Tips for Successfully Taking a History Class


The study of history is not so different from the study of other humanities or the social sciences.  Most, but not all, historians use three approaches when teaching:  lecture, reading, and discussion.  This being said, we must also recognize that historians use artifacts, music, movies, and about anything else that informs our understanding of the past.  Regardless of how the material is presented, you, the student, still need to pay attention to both the big picture and to details, ask analytical questions, and "think like an historian."

What does it mean to think historically?  How does one discern the big picture from the details?  What makes a good question and why?  Aren't we in danger of losing the forest for the trees, particularly in a discipline like history that seems to thrive on detail?

History is at its core the study of change over time.  In your classes you will be presented with information about conditions as they once existed and how those conditions changed.  Historians attempt to provide complex explanations for change and the impact of that change.  (Yes, it can be more than this, but this isn't the place to go into more detail on the philosophy of history.)  Most historians try not to simply list facts in chronological order.  In reality, historians pick facts from what remains of the past through research (recognizing that some parts of the past are simply not recoverable) and then organize those facts into a coherent story that provides an explanation for why an event happened the way it did and why is important for our lives today.

The Lecture

When listening to a lecture, be sure to pay attention to what the lecturer is saying.  This might seem obvious, but it is a skill that is often easier said than done.  Maybe the room is hot and stuffy, perhaps the lecturer is boring, perhaps you didn’t get enough sleep last night, but for whatever reason we have all had those moments when focusing is not easy.  Taking comprehensive notes is a way to increase your active participation in the process.  It is important to get down not only what seem to be key words, dates, and figures but also the explanation as to why it is important.  For example, if the word “mercantilism” is in the outline on the blackboard or overhead then don’t just write down mercantilism, but take down the definition, who practiced mercantilism and why.  How does mercantilism relate to other parts of the lecture?  The important thing is not that you remember the information now, but in several weeks when you are going to be tested on it.

How can you tell whether something is important?  Look at how prominently it is featured in the outline.  Does the professor dwell on the point mentioning certain terms or points several times?  Does the professor spend time connecting this point to previous points or foreshadowing future points?  Is the point prominently featured in the textbook?  Does the professor tell a story during this part of the lecture?  Students sometimes can’t figure out the point of stories and view stories as a chance to put down the pencil and take a break. However, this is not a good idea.  Why did the professor tell that story?  There can be several reasons.  Perhaps the room is hot and stuffy and s/he didn’t get enough sleep last night.  Perhaps s/he has given the lecture upteen times before and needs to spice it up for him or her self.  Maybe s/he thinks the students will enjoy it.  However, there probably is a reason for the story.  The story is some bit of evidence that illustrates a point.  Instead of putting down your pen or pencil – write that story down.  The same goes for class discussion and videos.  Take notes during class participation (both the comments by the professor and your fellow students).  These same ideas apply to videos shown for or in class.  That video isn’t being shown just to kill time.  Pay attention to the details and take notes.  

What can you do to improve your note taking skills and get more out of class?  Ask questions if you are having trouble following the lecture.  You can write your question in the margins and ask it later.  After the lecture, review your notes.  You might want to copy them to make them more readable.  Compare your notes to what is in the textbooks.  Compare notes with another student.  Begin your study session by reviewing your notes.  The last thing you want to do is put the notes aside until the night before the test.  Do you have trouble figuring out what you need to include in your notes or how to use them?  There are formal note- taking techniques that you can use.  For different types of note taking techniques do a search for the Cornell Note Taking system, which works well for history courses.


History isn't just about listening to your professor ramble on.  Now that you are in a history class I hope you like to read.  Despite all the hoopla regarding new technology the primary route to historical knowledge remains the written word -- even if you find those words on a web page.  Next time you are watching a history documentary listen carefully to the narration -- there is your written history being read to you.     
    Just as you should try to actively engage the lectures, you should engage in active reading.  When you pick up a book and start reading (always start with the introduction where the author(s)) tell you what the book is about) ask yourself, what is the thesis of the book?  What are the main points of this book?  Next, ask the same question about each chapter.  Pay attention to paragraphs.  Ask yourself:  What is the main point of each paragraph?  What is the bias of the author?  It helps to write in the margins -- write questions to bring up in class, question the validity of the argument, point out parts that don't make sense or you don't agree with.  Begin by asking some very basic questions.  What’s it about?  Who wrote it?  How long is it?  As you read ask questions of the text.  You can focus on who, what, why, when, and where.  Then take notes (in the margins or on a piece of paper).  Finally, review the material.
    Be sure to highlight important points.  A lot of people use highlighters but a pen or pencil are better.  Why?  While there is nothing wrong with a highlighter, it is hard to write in the margins or take notes with them.  Also, people tend to highlight everything.  Underlining can be a more discriminating act.  Whatever you use, mark important people, dates, events, and analytical points.  Keep a dictionary on hand when you read.  Look up those words you don't understand.  If you don't have a dictionary, you can find them – for free – in the library or on line.  There is a an app for that.


