Kahoot!’ or other apps), and regular reference to knowledge organisers.

While there is much to learn from cognitive science, especially when applied with careful attention to the different kinds of knowledge that are called for by different kinds of historical question, we decided to begin our workshop with a very different focus: the experience and views of young people themselves.

We had previously invited our PGCE trainees to spend time with a few ‘struggling’ GCSE students in their schools, to simply ask about their experience. In many cases the young people’s anxieties echoed those of their teachers (‘History GCSE is harder now that it used to be – the government has made it harder’), but two clear themes emerged. One was their sense of the course being rushed, boring and repetitive. The other was the very narrow view they had of the subject and its potential value. History was reduced to ‘Remembering lots of information, lots of key facts’.

These responses served as a powerful reminder of the need to refocus our attention on what History has to offer to young people. As Mike Maddison (former national lead for History at Ofsted) once said, we need ‘to know why we are teaching what we are teaching’ – and we need to share those reasons with students in ways that make sense to them. If our only answer to the question ‘why do I need to know this?’ is ‘because it’s on the syllabus’, we are failing our students and our subject.

It’s worth pausing to remember that students have a broad range of needs. And while cognitive psychology offers many insights into ways of meeting their cognitive needs, particularly those related to memory, young people also have social and affective needs as learners. We must make sure that our rush to low-stakes testing as a tool to support the retrieval of substantive knowledge doesn’t diminish our students’ sense of enjoyment or narrow their sense of the subject.

Our workshop pointed teachers to two research articles that we have found helpful in focusing attention on why History matters to young people.

Matthew Wilkinson’s ‘Helping Muslim Boys succeed: the case for History education’

In vol. 25 of The Curriculum Journal (published 2014), Matthew Wilkinson looked specifically at the relationship that Muslim boys have with the History curriculum. While he recognised that academic or ‘intellectual’ success was a very important goal, and that particular qualifications have an obvious ‘instrumental’ value, he was also interested in other kinds of success that mattered to the boys, including:

  • a sense of ‘civic’ success that derived from being able to use their knowledge to make sense of current issues, and to contribute informed views about them
  • an ‘affective’ and ‘spiritual’ success that related much more to what they learned about themselves, including the nature and history of their faith and that of others.

The latter is connected with students building their own identity. Recognising the range of goals that matter to young people and showing how History relates to each of them may help to rekindle interest and move students beyond lists of ‘key facts’.


From Wilkinson’s study, showing the different kinds of success that History may offer


Dick van Straaten et al’s ‘Making History relevant to students by connecting past, present and future’

In vol. 28 of The Journal of Curriculum Studies (published 2016), Dick van Straaten and his colleagues offer another way of thinking about what young people value. Again, they focus on History’s role in helping students to develop as citizens and to build a personal identity, linked to more fundamental questions about what it means to be human. While the themes are big, the ideas have very practical applications – both for curriculum structure and teaching strategies.


From Van Straaten et al’s study, showing another way of thinking about how History matters to young people


Underlying ‘themes’ or ‘threads’

A third idea that we offered in our workshop was actually inspired by looking directly at one of the GCSE specifications and one of the textbooks written in response to it. In writing for the AQA specification on migration, Abdul Mohamud and Robin Whitburn drew on Braudel’s idea of the ‘undercurrents of history’ to suggest a range of themes that would give coherence and relevance to the whole study. Many of the themes that they chose, such as identity, could extend well beyond the study of migration and help to connect different parts of the GCSE together.


The value of such themes or ‘threads’ – or Van Straaten’s ‘enduring questions’ – is that they offer students deeper meaning and a repeated opportunity to stop and contextualise their thinking. They also provide another way of prompting students to recall what they’ve learned – connecting new knowledge to previous learning, within a coherent whole. Recall serves a purpose beyond functional exam preparation.

David Hibbert, a teacher who came to our workshop, uses his own blog to share his initial thoughts about how ideas like this can help in making explicit links across the whole curriculum, focusing on ‘big picture’ connections and the threads or ‘echoes’ that might offer coherence to those who struggle the most.

After thinking about why we’re asking young people to study the past, our next blog will focus on some of the practical strategies that we suggested in our workshop for those who particularly struggle with writing.


Katharine Burn is Associate Professor of Education at the University of Oxford, where she teaches on the PGCE History programme and directs the work of the Oxford Education Deanery, a University partnership with local schools to support teachers’ engagement with research. She is Deputy President of the Historical Association and a Fellow of the Schools History Project.


Jason Todd currently works on the History PGCE programme and the MSc Teaching and Learning course at Oxford University’s Department of Education. Prior to this he worked as a History teacher in a variety of London schools, including middle-management and senior-management roles.



We are grateful for permission to reprint the following copyright figures:

‘Another way of thinking about why history may matter to young people’ from Dick Van Straaten, Arie Wilschut and Ron Oostdam: ‘Making history relevant to students by connecting past, present and future: a framework for research’, Journal of Curriculum Studies 48 (4) 2016, used by permission of the publisher, Taylor & Francis Ltd

‘The different kinds of success History may offer’ from Matthew L N Wilkinson: ‘Helping Muslim boys succeed: the case for history education’, Curriculum Journal 25 (3) 2014, used by permission of the publisher, Taylor & Francis Ltd