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Writing the synoptic essay

Part of the A-Level History course now involves a synoptic element. This involves examining change and reasons for change over a fixed period of time. This is usually around 100 years. If you are writing a synoptic essay, a slightly different approach is needed.  You will need to give an overview of your understanding of the major themes studied in the unit/subject (and within the context), often indicating how your understanding of the themes has developed over time. This can be quite difficult to get right. 

How do exam boards describe the synoptic element?

Synopticity is:

'Approaching history in the way a professional historian would' by drawing together knowledge, ideas and arguments to show overall historical understanding . (QCA's definition)

Essentially, we are looking for breadth of understanding (an ability to see beyond the obvious and to see the deeper implications of questions), together with a relevant linking of ideas and arguments across the topic / period of the question.

It mixes breadth of understanding (an ability to see the key underlying themes of the period the 'drivers' bringing change; the degree of continuity; the relationship between state and people), with depth of example and understanding of the importance of precise supporting detail.

At A2, essays are likely to have more than one focus; more than one issue to discuss and more than one viewpoint to analyse. The question itself invites a 'synoptic response' so a good conventional essay answer will do all these things.

A synoptic essay will usually ask you to examine "how far" or "how valid/convincing". In order to approach a synoptic well, it is good practice to organise your themes FIRST. This will make the essay easier to write.

Examples of synoptic style questions

  • How far was the personality cult of Adolf Hitler responsible for the success of the Nazi party?
  • 'Between 1547 and 1559 England was almost torn apart by religious revolution.' Assess the validity of this view.

Both of these questions are synoptic. They are asking you to examine the events/people in the context of other long and short term themes. 

Example:  "How far was the personality of Adolf Hitler responsible for the success of the Nazi party?"

In this question, you are expected not only to be able to assess how important Hitler was to the Nazis, but you are also expected to set the Nazis in the wider historical context of the time and examine other long/short term factors that may have aided their success.

In the long-term, the following factors could be said to have aided Nazi success:

The legacy of the Bismarckian system - the nature of authority and rule, as well as the legacy of policies such as Kulturkampf.

The outdated autocratic regime in Germany under the Kaisers (Kaiserreich)

Difficult relations with Britain, France and Russia. The whole power struggle of the time - especially the growing confidence of Russia against Austria-Hungary and the difficult family ties between ruling families.

World War I and Germany's loss.

The Treaty of Versailles and the 'stab in the back' myth.

The weakness in the set-up of the Weimar Republic 

In the Shorter-term...

The personality of Adolf Hitler and his election to the leadership of the NSDAP.

Failings made by the politicians of the Weimar Republic

The Instability of the Weimar Republic

The Nazi part machine - i.e. organisation

Nazi party tactics - i.e. putsches, propaganda, rallies, use of SA etc...

The Wall Street Crash and depression, growth in anti-semitism.

The mistakes of Hindenburg, Von Papen and Von Schleicher.

This is not an exhaustive list of reasons for the success of the Nazi Party; however, it should highlight to you that the personality of Hitler as suggested by the question was just one of many short and longer term factors that helped the Nazis to become successful.

In a synoptic essay you would need to weigh this up in the light of the other factors at play, whilst at the same time displaying your understanding of the entire period and actually how much change took place. Some would argue for example that some of Hitler's policies were more extreme versions of Bismarckian policies, for example, Bismarck's' Kulturkampf deliberately persecuted Catholics in Germany; Hitler, in a far more extreme way, persecuted Jews.

Some may also argue that because Bismarck and the Kaiser had ruled in an absolute way, that this was the kind of rule that Germans were used to; perhaps they weren't ready for the democracy that was offered by the Republic, so when Hitler came along offering a return to the traditional absolute style of rule, it seemed familiar to Germans.

Of course, the validity of these views is very open to question, but that is the point of the synoptic essay. You are required to think more deeply about the question and read between the lines. The REAL question at play in this example is: "Why were the Nazis successful?"

A good way to organise your themes might be as follows:

Introduction that includes very brief setting of the scene and states your line of argument.

Discuss the theme that is asked for by the question (in this case the personality of Hitler) - how important was this?

Discuss the other short-term themes that were also important to the period/event and evaluate significance. Then compare the significance of these other factors in comparison to the initial factor.

Finally, here comes the synoptic analysis, you then need to examine the longer term themes at play and examine their role - how important were they in comparison to the shorter term factors. Were there many shifts or changes? How much continuity was there? How did any changes or continuity affect the situation?

Conclusion - how important was the factor as stated by the question? Set it in light of the wider context of the time and re-assert your point of view.

*N.B. Where appropriate once again you need to include the historiography and views of historians throughout.

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How do you write an A* synoptic essay?

