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The Benefits and Challenges of Studying History


Studying history can work wonders in helping students develop critical thinking skills. It does not matter what subject in history one is studying, or what level; they all help students learn to look at a variety of issues from different points of view. Because at some level we know the outcome of historical events, and we often have multiple viewpoints of those events, students can begin to understand how humans in the past have approached a variety of issues that in turn provide insight into how to approach the issues of today. Students can start seeing in history that there is never just one correct way to approach an issue, and while that variety can be overwhelming, it can help them start to learn how to make decisions about their own issues even when it is very difficult and overwhelming to do so. Studying history can also help students develop understanding about humans in general by seeing how people of the past were all trying to do the best they could, with varying degrees of success and different metrics for measuring that success. The study of history can also help learners gain empathy, grow as people, and better understand the nuances and complications inherent to human civilization.

Click here to learn more about how we can help your student with history.

History is a subject that most parents and students often assume will go smoothly, even at an AP level, as they often do not realize that history in high school is no longer about just memorizing dates, places, people, things, and events. Students typically come to AJ Tutoring a few weeks into first semester or even second semester with a low grade, frustration, and confusion. Our history tutors are here to help them out! Often, the main reason students struggle is that they have never encountered history like this before, so it is not surprising that they may be a bit lost. Individualized history tutoring is a great guide for this complicated subject, and, as time progresses, we can work with students to develop critical thinking skills that will help them now and later in life.

Despite the stereotype of history being a dull subject or a “not useful” subject that is not relevant to the world today, it is in fact a vital part of a student’s education and should not be dismissed. It is a subject that can help them grow and develop as people, which will help them go far in the world regardless of what goals they pursue as adults.




Even if students are committed to studying history, they can often struggle with keeping track of all the information covered in history classes, especially AP history classes. Teachers often expect students to absorb a myriad of seemingly specific facts which will be reviewed on quizzes and tests. It can be intimidating and frustrating for students when they try to study thoroughly and correctly, only to realize that they missed that one tiny section about an apparently random person or event that then pops up on an examination. With these difficulties in mind, here are a few strategies that our history experts recommend for students engaging with a challenging history subject.

A key solution to support intimidated and frustrated students is to help them develop critical thinking skills that will allow them to use the information they do remember to answer questions on details that they don’t remember. These skills can manifest in a number of forms. For instance: helping the students build their own timeline of key events that are less difficult to remember, then making educated guesses about things like cause and effect or continuity and change over time using that bedrock of information.

If a teacher provides a study guide before tests or quizzes, we recommend that students aim to absorb all the information from those guides. Then, they should pick one or more events that they think are the most important, engaging, and memorable. From there, students can start building their own timelines from these well-understood subjects that they can continue to build on throughout the school year until any kind of cumulative exams they might have, including AP exams.

Also, it is important to remind students that history is a story, so there is always a (rough) beginning, middle and resolution to every event that then causes new stories to branch off with their own narratives. Putting historical events together like a multi-book novel series that is constantly being written and rewritten can be a fun way to interact with and remember historical events. Certain characters continue to pop up in different or similar places (Henry Clay the great compromiser is directly involved in many of the political wheelings and dealings of the early to mid 1800s, for example), while old problems that everyone thought were solved come back and challenge new (or even the same) groups of people (the issue of slavery in the US and its potential expansion into the territories is a great example). Helping students see that history is less about memorizing thousands of facts and more about exploring and understanding a story is vital in helping them effectively approach the subject and begin to think critically.  

Students can be resistant to this new way of engaging with history, especially if their history classes in the past have focused entirely on memorizing a list of information. They think they already know how to approach history, but then at a high school level when they are expected to use the historical information to write and analyze events, they find they are not able to do so successfully. Students can often write down the information that is relevant to the prompt, but they are unable to explain why it is relevant to the prompt, thus earning a lower grade. Or they think that there is only one possible piece of information that is going to answer a very broad historical writing prompt and spend all of their time trying to figure out which of several potential events they are supposed to write about. In fact, there may be a variety of inroads or possible responses to the prompt.

This new sets of challenges can be difficult to tackle, and each student learns differently, so trial and error with a variety of strategies is usually the most effective pedagogical approach. One of the strategies that we find helps many students is to have them practice answering writing prompts by breaking them down into more specific questions, thereby narrowing the focus of their ideas. From there, students can connect their thoughts and explanations into a unified answer. Also, if they are caught up and stalled by trying to find the ‘correct’ answer, it is often helpful to give them a very short time period to brainstorm and then write freely based on what they could brainstorm, even if they think it may not answer the question completely.

The best resource for writing about history at an AP level is the collection of past AP history exam free response questions that can be found on the College Board website. For example, you can find some highly useful AP US History resources here. For timeline-building, a crucial test-taking technique that is a very student-specific process, there is not just one best resource. The timeline can be something students start building on a piece of notebook paper, a Google doc, a photo of one drawn on the whiteboard during tutoring… the list is endless!

If your student is looking to build confidence and achieve success in a history course, please reach out to us today!


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