Study Tips for Learning History

Learning history can be intimidating. With so much information to retain, it’s difficult to get a sense of what is important. Students may wonder: What will be on the test? How do I keep track of all the key names, dates, and places? How do I know if I’m actually learning something or just reciting my notes? 

The best way to approach learning history is to make sure that you have a goal:

  • Courses will outline overarching questions that the class will seek to answer
  • Exams will be bound by dates and chapters and build around crucial themes
  • Essays and research papers are dependent on theses that contribute to or challenge present interpretations of historical accounts

But you may ask yourself, “How do I get better at history? What can I do to improve my class notes and the quality of my papers to raise my grades?”


How to Study History: Preparing for Assignments and Assessments

Here, you’ll find tips ranging from preparing for class to taking tests so you can look forward to history class instead of dreading the upcoming quiz.


1. Understand the course’s objective

Believe it or not, students often forget to read the syllabus for their history courses! However, this go-to resource can be incredibly helpful. 

A syllabus usually provides a set of questions or a timeline of the events covered. More importantly, it lays out key themes you’ll address in class.


2. Take notes chronologically

History attempts to tell a story of the past, so notes should be organized in such a way that you can understand how the events, people, and ideas involved shaped the time period you’re studying in the order in which they occurred

This tip will help prevent confusion or anachronisms when using notes to help with assignments.


3. Understand context 

Knowing names, dates, and places is important. But understanding how they are related is paramount to success on the long-answer questions that ask students to explain how these concepts connect:

How did X lead to Y? What consequences resulted from choices A, B, and C, and which was the most influential? 


4. Organize

Using graphic organizers or outline formats for your notes will help you understand the information in order, from the general themes to specific examples

This approach builds your association between an overarching idea and the distinct actors involved. 


5. Remember the CoT

Change over time (CoT) is a major theme in long-form and document-based questions. How have the previous systems of government, economy, or social norms changed due to certain events or trends? And can you substantiate your claims about these changes with specific historical examples? 

Using this concept as a foundation for your research, you’ll be able to produce compelling and detailed papers that contain careful and unique analyses. 


6. Restudy your notes

After you’ve written your notes down in a lecture, annotate them with highlights, definitions, and margin notes. 

Through this second look, you’ll identify concepts you need to revisit and strengthen with independent research and figure out which ideas you’re already comfortable with. You’ll also have a chance to refresh your memory of the lesson.


7. Make study guides

Study guides can be made independently or collaboratively with other students. The goal is to develop a list of the key terms and concepts and work on recalling the 5 Ws & H about them (i.e., who, what, where, when, why, and how). 

Being proficient with straightforward facts allows you to group concepts or documents (think document-based questions) more easily and weave powerful arguments to support your ideas. You’ll also be able to assess the quality of answers to multiple choice or true/false questions more confidently. 


8. Teach someone

One of the best indicators that you know the material is being able to explain concepts to others—effectively, teaching the lesson. 

Grab a study partner, parent, or younger sibling, and set the scene by offering context regarding the concept and how/why it matters. Then make connections to future events or conditions to demonstrate the significance of that concept’s role in changing or preserving the status quo.


9. Utilize your resources

Be sure to use every resource at your disposal to test and refine your knowledge: online quizzes, sample essays, or old AP exams are all great options if they’re available.

In addition to knowing the unit or time period, you want to understand exam formats, varieties of questions, and how questions are worded. Preparing for assessments also means preparing for how the information can be presented. 

The difference between simply listing information and engaging with it is that engaging involves thoughtful reflection. Instead of just writing out a series of examples, take time to frame what you’ve learned and add your analysis. You’ll better retain the information because you’ll be working with it


Success in History 

Success in history can be defined in many ways, but being able to explain the timeline of a concept and filling it in with names, places, and dates is the foundation for communicating your knowledge in a captivating way. If you follow these tips for how to study history, you’ll not only score higher on your exams but also have a greater appreciation for the subject.

“In history, a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind.” —Edmund Burke

If your student needs help with history or any other subject, Signet’s tutors are available to offer guidance and support. Schedule a free call to learn more!

Picture of Holly Schreiber

Holly Schreiber

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