Questions are a big part of all history courses.  Most historical scholarship begins with a question.  Why is Warren G. Harding considered the worst president in American history?  Which came first, racism or slavery?  What were the intellectual sources for the Declaration of Independence?  Did Franklin Roosevelt know that Pearl Harbor was going to be attacked?  We expect you to ask questions.  We assign book reviews and such things where you are told to be analytical.  Questioning is at the heart of being analytical.  You need to learn to ask and answer questions.  During class discussions the professor or even your fellow classmates will ask you questions.  Perhaps most importantly, you will be asked questions to determine your grade.
    Test questions come in several basic forms:  objective (recognition – matching, picking, true false and similar things), recall (short answer) and essay. 
    Objective questions appear in a variety of forms (be sure to read the instructions).  You can answer objective questions by picking the correct answer, by answering true or false, by matching, and so forth.  Objective questions test memorization and require the least analysis.  The purpose of an objective question is to discover what you don't know.  Students often like this type of question but, don't do as well on them as they think they will.  Studying for these questions requires memorization and attention to detail.
       Recall and essay questions require more preparation because you have to supply the information yourself and put it in a coherent order.  This is unlike the objective question where it is possible to get the right answer with an educated guess (or not).  Recall questions include (from easiest to hardest) fill-in-the-blank, lists, and short answers.  Short answer questions require students to provide a brief, written, answer.  Identification of terms falls into this category.  They require students to identify a term based on the who, what, where, when, why, and significance format.  Be sure to include the historical significance.


Fill-in-the-blank:  “The first president of the United States was _______________.”

Listing questions can appear in many different forms:  one example,  “List four major accomplishments of Washington’s administration.”

A short answer question might ask you to provide an answer that ranges in length from a few words to a paragraph.  For example, “In a paragraph describe Hamilton’s financial plan.”

Identification terms:

Warren G. Harding:  Harding was the 29th president of the United States.  The Ohio senator was elected to the presidency in 1920 when he won one of the largest landslide victories in American history.  Harding ushered in a new era of conservative politics, promising the people a ‘return to normalcy.’  Harding died in office in 1923 and after his death scandals came to light, the most famous of these being the Teapot Dome Scandal.  (Note the mastery of accurate detail; the writer has addressed all of the relevant points—who, what, when, where, why, how, and historical significance.)

Warren G. Harding:  Harding was a president from Ohio.  He was a Republican whose term didn’t go very well and he died in office.  Calvin Coolidge was the next president. (This answer is vague.  The information is accurate, but the writer doesn’t seem to know very much about the term and doesn’t address all of the who/what/when/where/why/how questions, nor does s/he discuss historical significance.)

Really bad:
Warren Harding was a leader during WWII.  He allowed Pearl Harbor to be attacked.  His policies failed.  (Guessing doesn’t work with this type of answer.  Will you get any credit for such an answer? No)

Essay questions are another favorite of historians.  Essay questions require you to master the facts and know how to put the facts together into a coherent argument.  There can be no doubt that the writing of essays improves with practice.  However, there is no reason you cannot do well right from the start.  First of all, be positive about essay exams.  An essay test is an opportunity for you to tell me what you know rather than for the professor to try to find out what you don't know.  A good essay has a balance of facts and argument and too much of one at the sacrifice of the other is bad.  Too much detail without an argument isn’t good and too much abstract argument without supporting evidence is another common mistake.  To have an argument you need to be able to provide a one sentence summary (thesis) of your answer and the rest of your essay should support and develop this statement.  You should follow the classic essay form:  an introduction, a substantial body, and conclusion.  An argument for an in-class essay doesn’t have to be original or creative but it does need to have some organization.  Here are some tips for doing well on essay exams:
When you begin to review for an exam, first look at all the materials.  Often an essay question will ask you to synthesize information and students sometimes miss part of the material they are being asked to synthesize.  When you study, you need to review all of your notes (from lectures, class discussions, and assigned readings).  Charts, lists, summary notes, and mind maps are all helpful in reviewing for an exam.  All of these help you to cluster ideas and to see connections between facts.  If you don’t have a study guide, look at the materials and guess what the questions might be.  I bet you can guess what the questions will be with or without a study guide.

