College and Grad School, Portfolio

How to Study and Read for a College History Class


Learning involves using effective strategies, putting aside time to do the work, and engaging in the process, all of which help you gradually increase your capacity for a topic.

One of the most common questions students ask me is “How should I study for this test?” or “How do I manage all this information and reading?” In most cases, they preface this with the fact that they were never taught how to read historical texts or analyze sources in high school. Several students told me that their previous history teachers told them to just copy down presentations and memorize their notes.

Joseph Stromberg over at Vox posted an article about studying more efficiently that’s worth covering here. In it he talked to Mark McDaniel (a Washington University psychologist who co-authored Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning with Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel) and derived “8 tips for studying smarter.” Using Stromberg’s eight tips, here’s some advice I’ve given students and—more importantly—some of the strategies I’ve seen my students use to get through tough sections of college history courses.

1. Don’t just re-read your notes and readings—Whenever I sit down with a student and ask them to show me how they study, they always tell me that they simply read their notes over again. Believe it or not, this is a waste of time because you’re picking up very little information the second time you read your notes. McDaniel explains that when you read your notes, you tend to skim over things without processing them in a useful way. Studying is more than reviewing of old information, it’s also about engaging (and therefore remembering) information in new ways.  The following tips will help you not only review and engage your notes and readings.

2. Ask yourself lots of questions during and after you read something—”One good technique to use instead,” says McDaniel, “is to read once, then quiz yourself, either using questions at the back of a textbook chapter, or making up your own questions. Retrieving that information is what actually produces more robust learning and memory.” This is the key to active reading. Asking yourself questions about texts is often more challenging than answering questions about them, and that’s what makes it such a useful exercise when you’re trying to understand difficult topic. When you read something dense or confusing, stop and ask yourself “who is doing what” and “what is the author’s main point” or “would I be able to explain this topic to my parents, kids, roommate, or partner?” At the end of a chapter or section, try to summarize the reading in one or two very succinct sentences in your notes instead of trying to paraphrase everything you’ve just read.

3. Connect new information to something you already know—Relate your topic to something you know. If a text reminds you of a song or a scene from a movie, stop and explore those connections for a minute or two. Roll your new-found information around in your mind like a katamari and try to get it to stick to things that are deeply embedded in your memory. Maybe you saw a documentary about cave paintings that you can relate to the reading. Or maybe your watched an episode of Drunk History about what you’re studying. Don’t be afraid to explore those connections, because they’ll help you understand and recall them later.


4. Draw out the information in a visual form—I’m willing to bet that 98% of my students say they are visual learners. If you are like them (and I know I am) you respond well to images and videos, and they’re very good at describing things even if you don’t fully understand their historical significance. You’re probably also better at understand information better if it’s presented and organized spatially. For example, I saw students from one of my freshman history classes organize key terms according to category, chronology, and theme on a whiteboard in the library. This allowed them to visually map out a sea of information by theme, place, and date. All the while, they were drawing lines to signify connections between places and ideas that helped them retain information more effectively. This exercise forced them to discuss the ideas, justify why they thought a word went in one category, and explore alternative ways of understanding info. You can do this on your own during and after your assigned reading. I prefer to do it afterwards because I don’t like to distract myself from actually reading. I made this Book Note Form to help me visually organize information quickly and succinctly as I read. Feel free to try it out.

5. Use flashcards—Sometimes the best way to store information in your brain is the the old-fashioned way—with flashcard drills. Build a stack of flashcards with historical terms, people, events, or places on one side. On the reverse, make a few bullet points answering the following questions:

  • Who/What is this?
  • When did it happen, or when did it exist?
  • Where did it occur, or where is is from?
  • Why is it historically significant?
  • How does it relate to other topics?

The answers to these questions are the foundation of engaging and strengthening your historical knowledge. Make sure you don’t pull the cards you answer correctly out of the deck. McDaniel argues that “one key to using [flashcards] is actually re-testing yourself on the ones you got right….repeating the act of memory retrieval is important. Studies show that keeping the correct item in the deck and encountering it again is useful. You might want to practice the incorrect items a little more, but repeated exposure to the ones you get right is important too.”

6. Don’t cram. Space out your studying—This is one of the most common pieces of advice teachers give to students. But it’s also one of the hardest for students to implement in their study routine. Work-Life balance is a tough lesson to learn, and it takes a good chunk of a lifetime to figure out how to manage your time effectively. In college, it’s easy to veg-out in your room or apartment playing hours of video games or sleep off a Thirsty Thursday instead of studying. It’s also hard to focus on classwork when such an important part of being in college is meeting new people and experiencing new things. It’s up to you to figure out how to manage your time, but if you’re cramming right before the test instead of spacing out your study and reading session, you’re probably not heading down the right path. “Practice a little bit once a day,” McDaniel advises “then put your flashcards away, then take them out the next day, then two days later. Study after study shows that spacing is really important.” Trust me, figuring out how balance your work and life makes your time off so much more enjoyable.

7. Teachers should space out and mix their lessons too – Now on to another two words universally loathed by students . . . the cumulative test. McDaniel says that this kind of testing isn’t very conducive to long-term information retention. Instead, he’s found “that sprinkling in questions on stuff that was covered two or three weeks ago is really good for retention.” Instructors can also help their students remember information by presenting their information differently. McDaniel uses a course in art history as example, “It’s better to give students an example of one artist, then move to another, then another, then recycle back around. That interspersing, or mixing, produces much better learning that can be transferred to paintings you haven’t seen—letting students accurately identify the creators of paintings, say, on a test.” He adds that this teaching method is more useful to students later on since it will allows them to critically engage information and effectively diagnose problems and prescribe solution in the real world.

8. There’s no such thing as a “math person” – Citing Carol Dweck of Stanford University, McDaniel argues that there are two mindsets about learning: the fixed learning model and the growth mindset. The fixed learning mindset hampered my learning ability for years, as I was convinced that I was terrible at math and mentally incapable of progressing beyond a certain point in related fields. Later in life, I challenged myself to learn more about things I thought were difficult and eventually acquired a growth mindset that (according to McDaniel) says “learning involves using effective strategies, putting aside time to do the work, and engaging in the process, all of which help you gradually increase your capacity for a topic.” Students need to remember that there are no math people, no history people, no science people. You may have struggled with history in high school, or you may have failed your previous section of HIS 101. That doesn’t mean you’re doomed to fail again. This will allow you to persevere through tough courses and life situations. Seek out new strategies, new information, and new experiences in order to test yourself and cultivate a growth mindset.

Keep in mind that these tips don’t promise to make studying easier, but they might help you study more efficiently. While Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel believe that teaching “should be creatively tailored to the different learning styles of students and should use strategies that make learning easier,” they also suggest that not all learning or studying styles are created equal. In other words, “the most productive practices are ones that feel slow and unrewarding and are seldom adopted by learners.”

Allan Branstiter is a writer and Ph.D. student studying U.S. History at the University of Southern Mississippi. Currently residing in Los Angeles, California, he is writing a dissertation examining the experiences of Civil War veterans in the American West. He is a veteran of the Iraq War and a former candidate for the North Dakota State Senate.

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