Whenever I say history in a tutoring session, it’s usually followed by an “ughhhhh.” History isn’t all that bad though!
In fact, it’s a highly important subject to take in high school because it helps us understand who we are today. Have you ever heard of the saying the past informs the present? Well, it’s certainly true!
A lot of students stay far, far away from history because of how complex it may appear or are unsure how to do well in the subject. However, there is a way to make history easy! For me, it took me a while to find my method but when I did, it helped me achieve an A+ in Ancient History and top the subject in Year 12!
So sit back, grab a notebook and a pen and get ready to jot down a few handy tips that will help you take one step closer towards that ‘A’!
Tip 1. Decode the criteria sheet
As a tutor who primarily specialises in humanities subjects, I see many students regularly who struggle to understand what the task is actually asking of them. History is different from Maths or Science (where you usually can check that you have the correct answer by going to your friends). With History, there’s never a straightforward right answer! The key to doing well in History is looking at what steps you must follow to back up your answer.
Where are these steps?
In the criteria sheet!
There are three major areas identified on the criteria sheet for Ancient History:
1. Planning and using a historical research process
2. Formulating historical knowledge through critical enquiry, and
3. Communicating historical knowledge
I know what you’re thinking – “What gibberish is this?!”
Don’t panic! It’s easier than you may think.
Let’s start with “planning and using a historical research process.”
Tip 2. “Planning and using a historical research process” – aka keep a detailed research log
An entire element on the criteria sheet is dedicated to research. That’s 1/3 of your entire assignment! Clearly, research is very important – but what I hear all the time is “I just don’t know where to start!”
So, first things first – let’s talk about where to start: with what you should always have in your research log.
a) Research questions!
No matter what, there will be a day when you’re assigned a topic and know absolutely nothing about it. The best thing you can do in this situation is acknowledging that you know absolutely nothing, and writing down what you need to know. I do this in the form of questions.
For instance, let’s say you’ve just received an assignment which is asking you to discuss powerful women in ancient history. The first question that I would write would be “Who are some powerful women in ancient history?”
Yes, ladies and gentlemen – it is truly that simple.
Let’s pretend that you’ve done some research for that question, and you have now chosen Boadicea as your powerful woman. A few questions that you might ask could be: what did she accomplish? What impact did she have on civilisation? What obstacles did she overcome? How is she presented in historical sources?
Make sure you include all of this in your research log! If you want to be a little more technical, you could introduce sub-questions!
b) Formulate a thesis
Writing a thesis is common across all subjects, so it’s important that you know how to write a spectacular one!
Your thesis should be about one to two sentences long, and include a little background to your topic followed by your position (opinion) on the subject. Writing a thesis can be difficult – which is why you’re probably never going to nail it on your first attempt! So, make sure you refine your thesis a couple of times.
Drafting is important, guys!
c) Colour code and annotate like crazy
I took this statement far too seriously in High School and my research logs always ended up looking like a 4 year old was let loose with a pack of crayons.
Nonetheless, there is value in highlighting and taking note of important aspects of your sources. Key things that you should colour code and write comments about in your research log include: primary and secondary sources (see Tip 3), research questions, evidence of bias, and instances of corroboration/contradictions between sources (see Tip 4).
Tip 3. “Formulating historical knowledge through critical enquiry” – aka use both primary and secondary sources
It’s not exactly easy to sit back and say, “Nero started the Great Fire of Rome back in 64 AD” with 100% certainty. I mean, were you around nearly 2000 years ago and saw him light a torch and run around the streets lighting every building on fire? No, of course not.
So, how do we know what actually happened in 64 AD?
Well, we look to what we call “primary sources!”
Primary sources provide firsthand evidence about a historical event whether that be documents, videos, drawings or artifacts.
Let’s think about it in a modern context. Imagine you’re at a Coldplay concert and you have your phone out, having a jam, and recording the band on stage. All of a sudden, the guitarist falls off the stage and you caught the whole thing on video! That video is a primary source.
So in ancient times, we generally rely on historians. In the Great Fire case, we’d look at the recounts of Tacitus and Cassius Dio.