Study guides do not change anything in the above point. When working from a study guide, outline your answer.  It is a good idea to make your first pass at studying for the exam as if you didn’t have a study guide.  It is almost useless to write out your essay in advance and then try to memorize it.  Learn outlines and basic facts and be sure that you understand how they are connected.  Most professors love to see students making the causal connections from one point to the next.  

Prepare in advance.  Take advantage of opportunities to review before an exam by preparing in advance.  If you don't have a review session or you want more information, preparing in advance will give you time to ask questions and take advantage of office hours.

Read the questions in its entirety and make sure you understand it.  A lot of essay questions will have multiple parts.  There is a reason for this.  Often the first sentence sets the broad parameters of the essay and the following questions help provide focus.  If you don't understand a word look it up or ask your professor (especially if you are in a test-taking situation).

Use your time wisely.  Take time to prepare a brief and informal outline before you begin to write and consult it as you write.  This will help to prevent the costly mistake of starting an essay over again.   Also remember that you need to answer the entire question but, at the same time, you have a limited amount of time and probably have other parts of the exam to complete.  Writing a good essay is a balancing act between the need to be as complete as possible and having limited time to do this.  Allocate your time based on the proportion of the grade the question is worth.  Some students spend 40 or 50% of their time on a question worth maybe 10% of the grade and run out of time on the long essay worth 60 or 70% of the grade. 

Some organization will help prevent redundancy, which is another excellent way to waste time.  Also, organization early on can prevent such things as drawing arrows throughout your blue book to guide the reader through the essay.

Students always ask:  how long should I make my essay?  The answer is:  that depends.  Essay length is tricky and also relates to the above point.  Obviously an essay can be too short and not answer the question.  Just as obviously, a long essay doesn't guarantee a good grade if it isn't on the topic or is full of mistakes.  Generally speaking, students who write a good essay take up most if not all of the allotted time and tend to have the longer essays - but not necessarily the longest.  Their essays are focused and on topic.  (Your professor will probably disregard material that is not on topic, even if it is accurate.)  Use common sense and try this general rule.  Have at least 5 paragraphs: an introduction, 3 paragraphs of body, and a conclusion.  Did you answer the question?  Did you do a good job?

Don't get hung up on prose.  With an in-class essay you have only one draft so strive for clarity, a command of the facts, and an understanding of the material. Don't expect to wow your professor with your sentences (save that for the paper). By the same token, your professor needs to understand what you have written so try to be clear and to the point. 

It is a good idea to use any time remaining time in your exam session to check your answers.  Did you answer all of the questions?  Is there a major point you needed to address?  Do you see any mistakes?

Class Participation

That’s enough about test taking, now on to class participation.  Most professors will usually want to discuss the reading.  This is an important part of processing the assignment.  Professors often have certain things they are looking for in the reading and these reflect what they want students to take from the reading.  To help you prepare for class discussions, here are some guidelines for developing questions to encourage a class discussion.

·        Make the question broad enough so that you avoid single word answers or yes and no answers.
·        Good questions and answers will analyze, compare, contrast, hypothesize, or draw conclusions.

·        Facts are important, but nit-picking really doesn’t encourage class participation.  Questions such as “Who was Chester A. Author’s Vice President?” don’t further our understanding of history or help the class dynamic.
·        Avoid asking questions such as “What three points are given on page ___ that explain the rise of nativism?”  Instead ask, why Americans turned to nativism?  Who joined the nativist movements?
·        Don’t avoid controversial topics.
·        Don’t hesitate to ask questions about images.
·        Feel free to make connections with current events or things going on in society right now.
·        It is fine to put your opinion into the discussion but remember that somebody will likely disagree with you (and this is when it gets fun).

