How to Do Well in a History Class

The lecture is just one way to learn history.

Hogarth lecture 1736 Photograph of the Chautauqua Institution Hall of Philosophy taken by me.

How to do Well in a History Class

I’ve been teaching for a while, so here I’ve brought together some thoughts on what students need to succeed in class.

The study of history is not so different from the study of other humanities or social sciences. Most, but not all, historians use three approaches when teaching: lecture, reading, and discussion. There might also be some active learning and research. Teaching is changing and that includes the teaching of history. We must also recognize that historians use artifacts, music, movies, and about anything else that informs our understanding of the past. The American Historical Association has been promoting #everythinghasahistory and historians are wresting with what to do with new(ish) sources and new communication tools such as Facebook and Twitter. Regardless of how the material is presented or where it is found, 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. Key to understanding this is the context in which something happened, the context in which the historian lives, and the realization that history is created from the evidence that remains. (Yes, it can be more than this, but this isn’t the place to go into more detail on the philosophy of history.) 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 and argument 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” shows up regularly 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 he or she has given the lecture upteen times before and needs to spice it up for him or her self. Maybe the professor 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. Research suggests that actively recalling something long-term is best developed by attempting to recall it, then taking a break, then returning to attempting to recall it. Take notes, put them aside, try to actively recall what is in the notes, then revisit the original notes. Re-reading notes is not a good way to remember something. 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 see “An Overview: Lecture Note Taking.” The Cornell Note Taking system 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. In this moment in time, there are some great historical podcasts and documentaries out there. The internet is full of some really good history and some really bad history. However, much of the foundation of historical knowledge is found in books. Many of those quality documentaries and podcasts are built upon books. Famously, Hamilton the musical is based on a book (Google it up). 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.

If you don't understand a word, look it up. History after all, has its own jargon. Ol' timey English can be strange (when did they start using modern punctuation?). Plus, since everything has a history that means that the history of each thing has its own jargon and concepts. So, look things up. Your phone (i.e. pocket computer) is attached to greatest reference library ever made. Ask your professor? This is also a good use for Wikipedia. Although Wikipedia has it limitations, the Wikipedia Foundation makes a real effort to keep its entries accurate. It is a good reference tool. It is not perfect and you shouldn't use it for original research, but looking up something like a word or concept you don't understand - it's not bad. If you do this, be sure to remember that words can have different meanings depending on context. Scholars often use words differently than they are used in day-to-day usage.


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

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 Questions

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.

Use any time remaining 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?

Now let’s see what these folks have to say:

Check out Bloom’s Hierarchy of Test Questions for more on test construction and taking.

How to Prepare for an Essay Exam

A Guide for Writing Essay Examination

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

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.

An earlier version of this web page was developed in collaboration with Dr. Penny Messinger.