Studying History: A How-To Guide for Undergraduates
Take copious, detailed notes in class; review your notes frequently and try to connect them with your assigned readings.
Read all assignments on time; if you have questions or comments about the readings, raise them in class.
There is no substitute for ample studying and proper preparation for class and exams.
Participate in class by asking questions and answering those posed by the instructor.
When writing assigned essays, be sure to follow formal essay structure (i.e., introduction in which you present your thesis, body full of evidence supporting your argument, and conclusion in which you summarize your argument). Be sure to leave time for multiple drafts and revisions, and always proofread thoroughly.
When taking an essay exam, outline your answer prior to writing it. Always have detailed examples to support your ideas.
Go see your professor or T.A. during their office hours. This will help them get to know you and enable you to clarify points made in class.
Attend review sessions prior to exams. These will help you structure your approach to studying and will suggest points of emphasis for the exam.
Make connections with other students in your class. This will allow you to compare your perceptions of the course with those of your colleagues; consider forming study groups to prepare for exams.
Believe in yourself and that you have something worthwhile to contribute to the class. [top]
Skills for History Students
Historians develop many skills in order to practice their discipline. Listed below are three levels of skills which you should expect to develop in courses taken in the Temple University History Department.
basic organizational, reading, and writing skills
constructing simple essay arguments with use of historical evidence
comprehension of continuity and change over time
knowing the difference and relationship between fact and interpretation
appreciating a variety of historical perspectives
understanding what historians do and the kinds of questions they ask
recognizing the difference between primary and secondary sources
critically examining written materials and historical sources
understanding primary sources in their historical context
analysis of multiple historical causal factors
identification and comprehension of historical arguments
formulating analytical questions about historical events
demonstrating the ability to write an analytical historical essay
developing speaking and presentation skills
gaining the ability to use the library and other technologically appropriate sources for research
comparing varied interpretations of historical events
collecting and organizing historical data
employing primary and secondary sources to construct an historical argument
writing with clarity and precision
using standard methods of citation
refining command of library and Internet research skills [top]
When you study history, you are trying to get a sense of the complex landscape of the past. Your textbook, articles and essays, and other kinds of reading are maps to that understanding. You should be aware of when events happened, especially in relation to other historical situations, and try to consider the causes and effects of historical events. There are often multiple reasons why particular events unfolded as they did. History consists of many diverse threads woven together to offer images of the past.
Whether you are reading a textbook, an historical article or essay, or another reading assignment, the trick is to sift through a great deal of information to dig out the most important points. When you are finished reading a page, it should not be drowning in a sea of highlighter ink. Your primary goal is to discover the main points made by the author.
Perhaps the most important factor in reading a textbook is to do so in a timely manner; don’t wait until the day before the exam, because you will be reading in such a rush that you won’t remember anything you read. A textbook provides important background information for and an introduction to materials covered in class. As you read, look for the key idea in each paragraph; quite often, though not always, it will appear in the first sentence. Underline or highlight the essential information in the paragraph as well as any names or terms that seem important. Some students find it helpful to jot notes in the margin as they read.
You should also become familiar with how your textbook is organized. Look for a summary at the beginning or end of each chapter; these will help you to identify important ideas and show how they fit together. Examine the table of contents as well; this will indicate the focus of each chapter. The following example is taken from the detailed table of contents for The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society (New York: Longman, 1998). Chapter 1 is part of a section called "A Colonizing People, 1492-1776."
Chapter 1, Three Worlds Meet
The People of America before Columbus, 6
Africa on the Eve of Contact, 14
Europe in the Age of Exploration, 17
The Iberian Conquest of America, 23
England Looks West, 30
Conclusion: Converging Worlds, 34
Just from looking at the table of contents for this chapter, one can see that the main topics to be covered will include information about Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans as well as showing how these three worlds met as people from Europe began to explore the Americas. By using the table of contents as well as headings within chapters, you can gain a good sense of what is important before you begin to read.
