How to Tackle the OPCVL Question for IB History

By Jonathan Wilson

(History, English Literature, English Language, TOEFL, IELTS, English Builder, ESOL at The Edge Learning Center)

Hi everyone, this is Jon again, English and History tutor here at The Edge. It’s been a while since we last looked at History for the IB, so I wanted to look at the second question on the Paper 1 exam, which is the OPCVL question. This question is worth 4 of the total 24 points available for us on the Paper 1 exam, and it asks us to look at one specific historical document, and refer to its origin, purpose, and content to determine what its values and limitations are to historians.

We Can Do It

Let’s be clear on what each of these terms means, and how we determine how it applies to the source we are looking at. The table below will show us what kinds of questions we need to ask to allow us to best understand these particular aspects of the text.

Origin Who created the text, and if anyone else is speaking, who are they? When was it created and when was it published? Where was the author from, where was it published, and if there is another speaker, where were they from?
Purpose Why does this source exist and why did the creator choose this particular format? Who is the text written for and whom did the author think would see this?
Content What does the source say?
Values How does the source help us understand the time and place, as well as the events occurring at the time the source was created or is focusing on? How does the text help us understand the perspectives of a given time and place? How does it help us understand the perspectives of the author if she exists outside of the time and space he or she is talking about?
Limitations What is there from the time and place discussed that we cannot understand from the source? Are there limitations in the perspective that leave out important information? Could this be intentional?

We’ll have to ask all of these questions, but the set of origin, value, and content questions have to be asked in light of the values and limitations questions. For instance, if we identify the author of a specific text is a Japanese businessperson and the text was created in 1924, we’ll then ask how that helps us understand that helps us better understand Japan at that time as well as the perspective that a businessperson might have. We might also ask what information we would not understand and if there are any limitations to this businessperson’s knowledge, and any bias that the he or she (presumably he, given the time and country) might have.

To get all 4 available points, we need to reference the origin of the text, its purpose, and its content, at least one time each. To get all 4 points, we also need to make sure that we mention both values and limitations. If we only talk about either values or limitations, we can only get a maximum of 2 points. To be clear, we must talk about values and limitations as they relate to origin, value, and content, so the possibilities for us are as follows:

Origin: Value Origin: Limitation
Purpose: Value Purpose: Limitation
Content: Value Content: Limitation

We don’t actually have to mention every possibility, but rather just any four of the six. In that case, we can just choose the four we are most confident in for the particular source we are looking at. For instance, let’s say we have chosen the following:

  1. Origin: Value
  2. Purpose: Value
  3. Content: Limitation
  4. Purpose: Limitation

You’ll notice that “purpose” appears twice. This is because a purpose can both have value for historians investigating a particular aspect of history while having some limitations in some other ways. It isn’t necessarily contradictory to say that the purpose of the source helps us understand some aspect of history in some way, but it also limited in helping us understand history in some other way. This remains true for origin and content as well, as we can talk about values and limitations for either without saying anything contradictory.

When, we’ve identified which four points we would like to include in our response, it is simply a matter of writing them out. Now remember, we need to ensure that our answer is clear, but we don’t get any points for style or vocabulary, so it’s perfectly fine to rely on a fill-in-the-blank approach to answering. In fact this is particularly useful because it helps us save time and becomes quite automatic once we have practiced it a bit. Let’s look below to see what I mean.

“The (origin/purpose/content) of this source is that (explain), and this is (valuable/limited) because (explain).”

The above is one of several possible ways of structuring part of our response. Now, take a look at the source below and then we’ll create a sentence that fills in the blanks.


The political cartoon shown above was created by famous American children’s author and illustrator Theodore Seuss Geisel, better known to many as “Dr. Seuss”. Created sometime before America’s entry into WWII, the cartoon criticizes the U.S. for passively sitting by and allowing Nazi Germany to conquer much of Europe, capturing, displacing, and killing many people in the process. If we were to write an OPCVL response to this source, we might construct one of our sentences as follows, with the underlined content being what we must interpret from the text and fill in:

“The purpose of the source is that it criticizes the U.S. government for it’s ‘America First’ policy, and this is valuable because it provides historians with insight into the perceptions of American citizens, like the author, who see the government as lacking concern for Hitler’s victims in Europe.”

That gets us one point, and to get all four points for this, we would need to identify the values and limitations of origin and content, as we saw before. I’ll show you what that looks like in a moment, but first, I want to share with you a few tips for providing a sufficient answer:

  1. Put values in one paragraph and limitations in another. It will be clearer to the examiner that way, as the mark scheme lists the acceptable answers that way too.
  2. Make sure to use the words “origin,” “purpose,” “content,” as well as “value/valuable/valued” and “limitation/limiting/limited/limit” explicitly. Do not assume that examiner will know exactly what you mean.
  3. Always speak from the perspective of a historian or history student. Keep in mind that your answer should have nothing to do with your opinion.
  4. Make sure that your answer for what is a value or a limitation is in depth. It is not sufficient to say that the purpose of the political cartoon we looked at is valuable because it tells us that some Americans were critical of their government. That isn’t enough. Our answers should be concise, but they also need depth.
  5. Use words such as “potentially,” “likely,” “perhaps,” and so on where necessary. This isn’t an argumentative essay where you are judged for seeming irresolute.

With those points in mind, let’s take a look at a full OPCVL response. Notice all of the things we’ve talked about coming together.

The purpose of the source is that it criticizes the U.S. government for it’s ‘America First’ policy, and this is valuable because it provides historians with insight into the perceptions of American citizens, like the author, who see the government as lacking concern for Hitler’s victims in Europe. The content of the source, which depicts a maternal figure with “America First” printed on her shirt who is reading about “Adolf the Wolf” devouring children, is also valuable because it shows us how the America first policy could be seen as inhumane and indifferent to the lives of non-Americans.

The origin of the source is that it was written by a cartoonist rather than a policy-maker, and this is a limitation because it offers us little insight into the details, and in particular the conditions, of America’s policy to avoid involving itself in foreign affairs. Furthermore, it’s content depicts Adolf Hitler as a wolf that only eats foreign children, but omits any content that might suggest the risks America would have for joining the war against the Nazis.

Thanks for joining me and if you have any questions, come and see me at The Edge!

Read more from Jonathan’s previous blog “IB History – The New Paper 1 Prescribed Subjects”

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