Advice for Studying for your ‘O’ Level Humanities Paper

(This guest article by Miss Tan Jiaxia first appeared here on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts on 21 October 2014.)

By Tan Jiaxia

Humanities is often viewed as a subject that is difficult to do well in because many have the misconception that you could put a lot of hard work into studying but still do poorly.

The problem is, that there is a ‘wrong’ way to study. Increasingly as we look at how the humanities syllabi have been revised over the years we do not just see a change in the content being taught but changes in how people believe students should be tested. ‘Critical thinking’ is not merely a buzzword that educators throw around; it truly represents the focus of our contemporary humanities exams. How should this impact the way you study?

This article seeks to help students with that problem.


The only way to truly construct a good essay is to understand the links between all the content you are studying. You need to know how all the concepts add up together to make up the larger topic. A good way to go this is to get hold of a concept map so you can see the big picture all at once. That way, when you fill in the minor details in your memory, you do not lose track of how they link back to the rest of the chapter.


A big part of critical thinking involves being able to attack issues from various perspectives. For example, you could be given a question asking you how various factors led to a certain outcome. The same information could also be tested by giving you one specific outcome and asking how certain factors led to this. (To put it another way, for the same concept, you could be ask to determine the causes from the effects, or you could be asked to determine the final effects that would occur based on a certain combination of causes.)

If you have only been memorising information exactly as it was presented to you in your textbooks or teachers’ notes - this is where you will be in trouble - exactly the phenomenon that leads to students coming out from exams saying “I never studied what was being tested!”. The truth is, you did - you just didn’t realise it because they didn’t ask you the same types of questions your teacher did. The best way to overcome this problem is to get hold of many different ways of putting all the concepts together. Don’t just rely on your textbooks and notes. There is a wide variety of resources out there, from assessment books to resources like concept maps to notes that are posted online by other helpful teachers. Seek these out and look at them. They expose you to new and different ways of thinking about what you are studying and can help you overcome this problem.


Finally, people always remember to ensure they are in tip top shape of the day of the exam, but the truth is, when studying humanities, your mind has to be ‘on’ all the time. Pay attention in lessons and think about what is being taught to you, think about whether it makes sense and ask questions that help you to understand it better. Humanities in essence is a subject of study that arose because people stopped to think about the human condition. It deserves some thought from you as well.


About The Author

Tan Jiaxia graduated from the National University of Singapore (NUS) with an honours degree in Social Science. She is now an educator who specializes in study aids and techniques. Her main goal is to make achieving good grades as easy and painless as possible for students so they can hold on to a love for knowledge acquisition.


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