Getting a good grade

To help answer common questions on how to get a good grade, here are some general points, and then examples of a typical blue book examination, and term paper.

The grading scheme is as follows:

A = 93-99
AB = 88-92
B = 83-87
BC = 78-82
C = 70-77
D = 60-69
F = 0-59

Blue Books
(Midterms and Finals)

General Points

  1. Answer the question
    This may seem obvious - but many students fail to do this. If someone asks you the way to Memorial Union, you don't tell them all you know about the geography of Madison. If the question asks why Charles I got on badly with his Parliaments, don't write down every single fact you can remember about Charles I. It won't score more points, but less.
  2. Organize your answer.
    It is a good idea to spend a few minutes at the beginning of the exam working out what the question means, and then organizing your answer so that it is a coherent, structured response to the question. Develop an overall argument which answers what is being asked. Have an introduction which says what your argument is. Then divide up your argument into sub-arguments, and have a paragraph on each. Use facts, dates and names to support your overall argument and your sub-arguments - and not just because you remember them! Have a final concluding paragraph, summarizing the main points of answer.
  3. Be precise
    Avoid vague generalities, like "Charles got on badly with his parliaments because of policy differences." Show that you know there were disagreements about religion, taxation, and foreign policy by being specific about bishops and Arminianism, customs and Ship Money, the king's marriage to a Catholic and good relations with Spain in the 1630s.
  4. Give relevant dates and names.
    England had many kings named Henry and Edward; Mary Tudor (Mary I) was a different person from Mary Stuart (Mary, Queen of Scots). So don't just say "Henry" or "Mary" in an essay where it might be unclear just who that is. History is all about a chronological sequence of events - dates are important. Elizabeth I's difficulties with Catholics in 1588 differed significantly from those she encountered in 1570. Make it clear that you know when the problem was Spanish invasion and when it was papal deposition by including relevant dates. But don't clutter up your answer with irrelevant or marginally relevant facts and dates (see 2 above).
  5. Use clear and grammatical language to answer the question.
    Long words and complicated sentences are only impressive when they are (a) necessary and (b) used properly. Calling a spade an agricultural implement is pretentious not precise. Similarly, it is much better to say that "James I spent too much money on his favorites," than that "James I's fiscal expenditures in relation to his intimate counselors frequently exceeded the limits of financial frugality."
  6. Lastly, do try and make your handwriting legible.
    Few things are better calculated to alienate your grader than forcing her/him to spend hours puzzling out each scrawled word.

A typical exam

Below is a typical final exam for 123
Click on a question to see a specimen answer - some good, some bad - with comments:

[Warning! These are TYPICAL exam answers. They are NOT perfect, "model" answers. Do not rely on them (even the A grade essays) as a source of information. Your lecture-notes and text-books are altogether more trustworthy sources.]

History 123
Final Exam

Answer section A, one (1) question from section B, and one (1) question from section C. Section A is worth only 10% of the available points, so do not spend too long on it. Sections B and C are each worth 45%.

In the blue book write the question number and the letter that you think corresponds to the right answer. For example, if you think C is the correct answer to question 4, write 4C.

(1) Simon de Montfort: (A) led a group of rebellious barons against Henry III; (B) deposed Richard II and made himself king; (C) wrote a treatise on the workings of the Exchequer; (D) founded the Lollards.

(2) The 1381 Peasants' Revolt was led by: (A) John Wycliffe; (B) Wat Tyler; (C) Henry of Bolingbroke; (D) Geoffrey Chaucer.

(3) George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, was: (A) one of the Lords Appellant who criticized Richard II's government in the 1380s; (B) Henry VIII's illegitimate son; (C) a favorite of James I and Charles I; (D) one of the generals of the Parliamentary army during the Civil War.

(4) Ship Money was: (A) duties on exports and imports collected by James I and Charles; (B) cash seized from the Spanish treasure fleet by Sir Francis Drake; (C) money donated by the East India Company to equip Cromwell's navy; (D) an unparliamentary levy collected by Charles I to supply his navy.