However, just using primary sources isn’t enough to get that ‘A’ grade! Students should also use what are called “secondary sources.”
A secondary source is created after the historical event and generally relies on primary sources to support their findings. These are generally scholarly books or articles.
Let’s go back to our Coldplay example. Someone has watched that video you recorded and has decided to write an online blog post about it. That blog post is a secondary source because they did not experience the concert first-hand.
SIDE NOTE: Don’t just read! Lots of important information can be hidden in videos, audio books, documentaries or even at the museum. (Did anyone say road trip?)
Tip 4. “Formulating historical knowledge through critical enquiry: Part 2” aka analyse your sources
I might start this tip off with a life lesson. Sometimes, people lie.
It’s necessary to remind ourselves of this even when checking sources, as apparently people used to lie a LOT back in the AD’s!
It is crucial that you take note of when you think a source may be “blurring the truth” about something. Most history assignments will require you to write a paragraph about each source you use in your assignment.
What should you write about you ask? Well, there are four things you should always check when analysing a source: its relevance to the task, its accuracy, whether it corroborates with other sources and the perspective of the source writer. If you have positive answers for each, looks like you have a good source.
However, if you can spot a hint of bias in your source, don’t ignore it and think that it’s bad to use for you assignment. Acknowledge it! Most likely, it will help you figure out what actually happened.
How do we know if someone is biased? Well in Ancient History bias could be traced back to a source writer’s background. For instance if you have a Greek historian writing about a Roman Emperor*, do you think they’re going to have a lot of loving, kind things to say?
In Modern History, bias doesn’t pop up as much but that’s not to say it isn’t there! Let’s consider American politics. If Hilary Clinton were to write an autobiography about her recent presidential campaign, I can’t imagine she’d had many compliments for President Putin!
Tip 5. Be simple, be creative!
History can be complex. There will be times when you struggle to understand the content. Wouldn’t you love it if someone made it super simple and easy for you to understand?
Sometimes, your history assignment might be a presentation where you have to do exactly that yourself for other people, by recounting historical events and presenting your findings to your peers. I found that when I needed to present a topic to the class, they understood everything better with diagrams!
If you’re babbling on about historical dates – insert a picture of a timeline into your presentation. Comparing historical figures? Use a Venn diagram. You can’t go wrong with a good arrow and caption either!
Tip 6. Dedicate blocks of time to study
Like a lot of humanities subjects, history is very content heavy. My best advice is not to leave a history assignment to the night before, or even attempt to cram everything in one night. There’s just too much information that needs to be sorted into little compartments in your brain.
Start your assignments early and dedicate large portions of time to sit down and work. Information won’t have time to find a compartment in your brain if you’re only going to read for about 10 minutes at a time! Try doing 20-30 minute segments of reading as your study, and you’ll find you’ll end up actually drinking in the information far faster!
Tip 7. “Communicating historical knowledge” aka don’t just focus on the past!
Despite the fact that history is, well, history, it is important that you don’t just direct your attention to what happened in the past. In almost every Ancient or Modern History topic you will receive at school, the task will ask you to consider the impact of a significant historical event on today’s society. Even if the task doesn’t ask for it, though, it’s always a good idea to include it to cover your bases!
You could write a detailed and comprehensive informative essay about the events that led to the two major world wars, but then feel completely perplexed when you receive a B. However, reading all this information in the 21st century will cause your reader to sit back and think, “Why do I need to know this?”
Let’s be real – we’ve all thought that ourselves at one stage!
One of the biggest mistakes that students make is not considering the cause and effect principle. Think of it this way for students who may be more mathematically inclined:
What’s the answer to WW1 + WW2?
In English/History terminology:
What did these world wars cause?
Answer: world chaos.
Solution: Let’s start an international system to monitor nations gone “rogue.” Now we have the United Nations!
So, next time you have an upcoming history assignment or exam, make sure you remember these key tips and cover all your bases. You’ll be on your way to A’s in no time!
* The Greeks and the Romans hated each other. Like, Kim K vs Taylor Swift kind of hate – but with a bit more war and bloodshed involved.