Perhaps the most important academic activity in which any person will engage is reading. Reading is vital to any student’s success in any class she is going to take. However, reading is particularly important when it comes to studying history, as there are no “problems” to solve or experiments to perform. Therefore, it is important that when a student engages in reading for historical study, it is a truly engaging form of reading.
Given the importance of reading, understanding and committing to memory the information presented, it is important that students of history read actively. Active reading is the opposite of passive reading and involves the reader continuously “asking questions” internally in order to verify understanding of the material being covered. Passive readers merely allow the words to wash over them as they read without thinking too much about what is written or asking comprehension questions of themselves.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably someone who has done a significant amount of academic reading in your life. You have probably can recall a number of instances in which you spent a considerable amount of time reading something that you did not process at all. You have stopped and asked yourself “Wait a minute…what did I just read?” The bad news is that these instances in which you actually recognize your lack of understanding are the fortunate ones. More often than you probably realize, you are spending a lot of time reading without really reaping the benefits of learning from the time you’ve spent.
Many students think of reading assignments as things that “just need to be finished”, or slogged through as quickly as possible to move on to the “real” work of written assignments or studying for exams. However, reading effectively is important for the work of “real” assignments, including exams. Those who get the most out of their reading are usually those who perform best on tests and whatever written assignments might be given. Approaching your reading with the attitude that it must simply be finished as quickly—and painlessly—as possible, is very likely not going to help your performance in any class you take, especially one as dependent on reading to learn the information as history.
So, how does one read actively? There is not really one universal answer to this question, except to say that reading actively makes you engaged with the material in a way that will help you retain the information after you have had your first exposure to it. For some, reading actively means simply highlighting the portions of the reading that they find particularly important or difficult to understand (or both). For others, active reading may mean making an outline of the passages/chapters as they are covered. For still others, active reading may mean making a voice recording of the particularly important portions so that the recording can be played back at a later time or day. The key ingredient to active reading is really one word: engagement.
if you are engaged with reading the material in a significant way, you will be much more inclined to comprehend and remember what it is that you are reading. Ultimately, comprehension and retention should be the top priorities of any learner and active reading is the most important first step in achieving these goals. You should experiment: try highlighting, try outlining, try reading the information aloud for a voice recording to be played back later.
Active reading looks a little different for just about everyone, but what it definitely is NOT, is just attempting to finish the assigned pages as quickly as possible to move on to written work or test preparation. The link below can provide you with some other suggestions about ways in which you can become a more active reader. The sooner you discover how you can best become an active reader, the more efficiently you will spend your time understanding what you are studying. In the end, active reading, while initially slower than passive reading, will actually save you time as you will be more likely to understand the material sooner because of your greater level of engagement.
Studying for history can be a daunting proposition; there is often so much information that students find it difficult to know how to prepare for exams or even what to read on a day-to-day basis. The truth is, the sheer volume of information is intimidating and difficult to handle for teachers as well. It is not uncommon for history classes—especially AP history classes—to seem poorly focused because teachers don’t seem to know which information they want to cover or which information is truly vital.
All of this makes effectively studying for history tests and essays very difficult in many circumstances and students become frustrated because they don’t know how to make progress. This is when the formulation and exploration of essential questions can be extremely helpful.
When I was going through my Teaching Credential/Master’s program, one of the things that we spent a great deal of time covering was lesson planning. To be an effective teacher, it is important, regardless of the subject, to have a plan in place for how a lesson or concept is to be taught. With history, we teachers-in-training were instructed about the importance of “working backwards” to teach whatever subject we were trying to teach. Working backwards entails starting with the “big idea” of what a teacher wants a students to learn and then planning for how best to make students understand this big idea.
This concept of working backwards can help students to prepare for history classes, in which there is so much information and it is hard to know what needs to be known. As a student, you can ask yourself the following question: “What are the two or three broad questions that I need to be able to answer, in detail, in order to understand this chapter/unit/era?” Basically, these are questions that you would need to be able to answer in an essay format to be confident about your knowledge of the material. If you cannot write an essay about it, you don’t understand it well enough.
So, you might be asking yourself how you know what the essential questions for a particular unit or chapter are. As it happens, I am VERY well-equipped to let you know. I am very familiar with all the essential questions that any student might want to know about for World History, European History, American History or any other major area of social science. If you would like to do some research on your own, there are actually a number of websites that deal with this very idea of essential questions. Here are links for examples of essential questions for AP European History:
The College Board (the company that writes and administers all the AP tests) also has a very extensive and detailed website that goes through all of the standards and major concepts for all the AP social science courses. Additionally, if you ask your teacher, he or she should be able to give you some information about the essential questions for whatever unit or era you might be studying. There are a lot of ways to find out what the essential questions are, but whatever they are and whatever period you are studying, you should know what is important to learn. Being well-informed about the goals you are trying to achieve in your learning is a major step toward success in your classes and will certainly help you as you study a subject like history, for which there is so much information to be covered.