(5) The Humble Petition and Advice was: (A) a constitutional document drawn up by Parliament in 1657, and offering Cromwell the crown; (B) a document condemning monopolies and passed by the House of Commons in Elizabeth's last Parliament; (C) a document which condemned many of Charles I's policies, and which was narrowly approved by the House of Commons in 1641 after heated debate; (D) a Parliamentary ordinance of 1645 which reformed the army and put Cromwell in charge of it.

Answer one (1) of the following three questions:

(1) The kings and queens of England often had financial problems. How did royal financial difficulties, and the monarchs' efforts to solve them, affect the development of church, state and society in England between 1066 and 1660?

(2) In what ways and for what reasons did the functions and powers of Parliament change between the reigns of Henry III and Charles I?

(3)All medieval kings faced problems from ambitious and unruly barons. How, and how successfully, did these three cope with those problems: Henry III, Henry V, and Henry VII?

Answer one (1) of the following three questions:

(1) James I used to be seen as a lazy, foolish and unsuccessful king. More recently, however, he has come to be regarded as quite an effective ruler. Which view do you think is right and why?

(2) What caused the English Civil War? Was it the inevitable result of long-term social, economic, or political developments, or was it simply the consequence of Charles I's stupidity and incompetence?

(3) What problems did the Rump Parliament and Oliver Cromwell face in the years between 1649 and 1660, how did they attempt to overcome them, and how successful were they?

Correct choices:
1A; 2B; 3C: 4D; 5A

Term papers

In writing a paper, it's best to begin by formulating a precise, clearly defined question, which will help you to focus your argument and ideas. If you choose to do one of the questions listed on the syllabus, spend some time thinking about precisely what it means. Organize your paper clearly around answering the question, and avoid deviating into irrelevant side-issues. Develop a central argument to answer the question and stick to it throughout, examining different aspects of it in separate paragraphs. Say at the beginning what your argument is, and at the end briefly summarize why you think you have proved that it is correct.

Use facts, dates, and other details not to show that you know them but to advance your argument.

The term paper should cite at least two sources in addition to the course reading. List these works at the end of the essay. You can find many sources listed in the bibliographies of the course reading, and a number of books are on reserve in College Library. Put direct quotations from any source in inverted commas. When you mention details that are not widely known, you should have a note (footnote, end note, or a reference in parentheses) giving the source of your information. For example, you need not have a note if you say that Thomas Hobbes was born in 1588 since this is very well-known, but you should have one if you say that he helped collect the Forced Loan of 1626-7, as that is not commonly known. Be clear and consistent in your system of referencing sources (by footnote, end note, or a reference in parentheses) and in other matters of style; a good plan would be to use the Chicago Manual of Style or a similar guide.

The Internet is a wonderful source of information on all sorts of topics, but use it with the same caution that you would a book - or, indeed, with still more. Internet sites are commonly not screened and refereed as are academic journals and publications. On the whole, you would do better to cite printed material rather than web pages. If you do cite web pages, give the exact address (that goes for material taken from this site, as well as material elsewhere on the web;) in the case of online journal articles, cite them as though they were in printed form (you can also give the stable url of the article, but that isn't necessary.) If you cut and paste a quotation, put it in quotation marks, just as you would if you had copied it from a written text.

Amongst the great many relevant web sites are:

You can search words in the best dictionary of English, the Oxford English Dictionary online, through the UW Madison library site
British and US constitutional history
Centred on English dissenters but with web links to many other English history topics
History online .
The writers' handbook. A good guide on questions of style, grammar etc.
The Dictionary of National Biography (known as DNB): DA 28 D48 2 (Reference Room; 2S).
This is a comprehensive, multi-volume work. It has recently been updated and is available to UW students by clicking the link above.

To reiterate, be very careful to give proper citations for material you take from the Internet or from printed books and articles: The following linked sites are especially useful on plagiarism AND academic misconduct

The end result

Click for an example of a good term paper.
[Warning: As in the case of some of the blue book answers, this is a good paper - not a perfect or model one. It is intended as a typical example of a grade "A" paper - not as an instance of perfect interpretation or flawless accuracy.]  

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