Historical Articles and Essays:
Historical essays or articles address a particular topic. They will be far more detailed and specialized than a textbook, because they focus on a much narrower subject. When doing this type of reading, the first step is to determine the author’s thesis: What is he or she trying to show? Next, examine the kinds of evidence used by the historian—what are her or his sources? Many monographs will draw on primary sources (those from the time or event being discussed), while others will use secondary sources (those written well after an event has occurred). Historians will often use a combination of sources, so it is important to know what information in the article comes from which kind of sources.
The next step in the process is to determine how the historian uses the sources to support her or his thesis. The evidence should illuminate and support the author’s key points; the pieces of evidence are like the bricks that go together to build a wall. You should consider the validity of the evidence used by asking such questions as the following: From where and when does the evidence come? Who is the author of the evidence? Is the evidence biased (if so, how?)? Does the evidence reliably support the author’s thesis?
Finally, try to connect the article or essay to topics you are studying in class. Think about whether the article agrees with or diverges from what you already know about a particular time or event. You will have a more thorough understanding of history if you can place a topic in its chronological context.
Other Types of Books:
Your professor may assign other kinds of reading, including collections of essays, books about a narrowly defined topic based on primary sources (sometimes called monographs), synthetic works, and novels. Each of these types of readings calls for a particular approach.
Collections of essays can be read in the same way as individual articles. You should determine the author’s thesis and critically examine the evidence he or she uses to support the analysis. Frequently, editors of an anthology will group together several related articles, which can provide you with an opportunity to compare several historians’ interpretations of a particular topic. When doing so, look for points of agreement and conflict. You should consider how the evidence used by an historian shapes her or his argument. Think about why historians can arrive at divergent interpretations of similar events.
The procedure for reading an article also works for reading monographs. You should use the organization of the book to help your understanding. The author will frequently indicate his or her thesis in the preface or introduction. Moreover, she or he will often discuss the evidence as well as any theoretical framework that shaped the analysis. Again, use the structure of the text as a guide; each chapter will contain introductory and concluding paragraphs. You can read quickly through the evidence presented in order to assess the validity of the author’s thesis. Underline or highlight minimally; focus on the key points of the work. You may want to make notes in the margin or indicate the pages with important information inside the front cover.
A synthetic work relies less exclusively on primary sources than does a monograph. The author of such a work offers an analysis of the various interpretations of a topic while simultaneously trying to shed new light on his or her subject. This kind of book is especially useful as you attempt to discover historical themes. Think of these works as offering a big picture of a topic; they can summarize previous research on a topic and break new historical ground.
Sometimes, your professor will assign a novel as part of your reading. Novels can offer a rich sense of time and place, and have the narrative appeal of storytelling. Be sure to remember, however, that a novel is a fictitious rendering of events; the sophisticated student will look for points of similarity and difference between the plot and historical context. Novels serve to complement and even to challenge evidence-based analyses of the past, but should not function as the only source of information about a time or event. [top]
Most history courses will require you to write essay exams. Students sometimes feel intimidated by this prospect, but if you are well prepared, you have nothing to fear. As with any other kind of examination or assignment, waiting until the last minute could have disastrous consequences. Paying attention in class, taking good notes, and reading assignments carefully will enable you to do well on the day of the exam.
If you have been attentive in class, you should not be surprised by the exam questions. Your professor will probably ask questions that address broad themes from the course and allow you to demonstrate your ability to synthesize relevant material. As you review your notes and reading assignments, think about how the information is connected. Be aware that your professor will expect an organized response to the question, a clear thesis, appropriate examples, and a sense of chronological relationships.
On the day of the exam, arrive as well-rested as you can and be sure to bring functional writing utensils. When the exam is distributed, take a deep breath and begin with confidence. The first thing you should do is to plan how you will use the time allotted. Look over the exam to see how many questions there are and their value; you should probably spend more time on those worth more points. Divide your time appropriately, and be sure to leave time to review and revise your essay.