How to Do Well in a History Class

          Let’s review a little on what you should be doing:

·        Take good notes – you can never have too many notes

·        Practice ongoing review of the materials

·        Prepare in advance

·        Ask questions

·        Reading all of the assigned material – actively

Students sometimes comment that they cannot learn from lectured material because “it does not agree with my learning style:  I’m a visual learner.”  While knowing your learning style can help you to do better in your classes, it is not an excuse for doing poorly.  It is your responsibility to learn the material.  Having a preferred method of learning should not shut doors for you.  You can develop other learning styles.  For more on learning styles see what Dr. Nancy Casey of the SBU school of education has to say on the subject:

Electronic research

When you are given a research project, your first, middle, and last stops should be the library.  Isn’t this the old-fashioned way? you ask.  Not at all.  The library is the epicenter of the information revolution.  If you want to be a knowledge worker in the new millennium then you better get to the library.  You can even telecommute.  The Friedsam Library has an impressive web page with plenty of links to valuable databases that can provide you with reliable information.  To paraphrase from Arthur the Aardvark, doing research isn’t hard when you have a library link.

Most of you know that you can pop on-line to conduct research from any number of search engines, including Google, Yahoo, Dogpile, etc.  These search engines each operate in a different way and the technology is increasingly sophisticated.  Try this.  Conduct the exact same search on a handful of different search engines and check out the results.  Type in a brand (any other major company) into different search engines.  What are the top two or three sites found?  Are they same sites?  What is the content of those sites?  Suddenly research on the web looks a little like a quagmire.  Now let’s go the databases available to us through the Friedsam web page.  What results do you get?  How do they differ from what you found on a commercial search page?

I have stressed the importance of actively engaging the material.  That can be hard to do on a web page.  Monitors aren't conducive to writing in the margins or highlighting.  How can you apply your skills when evaluating a web page?  You may not be able to write on the monitor, but you can take notes on a piece of paper.  Just because it’s on the web doesn’t mean you should turn your brain off.

Try to figure out where the web page came from.  In this day and age almost anybody can put up a web page.  URLs have suffixes that identify the nature of the site.  Addresses ending in .edu are educational, those ending in .com are commercial, those put up by the government end in .gov, and those ending in .org are organizational and usually a nonprofit organization.  This can be a broad indicator of reliability.  Just remember to match what you want with the site.  For example, if you are looking to make an on-line purchase you will probably want a .com.  For educational content a .edu is a good sign, but just because a web site ends with .edu doesn’t mean it’s reliable.  Many museums and historical societies have a .org address.  If you are researching a controversial topic have you reached the site of a partisan?  The NRA will obviously have a certain take on the debate over guns.  Your next step is to try to determine the credential of the content provider.  Who put the web page up and why?  Does the person have an ax to grind?  You don't have to throw out web pages from partisan organizations such as the NRA, but you do need to remember the organization's agenda and where you got the information.  Information from the Library of Congress or the National Archives and Record Administration will probably have more accurate historical information than information that some yahoo put on a free web page somewhere.  Web pages that look overly sensational can be questionable.  Does the web page include any evidence of his or her research?  Can you see where the information came from?  Is the information in general agreement with information found in other sources?  Does the author provide links to other sources that also appear credible.  How does the author explain his or her motivation?  Does he or she give credentials and/or affiliation?  If you are doing research on the JFK assassination would you trust

The WWW is full of pages meant to “help” students write papers and prepare for class.  While some of these are top-notch others are little more than thinly veiled opportunities for one-stop-shopping.  Do you really want to risk your college career on a paper that you bought over the internet for $9.95?  How many other people have purchased that same paper?  Do names like Pink Monkey and Sparknotes inspire confidence and evoke images of academic rigor?  Besides, if you can find it I can find it.  For more on plagiarism, electronic research, and how to do a citation check out IT and the Historian.        

Final Thoughts

Doing well in your history class requires that you engage the material throughout the semester.  Trying to pull an all-nighter before the exam or whipping together a sloppy paper at the last minute is not the way to success.  You might get by this way, but is that what you are really here for?  You grade isn’t determined arbitrarily and doing well isn’t a matter of luck.  I won’t say that you will never get lucky, but luck won’t get you through entire semester much less through four years of higher education.  Be sure to include study time in your schedule.  You need to be working two to three hours outside of class for every hour in class.  Finally, the faculty is here to teach you.  We don’t look to fail students but rather view that as an unpleasant necessity.  We much prefer to see you succeed.  Go talk to your professor about the class and his or her expectations.