Learn Mojo's guide to upper sec History Elective/Social Studies structured essay question (SEQ) skills Part 1

(This post by Miss Karen Goh first appeared here on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts on 20 August 2014.)

1. What are Structured Essay Questions (SEQs)?

These questions are based on the History/Social Studies content that you have learnt. Unlike Source-based Questions (SBQs), there are no sources of information for reference and every example you give to support your answer is pulled from your memory bank—your brain!

By the way, History Elective/Social Studies is mostly about the CAUSES AND IMPACTS of decisions made by leaders or governments around the world, both past and present. If you remember that, you will be able make sense of all the information in your syllabus.

SEQs are marked based on LORMs (Levels of Response Marking Scheme), which award high marks to students who show that they can explain and not just describe, as well as students who can make reasoned judgements.

2. What do most students do, and will YOU do differently?

Most students fret over the SBQs as they are deemed harder. So they end up spending lots of time trying to perfect them while neglecting the SEQs. Their SEQs suffer since they are ‘worth fewer marks than SBQ’.

Consider this. What if, for that particular year’s O Levels exam, the sources given are extremely difficult to analyze? The result is that they obtain very low marks overall. This would pull down their L1R5 or L1R2B2 for JC/Poly entry.

My students, you included, take a different approach. They allocate more pre-exam time to practicing SEQs as they are more predictable. They get almost full marks in Section B. The result—most of them score distinctions in History Elective.

3. Why focus more on SEQs?

As mentioned above, they are way more predictable than SBQs.

Let me tell you a secret. There are really only so many ways your teacher can ask an SEQ on, say, Nazi Germany. I bore myself silly when setting SEQs, despite trying to be creative with my SEQ phrasing through the years.

For you, boring is GOOD! You can anticipate the questions teachers might ask and practice writing your answers, referring to your textbook/notes for examples to use. By the time exams roll around, it wouldn’t be the first time you’re writing that essay and you’d have corrected your mistakes during your practices.

Contrast with SBQs—no way for us to predict the sources that will appear in the exam. Although there are guidelines for you to follow (which I will share in later lessons), every SBQ answer is different as each source is unique.

Let’s do some math to see how much easier your life will be if you score for the SEQs, using a hypothetical History Elective exam scenario.

4. Hypothetical History Elective Exam Scenario

Lim Ah Meow, a Sec 4 student, is a Science and Math whiz. However, he struggles at English Language and the Humanities. Anything that requires him to read or write more than 5 sentences daunts him. Months before the O Levels, his History teacher makes him take 20 to 30 minutes a week to do one SEQ, marks them all, and ensures he submits his corrections.

D-day approaches. In the O Level History Elective Exam, this is what the paper looks like:

Ah Meow’s scores look like this for Section A:

1(a) 4 / 5 marks

1(b) 4/ 5 marks

1(c) 3 / 6 marks [Ah Meow: “I had a weak cross-reference.”]

1(d) 2 / 6 marks [Ah Meow: “The source was so hard to understand that I forgot to do cross-reference.”]

1(e) 4 / 8 marks [Ah Meow: “I kind of ran out of time here…”]

Section A score = 17/30

Now for Section B:

He manages to get the full 8 marks for 2(a), since he just needs to explain 2 factors. For 2(b), he scores L3/10 marks out of 12 marks. Although he didn’t manage to clinch the highest level marks, he answered the question, and adequately explained 3 factors.

Section B score = 18/20


Although he didn’t manage to score high level marks for 1(c) to 1(e), that’s still ok. He had his fantastic SEQ score to bring him to an A2 for his History Elective Exam! So, you see, if you dominate in SEQs, you are a lot less stressed about the unpredictable SBQs. Sounds good?

Please note that we never deliberately write bad SBQ answers. We still practice SBQs and learn to write good answers, but the difference is that you’re now under less pressure, and that actually puts you in a better place to understand the sources!

5. SEQ Format for HE and SS, and how much time to allocate.

In History Elective, Explanation SEQs are worth 8 marks. They appear as the part (a) of the SEQ. You need to explain 2 factors related to the issue. (If you’re kiasu, you could explain maximum 3 factors—only if there are no ‘given’ factors mentioned in the question). Part (b) is a Judgement SEQ worth 12 marks, but we won’t go into that here yet.

An ex-student was from a neighbourhood school and doing badly in his English. He went on to score an A1 in the ‘O’s. Later, he barely scraped through his GP in the promos and came to me for help, and then went on to get a distinction for GP.

For Social Studies, you need to explain 1 factor/impact for part (a) to get 5 marks, and 2 other factors/impacts for part (b) to get 10 marks. This makes 3 factors for the entire 15-mark question.

In the exam allocate max 20 minutes to write an Explanation SEQ answer as you need to leave enough time for other questions.

In pre-exam practices, give yourself 40-45 minutes for each essay, because you need to do an essay plan.

In the next part, we shall learn how to formulate such a plan using the 3-Step process and the PEEL framework.

To continue to part 2, visit HERE.


About The Author

Karen Goh spent her early student life at Dunman High School and Hwa Chong Junior College. Like many of the students she has taught, she was a Pure Science student in secondary school. A love for reading and history led her to the Arts stream in Hwa Chong JC, and to major in English Language and Political Science in NUS. She also has a Post-Graduate Diploma in Education from NIE.

She was with MOE from January 2005 to December 2012, teaching secondary school students of all abilities History and Social Studies. Majority of her graduating students scored distinctions.

She started Learnmojo as a way for to share all that she knows about scoring in History and Social Studies, gleaned from her years of teaching experience. She believes that the Do It Yourself (DIY) method should be a first resort before parents rush out to hire tutors.

The DIY method = students doing consistent practices and getting feedback from their school teacher.

She shares free advice and tips to parents and students on her email list, so hop on over to www.learnmojo.com to sign up.

For students who find it a challenge to adopt the DIY method, she does offer paid online coaching in Lower Secondary History and Upper Secondary History Elective and Social Studies. These students need someone other than their school teacher to nag cajole them into doing consistent practices and give detailed feedback on their work, but are do not have the time to sign up for yet another tuition class. Online coaching is a flexible way for them to get the advice and input they need to improve their grades.

Feel free to email karen@learnmojo.com if you have a burning question about History and Social Studies.


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