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Helping students learn and remember
Who’s Who at GCSE and A level

One of the fastest ways to lose confidence when studying a period in depth is to feel uncertain about ‘who’s who’. Feeling that you don’t know why x is important or who’s on whose side niggles away at students’ confidence, undermining other efforts to learn. Therefore getting a rapid grip on Who’s Who is vital for students, whether it’s at A level or in one of the new GCSE Depth and Period studies. This activity provides ways to help students get to know Who’s Who faster and with more certainty.

The textbook page (in the resource file, here) helps visualize the core of the activity – imagine transferring the layout of these people from the page into the classroom, creating a human diagram in which each student wears a tabard [ info here ] with the name of one of the historical people. It’s the layout of the individuals that’s important, grouping people by role (councillors in one group, seafarers in another, Catholic plotters in a third, near to the Pope and Philip II of Spain) and all revolving around the central character of Queen Elizabeth I. Similar layouts work for any topic.

For some topics, especially at GCSE, you can deal with a single period e.g. The Norman Conquest 1060-1088 but in courses covering a longer period you need to identify a sub-period or specific date for when the activity takes place.

Students studying English Literature may be familiar with this approach as it is also used to help students get to grips with the characters in books and plays as this example for Great Expectations illustrates (see the resource file).

[Don’t stop reading if you don’t have enough students in your group – you can turn this into a card-organizing activity with pairs or trios of students organizing sets of cards bearing the names. However, if you have enough students do use the human diagram approach as the memory benefits are greater because students are personally involved as individuals in the diagram.]


A WORD version of this activity and accompanying resources can be downloaded:

Building and Using the Human Diagram

The complete diagram is not where you start.

Here is how to build it up and how then to consolidate the knowledge:

1. Allocate each student an individual from the period and set them a research task to find out about his or her individual, particularly his or her relationship to the central individual. When you allocate roles think about using friendship groups to represent connected individuals e.g. Elizabethan seafarers or Catholic plotters or use students with the same names as historic individuals to take those roles.

In addition, give students a list of the other key people in the period and ask them to identify who in the list their individual was connected with or had something in common with.

2. When students arrive for the next lesson, build up a human version of the diagram on the attached page. Use a picture of the central individual (or even a large stuffed toy) to represent Queen Elizabeth, William I, Stalin or whoever and it’s important for memory that students wear sugar-paper tabards with the name of the historic person clearly visible.

To build up the human diagram:

• ask students one by one to arrange themselves in relation to the central person. As each one takes his or her place they have to explain their relationship to the central person.

• As the human diagram develops also get students to explain their links to others in the diagram – the links could be made physical with strands of wool or string.

3. Once the diagram is complete ask students how they can physically represent the relationship with the individual through positioning, mime or acting. This sequence is worth following:

i) how close should you be to the central character to show your support or opposition?

ii) what body position should you adopt – bowing/subservient?

iii) what about your facial expression – is it one of anger/concern/worry/ anxiety? 

The resulting positioning of individuals or groups could be photographed to create ‘Moments in time’ freeze-frame images and then students can write speech or thought bubbles to identify and explain these moments.

4. To consolidate memory and knowledge ask students to recreate the human diagram as a concept map on A3 paper, placing the people and drawing lines between them, adding annotations to explain the links. If this is done in class, allocate ten minutes working in pairs, then put pairs together to compare their A3 diagrams and add to their own versions.

5. Use photographs of all or parts of the human diagram to create a wall display. Leave out the lines showing links so you can refer to this during lessons and ask students to recall and explain the links.

6. Revision possibilities:

a) ask students to take their positions in the human diagram and then ask individuals to tell the story of an event or sequence of events from either their point of view OR to give their views of the actions of another individual in the diagram OR explain why he or she took a particular decision or action.

b) Choose a year and ask students to create their own diagram – this helps particularly when studying a longer period i.e. who would be in the diagram in 1520 but not in 1545, would they be in the same positions related to Henry VIII. Or place students in a pattern and ask them which decade or year this pattern represents.

It is vital to return regularly to the activity at intervals during the course to consolidate memory so you need to plan when to do this during your sequence of lessons – once the initial activity has been undertaken and photographs have been taken students can be asked to revisit it as part of a snowball test, quiz or homework revision activity.

My own and others’ experience is that this kind of activity does have a powerfully beneficial impact on memory. Please do not underestimate the value of what may seem just a fun and unusual learning experience – it really does aid memory and triggers recall as will be clear when you ask that vital question later in the unit ‘Do you remember when?’.


Constructive feedback is always welcome. So if you have any other ideas for developing this core activity do please send me the details.

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Building Human Diagram