The next step is to read the question(s) to see just what it is you are supposed to address in your essay(s). Look for key terms that can help you shape your answer; words like compare, contrast, describe, discuss, evaluate, and relate require different kinds of answers.
What is My Essay Exam Really Asking?
Compare: look for points of similarity and resemblance of events or people
Contrast: focus on differences among the subjects of the essay
Describe: offer a broad picture of what happened
Discuss: examine and analyze various aspects of a topic
Evaluate: make an informed judgment about what happened; explain why events unfolded as they did
Relate: make connections among events and people
Now, plan your response; in order to write an organized, intelligent essay, you must take time to plan your answer. Use the inside cover of your bluebook to construct a brief outline. Jot down the examples you will use to illustrate and support your argument. Be sure to choose examples that relate to the question; a question about the reformers of the Progressive period will most likely not require information about Civil War battles, even if both subjects were covered in your class.
Tips on Taking Essay Exams
Your answer should include the following components:
1) Introductory paragraph: state your argument and suggest how you will support it.
2) Body of the essay: each paragraph should contain one point that supports your argument. Use specific details and relevant examples from class lectures and discussions as well as readings.
3) Conclusion: sum up the main points of your essay and draw your argument to a close.
-- adapted from information provided by Marc Frey and John Kennedy
Once you have finished writing your answer (as legibly as possible), take a few moments to review your outline to be sure that you have covered all the relevant points. Be sure that you actually answered the questions that was asked, rather than flinging facts onto the page in the hope that the right answer will emerge from the muck. Also check that errors in punctuation, spelling, or grammar do not detract from your argument.
Remember that careful preparation and a logical approach to the question provide the keys to success for an essay exam. [top]
Whenever you use information compiled by others, in an essay or research paper, you must cite those sources. Many academic disciplines have specific formats which should be followed; the one most commonly used by historians comes from The Chicago Manual of Style. There are two types of citations: notes and bibliographies. Notes may come either at the bottom of a page (footnotes) or the end of a paper (endnotes), while the bibliography is a list of the course used in a paper or essay. You should always check with your professor or T.A. for the format she or he wants you to use. Below you will find the format for notes and bibliographies for a variety of commonly used sources.
Proper citation is a critical component of research. Failure to cite sources properly can lead to suspicion of plagiarism, which is an egregious academic offense. The University’s definition of plagiarism appears in the Undergraduate Bulletin, as does information about possible penalties for this offense. By its nature, your paper or essay will include citations; the originality of your work comes from the way you collect, present, and interpret information. Whether you use direct quotations or paraphrase the words of others, be absolutely sure to cite your sources accurately.
For each entry below, the format for notes will appear first, followed by the format for a bibliography entry for the item. Please note that there are small, but significant, differences in punctuation and format from notes to bibliography entries.
There are several sources you should consult if you require further information about citations. Some of the most useful ones are listed here.
Booth, Wayne C., Gregory C. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. The Craft of Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 5th ed. New York: MLA, 1999.
Harnack, Andrew and Eugene Kleppinger. 2nd ed. Online! A Reference Guide to Using Internet Sources. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
Turabian, Kate L. A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. 6th ed., rev. John Grossman and Alice Bennett. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
You should provide the author, title, and publication data for each of your sources. If there is no author, skip to the format for the title and continue from there. The first example in each category is for footnotes or endnotes, while the second represents the bibliography entry. [The following examples indicate the information that should appear in citations; for precise appearance, students are advised to consult one of the research handbooks cited above.]
Books by a single author
Bettye Collier-Thomas, Daughters of Thunder: Black Women Preachers and Their Sermons, 1850-1978 (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 117.
Collier-Thomas, Bettye. Daughters of Thunder: Black Women Preachers and Their Sermons, 1850-1978. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.
Books by two authors
Margaret Marsh and Wanda Ronner, The Empty Cradle: Infertility in America from Colonial Times to the Present (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 82.
