How to Study History

When studying for a history course, begin with the general topic or theme and then focus on the key people, ideas and events.

You don’t need to know every detail, but you should understand the important elements. For example, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal had many programs that were developed over the course of his presidency, but students don’t need to know them all. Instead, they should recognize the basic purpose of the New Deal – it had two parts, the period from 1933 to 1935 was designed to offer immediate relief to the public and help the economy recover; the period from 1935 to 1941 produced long-term reforms to ensure a stronger economy.

Students should then learn the importance of two or three programs in each part. Also recognize that the years of the New Deal programs help clarify their purpose. Students don’t need to know the specific date of every event but should use them as guideposts.

The trick is taking something complicated and simplifying it in a way that makes sense. That is basically what an instructor or a textbook author is trying to do when they present material (eg, creating a list to show the causes of the Civil War or the Great Depression).

Finally, never hesitate to ask questions. Students are often reluctant to ask things of the instructor in class, but in doing so, everyone benefits. Other options are to ask classmates or see the instructor at his or her office.

Tips for Taking Notes

The following guidelines are modified from a list created by Jules R. Benjamin in A Student’s Guide to History:

  1. Write the lecture topic and date.
  2. Be selective – don’t try to write everything down.
  3. Write down things the instructor a) puts on the board (including things on powerpoint), b) emphasizes, and c) says is important.
  4. Always ask questions – if the instructor goes too fast, ask him or her to slow down; if anything isn’t clear, say so.  NEVER leave class uncertain about anything from the lecture or discussion!!
  5. Reread your notes to ensure that things are clear and you understand them.

Tips for Discussion

  1. Read the material and come to class prepared!  Don’t assume you can browse the document during the discussion.
  2. Try to understand three basic elements of the reading – What is it about?  Why is it important?  How does it improve our understanding of a topic?
  3. What questions do the documents raise?

Tips for Preparing and Taking an Essay Exam

The key is to find a way to organize the material so it doesn’t seem overwhelming. 

  1. Begin by focusing on the topics listed on the schedule.
  2. Organize each of the topics.  If the instructor has created a list of things to remember in class (eg, nine causes of the Great Depression), use them; otherwise organize topically or chronologically.
  3. Don’t try to remember everything – consider key issues, events, and people.
  4. When writing the exam, a) focus on the question, b) don’t generalize, c) present an argument and support it with specific evidence.
  5. Ultimately, remember that a test is a test.  It’s designed to show what you’ve learned – be as thorough as possible.