What is a THESIS?

A thesis statement is the position a student is going to take, the argument that is going to be made. It is therefore the answer to the question being asked. As such, the thesis statement is not a fact; it is an informed interpretation of the facts. Neither is the thesis statement just an opinion. Rather the thesis is the reasoned judgment of the student. Most good questions allow for a range of possible answers. In other words, a continuum exists and students can generally feel free to choose a response along that continuum. However, students should avoid crafting an extreme response at either end of the continuum. Most questions require a response that is not black or white but instead some shade of gray.

That does not mean, however, that students should attempt to respond in the middle of the continuum. Such an attempt usually results in a failure to articulate a clear position. Students should also beware of the fallacy of “positive response bias.” Unfortunately, many students are inclined to answer a question in the affirmative. Students always need to carefully weigh all of the historical evidence and then craft a response that best articulates their understanding of the historical record. In other words, students should not feel free to argue any side simply because they can believe they can support it. Instead, they should feel compelled to support the side with the most evidence behind it.

Thesis Formulation

The thesis is the controlling idea around which you construct the rest of your paper. In a history paper, the thesis generally explains why or how something happened. Every word of your paper should support your thesis. Information you do not directly relate to your thesis will appear irrelevant. This means, of course, that in a paper with a weak or no thesis, much of the paper will appear to be irrelevant and unguided.

Most writing attempts to convince the reader of something. Even a poetic description of a rock is an attempt to convince the reader that the rock appears a certain way. A history paper takes a stand on a historical issue or problem, and attempts to develop a coherent and persuasive line of thought intended to convince the reader of the validity of that stand. Your thesis is the concise statement of your argument.


Deconstruct the prompt in terms of it’s Command Word, Given Factor, Focus, and Time Period. Once you have broken the prompt down into the major tasks then think in terms of substituting words so that you do NOT restate the prompt as your thesis. Another great advantage with the process of deconstruction is that you have immediately identified the key evidence you can use in support and thus have options to choose as the anchor for your thesis statement. Further, by breaking down the prompt, considering words in substitution, and identifying evidence for substantiation you have already developed a basic outline for the essay. You should choose (with an ‘unseen’ prompt) to write your introduction and thesis statement LAST. BY doing so you have three paragraphs to develop and a conclusion before your write an ACTUAL introduction to what HAS been written, rather than a hasty intro to what you intend to write – big difference.

Strategies for Developing a Thesis Statement

Idea 1. If your paper assignment or your test/exam asks you to answer a specific essay question, after you deconstruct the question, turn it into an assertion and give reasons for your position.

Assignment: “How did domestic labor change between 1820 and 1860? Why were the changes in their work important for the growth of the United States?”

Beginning thesis: Between 1820 and 1860 women’s domestic labor changed as women stopped producing home-made fabric, although they continued to sew their families’ clothes, as well as to produce butter and soap. With the cash women earned from the sale of their butter and soap they purchased ready-made cloth, which in turn, helped increase industrial production in the United States before the Civil War.

Idea 2. Write a sentence that summarizes the main idea of the essay you plan to write.

Main Idea: Women’s labor in their homes during the first half of the nineteenth century contributed to the growth of the national economy.

Idea 3. Spend time “mulling over” your topic. Make a list of the ideas you want to include in the essay, then think about how to group them under several different headings. Often, you will see an organizational plan emerge from the sorting process.

Idea 4. Use a formula to develop a working thesis statement (which you will need to revise later). Here are a few examples:

  1. Although most readers of ______ have argued that ______, closer examination shows that ______.
  2.  ______ uses ______ and ______ to prove that ______.
  3. Phenomenon X is a result of the combination of ______, ______, and ______.

These formulas share two characteristics all thesis statements should have: they state an argument and they reveal how you will make that argument. They are not specific enough, however, and require more work.

Examples of thesis statements:

Bad: “George Washington set many important precedents as president.” (This is a fact not a position.)

Good: “The precedents that Washington set as America’s first president greatly benefited the American political system.” (This is a clear position that can be supported or opposed).

Weak: “The Revolutionary War brought about change in American society.” (This is, technically, a position. But, it is vague and not really debatable.)

Strong: “The Revolutionary War ushered in a slew of wide-ranging and permanent social changes in American society.” This is a clear, strong, and debatable thesis.

Sample Prompt:

Jacksonian Democrats viewed themselves as the guardians of the United States Constitution, political democracy, individual liberty, and equality of economic opportunity. In light of your knowledge of the following documents and your knowledge of the 1820’s and 1830’s, to what extent do you agree with the Jacksonians’ view of themselves?

Types of Thesis Statements:

  1. Direct: This is a straightforward statement that clearly and directly answers the question.

“To a remarkable degree Jacksonian democrats succeeded in implementing their vision of American society.”

  1. Compound: Use this approach when trying to prove two main points. Use the word “and.”

“Jacksonian democrats successfully portrayed themselves as guardians of American ideals and did indeed achieve a remarkable degree of success in protecting those ideals.”

  1. Split: This approach splits the thesis into several categories. In essence it combines the thesis statement with the plan of attack/themes of the essay. This works best when the prompt itself provides the essay categories.

“To a large extent Jacksonian democrats were not effective guardians of the United States Constitution, political democracy, individual liberty, and equality of economic opportunity.”

  1. Complex-Direct: This type of thesis statement acknowledges that contrary evidence exists and addresses the complexity inherent in most essays prompts. A well-executed complex thesis offers students the best opportunity to earn a high score. Key words such as “although” are helpful in constructing this type of thesis.

“Although Jacksonian Democrats truly believed that they were the guardians of American ideals, their actions betrayed other priorities and rarely lived up to either their rhetoric or intentions.”

  1. Complex-Split: This approach splits the thesis into several categories, acknowledges that contrary evidence exists and tackles the complexity inherent in most exam essays.

“Even though Jacksonian Democrats failed in their self-appointed roles as the guardians of the United States Constitution and individual liberty, they achieved great success in strengthening political democracy and the equality of economic opportunity.”


“Despite a few notable lapses, in general, Jacksonian Democrats were good stewards of the United States Constitution, and oversaw an expansion of individual liberty, political democracy, and economic opportunity.”