Marsh, Margaret and Wanda Ronner. The Empty Cradle: Infertility in America from Colonial Times to the Present. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Books by three authors
Morris J. Vogel, Allen F. Davis, and Fredric M. Miller, Philadelphia Stories: A Photographic History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 218.
Vogel, Morris J., Allen F. Davis, and Fredric M. Miller, Philadelphia Stories: A Photographic History. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.
Work by an author in an anthology
Richard Immerman, "’A Time in the Tide of Men’s Affairs’: Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam," in Lyndon Johnson Confronts the World: American Foreign Policy, 1963-1968, ed. Warren Cohen and Nancy Tucker (New York: Cambridge University Press,1994), 63.
Immerman, Richard. "’A Time in the Tide of Men’s Affairs’: Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam." In Lyndon Johnson Confronts the World: American Foreign Policy, 1963-1968, ed. Warren Cohen and Nancy Tucker, 57-97. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Article in a journal
Teshale Tibebu, "Ethiopia: The ‘Anomaly’ and ‘Paradox’ of Africa," Journal of Black Studies 26 (March 1996): 417 and 425.
Tibebu, Teshale. "Ethiopia: The ‘Anomaly’ and ‘Paradox’ of Africa." Journal of Black Studies 26 (March 1996): 414-430.
Article in a newspaper
Claire Smith, "Rutgers Women Hand UConn a Rare Loss," New York Times, 11 February 1998, C5.
Smith, Claire. "Rutgers Women Hand UConn a Rare Loss. " New York Times 11 February 1998, C5.
Article in a magazine
Debra Rosenberg, "Playing in a League of Their Own," Newsweek, 16 February 1998, 62.
Rosenberg, Debra. "Playing in a League of Their Own." Newsweek, 16 February 1998, 62.
Rima D. Apple, review of The Empty Cradle: Infertility in America from Colonial Times to the Present, by Margaret Marsh and Wanda Ronner,American Historical Review 102 (October 1997): 1219.
Apple, Rima D. Review of The Empty Cradle: Infertility in America from Colonia Times to the Present, by Margaret Marsh and Wanda Ronner.American Historical Review 102 (October 1997): 1218-1219.
Interview by the author of the paper
Michelle Marciniak, professional basketball player, interview by author, 8 February 1998, Philadelphia.
Marciniak, Michelle, professional basketball player. Interview by author, 8 February 1998, Philadelphia.
Indigo Girls, Shaming of the Sun, Epic, 1997, audio cassette.
Indigo Girls. Shaming of the Sun. Epic, 1997. Audio cassette.
Much Ado about Nothing, dir. Kenneth Brannagh, 110 min., Columbia Tristar, 1993, videocassette.
Much Ado about Nothing. Dir. Kenneth Brannagh. 110 min. Columbia Tristar, 1993. Videocassette.
Please note that for Internet sources, you should provide the address from which you got the information as well as the date on which you accessed it.
World Wide Web Site
Cammi Granato, "Chasing the Dream," 18 January 1998,<http://www.sportsline.com/u/olympics/nagano98/features/dream_granato012798.html> (11 February 1998).
Granato, Cammi. "Chasing the Dream." 18 January 1998.<http://www.sportsline.com/u/olympics/nagano98/features/dream_granato012798.html> (11 February 1998).
Arthur Schmidt, <firstname.lastname@example.org> "Undergraduate Handbook," 9 February 1998, personal email (11 February 1998).
Schmidt, Arthur. <email@example.com> "Undergraduate Handbook." 9 February 1998. Personal email (11 February 1998).
Jay B. Lockenour, <firstname.lastname@example.org> "German Soldiers in World War Two," 27 June 1997, <H-German@H-Net.msu.edu> (30 June 1997).
Lockenour, Jay B. <email@example.com> "German Soldiers in World War Two." 27 June 1997. <H-German@H-Net.msu.edu> (30 June 1997).