To achieve an A* in your synoptic essays you must show breadth of knowledge as well as depth. What examiners want to see when they mark your answers is that you have a thorough understanding of the concepts throughout the course, and for an A* answer, that you are able to be insightful throughout your argument. This means they want you to be able to see how the different aspects of the course are related and be able to demonstrate your knowledge with relevant case study evidence.

The mistake many students make when using case studies in their answers is 'case study dumping', where irrelevant details are given to support a point. Ideally, to achieve an A*, parts of case studies should be used specifically (or 'cherry-picked') to demonstrate a point you are trying to make. So for example, if you were making a point about environmental issues that cities in the developing world face you may use Mumbai's slum, Dharavi as an example. You may know tonnes about this case study, but here you would only mention details such as the number of people per latrine and the waste running on the streets, but it would be irrelevant to mention the attempt to regenerate the area by rehabilitating residents to high-rise buildings. Keeping the case studies relevant helps focus your essay, setting the foundations for an A*.

In order to keep your argument coherent you must also have a good essay structure. Having a clearly laid out argument through your essay will help you demonstrate the higher level skills needed to achieve an A*. So, in the introduction you may want to lay out your argument, demonstrating that you undertand the question. The main body of your essay is where this argument will be carried out, and you can show off your knowledge of the course, and the conclusion should tie together the different points you've made. To keep the essay focussed, you may want each paragraph in the main body to end with a sentence that relates it back to your argument and therefore the question. These sentences are often where you can make those insightful A* statements that show 'flair'. If not here, then the conclusion is another place you can show some flair that demonstrates your confidence in the course content and ability to handle it critically. And you don't need to go crazy with this either, to achieve an A* you'd only need to include this once or twice for the examiner to see you are capable of it and award you the A*.

If you really want that A* in those exam essays then a lot of it comes down to ensuring you make the connections between different aspects of your course as you go along. This way you're thinking about the course synoptically from the get-go and when it comes to it you'll find that writing a good synoptic essay comes more easily.


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What is a Synoptic Essay?

A synoptic essay is a unique form of writing that narrates a comprehensive story based on the writer's personal experiences or perspectives. Its objective is to captivate the reader by vividly presenting a specific event or encounter.

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Synoptic essays necessitate students to introspect on their experiences, fostering critical thinking skills as they analyze and draw conclusions from their personal narratives.

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  1. Synoptic Weather Map Definition

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  2. The Synoptics -English word synoptic comes from the

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  3. Synoptic Method

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  4. Synoptic Essay Practice: AQA A-Level Biology

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  5. The Synoptic Problem

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  1. What Is the Meaning of Synoptic Gospels?

    The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke make up the synoptic gospels, because they include the same stories with similar wording, in contrast to the gospel of John, which is relatively unique. Synoptic comes from the Greek words, “syn,” which...

  2. What Is an Informative Essay?

    An informative essay is any type of essay that has the goal of informing or educating an audience. By definition, it is not used to persuade or to give one’s personal beliefs on a subject.

  3. What Is a “who Am I” Essay?

    A “who am I” essay is a simple type of open-ended introductory essay. It is used in certain schools, workplaces and around the world to help members of a group introduce themselves through their writing. They are generally about a page long...

  4. What is a Synoptic Essay and How Do I Write One?

    Writing the synoptic essay ... Part of the A-Level History course now involves a synoptic element. This involves examining change and reasons for

  5. How can I write a synoptic essay?

    A synoptic essay will usually ask you to examine "how far" or "how valid/convincing". In order to approach a synoptic well, it is good practice

  6. How do you write an A* synoptic essay?

    To achieve an A* in your synoptic essays you must show breadth of knowledge as well as depth. What examiners want to see when they mark your answers is that

  7. What is a synoptic paper?

    The synoptic paper is designed to range over the whole syllabus, and to make links within a question between the content of different modules. So it is

  8. Synoptic essay

    ... synoptic essay you need to be very clear about what you ... The Biology Essay - AQA A-level Biology | topics to write in any essay | essay tips.

  9. Synoptic Essays

    ... synoptic means. Synoptic is defined as viewing or defining something in a similar manner using various vantage points or sources. The synoptic gospels are

  10. Preparing Students for the Synoptic Essay

    Preparing Students for the Synoptic Essay. Assessment

  11. The Synoptic Essay

    The Synoptic Essay - How It's Marked. 11K views · 8 years ... The Biology Essay - AQA A-level Biology | topics to write in any essay | essay tips.

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  13. AQA A2 Biology: Writing the Synoptic Essay

    Book overview. Writing the Synoptic Essay, the first ever book handing you everything you need in order to gain the MAXIMUM MARKS in this most challenging part

  14. Bridging work for AS to A2 level 1. Synoptic Essays You should write

    The essay must include at least 5 different topics and must include both AS and A level material. Scientific terminology needs to be of A level standard and