Using Wikipedia when studying History GCSE / A level


Whether studying for History GCSE or A level, students always have to write essays on specific topics, events or people. This usually involves some research, in addition to consulting the relevant handbook chapter(s). Whilst in the past students headed for the library to find additional reading material, nowadays they are more likely to consult the internet, which is a faster and more convenient media. It is quick and easy to type a question, person or event into Google or other search engine, with results brought back in seconds.

Usually, Wikipedia is at the top of the list of search results. For anyone not familiar with it, Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that can be accessed by anyone, without charge. The name “Wikipedia” is a combination of the words wiki (a technology for creating collaborative websites, from the Hawaiian word wiki, meaning “quick”) and encyclopedia. Articles provide links designed to guide the user to related pages with additional information. Whilst some articles on the internet are restricted or for sale, the information provided by Wikipedia is free and available in many languages. When researching a person, it gives you a brief outline of the life and achievements of them before going into more detail, breaking it down into such things as ‘early life’, ‘education’, or ‘marriage’, to name a few. When researching an event, it gives you a brief outline of that event before providing detailed background information on the run-up to it and the key players involved.

Wikipedia has many advantages other than bringing information quickly and more digestably to the reader. It also opens further links for exploration which may prove relevant. When researching a person such as Winston Churchill, for example, it will provide links to specific events in his life, e.g. when he was Prime Minister. It also provides relevant dates and can help draw a timeline; for example, when looking at the decolonisation of Africa, it shows a table containing countries/colonial power/date of decolonisation. This then provides links for further research into individual countries. These links can be opened at the click of a mouse and then be explored further. Wikipedia can also be used to find further research sources by looking at references and bibliography found at the end of each article.

However, it is also important to be wary of Wikipedia. Whilst quick and convenient and appearing to have all the answers, it should be kept in mind that it is an ‘open portal’ that can be edited by everyone. Changes can be made to the information in Wikipedia, so it is important to cross-reference with other sources and not rely exclusively on the information gained from it. There are many other subject specific pages available with a little more research. Heading to the library for some more books may still be a good idea too.

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I have been working as a History tutor for OHS since February 2011 and also work for Edexcel/Pearson as an examiner for History. Prior to that I worked at a couple of secondary schools across Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire as Head of / teacher of History. I graduated from University of Wales with a BscEcon in International history and International politics, and have an MBA and PACE.

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