year 11 modern history historical investigation

The Historical Investigation is one of the biggest and best parts of Year 11 Modern History.

However, it can be quite overwhelming if you don’t know where to start.

So, have no fear! Art of Smart are here to help you knock out the best historical investigation of your life.

Wait, what actually is the Historical Investigation?

You’ve probably heard your teacher mention these magic words a few times now – but what do they actually mean?

Let me enlighten you.

The historical investigation is a task designed to provide you with the opportunity to further develop your skills as a historian through a research project.

While the nature of this may differ from school to school, it most commonly takes the form of an individual research essay on a topic of your choice (so long as that topic isn’t one that your school does Year 12 Modern or Extension).

It constitutes 20 hours of course time in Year 11 Modern History and thus, a substantial part of your overall assessment.

What do I write about?

This is up to you!

The syllabus encourages students to select topics that “reflect their individual interests” so you really do have free reign here (mostly…).

Always wondered about life in the 1960s? Victorian England? The French Revolution? Well, now’s your chance to learn all about it!

It’s not often in high school that you have the chance to dedicate hours of studying to something you’re genuinely interested in so take advantage of the opportunity to work with a topic you love!

You picked Modern History for a reason so there’s surely something out there that sparks your interest. Make sure you pick something that you’re interested in, or your Historical Investigation will be painful.

You REALLY don’t want to spend 20 hours researching something you’re not interested in.

To get you started, NESA suggests the following possible investigations:

  • Aspects of a society as revealed through sources
  • The causes and impacts of an historical event
  • The significance of an historical development
  • Tracing the development of an aspect of the past over time through a thematic approach
  • The analysis of an historical debate (this one will set you up well for Year 12 Extension)
  • The contribution of an historical site to our understanding of the past
  • Constrictions of the modern world
  • The nature of social and cultural change in a decade of the 20th century
  • An interpretation or representation of an individual, group or event (will also set you up well for Extension)

While you do mostly get freedom of choice, there are unfortunately some constraints placed upon you in choosing your topic:

  • You cannot pick a topic that significantly overlaps with any topic your school teaches in Year 12 Modern or Extension History.
  • Many teachers will prefer you not to select a topic that overlaps with your Year 11 Modern topics.
  • As the course is Modern History, it should go without saying that the topic should be modern in nature. Perhaps put that interest in Ancient Egypt aside for now.

Double check with your teacher if you’re unsure whether your topic meets the requirements above.

I’ve got my topic, what next?

Once you have a topic, start doing some preliminary reading. As your topic will likely already have lots of existing research, narrow your focus by answering these questions:

Provide a brief summary of your topic (100 words)


Why did you choose this topic? What makes it interesting? (100 words)


Explain ONE area of historical debate within your topic. What have historians disagreed on and why? (Minimum 100 words)

To make it easier for you, enter your email for a downloadable PDF to help you plan and write your Historical Investigation!

From here, you should develop a maximum of THREE inquiry questions specific to your topic.

Use these to guide your deeper research, after you’ve finished your preliminary reading. One of these is likely to become your final essay question.

For example, a student investigating popular culture interpretations of the enigmatic Victorian serial killer Jack the Ripper might use the following inquiry questions:


Why has Jack the Ripper become an object of fascination in popular culture? 

Why are some suspects more prominent than others in popular culture interpretations of Jack the Ripper?

As you work through your downloadable PDF Historical Investigation Planner, you’ll likely want to consult some sources – after all, where else will you get your information from?!

Using Sources in the Year 11 Modern History Historical Investigation

How can I find good sources?

Sources can be found all over the place – the trick is to know where to look and how to discern a useful source from a not-so-useful one.

There are two types of sources you’ll be using in your investigation, two types of sources that I’m sure you already know all too well:

  • Primary Sources – sources created during the relevant historical period or afterwards by someone who was there. Can include diary entries, newspaper articles, photographs, letters, autobiographies, interviews, among others.
  • Secondary Sources – sources created after the relevant historical period by someone who was not there. Can include books, journal articles, documentaries, among others.

Where can I find them?

For secondary sources, I would start by taking a walk through the history section of your school library or a good public library. You’d be surprised by what you might find!

For the more technologically-inclined however, Google Scholar is always a hit, as is Questia (ask your teacher about a subscription, many schools have them). Alternatively, you can become a member with the State Library of NSW for free and have unfettered access to their glorious range of online databases.

Primary sources might be a little trickier to find however it’s not impossible.

Many of them can be found on databases such as those mentioned earlier (hello State Library) however you’ll also find a good number of primary sources in the online collections of some museums, such as the Australian War Memorial or the British Museum, among countless others. 

And once I’ve got the sources, what do I do with them?

Analyse them, of course!

Think about how they relate to your topic and how they can help you answer your inquiry questions!

Then create a summary by answering the questions below, you will get a better sense of your source and how they relate to your chosen topic:

Summarise this source’s interpretation of your topic (max 50 words)


Find FOUR good quotes you can take from this source. For each quote, provide a brief explanation of what makes it so good (1-2 sentences).


If possible, do a background search on the historian. What are THREE factors that might influence their perspective? Consider context and likely personal values.

Enter your email below for a handy downloadable PDF for you to analyse all your sources and keep them in the one place!

