How to succeed in college-level history courses

academics history

Success in college-level history courses requires that students develop a specific set of habits and practices, few of which are ever clearly spelled out by history instructors. While this is not an exhaustive list, the following paragraphs offer a few tips to help you get the most out of your history courses and excel while you are at it.

Listen carefully and take notes

At their best, history lectures can be gripping, entertaining, and intellectually stimulating. History professors have spent their entire professional lives thinking and writing about the past. Their lectures spin years of accumulated knowledge into narratives that address both the big picture of historical change and the granular details of past experience. It is easy to get lost in it all, but the biggest mistake you could make is just to sit there and enjoy it (though, by all means, you should enjoy it). Take notes, and if you can, do it the old-fashioned way—with pen and paper. You don’t have to write down every word your professor says, but if you can, try to reproduce an outline of the lecture, including the main arguments, the key terms, and the important details that your professor has emphasized. Good, consistent note-taking is one of the most important skills for excelling in your history classes. While you do it, you’ll be turning the content of the course into digestible materials that you can use to help prepare for exams and think about your papers.

Do the reading

The other biggest mistake you could make in your history courses is to avoid reading the texts that your teachers have assigned to you. If you are showing up to class and taking notes, maybe you think the reading is unnecessary. Maybe you think you won’t have the time to read two hundred pages per week per course. I know it sounds pedantic, but the truth is that reading is an essential aspect of learning history. For each course you are enrolled in, try to devote at least three hours a week to reading. Start by putting reading time in your schedule, and if you can, review the readings a second time before class. Sometimes the texts might be difficult. Other times they will be dull. But doing the reading will pay off in one form or another. Your professor’s lectures will make more sense to you; you’ll find yourself having more to contribute to in-class discussions; and your exams will require a lot less cramming. Sometimes the reading will be its own reward. You’ll see what I mean when you open up Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and you feel compelled to thank your Russian history professor for assigning it.

Utilize office hours

Depending on the size of your college or university, you may have great deal of (or very little) access to your instructors. Professors are sometimes overburdened with research and heavy course loads, and the same goes for the graduate teaching assistants who lead discussion sections and grade students’ work. Nonetheless, your instructors are usually obligated to hold weekly office hours to help students work through course material. This is a terrific opportunity to get help straight from the horse’s mouth. But I can’t tell you how many times I have sat through office hours without a single student showing up (though they often show up in droves at the end of the semester). You might be anxious about having one-on-one meetings with your instructors; maybe you haven’t had the chance to practice talking about history, which can make these encounters even more anxiety-inducing. But office hours are exactly the kind of forum for you to gain such experience. Even if you only do it just once during the semester, make sure to drop by, and try to do it early on. You won’t regret it.

Make connections

Studying for exams can be stressful, and for good reason—tests demand a great deal from students. Students are expected to be able to define and explain the significance of dozens of key terms, organize sets of obscure events into chronological order, and spontaneously write essays on various topics that have been covered in class. It can be overwhelming, even if you have done your best to stay on top of things. So what’s the best way to prepare for an exam?

While there is no single sure-fire way to prepare, one useful study method is to reorganize your course notes into a temporal and thematic grid. Bear with me for a moment. Let’s say you are taking a class on twentieth-century Europe. You can start by making a chart with decades of the twentieth century on the x-axis (for example, the 1910s, the 1920s, the 1930s, and so on) and course themes on the y-axis (politics, economics, culture, nature). Using your notes, begin to fill in all of the significant events, names, and trends that you have covered in class. It’s okay if it’s a bit of a mess. History is messy, and your job is to sort through it. If you can, form study groups with your classmates and talk about this grid. For each term you’ve listed, first make sure you can define the term and then discuss the connections that the term has to some of the other terms listed on your grid. That way, when you find yourself having to define and explain the significance of “fascism,” for instance, you’ll not only be able to mention the names of some of Europe’s most infamous leaders, but you’ll also be able to point to the aftermath of the First World War and the effects of the Great Depression in helping to bring about this extreme form of politics. In other words, you’ll be able to give a multidimensional response that is certain to impress. If you can consistently make these kinds of connections, you’ll excel not only on your tests, but in all of your history coursework.


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