How to answer a “to what degree/extent” essay question

Image source: https://pixabay.com/photos/young-woman-girl-lady-female-work-791849/
Image source: https://pixabay.com/photos/young-woman-girl-lady-female-work-791849/

One of the most popular question types to appear on History assessment tasks is one that starts with the phrase, “To what extent/degree...”.

 

Despite the fact that it appears so frequently, particularly on exam papers, some teachers and students are not sure how to correctly write a response to it. 

 

Thankfully, "to what degree/extent" questions are relatively easy to understand and to write a sophisticated response to, as long as you know what they are specifically asking you to do. 

 

In this blog post, I will explain what such questions are asking you to do and give you some practical tips on how to write an essay response to a “To what extent/degree” question so that you feel confident in your assessment pieces. 

 


Understanding the question

First of all, it is crucial to understand is the purpose of the word “degree” or “extent” in this kind of question. Regardless of which of the two words are used, they mean exactly the same thing: they are asking you to assign a degree of importance to how influential or important a particular factor is regarding the topic at hand.

 

A useful way of conceptualising the degree of importance, is to think of a simple scale that you could measure it against:

 

Scale of importance
 High degree of importance Equal degree of importance Low degree of importance

Most of the time, a "to what degree/extent” question is ultimately asking you to decide a single factor’s importance in comparison to another, potentially equally important factor. In other words, you need to argue which of two things was the most important.

 

Therefore, you will say that one of the two factors was “to a greater degree” important, while the other is “to a lesser extent” important. 

 

It is rare that this kind of question will require you to say that only one factor was the only important element in regards to a topic. Any event in history is a complex combination of multiple factors, and it is too simplistic to assign only one factor to any topic.

 

That is why this kind of question is so popular with essays about historical causation, consequences or significance in History exams. These topics acknowledge that there are multiple factors which contributed to a historical event or idea. 

 

Example essay questions

Sometimes, the question itself will provide you with the two elements that it wants you to compare. For example:

 

“To what degree was political ideology more important in Hitler’s rise to power than the economic conditions in Germany in the early 1930s?” 

 

As you can see in this “to what degree” question, it is asking you to decide whether “political ideology” was “more important” than “the economic conditions in Germany in the early 1930s”. Therefore, in your answer to this question, you need to clearly state which you think was “more important”. 

 

Here is another example: 

“To what extent did the Black Death in 14th century Europe decrease the papacy’s cultural influence in comparison to the political scandals within the curia?” 

 

Once more, it is easy to identify what you are being asked to decide between: whether “the Black Death in 14th century Europe” or “the political scandals within the curia” was more important in causing the decline of “the papacy’s cultural influence”. 

 

However, sometimes an essay question will only give you one factor, in which case you will need to choose the second factor to compare it against.

 

For example 

“To what degree was Julius Caesar’s assassination the result of his own hubris?” 

 

In this example, the question only gives you “his own hubris” as one important element. Therefore, you will need to decide, based upon your own historical knowledge and the sources supplied, something else to compare it against.

 

It is still important, though, that you still come to a conclusion about which of the two elements was the most important. 

 

How to structure your answer to the question (the hypothesis)

Once you have identified the two elements you are going to compare in your answer, you need to decide which of the two you are going to assign was importance to.  

 

When you write your answer to the essay question (which will become your hypothesis), you have to ensure that you clearly state which of the two options you have decided is the most important. You can use the following cues to identify the greater and lesser factors: 

 

“[Factor 1] was, to a greater degree, more important in [the Topic] than [Factor 2] because...” 

 

“[Factor 1] was the main cause of [the Topic] despite the role of [Factor 2] because...” 

 

“While [Factor 2] did play a role in [the Topic], [Factor 1] was by far the most significant element because...” 

 

As you can see in these example structures, you need to:

  • clearly state the two topics you’re comparing
  • mention the topic to which they relate
  • have a clear decision about which of the two factors are most important to the topic

 

Also, don't forget to provide clear reasons for your decision after the “because” in your hypothesis. 

 

How to structure your essay


 Once you have decided which of the two factors was the most important and which was the least important, then you can start planning your essay paragraphs

 

Since essays typically require you to follow the standard five-paragraph structure (introduction paragraph, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion paragraph), you know that you will have three body paragraphs available for arguing your decision.  

 

This helps us to use a simple structure to responding to a “to what degree/extent” essay question: 

 

  • In two out of your three body paragraphs, provide two separate reasons for why one factor was the most important 
  • In the third of your body paragraphs, talk about the lesser contributing factor 

Here is a visual representation of the structure to help you: 

 

Body Paragraph 1 Body Paragraph 2 Body Paragraph 3
 “[Factor 1] was the most important element in [the Topic] because...”  “Another reason that [Factor 1] was the most important element in [the Topic] is because...”   “To a lesser degree, [Factor 2] was important to [the Topic] because...” 

By dividing your three body paragraphs in this way, you devote two-thirds of your essay to the most important of the two factors, and then one-third to the lesser of the two factors. 

 

At the start of each body paragraph, then, you need a clear topic sentence that provides a reason why this factor was important. Ensure that you have two separate reasons to support the factor you’ve chosen as the most important, and one for the lesser of the two factors. 

 

For example: 

Topic sentence for body paragraph 1: 

“[Factor 1] was the most important element in [the Topic] because...” 

 

Topic sentence for body paragraph 2: 

“Another reason that [Factor 1] was the most important element in [the Topic] is because...” 

 

Topic sentence for body paragraph 3:  

“To a lesser degree, [Factor 2] was important to [the Topic] because...” 

 

Some rare exceptions

The advice provided above will serve you well in replying to almost all “to what degree/extent” essay questions. However, here are some rare exceptions which you might need to watch out for, along with some quick advice for how to deal with them. 

 

Some questions may ask you to compare three separate factors. On these occasions, the question is probably guiding you to argue that all three factors were of equal importance. Typically, you can assign each factor to a body paragraph and provide one reason why each element was a contributing factor. 

 

Some questions may ask you to only assign a degree of importance to only one factor, without expecting you to provide a second alternative. In short, if this happens, it is probably a poorly written question. Essay questions that require the analysis and explanation of only one factor should probably by a “how” or “why” question, rather than a “to what degree/extent” question. Firstly, check with your teacher about if they really do only want one factor considered and ask how they intend for you to answer the question.  

 


Additional resources

For additional resources on how to write all the elements in a History essay, please check out the following scaffolding guide, which has examples of full paragraphs to help you out. 

 

For advice on other kids of exam questions, read over the exam question advice section.

 

Write a comment

Comments: 2
  • #1

    Kim Brett (Tuesday, 01 September 2020 23:32)

    As always, you've got your finger on the pulse, Michael. My students at Our Lady's College Annerley really appreciate your posts.

    Best wishes

  • #2

    History Skills (Wednesday, 02 September 2020 02:13)

    My absolute pleasure, Kim. So good to hear that your students are finding the information helpful. Please say 'hello' to them for me and tell them I wish them all the best for their upcoming assessment.