Now you’ve got some sources and analysis, you’ll want to start thinking about how to apply your knowledge of sources and your topic into the context of an essay.

To do this, you’ll need to start by developing an essay question.

Developing Your Essay Question

As a starting point, pick one of your inquiry questions that you developed earlier. Ensure the question is broad enough to write an essay but not so broad that it becomes generalised.

Returning to the sample inquiry questions from before…

Why has Jack the Ripper become an object of fascination in popular culture?

Why are some suspects more prominent than others in popular culture interpretations of Jack the Ripper?

Either of these questions would work nicely as an essay question. They are direct and get straight to the point. Your question too should not beat around the bush. Keep it to no more than two sentences, although ideally achieve it within one.

If you’re stuck on how to word your essay question, NESA has published a handy glossary of key essay terms!

Your question should contain the following:

Number 1: A Directive Verb or Phrase

This will tell you what you need to do in order to answer the question and how you will need to structure your argument (refer to the NESA glossary if you’re unsure).

For example, a question beginning with to what extent will invariably be different from a question starting with Why.

Number 2: Strong Links to Your Topic

Don’t be too general or vague in your question. Narrow it down and be as specific as you can be. Ensure the question is actually asking about your topic too, and is not too far-fetched or broad.

Number 3: Strong Links to Your Argument

After all of your research, you will undoubtedly have formed some arguments and opinions about your topic – if not, then you probably need to read a little deeper.

Make life easy for yourself and design your question around your argument. Be a little sneaky and play a game of mix and match.

Number 4: Correct Punctuation

You’d be surprised how many students get this wrong.

End your question with either a question mark or a full stop, depending on your wording. If your essay question specifically asks a question, e.g. “To what extent”, “Why” or “How” then use a question mark. If it is more of a command, e.g. “Evaluate” or “Assess” or “Discuss” then it will not grammatically form a question per se and you will need to use a full stop.

How should I write my essay?

Ideally, write the essay bit by bit instead of leaving it all until the last minute.

Leaving it until the last minute is never fun and creates way more stress than it should. Give yourself enough time to periodically revise and edit your work – and even get feedback from your teacher (if possible), a tutor, family member or friend.

The essay will likely have a word limit of 2000 words although this will depend on your teacher.

You should write the essay using relatively formal language (but not so formal and show-offy that nobody can understand it) and in the third person. Avoid slang unless it’s part of a quote and write using full, grammatically correct sentences with accurate spelling.

How can I avoid storytelling?

Ahh, the art of storytelling. A trap all too common to Modern History students.

Avoid focusing on lengthy descriptions in your body paragraphs.

Think using a cause-and-effect model – briefly describe whatever event/personality you’re focusing on and move quickly to your analysis – think of the bigger picture, think of the broader significance of this event/personality in the context of your question. What implications does it have?

Focus on making a judgement rather than relaying a narrative. Shift your focus towards impacts and effects rather than ensuring your reader knows what happened.

Remember, the purpose of your essay is to argue a point, an interpretation about the significance of some aspect of the past – not to tell a story.

Consider the following bit of storytelling, in response to the question, “Why has Jack the Ripper become an object of fascination in popular culture?”:

Jack the Ripper scared many in late Victorian England as he indiscriminately killed prostitutes in London’s impoverished East End. While there were many suspects, he was never caught and to this day nobody knows his true identity. He became so fascinating to the public that numerous films and television programs were released to try and answer the question of his true identity, such as From Hell and Ripper Street.

While we may learn a bit about Jack the Ripper and why he’s so fascinating, the paragraph only skims the surface in terms of an explanation of why he’s so fascinating – which is what’s being asked by the question.

It describes his impact as an object of fascination but does not attempt to account for this fascination nearly as much as it should.

Now, consider this bit of writing in response to the same question:

Aptly named Victorian serial killer Jack the Ripper murdered and mutilated at least six London prostitutes during late 1888. Despite the identification of numerous suspects, his true identity has never been confirmed and the case remains open. Thus, it is because of this unanswered question of identity that a strong air of mystery has surrounded the killer – and continues to surround him. This in turn has fueled the creation of numerous popular culture representations which attempt to pin an identity to the Ripper murders, such as From Hell and Ripper Street.

Not only is the paragraph more detailed – by referring to a specific date and alluding to the killer’s modus operandi – it also focuses far more strongly on the significance of Ripper’s fascination by attributing it to the murders remaining an open case.

We can notice this in the language of the paragraph – it uses connecting words and phrases such as “thus” and “this in turn” to suggest a process of causation and to help the argument flow throughout the paragraph.

What next?

Once you’ve written your essay – submit!

And give yourself a good old pat on the back – you’ve achieved something great!

Sit back and enjoy the fact that you’ve just spent 20 hours as a historian.

You’ve developed a topic and a research question and used relevant sources to conduct a research-based investigation – bringing it all together in a top-notch essay. Awesome job!

If you really, really enjoyed the historical investigation project, you may want to consider taking Extension History in Year 12 – where you’ll get to do it all over again!

A large part of the course consists of an independent research project not dissimilar to your investigation – key differences are that the essay is a little longer, has a much stronger focus on historiography and historical debate, and is not restricted to only modern-related topics.

Have a chat to your Modern History teacher if this is something you might be interested in.

Looking for extra help with the Modern History Historical Investigation?

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