There are three main AP level history subjects offered by the College Board, AP US history, AP European history, and AP Modern World history. By far the most commonly offered subject from this group is AP US history of ‘APUSH’ as many refer to it, and it is typically taken by high school juniors, though it depends on the school. AP European history and AP Modern World history are often offered more as electives so students taking these classes typically vary in grade level. Regardless of when a student takes their first AP history class or which AP history class they take, students are often overwhelmed by the amount of work and time that they need to put into the class. However, there are some clear effective steps that a student can take to make their AP history workload more manageable and succeed in both the class and on the AP test in the spring!
The first stumbling block that students can run into is the sheer amount of content that they need to know for an AP history class. Students are getting content from their textbooks and from their teachers, and keeping track of it all can be overwhelming. There are a few ways to make it all more manageable, both for the class and for the eventual AP.
The key thing to know is that the AP history content is all interconnected. This means that one event leads to another, then leads to another and so forth. Recognizing this can help a student begin to learn the major trends of each of the periods of time they cover. Once a student gets the major trends down, they can work on learning some key specific examples of those trends, and also how they work together with other events. By linking events together, a student can then start getting, at the very least, the order of these events, so even if they don’t remember the exact date of an event, they can still have an estimate of the date and also know how said event is connected to earlier and later events.
A way to help connect events is to build timelines. Oftentimes chapters in AP history textbooks will focus on one topic and time period, like industrial growth 1800 to 1850, but then the next chapter will shift back and look at social trends from 1800 to 1850. This can get confusing, and it can make it difficult to spot how certain events in one chapter connect to events in other chapters. By building a timeline that includes events and information from the chapters that cover the same time period, a student can physically see how one event might be connected to another and so on down the line. Timeline building is particularly helpful around winter finals and then definitely for the AP exam in the spring.
Connecting events and information is one of the most effective ways to learn AP history content, and in particular helps students build the critical thinking and analysis skills needed for the writing sections of the AP history exam. Many of the writing prompts, when stripped down of specifics, are about cause and effect, similarities and differences and general connections between events and what those connections mean. Thus the most effective way to learn content for both in class tests and the AP is to focus on how it all builds off of itself.
A second stumbling block that AP history students encounter is time management of the often substantial amount of homework the class gives. Students will frequently have to read twenty to thirty page dense chapters from their textbooks, and often have to outline them. They will also often have writing prompts to complete and even research papers. Balancing this with homework from other classes can be stressful.
There are a few main strategies for getting through dense and long reading. To begin with, most of the AP history textbooks are structured around headings and subheadings within each chapter. A student can then break the chapter into sections, using the headings and subheadings as stopping and starting points, spreading the reading out over a few days. Reading roughly five pages every night is much more manageable than sitting down and reading twenty-five pages all in one go. Another reading strategy is to schedule blocks of time with breaks in between to try and read as much as possible. A student can also use headings and subheadings here to keep track of where they stop.
Not every student is required to outline their textbook chapters, but many are, and this can make getting through the long chapters even more time consuming. Almost every student I’ve ever had who needed to outline their history textbook, has started off over-outlining the chapters. It’s difficult to know what information one should include from the chapter and what information, while interesting, isn’t as significant. Thus students tend to try and put every detail down in hopes of not missing something important. There are a few different strategies that help solve the over-outlining issue.
First, a student can try setting a timer and only spend say five minutes pulling information from each page they have to outline. By putting a limit on the time spent, the student is forced to prioritize certain information over other information, thus reducing what they put down in their outline. This helps students develop critical thinking skills, since they have to decide what is and is not important.
A second strategy is to limit how many lines of notes a student takes from each heading or subheading. For example, if they are using bullet points to organize their notes, a student could limit themselves to two bullet points per subheading. This again helps them practice prioritizing information and critically think through what is and is not significant enough to be written down.
Finally, many textbooks have reading comprehension questions at the end of the chapter. These are especially helpful for students who are still having trouble prioritizing information. The reading comprehension questions at the end of the chapter are aligned to the major themes and events of the chapter, so by looking up where the answers to each question are located, students can start to get an idea of what information they should be concentrating on.
Ultimately the thing to remember when taking an AP history class is to be patient. Many of these skills and strategies take time to develop, but if you start working on them at the beginning of the school year, by the time the AP exam comes around you should be doing great!