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.