The MuchSmarter Blog

Becoming Much Smarter in History

Tom Schecter
August 26, 2015

Of all of the academic subjects I work on with my students, history is the one that most often requires a complete overhaul in study habits.

It’s pretty easy to learn to dread a tough history class—especially at Honors or Advanced Placement levels—if you’re studying history the wrong way. And here’s the thing: a lot of kids are studying history the wrong way—and not because they’re not trying hard enough!

Could you be one of these kids? Let me ask you a few questions…

  1. Before every test, do you find yourself trying to memorize a list of events and people and wondering what they have to do with one another?
  2. Do you focus more time and energy on those lists of events and people than you do on reading the textbook?
  3. If I was to ask you to give me a plot summary of what happened in this past chapter, and how it connected with the last chapter, would you look at me like I’m a crazy person?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you’re focusing on the wrong thing when you’re studying history. (And if you answered “yes” to all me at We need to talk.)

History is a story, you guys. At its most fundamental level, that’s all it is. It is a long, sprawling (and often very depressing) story about how humanity got to where we are as a species. There’s a lot of cause and effect, and a lot of connections to things that happened before, and if you understand how and why a thing happened, it becomes way easier to remember when it happened. 

So, if you’re tired of banging your head against a wall trying to memorize a bunch of names and dates, here’s a better way to study history:

1. Read the chapter—and focus on the story. Yup. You have to read the textbook. That’s what it’s there for. But instead of just jotting down a note about anything you think might matter, I want you to write a mini-plot summary of the chapter.
2. Figure out what has changed since the last chapter, and why that’s important.
Go backwards. Cause and effect rule history. Once you understand why what you’ve just read matters, you’re in good shape.
3. See if you notice any patterns.
Do the same types of events happen in the same way? Are there a few things that usually cause wars, or revolutions, or religious revivals?
4. Take an educated guess about what happens next. 
Always be on the lookout for cause and effect. Using what you know about what happened in this chapter, and any patterns you’ve noticed, write down a few predictions for the next chapter’s events.
5. NOW try to remember the major names and dates.
Now that you have a sense of the story, you can organize the major players and the major events in a way that makes more sense for you. They’ll be easier to remember, too!

Remember, you’re going to have a year’s worth of information to remind yourself of by the time your final exam or AP test rolls around. Organizing it in a way that engages you can make all the difference between making history a class you dread going to and turning it into a class you have handled.

And again, if you want some help learning how to learn history, drop me a line and I’ll help you get on the right track.

Until next time!

- TS

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