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How to Study History

What skills do you need to succeed when you're studying history in college? Here, 8 practical tips from history professors and students.

Are you studying history, or considering history as your major? Gaining a deep understanding of the past allows you to put the present day into perspective, and it also helps you develop many practical skills that are applicable, and valuable, for careers in a wide range of fields.

If you’re not sure what skills you’ll need to do well, here’s help. We asked two history professors and one history student for their studying strategies.

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Professors’ tips

1. Think about the big picture.

“I don’t ask my students to memorize the dates for the Battle of Gettysburg or how many people died, but why it happened and how it impacted events that followed,” says Eric Weeks, an adjunct professor of introductory U.S. history courses at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. “One thing I always stress is that history does not occur in a vacuum, so even though the Civil War took place 150-plus years ago, and the Civil Rights Movement 50-plus years ago, those events and eras continue to influence our present day. History is not just black-and-white pictures or dusty tomes on a shelf somewhere.”

2. Read critically.

This will help you streamline reading and maximize your time. Not every single detail in a text is important. Sometimes students are afraid to skim texts or to synthesize information in their own words. Don’t be. “Students are often used to thinking concretely, attaching meaning to exact words,” says Plymouth State University Associate Professor Rebecca Noel, who teaches introductory and advanced history students at the New Hampshire school. “I’ll ask a student to read a section and put the most important points on the board in their own words, and they don’t want to—they think they’re changing the meaning.” Don’t be afraid to interpret a text and zero in on key details.

3. Hone your writing.

Essay writing is a large component of history classes. Noel usually assigns four- to five-page essays, and she looks for persuasive arguments, proper grammar, and good use of vocabulary. Consider this your chance to practice, because writing is a key skill in the professional world. “Those mechanics are important. You’re paying tuition to get your writing the best it can be,” she says. Need help? Visit your school’s writing center for help with grammar, developing arguments, and giving structure to your writing.

4. Develop analytical thinking skills.

This is crucial, says Noel. Often, students react emotionally to a text instead of analyzing it. “A student will write about what the text reminded them of, whether they enjoyed reading it, or how it made them feel,” she says. Instead, be objective: Talk about whether the author made a strong argument, whether they used proper evidence, and how that evidence fits into the topic.

5. Read for pleasure.

Even if you’re not sure history is for you, think about books you’ve enjoyed — or might enjoy — that illustrate a certain time period that interests you. For instance, Noel knew she wanted to become a history professor after reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods as a child.

Student tips

6. Change your medium.

Antonia Totoiu, a University of California at Santa Barbara senior, mastered her history classes by watching YouTube videos to supplement her in-person classes and to deep dive on specific topics, like the Vikings or World War II.

7. Make a time line.

Totoiu writes down time lines using the information from her classes, to put historical events and characters into chronological context. This helps her memorize and visualize different events.

Final thoughts

8. Get personal.

Even if you don’t love a class, think about ways that it affects you. For instance, if you’re studying the Civil Rights era, think about lessons you can apply to your life now. Which leaders do you admire? Why? How is your life different because of those events?

“If you’re having difficulty or looking just to complete the course, try and find a way to make it your own,” says Weeks. “Try and find something in the course that relates to what you’re more interested in and try to pursue it. At the end of the day, American history has an impact on every single student in my class, so even if they don’t care about the subject matter, it still affects their lives in a number of ways.”

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